When we left off last week, Marcus’ father, Decimus, was a trying to convince him to go into politics. Marcus demurred, because Marcus was more interested in building up his father’s business empire. Good job, Marcus!
Of course, the conversation isn’t over. Marcus ultimately convinces his father to approach his friend about Antigonus—wait wait. I just realized that Marcus is actually encouraging his father to buy a senator. See Marcus’ friend Antigonus is, unlike him, interested in politics, but he’s bankrupting himself doing so—such is the price of “courting the mob.” So Marcus suggests that his father buy Antigonus.
“You’ll find Antigonus a most grateful fellow. We discussed building contracts at some length before I came home this evening. He was very agreeable.”
Decimus accepts this proposal. Bad job, Marcus.
But there’s also more character development here. When Julia finds out her father is trying to talk Marcus into going into politics, she is surprised but also really excited—she urges her brother to do it, and tells him he would make “a most beautiful senator.”
“Beautiful? That is a description better placed upon fair Scorpus,” he said, referring t a wealthy merchant who had come from Ephesus to do business with their father. Julia had been quite impressed with his dark eyes and swarthy skin.
“Is it true that he has a catamite?”
“Julia!” Phoebe said, shocked to hear her young daughter speak of such things.
Julia grimaced. “I apologize, Mama.”
“Where do you hear such things?”
“Father was telling Marcus he didn’t trust a man with a catamite, and Marcus said—”
“How long were you standing outside the bibliotheca?” Marcus broke in quickly, silencing her before she could chatter on. He was irritated, both because she had eavesdropped on his conversation with his father in the library and because she had embarrassed her mother, who was clearly shocked by such free talking. Julia knew more of the world at fourteen than their mother did at forty-four. Perhaps because their mother didn’t want to know.
I’m going to spoil a plot point here for you—Julia goes down to ruin. I’m spoiling it because I think it’s worth addressing how Rivers’ portrays the beginnings of this descent. What is it about Julia that is going to lead her to ruin? She eavesdrops. That’s bad. But that’s not really the root of it. The root of it is that she’s curious. She wonders about the world—and that is a bad thing. Better to be like her mother, who did not know such things because she “didn’t want to know.” Curiosity—curiosity is dangerous.
The family is eating a meal together now, served under the administration of a Parthian slave, in the triclinium. Two Greek slaves are playing music—one a panpipe, the other a lyre—and an Egyptian slave girl refills the families goblets with wine. They eat roasted pork, Syrian grapes, and Persian peaches. Marcus and his father are talking business now—the cedar in Lebanon is becoming scarce, so they’re going to switch to importing timber from Greece—not Gaul, because of the unrest. The meal draws to an end.
The Parthian signaled the Egyptian girl to bring in the small bowls of warm scented water. As she leaned over to set a bowl before Marcus, she raised her eyes to his, a clear message in them. Smiling slightly, Marcus dipped his hands into his bowl, rinsing his fingers of meat and fruit juices. He took the towel the girl offered him and let his gaze drift over as she stood waiting for his command.
“That will be all, Bithia,” Phoebe said gently, dismissing the girl. The young Egyptian was not the first slave in the Valerian household to fall in love with her son, Phoebe knew. Marcus was handsome and well built, exuding vitality. His morals were not what Phoebe wished them to be; they were, in fact, generally in opposition to all she had taught him at her knee. If a beautiful young woman was willing, Marcus was only too ready to oblige. Well, there were already far too many willing young Roman women in Marcus’ social circle for him to take unsuitable advantage of an enamored Egyptian slave in their own home.
His mother’s disapproval amused Marcus, but he honored her silent plea. He tossed the hand towel on the table and stood. “I’ll go tell Antigonus of your decision, Father. He’ll be very relieved. And I think you.”
By the way, Antigonus is a Greek name. Why a Roman senator and nobleman would have a Greek name I am honestly not sure. Perhaps my readers may have ideas.
Regardless, I am fascinated by Rivers’ use of the term “unsuitable advantage” in this context. After emphasizing that Marcus only has sex with women who are willing—presumably because she wants the character to be morally ambiguous but not evil—she appears to acknowledge that a woman being willing is not sufficient—that the power differentials between a master and a slave create a situation where having sex even with a “willing” and “enamored” slave would be taking “unsuitable advantage.” This is something so regularly ignored in many evangelical circles that I am genuinely heartened to find it here.
When Julia jumps up to talk to Marcus before he leaves, Phoebe muses about her children.
It had always pleased Phoebe to see how devoted Julia was to her older brother, and how deep was his affection for his young sister. There was an eight-year age difference between the two, her other two children between having been lost in infancy.
However, lately, their closeness had worried Phoebe. Julia was high-spirited and passionate, a nature easily corrupted. And Marcus had developed into an outspoke epicurean. He saw little purpose in life other than to make money and take every pleasure he could from it. She supposed she couldn’t blame the young men and women who embraced this philosophy, for over the past few years, turmoil and bloodshed had taken so many. Life was uncertain. Yet, she was bothered by such attitudes.
What had happened to decency? What had happened to purity and faithfulness? Life was more than pleasure. It was duty and honor. It was building a family. It was caring for others who hadn’t the means to care for themselves.
Epicureanism, in a strict sense, the philosophy taught by Epicurus (341–270 bce). In a broad sense, it is a system of ethics embracing every conception or form of life that can be traced to the principles of his philosophy. In ancient polemics, as often since, the term was employed with an even more generic (and clearly erroneous) meaning as the equivalent of hedonism, the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the chief good. In popular parlance, Epicureanism thus means devotion to pleasure, comfort, and high living, with a certain nicety of style.
