What Did the Ancient Romans Do When They Weren’t Killing People? Answer: They Read Science Fiction.

Oh, come on. How can I be serious?

RG Cameron January 10 Illo #1 'Golden Ass Cover'

First of all, Roman civilization itself can be viewed as a bizarre alternate history (or spoof, or satire) of our own civilization. For instance:

There was the Roman senator who was so thoroughly disgusted with the corruption of his peers that, upon meeting them on the street, he’d stride right up and slap them hard in the face. Being a senator he was relatively immune from prosecution (that would make the other senators look bad) so they passed a generic law fining anyone who slapped a senator a gold coin for each incident. From then on the face-slapping senator marched around in the company of a slave hauling a bag of gold coins. He didn’t care. He was rich. He could afford his little hobby.

Then there was the young lawyer who pleaded his first case in a see-through toga (very fine diaphanous material of some sort) with nothing on underneath. The judges were so outraged they ordered him to plead his case naked since that would constitute a more ‘honest’ presentation.

You can’t make this stuff up. However, note that their ‘eccentric’ actions read like a spoof of a not uncommon modern phenomenon, namely seeking notoriety through idiotic words and deeds which, in today’s crazy political environment, tend to translate into popular public support. Budding politicians would do well to study Roman history for further inspiration…

Then there were the novels the idle rich were fond of reading. We know they existed despite little more than fragments having survived into modern times, and since writing anything scandalous was a good way to come to public notice and repute (bad poetry, lousy plays, etc.) there’s a strong likelihood novels were published in some numbers and variety, albeit unrecorded and now lost.

The only complete example of a Roman novel we have is THE GOLDEN ASS by Lucius Apuleius, and yes, it is indeed novel length, the translation by Robert Graves being 198 pages long. In the novel the author gives an account of the period in his life when he was transformed into an Ass. Chapter headings include “At the Stud-Farm” and “With the Eunuch Priests.” A lot of fun to read, I tell you.

What’s that you say? It’s only Fantasy? Not Science Fiction?

How about the assorted surviving fragments of THE SATYRICON? Written to amuse the Emperor Nero by a (temporary) buddy of his, Gaius Petronius, it was later turned into a very sfnal (not to say surreal) movie by Fellini. (You know, I do believe Petronius’ heirs never received so much as a gold coin from the proceeds, but then, after 1,900 years the property may have wandered into the public domain… maybe… more research required).

RG Cameron January 10 Illo #2 'Satyricon cover'

Ahh, you admit THE SATYRICON is weird and whacko to be sure, but not what you would call Science Fiction?

How about a trip to the Moon? With side trips to Venus and the surface of the Sun? Sfnal enough for you?

I speak, of course, of THE TRUE HISTORY by Lucian of Samosata, written sometime in the second century. It’s more of a short story, of course, being only 46 pages long, but is very much a travel-adventure SF tale like those of the later (much later) Jules Verne.

Lucian quite the humourist. He wrote a number of amusing satires with titles like “Some Awkward Questions for Zeus” and “Philosophies Going Cheap.” Then there was his “Alexander or the Bogus Oracle” in which he exposed the famed Prophet Alexander and his talking snake Glycon, wildly popular with the Roman elite, to be utter fakery. (Glycon actually a hand puppet, believe it or not. A number of marble sculptures of the stupid thing still exist by the way.) Lucian even wrote the original story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (and did Disney give his heirs royalties? NO!) But mostly, among fen at least, he’s famous for THE TRUE HISTORY which is often cited as the first ‘genuine’ science fiction.

The Romans, incidentally, were perfectly aware the world was a globe and that the planets were other worlds. Their captive Greek slaves (of superior education and intellect, but nevertheless slaves, a fact Romans found endlessly amusing) had proven this to them with mathematics, careful observation of natural phenomenon and by other eccentric habits of intellect which the Romans found hilarious. Fun guys, the Romans.

But not idiots. Which is why Lucian is at great pains to point out that although “hundreds” of liars had written false accounts of ludicrous travels (he cites Homer as an example) which nevertheless purported to be true, he would do things differently, saying:

I have no intention whatever of telling the truth…So mind you do not believe a word I say.”

And then, to those modern skeptics who believe the ancients never thought about such things, Lucian opens his tale with a startling paragraph:

I once set sail from the Pillars of Hercules with a brisk wind behind me and steered westward into the Atlantic. My reason for doing so? Mere curiosity. I just felt I needed a change, and wanted to find out what happened on the other side of the Ocean, and what sort of people lived there.”

RG Cameron January 10 Illo #3 'Ship's stern'

He and his crew (52 men in all) must have had a lot of food stored on board, for they were at sea for 80 days before they sighted an island featuring the sort of adventures often seen in the Italian sandal-flapper movies of the 1950s/1960s. They find, nailed to a tree, a plaque reading “Hercules and Dionysius made it this far,” and shortly thereafter, “a couple of footprints… one about 100 feet long, the other… about 99.”

