Examining the Story, Part II

salvēte iterum, amīcī. As promised, in this post we’ll examine the whole story we’ve created together, focusing specifically on plot, characters, and settings. Then, on Monday, we’ll look at vocabulary and grammar; Tuesday we’ll focus on culture and Culture; and Wednesday we’ll look at Connections and Comparisons. In the meantime, please keep those comments and emails coming!

In devising the plot, I really wanted to invert the “typical” focus on men. Of course, I am a man, so I don’t want to eliminate the male voice completely – besides, that would probably be impossible in a 1st-century-C.E. Roman setting even if I did want to do so. But on behalf of the important women and girls in my life, I do want to shine the spotlight on them from time to time – especially since their Roman counterparts are so often excluded from consideration, both by Roman men and by the (mostly male) Classical scholars over the years who have studied the Romans.

So in this story, many of the important plot elements revolve around women:

  • In a sense, Sabina mustēla causes the whole story. But, unlike some female characters in the “Big Three” reading-method textbooks, she’s still a sympathetic character – unless you really love mice! 🙂 Though, in one sense, she causes the whole mess, in another sense it’s not really her fault. Had Milphio looked, he never would have tripped. And had Ridiculus waited for night-time, as any prudent mouse would do, she never would have been in position to trip Milphio anyway.
  • Ausonia’s innovative behavior (how dare she recline! with her husband!) shocks Maccia and Caelia, but it also makes them think about their own situations.
  • Ausonia looks like a stereotypical “frightened woman” at one point, but she quickly puts her husband in his place when he wrongly blames the children – for trying to save him! And succeeding! He’s clearly a foolish figure, even though he is related to the Emperor (or possibly to a lībertus Augustī).
  • In turn, Maccia and Caelia re-examine their own relationships with their husbands. Evidently Maccia sees all kinds of possibilities in a world where women recline next to their husbands!
  • Valeria and Caeliola clearly are the primary heroes/heroines. Lucius does save Ausonia’s eyesight, but he doesn’t have to stand up to Flavius Caeso in the process, nor does he get threatened with being sold into slavery.
  • And of course Impigra puts Ridiculus in his place … as she should. What was he thinking? 🙂

As a result, the strongest and most positive characters are female. On the flip-side, many of the male characters end up looking pretty foolish:

  • Milphio trips and causes a huge mess. Wonder who will have to clean that up? 🙂 And besides, what are the odds that you would fall right on the table? (Of course, if you’re a servus, and you hate your status, and you hate the Romans who made you a servus, and you do accidentally trip, you might think the beating would be worth the pain and discomfort you caused … so you might actually aim for the table. But we’ll think more about that on Tuesday.)
  • Flavius Caeso really looks like an idiot. Even a Roman man shouldn’t scream at the person who saved his life – let alone tell her that her father ought to sell her into slavery for … entering the dining room during dinner?! What’s wrong with him, anyway?
  • Valerius seems rather weak. All he can say is “mī Flavī” when Flavius is threatening his daughter. What’s up with that?
  • What is Gallicus, the coquus, doing anyway? He’s apparently still there (or, at least, I didn’t mention him leaving), but he does nothing amidst all the flying food and cutlery. Or is it that he, too, hates his status as servus and is relishing the chance to watch his owners get hurt or embarrassed? (For that matter, how are we to know what he did – or didn’t – put in those lentēs Aegyptiae?)
  • Other than Lucius, none of the (human) males acquits himself well at all in the crisis. And even Lucius seems to let his sisters do the real work! Given a choice between catching a pointy spoon, catching two heavy objects (tabletop and serving vessel), or catching an angry, biting weasel, which one seems least heroic?
  • As for Ridiculus, he lives up to his name as Impigra points out to him. How many sensible mice would venture out, in the midst of a crowded room, to pick up a piece of bread?

My goal was to create a complex, ambiguous situation, with lots of intriguing characters and plot elements. How did I do with that goal?

And, of course, a related goal is to create many jumping-off points for participants who want to create related stories.  For example, a participant might decide to

  • retell the story from the perspective of one of the peripheral characters – Milphio, perhaps, or Ausonia? Or even Impigra?  or Ferox the canis, who oddly failed to notice a weasel … in his house!  (His counterpart in vīllā meā, canis meus amātissimus, notices – and responds to – leaves and squirrels half a mile away, so what’s up with Ferox?)
  • tell what happened next – perhaps at Flavius Caeso’s house!  Or perhaps the next evening at Lollius’ and Maccia’s cēnāculum – did she join him on the dining couch?
  • describe the responses of a non-human character – perhaps the Lār, or one of the Penātēs, or the umbra of one of Valerius’ ancestors.

An overarching goal of mine for the whole Tres Columnae project is that, as much as possible, our participants can feel like they’re present in the situations, with the characters. I want the settings, plots, and characters to “feel real,” and I want them, as much as possible, to feel authentic – as though a real Roman, in that situation, would behave in a similar way. And so

  • I set the stories in a real Roman town, at a more-or-less identifiable time;
  • I tried to create characters who “feel real” and “feel authentic” to the reader, or at least to me;
  • I tried to have them behave as actual Romans might behave – hence the rather passive servants, the astonished Caelia and Maccia, the blustering Flavius Caeso, and Valerius fairly impotent in the presence of the much richer, more powerful Flavius; and
  • I wanted to create three-dimensional Roman women who were both authentically Roman and also authentically strong and courageous.

After all this is the culture that venerates Lucretia – and it took a lot of courage for her to tell her husband what had happened to her, despite her attacker’s threats, and then to avenge her dishonor. It’s also the culture that produced Agrippina the Younger – not at all an exemplum pietātis like Lucretia, but still a strong and powerful woman. In contrast to these, the “Big Three” reading-method textbooks present a lot of flat, insipid female characters. I want better for my own daughter and for the hundreds, even thousands, of other strong, capable young women who have learned, or will learn, Latin from me, either face to face or through Tres Columnae. And I also want better for my son, and for the equally large numbers of boys who have learned or will learn Latin with my help. I want to help them see – and build – an authentically complex model of the Roman world.

quid respondētis, amīcissimī?

  • To what extent has this story created interesting, well-rounded characters for you?
  • To what extent was the plot compelling and engaging?
  • To what extent did the setting seem, or feel, authentically Roman to you?
  • In so far as we fell short – and I’m sure we did 🙂 – what suggestions for improvements do you have?

Later today I’ll have a brief post about some of the compelling fictional worlds that have inspired me; I’d encourage you to think of your favorite fictional worlds and share them, too.  Then, tomorrow, we’ll take another look at this story from the perspectives of grammar and vocabulary.  Tune in next time for more!

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “As a result, the strongest and most positive characters are female. On the flip-side, many of the male characters end up looking pretty foolish:”

    While I applaude the need for strong female characters, here we run the risk of a reverse trope, and one becoming more common, in particular in advertising, that men are foolish and women in control. Not to imply anything about the rest of the stories, but if the only way to present strong female characters is at the expense of male characters, we have simply created a reverse sexism.

  2. Seumas,
    You’re quite right about the danger of the reverse trope. I think you’ll see, as we look at additional stories, that there can be strong female characters without reverse sexism. Of course, once the Tres Columnae community begins to create its own stories, there will be a vast range of perspectives, some very pro-male, others very pro-female, and that should alleviate your concerns. But I certainly appreciate the note of caution.

    Thanks again for continuing to read and participate in the conversation!

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