Wednesday, July 06, 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.


Don Francisco said...

I've often found the same problem when reading historical novels. Some authors manage a better job at getting their head round the way people thought/acted/behaved in the period - Umberto Eco comes to mind - but even if to some extent they acheive this, it's still a modern person telling a tale. We like our stories to follow certain structures and rules, ones that are very different from other periods.

rangeragainstwar said...

Let's start with socks and then swing into the sex thing.
In an archaeology mag i read recently that they found proof that Roman soldiers used socks under their jesus boots. I found this interesting for some reason. Thought i'd share. Probably all the times my cheap ass US issue wool socks fell down below my heels when i was on a long march/run and i couldn't do anything about it but suffer. I bet some legion member had the same experience 2200 years ago.
You assume a hetero view when you propose the 2 ways to get laid. Have you not considered some find other men to pork? Dah!
Also when thinking of Roman sexual practices pls remember that that's why they invented olive oil. It had nothing to do with cooking. IMO.
I recently read , probably in a science or archaeology mag about the doctors in the Roman army- their status, training and eqt.
I can't name the source b/c i read so much that it bunches up in my brain. But it was really fascinating.
BTW- are those coins still available?I like the xiii variety.
It musta been great when women were real women, even if all i had were a short sword.

Leon said...

A few comments, traditionally it was thought Centurions were promoted from the ranks (like NCO's). However some historians now think they also came from the ranks of the Equites (say upper-middle to lower-upper class) and formed part of their promotion scheme (similar to how the elite were expected to progress through various offices before being eligible for the consulship).

Regarding women, in Roman times they were sometimes nothing more than chattel. A woman would have little or no decision making rights, they'd all belong to her father - and then her husband when she married. For the elite, she would be a channel for creating political alliances. When love did blossom between them it was noted (ie. Pompey and Julia) I suspect for being unusual.


Lisa said...


You pose an interesting question. Rather than wonder the vanished mercenary sex transaction, perhaps there yet remains some vestiges today. There are those who would argue marriage is naught but a sanctioned prostitution.

The coins are fascinating. What if we had that today: The woman's would have a picture of a man taking out the trash or cleaning the roof gutters, on the payment side . . . well, either his favorite dish, or his favorite dish :)

Or maybe for such quotidian tasks, just a portion of a reward -- he would have to save up a few coins before getting the payoff.

Of course, you know my views, romantic that I am ...

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rangeragainstwar said...

It just dawned on me that this was early COIN policy that i can get behind.

FDChief said...

DF: True dat. I find that a lot of historical fiction and a hell of a lot of "science fiction" are morality plays about us. We love to be the star of our show, neh?

jim: The Romans appear to have had a pretty equal-opportunity, go-ahead-and-ask-and-I'll-tell policy about putting pole in holes. The critical factor seems to have been not gender but who was pitching and who was catching, or, as we used to say in the 505th, "only the guy in front is a homo". The problem for us XXI Century types is that we have sex all tangled up in emotions, so it's hard for us to imagine sex as something like washing your hands or taking a leak. I can't imagine it myself, but for a Roman that might have been the case. "Damn, feeling the ol' seminal buildup...guess it's time to pay a visit to Doris and drain the hose. Maybe I can fit it in between the grain shop and a visit to the sandal repairman..."

Leon: One difference, I think, would have been the social rigidity the Romans insisted on, especially if a centurion was considered the equivalent (or actually WAS) an equestrian. He'd have been very much above a plebian trooper. My guess is that there was probably some element of the patron-client setup that Roman writers talk so much about and that seems to have been fairly critical to the functioning of Roman society.

A lot of what I've read about Rome says that while Rome was very definitely a man's world a woman of high status had SOME influence. And I can't believe that love (or even just passion) between couples was all THAT unusual - people are people in that respect. It's just hard to tell from this distance how it would have played out in specifics. That's why I say it's very difficult for us to reconstruct the actual dynamics of Roman society; we're steeped in our own emotional and intellectual positions, and theirs were SO different...

FDChief said...