It has been well over a decade since I first read this book. What’s striking, rereading it, is the extent to which Phoebe, and to a lesser extent Decimus, are portrayed as good, upstanding, moral, selfless people. Phoebe cares about decency, purity, and faithfulness, duty and honor. Decimus cares about Rome, and about bettering the world and building something meaningful that will outlast you. There’s an interesting tension within evangelicalism in the way non-evangelicals are viewed and discussed at play here.
Non-believers are generally portrayed as unhappy, lost, and—well—aimless, drifting through life without the meaning or purpose Christ provides. They’re frequently portrayed, well, the way Marcus and Julia are portrayed—they don’t have moral guidelines and serve only their own pleasure. But what about individuals like Decimus and Phoebe? There is room, within evangelical thought, for non-believers who are trying to get things right—but these individuals are still bound for hell if they do not convert to Christianity, and they’re still missing a vital unifying something.
Within Christian fiction, individuals like Decimus and Phoebe are also natural converts. They’re often viewed almost as halfway there already—they just need to understand that the values they hold are actually rooted in Christianity.
Anyway, back to the book. When Phoebe suggests to Decimus that Marcus should be married, and worries that “His life is becoming so aimless,” Decimus says:
“Not aimless, my love. Self-centered. Indulgent.” Decimus rose, drawing his wife up with him. “He’s like so many of his young aristocratic friends. He considers life a great hunt; every experience prey to be devoured. There is little thought these days of what is good for Rome.”
The two walk into the peristyle, an indoor columned open-air garden, still musing. When Phoebe suggests that Marcus’ desire to build new Roman houses and tenements might be a worthy one—she’s trying to curb some of Decimus’ obvious worry—Decimus deflects the point and engages in some silent musing, keeping his thoughts to himself.
Marcus had no altruistic reasons for wanting to rebuild Roman houses. His only motivation was to increase Valerian wealth. One cannot rape life without the means to do so, and money was what gave one those means.
I am seriously uncomfortable with this phrasing.
Anyway, there’s lots more musing as Decimus worries that it was he himself who sent Marcus down this troubling path. We learn that Decimus “had begun in Ephesus, part owner of one small ship” and “now he made his home in Rome, overseer of an entire merchant fleet.” Is this a suggestion that the family is of plebeian origins? They certainly aren’t being presented as such. Perhaps they started out as nobility fallen on hard times, and Decimus had gone to Ephesus to make his fortune? Hopefully this will be filled in later.
We get another example, here, of Decimus’ good character. Rivers tells us that Marcus wanted to begin doing trade in sand rather than in grain, because sand was needed for the arenas and was, Marcus argued, more lucrative. Decimus argued that the money was in grain, because need outweighed want, and that shipping grain was the right thing to do—“There are hundreds craving and in need of food. We must think of what is best for our people.” It wasn’t just this—Decimus was profoundly uncomfortable with the games. Still, he agreed to use two ships for a test—and it was the sand, and not the grain, that was unloaded and paid for first. Marcus won the right to six ships, which he had turned to shipping sand.
Decimus doesn’t like the violence of the games, or the corruption of politics, or the pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth. He wants more than that—and what he’s actually yearning for, what he’s missing, is Christ. At least, that is what an evangelical would say. Without Christ, even those who almost get it and who try to lead moral lives and live for something greater then themselves are still missing something.
The scene now turns to Julia, who has followed Marcus out and is begging him to take her to the games. She begs, and says he promised her, and says she’ll “simply die” if she doesn’t get to go. “It’s so humiliating to be the only one of my friends who hasn’t seen a gladiatorial contest,” she tells him. All of this seems par for the course for a child of fourteen. There’s also some discussion of Arria, who is 17 and Marcus’ girlfriend, though he is losing interest. It seems Arria gets to go to the games, which Julia finds most unfair. This banter actually reads as fairly realistic.
Just FYI, throughout this conversation, Rivers uses the term “theater” as though it is synonymous with “gladiatorial contest,” which is really confusing. You need to know that to understand the first line of this disturbing passage:
“If you don’t take me to the theater, I’ll tell Mother what I heard about you and Patrobus’ wife.”
Stunned, he could only laugh. “You didn’t overhear that in this house,” he said. “One of your foul little friends, I’ll wager.” He swung her around and laid a firm slap on her backside. She let out a yelp of pain and kerned free, her dark eyes flashing with fury.
He grinned down at her. “If I do agree to take you . . . ” Julia calmed instantly at this capitulation, her pretty face blooming with a triumphant smile. “I said if, you little witch. If I agree, it won’t be because you threaten to repeat rumors about a senator’s wife!”
What in the hell was that?! Was that supposed to be sexual? Or was he pantomiming giving her a spanking? Either way, it’s entirely too creepy for me.
Ultimately their conversation ends with Marcus planning to take Julia with him the next time Antigonus hosts the games, Julia showering him with pronouncements of her love, and Marcus affectionately pointing fun at her need to always get her way.
In some ways this setup is no different from so many works of fiction, Christian or not. You have the well-meaning, stable, “good” parents and you have the aimless, pleasure-seeking, “wild” children. The parents are wringing their hands and wondering where they went wrong, and the children are busy sowing their wild oats (or getting ready t0). But this is a work of Christian fiction, and Rivers is about to throw Hadassah into the mix and see what happens. How will a young Christian slave girl change this family?
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