Sometimes I Wish I’d Been Born a Boy in the Ancient World

Reading Mary Renault is dangerous.

Immersing myself in antiquity as brought to life by Renault’s coruscating prose stirs up a nearly unbearable longing for another world.

Renault’s protagonists are noble youths whose sense of honor is matched only by their beauty.

I want to be like them.

Lovely of form, righteous of mind, susceptible to human passions, but without meanness or cowardice or greed. They do what is right, even when circumstances would seem to render a correct choice impossible.

Bagoas, the narrator and titular character of The Persian Boy (in which I’m currently immersed as in a torrid love affair), is stolen and gelded at the age of ten, but not before witnessing his father’s brutal murder, his mother’s suicide, and the rape of his sisters. During the early years of his captivity, he must contend with the loss of his incipient manhood and his family, as well as abuse and degradation at the hands of his master’s friends. And yet, through it all, he is animated by an unrelenting pride that allows him to become the consort of kings.

He regrets that he will never be a warrior, never produce sons to continue his family line. But he recognizes that his destiny has shifted, and all that is left to him is to fulfill the duties of his station to his utmost ability.

There is something very attractive in rigidly prescribed social roles.

Sometimes the freedom of contemporary life is oppressive; the imperative to make something of oneself, to construct a suitably remarkable identity, to attain a sense of meaning and direction all one’s own, a burden.

I’m aware of my good fortune in living in this time and place. Because of material abundance and good nutrition and relative gender parity, I’m healthy and robust and well-educated and have access to pleasures unimaginable in much of the world.

And yet…


I pine for old-time values and ideals, for a grounding tradition, for an assurance of my place in an interdependent web of meaning, for a sense of honor and duty, for freedom from the crushing permissiveness of a modernity that recognizes no gods, holds nothing sacred, and offers no guidance.

I romanticize a world which, in reality, had vicissitudes and trials all its own. Even beauty and honor can’t inoculate you against suffering and death.