This week, I had the great delight to be a guest on the Worldbuilding for Masochists podcast!
Go listen. Listen to the episode I’m in, then go back and listen to the other eleven, then listen to the one I’m on again, then keep listening to new episodes as they come out.
The podcast as a whole discusses the process of worldbuilding for fantasy novels. So far they’ve covered basics like geography and deep-dives into things like fiber arts. I’m in the episode “The Play’s the Thing”, focusing on the arts and popular entertainment. A natural fit for a Shakespeare scholar, really, and I do spend a lot of time in the episode nattering on about early modern theatrical culture. We talk about the socioeconomic conditions surrounding art, how technology affects art, and the role that art and entertainment play in society and politics. Honestly, I could’ve gone on for another six hours. Recording the podcast was an absolute blast, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.
While I mention a few things to do with ancient Rome in the episode, I thought I’d expand a little bit here and talk about some of the pop culture that shows up in From Unseen Fire, and some of the things I’m building into Books Two and Three as well.
A lot of the arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle show up at the patrician dinner parties. Socioeconomics, after all! The people with lots of disposable income are the ones who can burn a lot of cash amusing themselves.
Dancers are mentioned both at the Vitelliae dinner party early in the book and at the Autroniae Saturnalia revels towards the end. Dance was a spectator sport for most Romans by the end of the Republic. Earlier in their history it may have had religious purpose and been something citizens even of high status would have engaged in, but as the centuries went on, it became considered more vulgar. Country peasants might have danced for pleasure, but for Romans in the city, dancing was something to watch, not do. The dancers would have mostly been slaves or perhaps freedmen and women of very low social status, on a level with actors.
What sort of entertainment did the Romans (and, thus, my Aventans) actually engage in? Wordplay tops the list. Riddles were a common form of game at parties, as Marcia Tullia shows us during the hunting getaway at her country estate:
“Let’s have a game, instead. I heard an excellent riddle at Appia’s last party. Dear, would you be so kind as to share it?”
The Romans loved puzzles and paradoxes akin to the Two-Door Riddle made famous by Labyrinth. They also played with visual puzzles like rebuses, and even carved riddles on some tombs and funerary monuments. Thinking of them trading these things at parties and in taverns, I’m reminded of learning the Green Glass Door riddle as a Girl Scout; we played it for a ridiculously long time. (And if you don’t know that riddle, oh please allow someone to tell it to you in-person rather than googling it). We humans are clever monkeys, and we like things which test our wits.
Poetry for the Romans came in many forms — some of them regarded as high art, others as common vulgarities. Nor did the poets necessarily limit themselves to one side of that spectrum or the other. As I mention on the podcast, my favorite Latin poet, Catullus, certainly did both. One of my favorite scenes is the doggerel poetry game that Autronius Felix plays with Urbanus, a character who is designed as sort of a mix between Catullus and Ovid:
They then move on to skewering particular targets — political opponents of the Popularists. That’s also true-to-history. A ton of Latin poetry has either overt or implicit political purpose, and it’s often pretty crude. When we see Urbanus again a bit later, though, he’s reciting a more highly-regarded form of verse — which, I must confess, I pretty much straight-up stole out of Ovid’s Fasti.
But though we see a lot of artistry at the fancy dinner parties, entertainment is not limited to the upper crust of society. Music could be played and enjoyed by anyone. A musical education was part of patrician upbringing, though certain instruments like the pipe were considered improper for the highborn. Plenty of murals show highborn ladies, particularly, with lyres and similar instruments. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned as popular legend would have it — because, for one thing, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and also because he was nowhere near Rome at the time — but he was known to play the cithara, an instrument more like a lute.
Music served many functions in Roman life. It was used during religious rituals and during funerals, during festivals and in theatrical productions, but it also infused daily life. It’s from the ancients that we get the idea of shepherds playing upon pipes. In From Unseen Fire, as Latona walks with Sempronius through the markets after the Cantrinalia, she hears the flautists and other musicians hired by merchants to draw attention to their stalls. That’s historically-based — ancient merchants didn’t have commercials or mannequins to get the word or draw the eye, but they were plenty creative. Some would even have trained animals at their stalls — juggling monkeys and the like.
Music also played a role in war: horns and drums were used by the legions to keep time while marching and to give orders during battle.
Plays were also popular entertainment, though of a very different stripe from the early modern theatre that I spend a lot of time discussing on the podcast. The Romans had both tragedy and comedy, though no tragedies survive from the Republic era and few from the Imperial era. Seneca’s are the best well-known, while Plautus and Terence are the most famous of the comedic authors. Roman comedy tended to be quite bawdy and relied heavily on stock characters similar to those which would eventually develop in commedia dell’arte. Although playwrights could be well-regarded and plays themselves were entertainment for all classes, actors were of extremely low-status, on a level with criminals and sex workers.
In From Unseen Fire, as part of conversation at one dinner party, Old Crispinia asks Latona:
“Now, tell me what you thought of that play where I saw you last week. Damned frivolous piece of tripe, if you ask me—”
In the earlier draft, I actually named the playwright (Practus), but when my editor asked me to trim down on the total tonnage of the names I inserted into the manuscript, that was one it was easy to lose. I’m imagining Practus as a Plautus analog.
Gambling and board games were also popular with Romans of all classes. Gambling was technically illegal during the Republic and much of the Empire, but that was a law often honored more in the breach — and it was permitted during the Saturnalia, as when we see Aula dicing at the Autroniae’s party. The Romans also played non-gambling games with dice and markers; they had board games somewhat resembling checkers and chess, and in Aven Book 2 you’ll see (assuming it doesn’t change in edits) little Lucia playing tali, a game with knucklebones similar to the modern(-ish) game of jacks.
Now, you may have noticed that I’ve yet to discuss what’s probably the most famous form of ancient Roman entertainment: the games. Modern culture mostly focuses on the gladiatorial matches, but Roman games included many more exhibitions, including theatrical performances, staged animal hunts, and chariot races — which were the most popular part of the games in ancient times.
I’ve written a very large series of events for the Aven Cycle to take place at some games. Early on, they were in Book One, but as edits went on, they just didn’t fit there anymore. I briefly thought they might fit in Book Two, but, no, it looks like they’re going to be in Book Three. I do mention games in Book Two, though, and if all stays more or less as-is, you’ll get to see a little bit of Aventan tailgaiting!
So! That’s arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle. Go listen to the podcast. Again. ;D