The Walking Dead

world_15_temp-1315894811-4e6ef61b-620x348Some historians argue that there have only been three real ‘slave societies’ in human history: ancient Rome, where one in three human beings was held as property; Brazil, where a young Charles Darwin once noted that the sheer number of slaves had caused the ruling class to collapse into complete indolence; and certain southern states in the USA. I’ve always found this to be a little unfair – the definition of a ‘slave society’ seems to be based on very exacting percentages of slave and free, which rather avoids the point that slavery was everywhere. Even in America, arguments over the history of slavery have been largely reconfigured on racial lines, and avoid mentioning, for example, the ‘white cargo’ of English convicts, forced to work as indentured labourers [one reader has taken me to task for even mentioning this, since it is a favourite meme of white supremacists. All I’m saying is that in history, not all slaves have been African. The Roman republic and empire being a well-known case in point].

As Gaius Verres argues in Swords & Ashes, Rome’s slaves are its walking dead. For many of them, particularly prisoners of war, their legal position was a hair’s breadth away from being actually dead, postponed at that brink for as long as their master willed it. The Latin word for slaves, servi, contains within it that sense of having been ‘saved’ from the moment of execution – a doom held in suspension indefinitely thereafter. The concept of a slave rebellion in Rome was tantamount to a zombie uprising.

Newly-minted slaves like Spartacus were always trouble. They were surly, uncooperative, and often did not even speak good Latin. Romans placed a much high premium on vernae, those who had been born and raised in captivity. A verna was much more likely to know his place and appreciate what few advantages his slave status offered him to the alternative, which might be not existing at all.

Vernae were also expensive. A properly trained, skilled slave, young enough to have a good few decades of work in him, would cost the equivalent of high-end car or a small apartment today. It’s not all that surprising when one calculates the value of the labour involved – the cooking and the cleaning and the myriad daily household chores that a slave could perform, all in an age without washing machines or vacuum cleaners. Apologists for ancient Rome have used this fact to suggest that slavery was a relatively benign condition, in which disadvantaged or underprivileged people were given a roof over their head and a job to do, with the hope of eventual freedom, and that only a madman would have maltreated such a valuable investment.

Unfortunately, of course, Rome had its fair share of madmen, some of them even in charge. And arguing that a slave cost a lot of money was not guarantee against ill treatment, as the sight of a crashed Ferrari attests today. Some valued family slaves, like Cicero’s own manservant Tiro, might be fortunate enough to end their lives in relative comfort. Others, particularly the men captured in military campaigns, might find themselves toiling in the deadly conditions of the silver mines, or turned into beasts of burden on the vast, slave-run super-farms called latifundia.

Roman law is a fascinating area – so much of it is like our own, but there are entire areas that are simply alien. What of the status postliminium, introduced to deal with those embarrassing moments when a captured Roman soldier is rescued from the enemy? If a soldier is enslaved during a foreign war, but somehow escapes or is rescued, he is welcomed back as if he has literally been raised from the dead. In Swords & Ashes, Cicero argues that this creates a whole series of other problems. If a Roman soldier can be enslaved and then unslaved, then why not everybody else?

It could be worse. In China only a century before the time of Spartacus, the First Emperor had a slave unit called ‘the hidden offices’, comprising men and women so badly mutilated that they were used as glorified motors, shoved into cubby holes to power fans or open doors all day. I tried to write a Dr Who drama about it once, and got booted out the door for being so ghoulish.

But I don’t think it’s ghoulish to confront the ultimate implications of a society that is prepared to treat people as things. In modern times, we replaced slaves with machines, but began once more to replace machines with people. Has slavery really been eradicated or is it now exported, outsourced, globalised to some far-flung region out of everyday sight? Such questions are what keeps the story of Spartacus so alive for us, even two thousand years after he died.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes. This article originally appeared on the Starburst website in 2012.

