Gaius and Achilles centres around the development of a romantic relationship between a Roman aristocrat and his young, male slave (Achilles is aged 18 throughout the novel). According to elite Roman sexual mores, it was acceptable for an adult male Roman citizen to be sexually involved with another male, only if he was assumed to be the penetrating and dominant partner. Penetrating another male Roman citizen was also perceived as a socially undesirable act, similar to adultery. In effect then, MRC’s could have sex with freedmen, slaves, young men who were not Roman citizens or who were part of an underclass, including prostitutes, actors and the like, who were accepted as having no honour to lose.
Age was also an important factor; if the MRC’s partner was clearly a mature male e.g. past early twenties, then there was a risk of it being maliciously asked who was penetrating whom – and few MRC’s, we are led to understand, wanted to be thought of as being penetrated by their own slave – whatever they actually did in private.
This paints a rather unattractive picture of relationships defined by an essentialised inequality and power imbalance of age and status. The issue of age raises further uncomfortable questions about the exploitation of the young and also about the possibility of a lasting romantic relationship – they were evidently not envisaged as continuing for more than a few years.
As a writer, what does one do with this background?
While there is plenty of milage to be got out of the dynamics of power imbalance in such relationships between master and slave, it raises questions if you want to depict a relationship in that setting that somehow manages to be loving and non-abusive, without sentimentalising or glossing over what appears to be historical reality.
Are there indications that Roman men could love their slaves as human beings, rather than as sex toys or passing infatuations? Indications that perhaps they could seemed to transpire in the poetry of Statius, a little favoured poet of the era of Domitian. He writes sentimentally about young male slaves, both as foster sons and as beloveds. In one poem Silvae 2.6 he consoles a friend for the death of his beloved young slave. He begins by stressing that it is foolish to rate one kind of grief over another, that one can mourn the death of a slave as sorely as a spouse or a parent.
Later, he stresses the unservile qualities of the youth; his beauty and his pride, that will only serve his master. He does hint however that perhaps his qualities come from a noble background – suggesting that he somehow does not have the essential qualities of a real slave – who of course would be ignoble and ill-favoured – a circular argument to preserve the status quo while allowing an exception that proves the rule.
He also stresses that beautiful though the boy is, he is not as beautiful as his master – he must cede that glory to his superior. While it is said that he doesn’t hesitate to advise or rebuke his master when necessary, it is also stressed that the boy has no thought for himself, but lives through his master alone. This is not dissimilar to what Plutarch says about the ideal wife – she should be her husband’s mirror. In elite texts there is always the pervasive suggestion that only MRCs or even MGCs are real people who matter – everyone else exists to serve and make them happy. The same texts of course often simultaneously subvert that thinking.
The picture of the deceased youth in some kind of Elysian afterlife, perhaps greeted by noble ancestors is attractive, as it suggests that slaves may have souls that entitle them to an exalted place after death, rather than the common underworld.
Statius also describes the magnificence of his pyre, that there was nothing poor or servile about it as the pyre was bestrewn with costly incense. Perhaps it’s merely unfortunate that he echoes here a jocular eulogy a couple of poems back about the death of a pet parrot?
Statius’ poem is ambivalent; it strongly suggests that some Romans might have loved their servile boyfriends and experienced genuine grief at their deaths but there is too, the suggestion that on the one hand the passion should be legitimated by denying they were truly slave as such and on the other stressing that the slave was a humble inferior, who lived only to please his master.
To satisfy modern sensibilities (including my own) while trying to remain true in some fashion to the historical context, I have first of all, assumed that what attitudes the elite writers depict as normative were just that – guides to how the respectable person should behave in public and not neccesarily how people did behave, think or feel.
Roman slavery, like all slavery, was inherently abusive and exploitative – being subject to physical violence and threats was supposed to be the distinguishing mark of the slave (even if, in reality, a free beggar or prostitute might have much less recourse against casual violence than the favourite slave of a rich man or woman). In the midst of much casually inflicted horror however, slaves were freed, mourned, depended upon and even formally adopted (Statius adopted a slave boy as his legal son). There was surely room for lasting love, even in the face of raised eyebrows as the youth turned into a man.
My second strategy is to make my hero Gaius a gentle but determined eccentric. His and his partner’s subversions of Roman symbols of power and inequality are part of the essential energy and dynamic of the novel.