Can we Write about BDSM in Ancient Rome??

There is an exciting new group on Goodreads especially devoted to m/m fiction in ancient Greece and Rome –  The House of Dionysus.

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Scene from the Tomb of the Whipping, in the Necropolis of Monterozzi, near Tarquinia in Italy, dated around 490 BCE. The scene shows two men flagellating a woman in a sexual context. Throughout the tomb are frescoes of sexual activity, musicians and dancers. The flogging might be simply an erotic game, or a ritual act similar to that seen in the Pompeian villa of the mysteries, or for all we know it could be the non-consensual abuse of a slave woman or prostitute.

A few days ago, one of my fellow mods Kayla, opened a topic asking me why my latest short story, The Education of Gaius had such a strong ‘BDSM’ theme. Did we actually know anything about such practices in ancient Rome? It was a good question and I considered my answer with care.

One honest answer, of course, is that I simply wanted to write about kinky sex in ancient Rome and hoped that there would be a few readers out there who would enjoy the combination too.

A more detailed answer involves both the development of the character of Gaius, my main protagonist, and an exploration of what we can know about ancient sexual attitudes along with the range of generalisations we can safely make about the perimeters of human behaviour. Part of the reason, then, for the strong ‘BDSM’ theme is the character of Gaius himself.

In Gaius and Achilles where we first meet him, Gaius becomes involved in a carefully negotiated consensual  relationship with his slave Achilles in which their sexual expression includes impact play, bondage and conscious playing with the tropes of dominance and submission. In that book, I hint that Gaius previously suffered guilt and confusion with regard to his urges to dominate and inflict pain on his lovers, in contrast to his otherwise notably gentle and considerate persona. I also mention that he went through a process with his friend and former lover Tiberius which helped him to come to terms with his urges in a safe and constructive way. In a sense then, The Education of Gaius is an exploration of the hints dropped in the earlier book.

The question of BDSM in the ancient world as in other times and places is an interesting and complex one. Of course, what we understand by the modern term BDSM is highly culturally specific. It represents a conscious development over the last few decades of carefully reflected upon practices and attitudes. However,  there is plenty of evidence that games involving pain, power, restraint and submission have been part of the sexual repertoire of human beings of all times and cultures. The Indian sex manual The Kama Sutra famously details various kinds of impact play along with suggestions for keeping it safe (don’t poke your concubine’s eye out with scissors!) Ancient Greek vases show men flagellating their sexual partners with slippers, while Roman erotic elegy glories in rough sex with bites and bruising seen as desirable tokens of passion.

What we don’t have here, of course, is any evident ethics of consent or equality. Graeco-Roman society, as we know, understood itself in terms of patriarchal hierarchy – man/woman, citizen/slave citizen/prostitute. Writers such as Ovid treat rape as a joke, and informed consent is not seen as sexy or important to the elite producers of these texts and images.

Nonetheless, I do not think it’s beyond the legitimate scope of a writer of fiction to speculate that people of the ancient world who were frequently involved in such activities in a consensual relationship might spontaneously develop rules and codes to ensure that such erotic games proceeded safely and to the satisfaction of all parties. After all, the concept of the ‘safeword’ is closely related to signals used in contact sports and even children’s games to end play when one person has had enough. I remember myself as a child playing chasing games and the like and the potential for upset being avoided by players saying ‘if I say this, I’m only pretending but if I say – then that means I’m not playing any more.” It would be instructive (and entertaining) to research the literature surrounding Victorian erotic flagellation practices to make a comparison with contemporary BDSM in terms of how safe and consensual play was negotiated, though such literature was of course mostly written for titillation and more often depicts fantasy-based scenarios of non-consensual activity rather than the actual behaviour of participants.

I have come across some  intriguing research and speculation about the ancient Etruscans’ attitudes to sexuality. Apparently, these ancient peoples who ruled over part of Italy before the Romans had a reputation as decadent experts in all things erotic. When this is combined with the discovery of an erotic flogging scene in an Etruscan fresco, it inspired me to make the mischievous and somewhat tongue-in-cheek leap of suggesting that Gaius’ mentor Tiberius might have developed such an in-depth praxis for such consensual erotic play by way of his mysterious Etruscan origins. Even the other protagonists take this with a pinch of salt and suggest that instead he made it up as he went along.

