James Hynes tells the story of a slave in ancient Rome with resonance and beauty in his novel Sparrow.
The Guardian wrote of the book:
“Sparrow’s voice is original and moving and the grueling work of the brothel becomes absolutely real. The wolves and their shifting relationships—by turns tender, competitive and bullying—are beautifully portrayed.”
My novel Sparrow is intended to be the first of four novels which—if I live long enough and don’t lose my nerve—will make up the fictional memoir of a Roman slave, looking back on his life as an old man living in an abandoned town in Roman Britain. In this first book, my protagonist, who now calls himself Jacob, tells the story of his earliest years as a slave in a brothel in Carthago Nova (modern-day Cartagena, Spain), where his “family” consists of the enslaved women who work as “wolves,” or prostitutes. Two of the women in particular, the wolf Euterpe and the brothel’s cook, Focaria, become my narrator’s mothers, or the closest thing he will ever know to a mother, and Sparrow is the account of how this boy and these women struggle to endure and perhaps find love and meaning in a brutally unjust world.
While the hardships and horrors of American slavery were forcefully recorded by such formerly enslaved writers as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, there are, as far as I know, no surviving first-person accounts of Roman slavery. Not only did I want to give an enslaved Roman a chance to speak of his experience in his own voice, I also wanted to evoke a period that isn’t often depicted in stories about ancient Rome, namely the end of the fourth century CE and the first half of the fifth, when Christianity was becoming the most important cultural force in the Mediterranean world and the Western Roman Empire was coming to an end. Finally, I also wanted to write what historians such as Marcus Rediker and Sarah Bond have called “history from below,” an account of ordinary life on the Roman street without the usual tropes of narratives about the ancient world—no gods, emperors, generals, senators, gladiators, or erupting volcanoes.
Doing a musical playlist for Sparrow is a bit tricky, for obvious reasons. Nobody knows for certain what Roman music sounded like, and I didn’t want to just make a list of soundtrack cuts from old sword-and-sandal epics, most of which aim for imperial and military spectacle and are thus not exactly in the spirit of my book. On the other hand, music plays quite an important part in Sparrow: because I was writing about a time when ordinary people made their own music, I felt emboldened for the first time in my career to write a few crude song lyrics and include them in the story, a la Tolkien. What follows are some folksongs that inspired the songs I wrote for the book, as well as some interesting imaginative recreations of Roman music, and, yes, a few movie soundtracks.
“I’ll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down,” recorded by Alan Lomax
One of the first lyrics I wrote for Sparrow was a song sung by workers in a Roman fullery, or laundry, who spend hours treading garments in vats of human urine, which the Romans used as a detergent (the past is another country, as the saying goes). Again, as far as I know, there are no surviving Roman work songs, so I modeled mine on American plantation songs such as this one, which like many folksongs served multiple purposes. As a practical matter, it set a rhythm for laborers working together, but it also served as a method of social control, enabling overseers and masters to locate slaves from the sound of their singing, while for the enslaved, it provided a sanctioned way to express their pain and longing.
“Charlotte the Harlot,” performed by Oscar Brand
Most of the lyrics I wrote for Sparrow were tavern songs about sex, sung by drunken punters. There is a fair amount of graphic Roman poetry about sex—by Catullus, Martial, and Ovid, for example—but there aren’t any surviving tavern songs (again, as far as I know). You can, however, find a lot of American and British tavern songs on the web. Some them are surprising: there’s one version of “My Darling Clementine,” for example, in which Clementine is a prostitute. The folksinger Oscar Brand recorded a lot of them in the 1950s, and this one comes with a trigger warning: what may have seemed as jaunty, transgressive, and bawdy to listeners 70 years ago is likely to sound violently misogynistic to a contemporary listener.
“Lyra and Cithara,” Synaulia
As I’ve said, no one knows for certain what Roman music sounded like, but that hasn’t stopped some adventurous scholars and musicians from trying to reconstruct it. In the 1990s, a group called Synaulia released two albums of their version of Roman music, one album for wind instruments and one for string instruments. The track “Etruria,” from the wind album, was featured in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, while “Lyra and Cithara,” from the string album, features two ancient string instruments in a sort of Mediterranean dueling banjos.
“Copa Surisca,” Mary Ann Tedstone Glover
A more recent reconstruction of Roman music is the 2021 album The Music of Ancient Rome by the scholar and composer Mary Ann Tedstone Glover (https://www.maryanntedstoneglover.com/). The lyric for this lively and infectious dance track comes from the Appendix Vergiliana, a ninth-century collection of poems originally, and mistakenly, attributed to Vergil. It’s about the sensual attractions of a rustic Roman tavern, in particular the tavern’s sexy dancing landlady, Surisca.
Main title theme for HBO’s Rome by Jeff Beal
The soundtracks for the Roman epics of the ’50s and ’60s tended towards the bombastic and the martial, but in recent years, film composers have made their music more sensual and mysterious. Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator has some thrillingly bombastic moments, but it also incorporates a lot of melancholy, especially through the singing of Lisa Gerrard. My favorite, though, is Jeff Beal’s rhythmic earworm theme for HBO’s series Rome, which demonstrates (I’m guessing) the influence of Synaulia in its use of Roman instruments. While the series focuses on the civil wars that ended the Roman Republic, it also devotes a fair amount of screentime to depicting life on the Roman street.
“The Skies Do Not Fall” by Dario Marinelli from his score to Agora
My favorite film about the ancient Mediterranean is Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009), a feminist, atheist, historical epic about Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the first recorded female philosophers and mathematicians in the ancient world, who was murdered in 415 CE by a Christian mob. Dario Marinelli’s moody score includes at least one track that sounds like a Synaulia outtake (“Orestes’ Offering”), but here I am including the sad but soaring music that plays over the closing credits.
“Goodbye, My Life, My Love,” by Alex North from his score to Spartacus
Spartacus, written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Stanley Kubrick from the novel by Howard Fast, is by far my favorite of the Roman epics from the 50s and 60s. A lavishly produced account of the most famous slave rebellion in Roman history, it serves up heaps of the requisite spectacle, but it’s also the most intelligent and politically sophisticated of these films, and it’s one of the few films of that era to privilege the point of view of the enslaved over the Roman elite. The soundtrack by Alex North is also one of the best of the era. The martial opening theme is simultaneously shrill, stirring, and foreboding, but my favorite track accompanies the final scene in the film, where Spartacus’s lover, Varinia, displays their infant son to Spartacus, who is dying slowly on the cross after the final defeat of the slave army by the Romans. Both the scene and the music always reduce me to tears, and I include it here because it expresses the kind of sorrow and hope against the odds that I was hoping to evoke in the final pages of Sparrow.
also at Largehearted Boy:
James Hynes is the author of Next, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Publish and Perish. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Boston Review, Mother Jones, and Salon. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught fiction writing at the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, Miami University, Grinnell College, and the University of Texas. He lives in Austin, Texas.