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Vicky Alvear Shecter Headshot

The Surprising Sexual Reason Pompeii's Lead Is a Slave

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Jason Verschoor via Getty Images
Jason Verschoor via Getty Images

I was deep into writing my young adult novel set in Pompeii, Curses and Smoke (Scholastic, May 2014), when my editor sent me a message that would've made any writer's blood turn to ice.

"Turns out there's a movie being made about Pompeii," she wrote. "And it too features a male slave as the love interest."

After dropping several f-bombs that nearly made my dog's ears bleed, I wondered if I should change my story. "No, no!" my editor said. "Yours is different enough." Which was true.

But it got me thinking. Why did the writer of the Pompeii movie make the same character choice I made for my novel? Why have a male slave as the focus of the "forbidden" love story? Why not the inverse -- a guy in love with a female slave?

The answer has to do with the reality of ancient Rome's sexual "rules." A Roman man -- if he owned a woman or girl (or even if he didn't but got permission from her owner) -- had the right to use and abuse her sexually as if she were his own living sex doll. She had no right to refuse him, nor any right to voice her desires. She was not a human with agency or control, but "property" to be used. This was true for slave boys, too -- for any slave, of any age.

That power differential is ugly and gross and doesn't lend itself to any kind of love story. There could be no seduction, no build-up, no longing glances from across the room. It was a matter of the master giving orders.

Where's the romance in that?

Some masters may have fallen in love with their slaves. In Pompeii, a heavy gold bracelet was found inscribed with, "Dominus suae ancillae," which means "From the master to his slave girl." Presumably, she did more than his laundry to earn that pound-o'-gold bauble.

He may have loved her, but we have no idea how she felt about him. Was she forced to act the part in order to avoid punishment, hating every moment of being touched against her will? Again, serious romance buzz killer.

Male slaves were also used and abused for sexual purposes, though typically not by the women of the house, but by the men. Women were forbidden from using male slaves for their own sexual pleasure, though it likely occurred more than most Roman men wanted to admit.

Gladiatorial slaves, on the other hand, had -- and still have -- a sexual allure that translates well on film, hence the choice to have Kit Harrington's abs star as the love interest. Gladiator sweat was even marketed as a beauty cream with aphrodisiac properties and it was rumored that wealthy women "bought" time with gladiators (in their slave pens) for their own pleasure.

So, the ugly underside of sexual slavery limited the choices available to writers and filmmakers in terms of a love story representing the two extremes of classes in ancient Rome. Or, it could be that the producers of Pompeii just took one look at Kit Harington's abs and knew they had their lead. It worked for me!

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Vicky Alvear Shecter is the author of the upcoming young adult novel, Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii; pre-order the book here. She blogs about the ancient world at historywithatwist.blogspot.com.