Lance Horner Rogue Roman (1965)
The semi-darkness behind the closed gate enveloped Cleon. For the first time in many months, he thought of his former privacy under the sandy ledge back on the oasis and longed to be alone in order to quiet the overwhelming desire that had taken possession of him. His fingers smeared the Greek's still-warm blood over his body. He did not want to kill him but. . . yes, he must admit, he enjoyed it; enjoyed plunging his sword into the soft flesh beneath him, thrilled when the hot blood shot up on him... He wanted, he needed, he must have a woman - any woman - or failing that, a few minutes alone with himself.
When I was packing up a lot of my books earlier this year (so I could see out the windows again), I found a small pile of trashy fiction which I'd bought because the books reflected a byway of my professional area of interest: the ancient world. I'm going to pass them onto a friend, but before they go off in the mail I succumbed to one of them, Lance Horner's Rogue Roman.
It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I don't want to discuss its historical accuracy, as that's not really the point of reading this sort of book. Let's just say that the settings are remarkably detailed - they read a bit like a description of an I, Claudius set. The characterisation is vivid and there aren't too many sex scenes of such overwrought graphicness as to induce hysteria ("the reek of costly oils and rare unguents and the flat, alkaline animal odour of male passion fanned into heat"). It is completely over the top though (not least in its homoeroticism).
Our hero is Cleon, a sex-obsessed young man of mysterious descent (being tall and blonde in a land of short dark people) living in poverty in a Syrian oasis.
Although he did not realise it, his own body was the only thing he loved, perhaps because it was the only thing of beauty he had ever seen.
...the slabs of muscles on his chest proudly displayed the copper rosettes of his paps...
By chance he is recruited to be a mime performer in the depraved city of Antioch, where his sexy rendition of the myth of Leda and the Swan earns him public acclaim in a city where "[n]owhere in the world had vice reached such exquisite refinements." Unfortunately he gets mixed up with pirates and is enslaved and sent to Rome as a gladiator. By chance he catches the eye of Agrippina - mother of the Emperor Nero - who recognises that he is not only the bastard son of a Germanic prince she once slept with, but also the half-brother of her evil son Nero. She decides to pull a swap so that Cleon sleeps with Nero's virgin wife Octavia (Nero prefers boys) and produces an heir. Then she can bump off her son (her standard successional modus operandi) and as regent can control the new Emperor. It all goes badly wrong: Cleon is faced with death on the cross, but is saved by a Vestal Virgin and sets out to rescue Octavia, whom he now realises he loves and who has been sent into exile in Greece. A further strand of the story is a 'buddy movie' type scenario, where Cleon is assisted by his trusty mates Mamax (a former male prostitute in Antioch) and the Numidian stud Jano. They stick with the hero through thick and thin, and are also considerably brighter than their colleague.
It is quite a fun read, all in all, though as Kyle Onstott (with whom Horner wrote the gay 'classic' Child of the Sun) writes in the Foreword, "Incident follows vivid incident until one wonders that so much could happen to one young man." Indeed.
Rating: it wasn't as bad as I thought. 5/10.
If you liked this... you might enjoy Glorious Trash (Rogue Roman is here). Two others in my classical-reception-trashy-novels-pile are The Roman by the Finnish writer Mika Waltari (1966: an abridged Pan edition but the typeface is too small for comfort) and one I read a few years ago, A Greek God at the Ladies' Club by Jenna McKnight (2003), a variation on the Pygmalion story styled as romance literature and set in St. Louis (quite amusing). Woohoo! Love reading trashy books and pretending they're relevant to my studies.