Jupiter’s Cock!

john-hannah-as-batiatus-in-spartacusThe scripts of Spartacus carefully replicate the effect and mood of a language and a culture from two thousand years ago. The elite Romans speak with received pronunciation and poetic metres; lower-class figures like Batiatus pepper their speech with profanities that take the names (and body parts) of the Roman gods in vain. Reflecting the hegemony of Latin, even the slaves speak the same language, but with more recognisable accents from further-flung colonies. And with a straight face –uttering the most boggling of insults and commands, but without a twitch of Anglo-Saxon embarrassment or shame. The Romans are used to speaking their words frankly, to slaves who dare not protest or blush.

Writers have long struggled with the problems of conveying the attitudes and ideas of a different time or place in the same language that readers use to write their shopping lists or shout at their kids. Tolkien invented an entire world in order to justify the authorship of a single sentence in a language that didn’t exist. Numerous science fiction authors have posited the use of an English that is decayed or mutated, each demanding new exercise on the part of the reader before they get a sense of the world they see. The same applies to historical fiction.

Derek Jarman found a way around it by having everyone speak Latin in his film Sebastiane. But even though his actors rose to the task, their argot sounds strange to modern ears. In the most memorable line, a man onscreen calls out “Oi! Oedipe!” The subtitles gleefully translate it as “Hey! Motherfucker!” Roman insults and oaths didn’t draw on vernacular concepts – more often than not, they drew classical allusions, to Hercules and Venus, Vulcan and Jupiter. And their body parts.

In Spartacus, the writers embark upon an extended exercise in capturing the sense of how ancient Romans communicate. Dialogue is as carefully Latinate as possible, to the exclusion of much earthy Anglo-Saxon. No, not the f-word and the c-word, both found in abundance, but little touches like hello, goodbye and thank you, banished from hearing in order to up the sense of a different world. “Gratitude” is itself an anachronism, not found in Latin until long after the time of the Republic, but its use in Spartacus sets a tone throughout, and matched by much other dialogue.

When Glaber (Craig Parker) says: “What promises have you made Batiatus and his faded bitch?” there is a cadence and a rhythm to his words. Even in English, the script conveys the sense of a language carefully conjugated almost into poetry, heavy with alliteration and assonance, even as it launches an insult.

That’s one of the reasons why I leapt at the chance to write the first Spartacus tie-in novel Swords & Ashes, because it was a chance to play with those ideas for a whole book. I get a real kick out of words like miscellanea (a gladiator’s porridge) or spoliarium (the room where they dump the dead). I think it’s sweet that a gladiatorial groupie is called a ludia (literally “schoolie”) or that the gladiators used to call their pre-game warm-up routine numeri (“the numbers”). Such ideas can impart a real sense of time and place by their presence.

There are also some that need to be absent. When my first draft came back from approvals, it was missing three thousand words, most of them “the” and “a”. Latin doesn’t have definite or indefinite articles, and while the producers are happy to have them in the text, they are reluctant to hear them in dialogue. The pseudo-Latinate dialogue of the show is jarring when you first see it on the page, but you soon get used to it. It’s not long before you hear Batiatus bellowing in your ear about wine, women, and the arena. I was very surprised that I was able to last a whole 28 pages before his first outburst of “JUPITER’S COCK!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords and Ashes. This article first appeared at A Temporary Distraction in 2012.

The Spoliarium

p1150413Starz were playing their cards very close to their chests about events in the Spartacus: Vengeance TV series. You don’t need a spoiler warning to know the broad historical details. You can get those right now in Plutarch and Appian, Florus and Frontinus. But as for the character details, they weren’t telling until long after my book would need to be delivered. It was too risky to set the first Spartacus novel anywhere near the second season. Instead, it would have to slot somewhere in the first season.

But thanks to those advanced spoilers from the likes of Plutarch, I also knew that while there would still be a couple of upcoming gladiatorial events onscreen, Spartacus’ days in the arena were over. This book could be the last chance to get back to the blood and sand, and show a gladiator’s life in intricate detail.

