Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Delicatus may be one of the best period piece novels we've ever read!
Delicatus is a captivating and frightening walk in the sandals of a slave living during one of the darkest times in the history of the Roman Empire: the reign of Nero Caesar.
This book largely appeals to renaissance men: people who love to look back at the golden eras of humanity with rose-tinted glasses. It can be a wake up call to those who idealize those times and want to go back. Ancient Rome (like Ancient Greece) is often seen as the pinnacle of human civilization. However, it was far from that. Those were far from the best of times.
This book makes it clear that Ancient Rome, as powerful and impressive as it was, was also terrifying in a lot of ways. Not only were wars of conquest, brutal executions, and extreme poverty commonplace, but also slavery, exploitation, and sexual depravity. Your freedom was not guaranteed. In fact, what even is freedom? Your body was not your own.
These are uncomfortable truths for people living in more liberal, enlightened times when things like basic human rights are emphasized.
The time of Nero was a time when people owned people. It was a time when extreme torture, corporal punishment, capital punishment, and the killing of innocent people for shear entertainment occurred under the law. And what even is the law when in the hands of demented, brutal dictators like Nero or Caligula?
The book follows Sporus, a young slave who is largely implied to have been a prince from a Greek city-state defeated and subjugated by Rome. Sporus is androgynous and very rarely (if at all) referred to as a “he” or “him.” In fact, they are often compared to or seen as identical to Lady Poppaea, a noblewoman married to an impotent, homosexual senator, Marcus Salvius Otho. So, yes, Sporus's gender seems to be ambiguous, largely conforming to this novel LGBTQA+ themes.
We were braced to be uncomfortable and for sexual exploitation of a minor to be a major part of this novel, especially given the book's title, cover (featuring a mostly nude, young male), and description. We've read books like this before. A Hundred Honeymoons is one such example, featuring the sexual exploitation of a young female and a young male by various people in their lives. So, it isn't unprecedented, but it's no less uncomfortable to read about this very taboo topic.
The fact of the matter is: these types of twisted relationships and sexual abuse do exist, and they did exist in ancient times as well. It happened throughout the history of humanity. In fact, ironically, we were just having a conversation in the car about how young boys in both Feudal Japan and Ancient Greece would be sent to serve older men as a right of passage. Yes, this also meant sexually.
So this brings about several ethical questions like: Can a child consent? What role do onlookers have in protecting minors from abuse and exploitation? What signs do we look for?
Sporus is brought under the ownership of Gaius Petronius Arbiter, one of Rome's most creative and eccentric people, a musician and storyteller. He is said to be beloved by his slaves due to his fair treatment. He is also probably narcoleptic (or something) because he keeps passing out and falling asleep throughout the novel. His strange sleep habits become an issue for Sporus and the leader of the slaves, Croesus, who fear that waking him will lead to a punishment.
The novel largely centers on the slave-owner relationship and romance between Sporus and Petronius. Your enjoyment of the novel will largely depend on if you can buy into it or not, but it does have some rather twisted, uncomfortable undertones for a modern audience. For example, the aforementioned age difference and slave-owner dynamic creates some serious ethical questions—ethical alarm bells. In modern times, this type of relationship would be seen as abuse and likely land Petronius in prison, but those were different times and we're along for the ride.
Still, it's hard to ignore certain things that happen in their relationship, making it rather hard to cheer for the two. Petronius slaps/strikes Sporus on at least one occasion and casually orders him to be flogged/beaten to teach him how to talk and act respectfully. Disturbingly, Sporus often accepts this abuse as “earned” or “deserved.” So, the issue of Stockholm Syndrome comes up. Sporus very clearly suffers from it. Just because someone hurts you less than someone else (i.e. other slave owners) doesn't make the hurt they inflict right. True love should not hurt. Yes, sadomasochism exists (and seems to be implied in this relationship), but that's another story. There's a difference between enjoying pain for the sake of sexual gratification and accepting being beaten up as part of the loving bond you share with someone. Those are two separate things.
Also, Petronius allows Sporus to be sexually exploited by Otho and Lady Poppaea. Would someone who really loved you allow their friends to rape you on a regular basis? No, asking them to be gentle with you and pay you doesn't make it acceptable. Asking guards to escort you to be raped and ensure you're returned doesn't make it acceptable. That's incredibly depraved behavior including on the part of Petronius who actively allows this to happen to Sporus. And, for some reason, it seems like the book really wants you to like or even prefer Petronius.
