This contextual note was added to the final version of SILVERLEGS, but was not included in the first few ARC copies, so I thought it’d make a half-decent blog post too. Please note that the second half of this note contains spoilers, as it was published at the end of the book.
now that you’ve soldiered through 400 pages of misogynistic and homophobic drivel, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the latter in Silverlegs, which I’m aware might shock modern sensibility, or go against recent expectations in the realm of female-led fantasy.
I want to clarify that Silverlegs does not, in any manner, condone or glorify homophobia: it is meant as an exploration of the dynamics of a misogynistic and homophobic culture. Silverlegs borrows heavily from Ancient Roman culture, including its phallic obsession and exaltation of virile values. Contrary to later Christian views, Ancient Romans did not condemn homosexuality as a sinful pendant to heterosexuality, and thus a criminal deviation from God’s law. In Ancient Rome, the dichotomy lied between the active and passive partner, the penetrator versus the penetrated, the dominant versus the submissive, and, ultimately, the masculine versus the feminine.
For a Roman citizen, pederasty was no big deal, as long as he assumed the role of the active partner. The term mollis (meaning soft) that I use in Silverlegs is just one of the many ways to designate a passive gay partner, and evokes the image of a dainty, effeminate boy or man, as opposed to an ostensibly masculine one. Which brings me right back to systemic misogyny: it mattered not that a man be fiercely gay, what mattered was his good social standing, part of which was his uncontestable virility.
Here’s a famous example of how that worked: in the famous introductory line of Carmen 16, Catullus vociferates, “Pēdīcābō ego vōs et irrumābō”—I will sodomize you and face-fuck you. The words were meant as a (mock?) rape threat to Furius and Aurelius, two of his contemporaries who had the audacity to call his verses “molliculi”—meaning soft, tender, or delicate, and, by extension, effeminate. Yes, they basically called him a mollis to his face. Inflamed, Catullus publicly escalates the conflict with one of the crudest verses ever written in Latin, and a flamboyant—if not sincere—proclamation of his virile superiority. Oh, and by the way, Catullus and Furius were actually both gay, and Catullus’s lover, Juventius, even had an affair with Furius at some point.
To my modern ears, the anecdote reads like the first “U gay! / No, u gay!” ever recorded in history, and it is this toxic spirit I tried to recreate in Silverlegs: an environment infused with rampant misogyny, a two-thousand-year-old bro culture in which peer pressure reigns supreme, and one must dominate or risk being dominated.
In Silverlegs, Constanter and her companions wholly embrace this ambient machismo. Victrix, Hastius, and Vatluna have simply never known anything else, and their awkward efforts to overcome a life of prejudice shines in their acceptance of Constanter as one of their own solely on the merit of her fighting skills, even though they believe her to be a spado—a eunuch, and therefore half-a-man at best. Constanter herself grew up internalizing this strict social hierarchy dominated by free men, and in which women and molles sit above slaves, yet beneath eunuchs, whose lack of sexual role in society is equated with neutrality and reliability. To quote Clearchos to Constanter: “They’re [emperor] Manicus’s favorite aides.”
Am I saying that my main character is homophobic?
It’s complicated. Sort of.
Throughout Silverlegs, Constanter shows no active dislike of “molles”, and even takes it upon herself to avenge her friend Nerie after he is raped by another soldier. Moreover, impostor syndrome weighs too heavily on Constanter’s shoulders for her to ever comment on the perceived lack of virility of a man—she spends every waking moment aware that she is a sheep wearing a wolf’s pelt.
Constanter’s initial views on the subject of homosexuality are simplistic and matter of fact: having grown up in a rural area of the most conservative half of the Lorian empire, she’s been taught that men don’t bed men, and that “a mollis is no better than a woman.” Even so, she harbors no personal feelings toward molles, ill or otherwise; rather, she passively accepts society’s judgment that they belong in the camp of the weak, just like herself, at least until she joins Clearchos’s legion. It is then, however, as she tears apart her old self and allows Silverlegs to progressively take over her mind and body, that we see Constanter start to absorb the pervasive culture around her and allow it to change her.
Now a young man, and well on her way to become a legend, she rejects her old feminine self and, along with it, any suggestion that she might be less than a man’s man. This is why Victrix’s attempt at a kiss outrages her: the possibility that he might genuinely think her a mollis carries with it the threat of annihilating the new and stronger self she painstakingly rebuilt in the wake of her rape by Servilius. The same applies to Clearchos’s plan to pass her as a spado to avoid arousing suspicion among his men: having fought hard to reinvent herself as a man, Constanter is infuriated to be socially relegated by Clearchos’s lies.
Or I could have summed this entire wall of text to this: systemic homophobia in Silverlegs boils down to a matter of individual and social power. There’s no apology of homophobia to be found in this book, only the fictional depiction of a homophobic society, anchored in historical and contemporary reality.