So I decided that I would make sure that Spartacus: Swords & Ashes included a fly-on-the-wall view of a whole day at the games, showing all those elements that never quite make it onto television. The crappy, low-rent animal-baitings before lunch-time. The midday executions. The clowns and the clean-up men. The doomed slaves who refuse to cooperate and the crowds that behave contrary to expectations. Behind the scenes, the trumpeters who have to knock up fanfares on command, and the stage manager trying to keep it entertaining, the food sellers and the groupies. And the end of it all, the man with a knife who cuts up the dead for dog-meat.

There’s a famous 1884 painting by the Filipino artist Juan Luna, The Spoliarium, which presents a deliberately shabby, unglamorous perspective on gladiatorial games. There’s no roaring crowd here, no flash of arms or glittering prizes. Instead, dead carcasses are dragged out of sight, while a woman weeps over a lost love, and hunched, covetous old men stare indifferently at the slaves who died to entertain them. The picture stands today in pride of place at the entrance to the National Museum of the Philippines, dominating an entire wall, confronting every visitor with the sight of the dark underside of absolute power.

This is what Spartacus is really about: the true costs of the garish free entertainment of bread and circuses, themselves doled out to Roman citizens to buy their votes and support for foreign wars and domestic corruption. Spartacus remains famous today because he stood up to the terrible state of a world in which one in three human beings is a slave with no rights. It’s why the story has become such a touchstone of rebellion, and why it still has such resonances two thousand years after it was first told.

I originally wrote this article for SF Review in 2012 as part of the press coverage for my novel Spartacus: Swords & Ashes. Since the original page is now full of cobwebs, I repost the article here.

Obscenities in Spartacus

Lucy-Lawless-SpartacusThe Romans can be charming. They are justly regarded as the foundation of much of our modern culture. But they were also a bunch of bloodthirsty fascists.

Rome shouldn’t be too much fun. Spartacus is going to rise up one day. He is going to lead a revolt, which means that my novel Swords and Ashes needed to make it very clear that we shouldn’t like the Romans. This is harder than it looks when the main mouthpieces for the Romans are Lucretia and Batiatus, so winningly played in the TV series by Lucy Lawless and John Hannah. Sometimes, it’s possible to forget that we’re supposed to hate them. The readership has to identify with the slaves, not the masters. Because when the new season of Spartacus: Vengeance kicks off, you need to know what side you’re on.

If a reader finds someone with whom they identify, they have to be on the losing side, crushed and broken by the powers that be. This isn’t too hard with a wide-ranging underclass of slaves, although it can be jarring in an age of overbearing political correctness to write dialogue for a bunch of impossibly privileged, grasping, murderous bigots. So I set out to find a way to disgust, at least once, literally everybody who was likely to pick up a copy of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes. You have to close the book thinking what a great thing it would be if someone stood up to these bastards, and that means you should be offended.

SpartacusSaga_Marquee8_1440x651Women? Easy to do with a society whose foundation myth is based on rape, and whose ladies were regarded as chattels. Animal-lovers? Plenty of opportunity with ‘entertainments’ comprising repeated cruelty to an entire menagerie of innocent creatures – I knew I was onto a winner here when even my editor said she was a bit queasy after reading one scene. She took it out. I sneaked it back in.

Ethnic minorities? The Romans saw no colour, but that didn’t stop them being casually racist about almost everybody. ‘Asians’, which is to say, people from the Middle East, were mistrusted as a bunch of oriental weirdoes. Greeks were envied and despised, for having all the culture that the Romans plundered, and answered in turn by snootily dismissing the Romans as a bunch of philistines. And if you are from northern Europe – lawless, wild places like Britannia – the Romans think you are a savage. I even managed to get in a snide comment about wine from France being ‘barbaric’ – it would be another generation before Caesar conquered Gaul.

Your grandmother? When the show’s best-loved line is “Jupiter’s Cock!”, I think we’ve got that covered.

Gays? Now there’s a tough one. Spartacus has a huge gay following, particularly for the tender romance between the Carthaginian gladiator Barca and his lover Pietros. So I made it as clear as I could that just because there were homosexuals in Rome, and in open view in the TV show, it didn’t mean that their social position was necessarily welcome.

