Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wars and Lechery II: Electric Boogaloo

Okay. Let me admit this right off; there is nothing in this post about "Electric Boogaloo". I've just always wanted to use that as a title for something since 1984.

No, this turns on some idle ruminations on humans, sex, and soldiers; three subjects that some will say are never far off my mind.

It started as I was reading a historical fantasy set in what was a parallel of classical late Republican Rome. The author made some cosmetic changes; gave the characters Germanic-sounding names, gave the legionaries short spears instead of short swords.

But it was Rome. Recognizably so.

It's a fairly decent read, as historical fiction goes. But I found myself reading through one passage during which one of the main characters interacts with a supporting character who is intended to be the fictional world's counterpart of a Roman centurion.

He's even referred to as "First Spear", the usual mistranslation of the Latin term "primus pilus" or "First Rank/Front Rank", the place that the senior centurion and his unit were found when the legion was drawn up in ranks.

And the way the character is handled makes it pretty clear that he's being treated as some sort of First Sergeant or Sergeant Major of this infantry unit.

Which a centurion - and especially the most senior centurion in a legion - most certainly was not.

But it got me thinking.

We know a great deal about the Roman legions. We know their names, where many of them were posted and when, where they fought, and whether they won or lost. We even know the names of individual officers and troopers in certain legions, thanks to Roman burial habits.We even know a lot about their everyday life; what they did, what they ate, where they slept, what they were paid, what their barracks, homes, and camps were like. Archeological studies can even tell us something of what they looked like; how tall they were, how big, whether they were robust or sickly, how they died, and when.

But the one thing we don't know is the part in the story; how they acted among themselves.

Was a Roman officer as a rule an unapproachable sort? Certainly he had the offhand authority to beat or kill his soldiers; that has a certain chilling effect on familiarity. But a modern U.S. Army officer typically gets a bit of offhand joshing if he is well-liked by his troops, and a sergeant even moreso. Certainly between officers and sergeants of long association there is often a warm respect and even friendship.But was a Roman century commander - a centurion equivalent to a U.S. Army company commander - more like a sort of combined officer/sergeant - both issuing orders and inspecting individual kit? How would have his soldiers reacted, spoken to, such a man? Was there ever any sort of friendship? Would a typical Roman ranker - say a senior guy like me, the equivalent or a sergeant - have been able to kid around or make conversation with my centurion? What would we have talked about? Could I have addressed him with some sort of familiar title; "First Shirt", "The Old Man". "Skipper"? Would he have enjoyed it, or would it have been appalling to both of us?

We don't know, and probably never will, if for no other reason than the way we think and interact today is so different from the way they did.

Yes, people are people, and certainly there must be some similarities between a typical 1st Century Roman and a typical 21st Century American. We eat, we, sleep, we work. We enjoy some things, dislike others, desire comforts, shun discomfort.

But the difference in our worlds wuns so deep, it's hard to be sure just how a Roman would have felt and thought about the same things.Take sex.

Okay, lets. No, seriously. Perhaps nothing illustrates the vast difference between then and now than sex.

Physically...well, there's only so many ways you can fit Tab A into Slot B. It's the emotional part that makes all the difference, and here the huge barrier standing between us is slavery.In the modern U.S. if you want sex - and you're a man - you have to either find a woman who likes you, or a woman who needs money enough to pretend she likes you. Unlike an earlier time you don't have to get married - although we often do, since we associate sex very closely with emotional love.

But a Roman had slaves. Perhaps the worst part of chattel slavery is the lack of freedom to control one's own body, and I've read that nearly every Roman man old enough to have sex and wealthy enough to own a slave - and Roman society was soaked in slavery; millions of slaves were the foundation of late Republican and Imperial wealth - had more-or-less forcible sex with those slaves.

With this sort of sexual training, you have to wonder; what was a Roman bride's wedding night like? Presumably a virgin, given most societies' ferocity where the chastity of their marriageable women were concerned, the poor girl would have found herself in bed with a lad whose actual experience to date had very likely been with a living woman who could no more resist or instruct him than a rubber sex doll could a 2011 groom in Philomath. What would that have done to the place of sex in a Roman relationship? How did a typical Roman of my age and social class look at sex, at the sexual bond he shared - or lacked - with his wife?

Here are artifacts of some of those slave rapes.These are spintriae, coins struck purely for the purpose of buying sex from prostitutes, most of whom were slaves. The theory is that both the buyer and the purchase were often illiterate, and the women (or men) in the brothels were also often war captives who spoke little if any Latin. The little coins showed the unfortunate slave what was expected of her and told him how much it cost.To a modern American who has generally avoided rent-a-dates because of a combination of disease concerns, general skeeviness, and a vestigal sense of romantic emotion, I try and imagine how the availability of a living human fuck-doll would have affected my attitude towards love, sex, and the relationship between them.

We're left trying to reconstruct that attitude from the poets and writers, from the paintings, from the artifacts.I'll be the first to say - I have no idea and I don't really want to know. Because the only way you could would be to restore chattel slavery and return some woman to the level of a very peculiar object, one with with thoughts and emotions. The very notion is so bizarrely complex I cannot imagine it.

The simple everyday conversation between a Roman soldier and his officer.The secrets between a Roman man and a slave woman.Both utterly lost to us, and with them, our complete understanding of those vanished people.

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