Penny la Pousse was all flirt & fluff as she greeted guests for Rufius’ debut at Brighton Waterstones. As part of the novel was written in the window seat in the bookshop’s travel section, Rufius was right at home. And he rather liked Penny’s dress too – a purple velvet number covered in fuchsia flowers. It was fabulous to see so many Brightonian friends – as well as my wonderful publisher, Martin Goodman from Barbican Press who delivered an eloquent introduction.
Penny formally introduced me with a poem that raised the temperature in the room . Rufius was impressed as were the gentlemen in the audience. I was delighted to see Julian Stevens, Brighton’s talented goldsmith. Rufius is also a fan of his jewels and I was wearing a palladium and blue zircon ring Julian had designed ten years ago based on one of my scribbles. Also Miles from Jefferson Jackson; style queen, Denisa; Toad from 70s Punk band Johnny Moped and local artist Jana Solfronk.
Penny asked what the novel is about. It’s an illicit love Story set in 4C Alexandria, and I then explained why it is described as an illicit. Rufius is a cinaedus, Latin for an effeminate buggeree. Far from the hard, muscular Roman ideal, cinaedi wore make-up, curled their hair, plucked and painted on their eyebrows. They could be thought of as an ancient Roman version of transgender. The laws that condemned these men became more severe under the Christian Emperors. Rufius falls in love with a rent boy called Aeson. However, the affair between Rufius and Aeson is not illicit because of the age gap (in Ancient Rome it was acceptable for young boys who showed physical signs of manhood to be taken as lovers), but because the older man was taking the ‘passive’ or receptive role. The moral judgement is directed towards Rufius’ gender deviance and so Rufius is free of the moral tension that we see in Nabakov’s Lolita – for my aim was to present Ancient Roman sexuality through the Ancient Roman lens (not filtered through a modern sexual paradigm).
“That reminds me of my poem, Red Knickers about men dressing up in their wives’ underwear. Is that a bit like Rufius?” asked Penny la Pousse.
Ancient Romans didn’t wear lacy red knickers, but I’m sure Rufius would have loved a pair! Through the lens of modern Westerners, Rufius presents as transgender – cinaedi wore make up, jewellery and dyed and curled their hair. Ancient Romans accepted the third gender until the rise of Christianity. Orthodox Christians outlawed the third gender and in 391 AD and men who presented as women were condemned to death by public burning.
I then did a short reading to introduce the Waterstones audience to Rufius.
Penny switched the topic to slavery. We talked about the culture of slavery and how Rufius’ family unit included his slaves, who all took the family name of Biblus, as well as the economic implications of slavery. For example, Ancient Romans invented the steam engine, but didn’t commercialise it as they had slaves and so the economics didn’t stack up. Talk of slaves Penny got excited about her poem about S&M and she did a wee reading.
Modern S&M roles are likely as close as Modern Westerners get to understanding (experientially speaking) the Ancient Roman sexual paradigm through our own lens. Modern Homosexual culture still has a sense of the active/ passive framework for defining sexual behaviour – Gaydar, the gay matching website, used to allow you to note whether you were active or passive and to indicate that to potential partners. The closest modern mainstream heterosexual culture gets to it is in the discourse about ‘who wears the trousers’ in a relationship. The ancient Roman sexual paradigm was very much about control and domination. They had strict guidelines about who was active (rich, noblemen) and who was passive (women, slaves and post-pubesent girls and boys). A man like Rufius who chose the passive role would have been ridiculed (as was Julius Caesar who was rumoured to be a cinaedus). However, before the Christian era, cinaedi were accepted to some extent.
Penny, whose poetry is infused with sex – or rather the promise of it, asked me about my experience of writing sex from the perspective of a cinaedus in Rufius. Here’s a short clip on writing sex in fiction.
Penny shifted the conversation to a more serious aspect of the novel: “But it wasn’t just sex those naughty Bishops wanted to control was it?”
Indeed it wasn’t. In the fourth century we see Christian extremism sweep across the Empire. We discussed the fall of paganism, the burning of books, heresies; destruction of libraries and temples. I finished up by reading an excerpt that demonstrates the clash between Theophilus (the Archbishop behind the destruction of the Serapeum which housed a vast chunk of the Ancient Library of Alexandria) and Rufius – which shows the clash between Christianity in its most fascist form and paganism.
Watch Chris Green reading chapter 36 at London Southbank Centre back in February for a Polari event.
A big thank you to the lovely staff at Waterstones for their support