Here is an interesting speculative exploration of the Etruscan evidence –…

In short, I would contend that while there obviously wasn’t a BDSM scene as such in Ancient Rome,  the underpinning sexual and emotional drives were evidently there in some form, and it is not beyond the legitimate territory of a work of historical fiction to imagine that some individuals and groups might have come up with some shared attitudes and mutual understandings for safe and enjoyable play.


Coming on Feb 22nd – Twenty Review Copies of Mortal Peril Available on DBML!

The redoubtable M/M Romance Group on Goodreads will be featuring my vampire romance Mortal Peril as part of its Don’t Buy My Love Programme on Feb 22nd.

The idea of the programme is that interested readers can request a free digital copy to be emailed to them on the understanding that they will post an honest review of the book within an agreed timescale.

I will be giving out twenty free copies of Mortal Peril on the day, so if you think you might enjoy reading a gay romance about an angsty 18th century vampire called Martin and a 21st century history student and fairly cheerful goth Anthony set in contemporary London, then make your way here on the 22nd February, 1pm EST- (that’s 6pm, UK people!)

The Education of Gaius – Free Short Story Now Available

In the early hours of this morning, I published The Education of Gaius on Smashwords.

It’s a free short story of around 14 000 words and it explores the early days of Gaius’ relationship with Tiberius and Gaius’ growing realisation that the fantasies of pain and domination that have haunted him since adolescence can be acknowledged and fulfilled without turning him into a monster or compromising his instincts

Set against the backdrop of the poetic demi monde of the Late Roman Republic, this story combines Gaius’ erotic exploration with a glimpse into everyday Roman life.

Writing Plans for 2015

A Belated Happy New Year to you all!

Back home and getting settled after a pleasant and peaceful festive break with my family, it’s time to start thinking about some of my plans for writing and publishing in this still new and shiny 2015.

Perhaps as soon as  the end of this month, I hope to be bringing out yet another installment of my Gaius and Tiberius urban epic.

Palaistra_scene_Louvre_G457 Distracting Boy

I’m tempted to use this image for the cover, even though it’s Greek not Roman. Somehow, I don’t think that poor bearded man is going to get any work done today….

The Education of Gaius is a substantial erotic short story (I am anticipating about 12 000 words at this stage) set in the early stages of Gaius’ complicated relationship with Tiberius and the role this played in advancing his erotic education.

This story will be available as a free e-book and will hopefully entice new readers to the series as well as please those who’ve already met the protagonists and would like to renew their acquaintance.

In February,  I’m delighted to say, my vampire romance Mortal Peril will be featured in the M/M Romance’s Don’t Buy My Love event. Twenty  free copies of the novella will be offered  on a first come first served basis, with the understanding that the recipient will offer an honest review of the book in exchange, to be posted on the Goodreads site and elsewhere. I will give a reminder with the exact date nearer the time.

Beyond February, my plans grow a little hazier. One project I will definitely be working on is turning The Assassin of Laurentium, the short story I essayed back in May for the Loves Landscapes Anthology into a full length novel.

Tonight, glancing at an intriguing looking volume on my boyfriend’s bookshelf called Oscar Wilde’s London,  sparked in me the idea of writing another extended short story starring Martin of Mortal Peril and set in 1890s’ London. This is the germ of an idea – we shall see what comes of it.

Other than that, we shall see what other inspiration springs forth throughout the coming year!

Review of Blonde

BlondeBlonde by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, I certainly found the book compulsive reading, which has to count for a lot. There was an intense, dreamlike quality to the writing as perspective shifted constantly from Marilyn herself, to that of bystanders and others in the drama of her life, so that as reader, one felt deeply implicated in the narrative.

This same dreamlike quality also had an oddly dissociative, hallucinatory effect. One glimpsed Marilyn from so many angles, both internal and external, yet one never felt one truly grasped her or knew her. This seems fair enough; after all one can never truly know and grasp another person, even one’s nearest and dearest in real life. There is always part which remains unknowable, shifting.

