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Literature / Household Gods

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Household Gods is a 1999 book by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr in which a late 20th century American woman finds herself transported back into the 2nd century Roman Empire due to an ill-advised wish.

Nicole Gunther-Perrin is a young lawyer in Los Angeles, California, USA. She's proud of her skills, but beaten down by her wearying existence trying to climb in the legal profession while also juggling taking care of her two children. Nicole's struggling to break through the firm's glass ceiling where she works, and pry child support payments from her ex-husband (who's traded up for a younger woman, much to Nicole's annoyance). When especially frustrated, she wishes for a life in ancient Rome to her statues of the Roman gods Liber and Libera, giving them a wine offering but naturally not expecting anything.

The next day though Nicole wakes up in the body of female Roman tavern keeper Umma, living in the city Carnantum on the Imperial frontier (now modern Vienna, Austria). Abruptly stuck in an alien past, Nicole is forced to live out this new life and hope for some way of getting home.


  • An Aesop: Don't long for the past (it had its problems too, probably ones you've got no idea about). Face your problems now, and appreciate the good you have.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Nicole wistfully wishes for a better life in ancient Rome, and to her horror the gods she entreated are quite real, granting her wish.
  • Culturally Religious: Nicole was raised a Catholic. Though she's lapsed, the contempt Roman pagans have toward Christians even so strikes hard given her background.
  • Dated History: Though Turtledove generally is known for accurate research and is himself a professional historian, he still makes an error in the book by portraying ancient Romans using alcohol over water as the latter isn't safe. This is a myth, however, as water from springs or wells was safe mostly. In fairness, it's a myth that even many historians have repeated. Really alcohol is not much safer, and they would boil water if necessary to decontaminate it.
  • Death by Childbirth: A Roman mother Nicole meets dies in childbirth, due to a complication the physician unwittingly makes worse through infecting her during his examination. Nicole can only watch helplessly, and much of the tragedy is due to the fact it's caused by his ignorance (though he's a good physician by the standards then-it's just no one knew any better).
  • Death of a Child: Aurelia dies from the pestilence, and so does the baby of a woman whom Umma knows in childbirth. It's shown this is a sadly common occurrence among ancient Romans.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Almost the entire point of the book is to show case how the late Romans really lived, and just how alien the ideas they held were to modern people (in this case the American protagonist). Nicole is very shocked by how much filth there is, casual cruelty, disdain toward Christians, violence and of course rampant slavery.
  • Disappeared Dad: Nicole's ex-husband Frank is a deadbeat who's habitually late with child support payments and often doesn't use his time with their kids at all. Once she's sent into the past, he's forced to care for them full time, and is quite unhappy with it.
  • The Dung Ages: The book highlights how much this was the case in the late Roman Empire. It's mostly because of ignorance or simply inability to do anything else however. How do you keep the flies or lice away with no screens or shampoo, for instance? Nonetheless, it's hard on the protagonist, who's a time traveler from the US in the late 90s. They still do bathe frequently, but it doesn't help much since the grime quickly sets in again, bath water is rarely ever changed, and sick people go too.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Nicole, a modern woman from the late 20th century, is sent back to the 2nd century Roman Empire. She knows very little of how things are done (hence her over-romanticized view about ancient Rome, which prompted the wish to begin with) and struggles mightily with adapting. The people around often think there's something off with her as a result.
  • The Fundamentalist: Nicole, a lapsed Catholic, is upset by how anti-Christian the pagans she meets are. After meeting a Christian however, his fanatical zeal disturbs her and Nicole pretends to not understand his coded words testing if she's a believer too.
  • The Good King: Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as a compassionate, generous and reasonable man, who deliberately refrains from indulgences while treating even a common citizen like Umma/Nicole respectfully as he's an ardent Stoic. Truth in Television: the real man was famous for his integrity, being called the "last good Emperor".
  • Grew a Spine: As a result of her experience in the past as Umma, Nicole stands up for herself more, pushing to get the job she deserves and her ex-husband's delinquent child support.
  • Idiot Hero: A problem with the story is that Nicole's really naive about life in ancient Rome. You don't expect random Americans to be experts on it, but Nicole's shocked even by the fact that they have slavery, which is very much common knowledge (as many films such as Spartacus have portrayed it). Nicole's ignorance and incurious nature will likely make many be very annoyed with her, even if they'd enjoy this otherwise for portraying the late Roman Empire so well.
  • Karma Houdini: Nicole's rapist in Carnantum simply disappears, never identified let alone punished.
  • Mental Time Travel: Nicole is sent into the body of her ancestor, Roman woman Umma, in the 2nd century. Her body meanwhile is in a coma the whole time.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Umma's daughter succumbs from the pestilence.
  • The Plague: A pestilence sweeps through Carnantum near the end of the book, killing thousands. This includes Aurelia, Julia and Titus.
  • Rape as Drama: When the Roman army liberates Carnantum from the Germans, Nicole is overjoyed at first. Then a legionary rapes her, despite the fact she (appears to be) a Roman citizen, and runs off.
  • Really Gets Around: Julia is quite promiscuous, saying she just loves to have sex and it's the best pastime. In fact, it turns out Umma utilized this by having Julie charge for sex, with her taking the money (Julia's happy to) but Nicole stops that, not liking the idea of being a pimp.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Nicole petitions Emperor Marcus Aurelius to receive compensation for her rape (she's a lawyer, or was back in the modern US) because the rapist was a Roman legionary. However, the Romans' law lacks vicarious liability (the concept that superiors are generally responsible for their inferiors' bad acts) and since he wasn't acting on orders by the government, they're not accountable. Aurelius gives her compensation himself, feeling Nicole deserves it whatever the law says.
  • Shown Their Work: Tarr and Turtledove researched life in the 2nd century Roman Empire, with many, many details given of daily life then. It's the best feature of the book to some people.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Nicole is horrified by slavery, and even moreso to find she's living in the body of her female slave owner ancestor, whereas for Romans it's completely innocuous. No one else gets why she's suddenly dead-set on manumitting Umma's slave (not even the slave, Julia, herself).
  • Slave Liberation: Nicole frees Umma's slave Julia upon becoming Umma the first chance she gets, since as a modern woman she finds slavery utterly abhorrent.
  • Time Travel: Nicole, a modern woman, is sent back in time into the 2nd century Roman Empire as a result of her foolhardy wish.
  • Toilet Humor: Nicole experiences culture shock in the ladies' room at the bathhouse, where the toilet seats are completely unpartitioned, and all the women and girls relieve themselves in full view of everybody else.
  • Trapped in the Past: Nicole is sent into the body of her ancestor, a 2nd century Roman woman, and finds herself stuck without a way to get back.
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: The book plays with this trope. The protagonist, a female lawyer who lives in modern LA (c. the late 90s when the book came out) wishes for something else than her difficult life juggling a career and family, praying to a statue of two Roman gods she bought, thinking it was better in the era they came from. When her prayer is then granted, and she's woken up in the body of a female Roman tavern owner in the 2nd century AD, it turns out to be quite unpleasant in many ways. She's disgusted by the lack of hygiene, slavery and the Romans' attitudes toward many issues. Then things become worse. Ultimately it boils down to finding appreciation for what she has in her own time.