The Roman author Seneca once wrote of the layout of a ludus which had so many gay gladiators that they had their own wing. Homosexuality, it seems, was no bar to success in the arena, but the Romans certainly did not condone it. Instead, Seneca writes of how the gladiators who love men get to practice their “obscenities” in private, where none might see their “disease”. I made sure I’d have someone say that.

The entire human race? If you’re a human being (Yes? Check.) then the mere notion of slavery should be enough to set you off, particularly when I go into such detail about what it could mean for people on a daily basis. In particular, I delved deep into Roman law, to show how terrible a slave’s life could be, and the true side-effects of a life with no control whatsoever over one’s fate or body.

So that was everybody taken care of, except possibly me. My wife saw to that at Christmas, when she eagerly snatched up my advance copy, and started reading some of the sex scenes out to my mother. It made me feel distinctly uneasy… I had even managed to offend myself.

This article originally appeared in January 2012 as a guest post on Blogomatic, to promote my novel Spartacus: Swords & Ashes (US/UK). I repost it here because the original site seems to have disappeared.

Spartacus Reviewed

Steve Donoghue at Open Letters reviews my novel Swords and Ashes from a classical perspective, suggesting that the book is loaded with hidden allusions to ancient authors. Indeed it is, and includes nods not only to Cicero’s Verrine Orations and Letters to Atticus, but also Ovid’s Art of Love, Ulpian’s Commentaries on Roman law, and the writings of Seneca, Plutarch, Florus and Frontinus, to name but a few. As a bonus extra, his whole review seems intended as a gentle slap to an acquaintance who think Spartacus was invented by Howard Fast, and that nobody is allowed to write about the American Civil War any more, because Margaret Mitchell has already done it.

Sean Canfield at the Daily Rotation approaches Swords and Ashes from a formalist perspective, as someone who has never seen the TV series, and doesn’t care whose picture is on the cover, or who wrote the book. He demands that the book stands up on its own merits, not attached to any other text or event. A tall order, but one which he finds the book to have met. Now he wants to watch the TV show, which if truth be told is the entire reason why licensors get onboard with tie-ins: as adverts for the next season.

Jesse the Pen of Doom (What were Mr and Mrs Pen of Doom thinking when they gave their son the middle name of “the”?) over at 8 Days a Geek thinks that if you like sex and violence, you will like this. But he also notes what few other reviewers have — the precise moment in series continuity where the book is set, which he praises as a “great bridge between two key points.”

John Neal at Celebrity Cafe: “Clements is able to take readers deeper into the gladiator’s mind and reveal his thoughts and actions… an entertaining read and an excellent companion to the series”

Pilbeam at Defective Geeks: “It’s bloody, violent, vulgar and full of sex. And that’s just in the first chapter”!

Kate Lane at Shadowlocked calls it a “toga ripper”, noting that the nature of reading a book rather than watching a TV show makes sex and violence more garish and disturbing. She says it’s: “a fabulous, well written tale that grabs the reader by the throat and slams them around a tits-, tans- and testosterone- filled version of ancient Rome that leaves them breathless.”

George Sakalis at Extra Hype says: “By Jupiter’s cock, I recommend this book and if the following Spartacus books are like this one, then Titan Books will have a great tie-in series!” With a name like his, I was expecting some flak for the way the book treats Greeks, but it seems he took it all in context, as an example of historically accurate racism. Phew.

“Fitz” at Blogcritics likes the imagery, and quotes one of the scenes I liked the most.

John Redfearn at Bookgeeks finds himself “more interested in trying to work out the rules for deciding when people say ‘the’ or ‘a’ and when they leave them out than in what would happen next.”

Meanwhile, over on Amazon, there’s a growing number of reviews, from a very interesting bunch of readers, seemingly equally divided between those who have seen the TV series, and those who now want to.

[Time travel footnote. The translations are getting some nice notices, too. Here’s Wulf Bengsch getting very enthusiastic auf Deutsch.]