Lisa: I tend to agree with you that at least in some ways we continue the Roman notion of do ut des; "I give you so that you give me" in our sexual politics. Some of us are more up-front about it that others. My bride had a college roommate that referred to this form of negotiation as "the vaginal vise" and was very explicit that her scented favors came as a result of expensive dinners and gifts, household chores and the like. She was a delicate Southern belle with an iron will and a heart within that decorative bosom like a steel fist...

And I'd add that the little coins aren't all THAT out of date. Recall that prior to the Sixties Western societies just assumed that a man who could would have a "piece on the side", or would find some "outlet" for the passions he was assumed to miss out of in marriage. The transaction was just a little less formalized.

And I do know you views, you quintessential romantic, you.

FDChief said...

jim: Yes, but who knows what sort of subtle guerrillas lurk in the tangle of bedding? That sort of COIN might cost a man more than mere coins...

Lisa said...

(I've been offline now for a few days -- traveling and taking an internet break ...)

Yes, I recall your mentioning the Southern belle before. I find that often more "lacy" femmes are actually the sternest, underneath. That said, the tougher ones are often just that -- truth in advertising. So we are perhaps left with an image of woman that is. in the main, not too delicate and probably pretty designing (at its worst.) We could argue the societal reasons behind the construct, but there it is.

Yes -- the coins are pretty modern in their no-nonsense way. Really, they seem more honest and direct than the games we play today.

FDChief said...

Certainly direct. But I don't know about honest - how can there be honesty when one half of the couple has no choice, or so little as to make no nevermind?

I think that our games often come from fear; fear of failing, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness. Fear of things inside ourselves, in other words.

If we were happier about who we were we might be able to see another person as a man or woman who we would enjoy knowing, who would make a delightful companion, or would while away a languid afternoon making love. And then we could share more of our lives, or not, and each be the richer for each other.

But instead, we often seize on our acquaintance, our friend, or our lover to fill some void within ourselves, or to reassure us that we aren't fundamentally unlovable, or undesireable, or weak, or foolish, or ugly, or alone. And if we come to them lacking these things then they can never requite us, never reassure us in the way we hope and want, because the faults are not in our stars or in the lack of that desired one, but in ourselves. And as such the fault can never be bandaged from without no matter how many promises or kisses or plans we make.

But like men or women dying in a desert, we pursue the mirage that the perfect love, the perfect lover, the perfect moment, the perfect forever will cure us, restore us, and make us what we are not. Rather than first sift through the sand of ourselves to find what rock lies beneath it before faring forth in search of another.

Lisa said...

Yes, honest from the side of the buyer.

I agree that the consumer model defines many efforts at solace. "I'm in it to win it" defines the efforts of highly successful people, so looking good (= "not foolish") is a worthy pursuit. Satisfactory appearance is defined as a successful score ("People said we looked good together".)

What a different quality of interaction we would have if sharing and understanding were the main goals, and kindness was labelled the prime directive.

FDChief said...

Or that we would look within to try and deal with our issues, problems, failings, and needs rather than try and seize someone else and try to use them as a band-aid for our troubles.

The usual result is failure - and then we turn on that person and beat them with all the failings we see in ourselves that they didn't "solve" for us. We've not prettier so it must be because they're ugly. We're not sexier or more desireable so it must be because they are frigid or impotent. We aren't richer, or smarter, or it must be because THEY are poor, glum, and stupid.

We're SO bad at accepting the responsibility for our own failings. It would be kind of funny if it wasn't so tragic...

Lisa said...

Oh, absolutely! Looking within is the only answer. I'm kind of hardcore about personal responsibility, but I've had my share of otherwise grown-ups attempting to foist off responsibility for their own poor behavior.

A psychiatrist named Hendrix has popularized his "Imago therapy" in which a couple tries to get what they need from the other in order to heal ... all the things their parents didn't provide, for example. It is game-playing, of course, a kind of theatre which one could perform alone, if one realized that no one will ever be the parent that you didn't have.

Those who had good parents are fortunate; so many of the rest are still as babies wailing out for succor in a myriad of ways.