However, this effect also gave the impression that Marilyn never really knew herself, but drifted through life in an odd dreamlike state, even before the last tragic period of her life when she was permanently addled on drugs. She never seemed in conscious control of events.

This brings me on to the presentation of Marilyn in general.

In the forward, the author warns us clearly and explicitly that this is a work of fiction, not a biography, and shouldn’t be read as such. I began reading the book knowing very little about the life of Marilyn Monroe and, as I became immersed in the tale, curiosity prompted me to read at least the Wikipedia entry on her life. I was surprised quite how much it differed, how names had been changed such as the name of her first husband or the family that had fostered her. This, of course, gives the author more licence to invent. She is not claiming to tell the truth about Marilyn’s real first husband, only a fictionalised version of a first husband. Whole major episodes and themes are apparently entirely invented such as an account of a relationship between a son of Charlie Chaplin which is an important factor in the book.
It was quite a curious feeling reading about the travails of a real person and even feeling sympathy and indignation on her behalf and then remembering that this was all invention.

Ultimately, this became uncomfortable. The novel presents Marilyn consistently as a victim of cynical male exploitation and objectification. She is a wide eyed lamb to the slaughter, much of the time. Marilyn’s intelligence and keenness to educate herself are emphasised, but it is also emphasised that this side of her was always met by amused contempt and incomprehension by the men in her life, that her thoughtful remarks were treated as being as freakish as if suddenly uttered by a big doll.

There must have been times surely in Marilyn’s life when she was shrewd and strong, when she was a supportive friend to other women, when she was clear-headed and self-aware? If so, little of this is allowed to come through in Blonde. A book that seeks to illustrate how Marilyn Monroe was exploited, objectified and reduced to meat somehow becomes part of that very process.

View all my reviews

NaNo Update: The First Third

Ten days in and I’m only just getting into my stride with NaNo after a slow start.

Currently, I am just shy of 6 000 words and with a projected completion date of 6th February, 2015. Most of those words, however, appeared in the last three days or so and that’s notwithstanding a loss of around 600 words when my writing programme crashed (yes, I should have some sort of backup for my files…).

Why has the impetus only kicked in at this comparatively late stage of the game?

Part of the reason is simply that I have reached a stage in the narrative of A Laurentine Education where events are moving fast and I’m drawn along with them. The initial scenes were all about character and background, requiring more time and patience to write. They can be revisited in the post NaNo period.

A possible lesson for the future is to begin writing at a narrative high point where the action is flowing and the lines seem to write themselves in willing waves of prose. The slower, more subtle scenes can be blocked in later.

It has also been a matter of schooling myself to sit and write consistently day by day. Hitherto, writing was what I did when I felt like it. A couple of long nights of writing when I had a gap between working shifts, and then perhaps only a couple of paragraphs to show for the following week. NaNo is already showing itself helpful in inspiring a steady daily output rather than erratic feast and famine.

Well, NaNo’s counter says it will take me an average of 2 207 per diem to finish on time – I can still do this!

Gay vampire romance, Mortal Peril, published 31st October 2014 is now available as an e-book from outlets including  Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Ibooks and Barnes and Noble as well as with a subscription to Scribd or Oyster e-book libraries.

My First NanoWriMo this Year!

For the first time this November, I’ve signed up to National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write 50 000 words of a novel within a month.

On previous years, I avoided it, muttering something about not wanting people telling me when to write, that I can do things at my own pace, thank you. I don’t want to be jollied along.

Why is this year different?

A big difference is that I have recently become a full-time writer, so, ‘I’ll write when I feel like it, I’ve just worked a ten hour shift actually’ doesn’t cut it any more. Now, every month should be yielding 50 000 words at least, allowing for research, editing etc.

Taking part in Nano should hopefully give me a kind of kickstart into that level of literary production with lots of others in the same boat.

I really enjoyed creating the world of The Assassin of Laurentium earlier this year for the MM Romance Group’s Love’s Landscape’s Event and I plan to expand my work on that world into further works. By the end of Nano, I hope to have the working draft of a novella to polish which would be satisfying.

So, I hope this plunge into the world of NanoWriMo will prove fun and productive, and I shall be updating here on my progress…