Something to briefly note is that Sporus serves as a sort of muse for Petronius, who often has them stand naked and posing as inspiration for his creative works.
It does give you a good impression of just how desperate and oppressive Sporus's situation as a slave is. They really have little or no say in the matter.
Incredibly, even the narrator eventually realizes that all of this is bringing down the mood (“I'm getting a bit impatient. We all want to hear about Nero” from page 97).
Nero adds a whole other level of discomfort and creepiness to this already uncomfortable and creepy story. He is the BIG BAD of Roman history, the one whom many Christians believe to have been the Antichrist/the Beast from the Book of Revelations. Even the author mentions that Nero's Latin title, Neron Kaisar, is equivalent to 666 in gematria. So, this guy is not good news.
His presence is felt throughout the book, even when he isn't physically there. Many of the characters talk about him with a mixture of fear and reverence, calling him by his many extravagant titles including The Divine. He is often seen as a god on earth. Lady Sabina Poppaea even ponders leveraging her childhood relationship with the now-emperor to become empress herself. Apparently, Lady Poppaea knew Nero before he was an insane, murderous, genocidal sociopath, which is... interesting...
Many of the characters fear that he'll make a surprise visit or that he'll become interested in one of the slaves, whom he plans to exploit, brutalize, and eventually kill. Sporus and his fellow slave, Hylas, come to fear this as the worst of fates, doing everything in their power to avoid being purchased by or gifted to Nero. Much of the plot of this novel involves Sporus and Petronius's attempts to avoid Sporus ending up as Nero's next victim, all the while Lady Poppaea sees gifting him to Nero as her ticket to absolute power.
This book does several things very well. Aside from some formatting issues like huge spaces in random places, it's actually quite well written. It's written in an eloquent, sing-songy way similar to General Jack last season. This shouldn't come as a surprise as S.P. Somtow is highly successful musical composer, even having five compositions commissioned by the government of Thailand. In other words, Somtow is a very creative person.
There are some scenes that seem inspired by things like Ben Hur, HBO's Rome, and Kubrick's Spartacus. For example, discussions of the graffiti and vulgarity on the walls of Rome are similar to the coming to Rome scene in the HBO series. Sporus's relationship to Petronius is similar to the relationship between Ben Hur and the governor he saves from the shipwreck, although taken to a greater extreme. Croesus reminded us of Marcellus, the head of the slaves, in Spartacus--a guy who is rather brutal and rough around the edges, but someone who is ultimately just doing their job.
Another thing we liked about this book is how many of the characters serve as foils of each other. For example, Sporus and Nero are foils of one another: one has no power, the other has absolute power. One brings joy and satisfaction to others while inviting pain, the other brings misery, pain, and suffering onto others. Nero can also be contrasted with Petronius, who is also a singer and musician, but whom uses his creative works to entertain and elevate others while Nero seems more interested in using his gifts to elevate and praise himself, which is made clear during his singing in the coliseum at a time of mortal danger for the audience.
There's also Hercules, Lady Poppaea's prized cheetah, who mirrors Sporus in a lot of ways as a creature who is owned and used to bribe/bargain with. Like Sporus, Hercules is exotic, bright, and treasured as well as being quick-witted.
We also enjoyed some of the references to well-known figures in Rome such as Cicero and Seneca, the latter of whom appears in the novel.
Another thing we appreciated is that religion and culture are respected in this novel. Both Judaism and Christianity appear here and there, and whenever someone says a disparaging thing about either, it's usually to show how ignorant the person saying the remark(s) is. Nero, for example, doesn't even seem to know what the Christians are called, yet blames them for the burning of Rome, the most infamous event of Nero's reign. A character makes a remark about how the Jews only have one god and, so, seem to be at a disadvantage in his mind as he believes that Rome has many gods on its side. There's actually a very powerful and touching scene in which a bunch of Christians who are about to be executed by being fed to lions choose to sing hymns instead, causing the Roman crowd to be both inspired and confused. They also start dueling songs like that one scene from Zulu. It's actually a rather powerful scene, although it does seem rather rushed. A lot happens in rather quick succession at the end of this book, but it makes for a great, exciting, nail-biting climax.
All in all, this is a really worthwhile read, especially if you're into the period of Ancient Rome.
Check it out on Amazon!