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Watching Rome Burn with Steven Saylor

Berkeley novelist invokes ancient persecutions and transgenderism under the emperors.

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Mount Vesuvius erupts, Christians are slaughtered, and Rome burns in Steven Saylor's new novel Empire, which spans the years 14 CE through 141 CE. Also in this followup to Saylor's 2008 epic Roma, Emperor Nero falls for a boy named Sporus, who resembles Nero's dead wife. Summarily castrated, Sporus becomes Nero's eunuch-spouse, living the rest of his life as a woman. Having populated Empire and his eleven previous ancient-Rome novels with actual historical figures, Saylor calls Sporus "one of history's first known transsexuals."

Whether or not Sporus surrendered his gonads willingly remains lost in the mists of history.

"We know that he or she was not just the wife and widow of Nero — there was a very public marriage ceremony — but subsequently became the consort of a later emperor, Nero's friend Otho. It seems unlikely that an unwilling or resentful victim would have made a congenial companion to not one but two emperors," pondered the Berkeley author, whose launch party for Empire is at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Thursday, Sept. 16. "Or was Sporus just doing whatever was necessary to stay alive?"

Ancient Rome had no such sexual categories as "gay" or "straight;" many individuals — including rulers — commonly engaged in both same-sex and opposite-sex relations.

Among the emperor Tiberius's legacies is "a word he coined for some of his partners: spintriae — 'tight sphincters' — which was later applied to male prostitutes. Apparently Tiberius was quite creative in enriching the Latin vocabulary with new sexual terms. He was a porn fiend, commissioning stories and picture books he could use to show his partners exactly what he desired. Alas, none of those books are known to survive."

Refusing to worship Apollo and the gang, "Christians were thought of as dangerous atheists and a security risk; no one wanted to live next to a Christian or serve alongside one in the military." While Nero instituted "absolutely horrific" persecutions against Christians, the emperor Trajan was more tolerant. 

"Trajan was a big, brawny guy, a 'man's man' and a military genius, and he also loved boys. What happened when this butchest and gayest of emperors faced the problem of what to do about a certain despised minority, the Christians? ... Trajan's policy was essentially 'Ask not, tell not.'"

When the latest war in Iraq began, Saylor contemplated ancient history.

"I thought: Do our leaders know nothing about Trajan's 'conquest' of the same part of the world? Yes, Trajan managed to take over what is now Iraq, carving it into provinces and client kingdoms: Mission accomplished! But the next emperor, Hadrian, immediately saw those conquests crumble to insurgencies and chaos, and began the inevitable pullback. This tug-of-war has been going on for well over two thousand years, but every new leader of the West thinks he will be the one to finally capture the lands of the heathens and barbarians beyond the Euphrates. They all want to be Alexander the Great." 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net

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