Lucian comments dryly “Presumably Hercules has somewhat larger feet than Dionysus.”

But enough with fantasy elements. Let’s get to the pure SF.

On leaving the island a terrible storm lifts Lucian’s ship “approximately 1,800,000 feet” into the air where a fierce wind drives them scudding through the sky.

On the eighth day we sighted what looked like a big island hanging in mid air, white and round and brilliantly illuminated, so we steered towards it, dropped anchor, and disembarked.” Thus Lucian lands on the Moon. One could wish for more details about the actual landing.

Looking ‘down’ from the Moon “…we could see a place full of towns and rivers and seas and forests and mountains, which we took to be the Earth.” One has the impression, those details being easily visible, that the Moon was not very far from the Earth.

Hauled before the King of the Moon, who turns out to be Endymion, an Athenian Greek who came to the Moon in a dream, Lucian and his crew are invited to join a war against Phaethon, the King of the Sun. The war is being fought over Lucifer (i.e. the planet Venus) which Endymion wants to colonize.

Here’s where Lucian proves himself to be an inspiration to makers of low budget SF films:

There are… large numbers of spiders on the moon, each considerably larger than the average island… and their services were requisitioned to construct a continuous cobweb between the Moon and Lucifer.”

Nice to see the giant spiders in ‘Cat-Women of the Moon’ (1953) and ‘Missile to the Moon’ (1958) are based on classical tradition!

Over this cobweb swarm 60 million infantry riding on critters like fleas “twelve times the size of elephants” and ants “up to two hundred feet long.” Mercenaries from other stars are involved, including 10,000 “Mushroom Commandos… who used mushrooms as shields and asparagus stalks as spears…”

Unfortunately Phaethon unleashes mercenaries of his own, namely the Cloud-Centaurs, “…a most astonishing sight, for they were a cross between winged horses and human beings. The human part was about as big as the Colossus at Rhodes, and the horse-part was roughly the size of a large merchant-ship.” Lucian then refuses to reveal the number of them for fear he might not be believed.

RG Cameron January 10 Illo #4 'Merchant ship'

The war grinds to a draw and a treaty is drawn up allowing Andymion to establish a colony on Lucifer (Venus) in exchange for an annual tribute of ‘ten thousand bottles of dew” which is what all good aliens prefer to drink. Now that the war is over, Lucian spends a number of weeks observing “the odd things I noticed during my stay on the Moon.”

For instance:

They make olive oil out of onions, and the resulting fluid is extremely rich and has a very delicate perfume.” No doubt.


They have any number of vines, which produce not wine but water, for the grapes are made of ice; and there, in my view, you have the scientific explanation of hail storms, which occur whenever the wind is strong enough to blow the fruit off those vines.” Here you see what pains Lucian goes through to lend credibility to his tale.

We also learn that the inhabitants of the Moon grow beards down to their knees, use their stomachs for handbags, wear clothes made of flexible glass (sounds like something out of an early issue of Amazing), and possess detachable eyes (inspiration for the hand-eye creature in del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’?).

More resonant with Lucian’s contemporary readership:

“…they have never even heard of women up there, the men just marry other men, and these other men have the babies. The system is that up to the age of twenty-five one acts as a wife, and from then on as a husband.”

Given the predilections of the ancients, this is nothing less than a utopia being described, an ideal state. (Lucian did inspire Sir Thomas More’s UTOPIA, but not because of this particular passage.)

As for how the babies are conceived, let’s just say the Moon people’s method is something you’ve never thought of, or anyone else since Lucian for that matter. Not obscene, just bizarre.

And for those of you who assume the humour in classic literature was always incredibly sophisticated and witty:

It is not uncommon… to have artificial private parts, which apparently work quite well. If you are rich, you have them made of ivory, but the poorer classes have to rub along with wooden ones…”

This ‘indecent’ sort of humour is often found in casual Roman literature. It derives from a centuries-old tradition of theatrical farce. I consider this particular joke somewhat sfnal, what with dealing with artificial organs…

Next Lucian and his crew explore the universe, for instance discovering a planet near the Pleiades inhabited by intelligent lamps:

“… most of them pretty dim, but there were one or two of immense power and brilliance, who were clearly the leading lights of their community,” before returning to Earth.

All of the above takes place in just the first 15 pages. The remaining two/thirds of the tale are devoted to adventures experienced while sailing further across the Atlantic ocean, such as being swallowed by a whale 170 miles in length (within which live rather annoying crab people – the inspiration for that ‘South Park’ episode?), and visits to places like the Island of the Blest, the Islands of the Damned, and the Island of Dreams.

He ends THE TRUE HISTORY with:

We finally landed on the continent at the other side of the world; and what happened to us there, I will tell you in another book.”

And of course he never wrote it. Arrrgh!

I urge you to pick up Lucian’s collected SATIRICAL SKETCHES (which includes THE TRUE HISTORY) published by Penguin Classics. One of the most entertaining SF&F books you will ever read.

RG Cameron January 10 Illo #5 'Satirical Sketches cover'

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