After last week’s post, several readers took issues with some of my states, arguing that Rivers’ was correct in some of her portrayals of gladiatorial life. I intended to do some more reading on gladiators before this weeks’ post, but that didn’t happen. We’re back to Marcus and Julia anyway, and hopefully I’ll get my hands on some better information before we return to Atretes again. Thanks everyone for your comments!
This week Marcus is taking Julia to the games, as he promised her earlier. He has lied to their parents, telling them that he and Julia are going to the country for the day. Julia is beyond thrilled, but Marcus is bored—Julia insisted on attending the games from start to finish, and Marcus hates the preliminaries. Marcus shows the usher his ivory passes, and the two find seats—ordinarily Marcus has a special box, we learn, but he tells Julia that that’s in use by someone else this time, and that he thought she might want to sit among the crowds on her first visit to the games.
We next learn that Marcus lied to his parents about where he was going in part because his father, Decimus, despises the games. Yet Decimus’ reasons for despising the games seems odd.
“It disgusts me to hear young women screaming for a man who is nothing more than a thief and murderer,” he had said only the other day. “Celerus struts around the arena like a cock and fights just well enough to survive. Yet they make him a god.”
In other words, it’s not the blood that appalls him so much as the gladiators’ fangirls. And Julia? She’s dying to become one of those fangirls. She constantly mentions things her friend Octavia has told her about the games, and about Celerus, who is apparently totally amazing.
Meanwhile, Marcus is thinking about an argument he’s been having with his father. Marcus wants to buy slaves to do the work on the new buildings he’s constructing, but his father wants him to hire freemen. Marcus said that freemen charge too much, but Decimus responded that “if Rome were to survive, she needed to hire her own citizens rather than import slaves from elsewhere.” I have no idea whether this argument is one that would have taken place at this time, but after the 2016 presidential election it feels strangely timeless.
But Julia is still talking about her friend Octavia.
“She gets to go to the ceremonial feast the night before the games and see all the gladiators up close.”
“Indeed,” Marcus said dryly, well aware of the fact. “Octavia does many things I wouldn’t want my sister to do.”
I’m as tired of Marcus’ patronizing attitude toward Julia as I am of the way he treats his sort-of-girlfriend Arria. A real catch, this one.
Julia clenched her hands tightly in her lap. He was trying to make her feel guilty. It was beastly of him and she wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion about Father. Not now. She was well aware she was disobeying his wishes, by why should she feel guilty? Marcus had been living for himself since he was eighteen. He didn’t bow to their father’s ridiculous sense of morality, so why should she? Father was unreasonable and dictatorial and dull. He expected her to study and prepare herself to be a proper wife, like Mama. Well, that was fine for Mama—who seemed to enjoy such a mundane life—but Julia wanted more. She wanted excitement. She wanted passion. She wanted to experience everything the world had to offer.
Wow, Julia. Speaking truth.
“Octavia said she has seen Arria at the feasts more than once.”
Marcus’ mouth curved cynically. Julia was not telling him anything he didn’t already know. “Arria does many things I wouldn’t want you to do.”
Why did everyone expect her to be different from everyone else? “Arria is beautiful and rich and she does whatever she wants to please herself. I wish I could be exactly like her.”
Marcus laughed without humor. “You are too sweet and uncomplicated to become like her.”
“I suppose you mean that as a compliment,” she said, and looked away, fuming silently. Sweet and uncomplicated! He might as well have said she was dull. No one really knew her, not even Marcus, who knew her better than anyone. To him, she was his little sister, someone meant to be spoiled and teased. Father and mother saw her through a cloud of their own expectations and spent every waking moment trying to mold her into those expectations.
We next learn that Marcus has chosen not to sit in the sponsor’s booth with Antigonus and Arria. Julia is upset. She’d wanted to meet Arria. Why did Marcus choose to sit elsewhere? Well.
He had no intention of putting his sister in the same vicinity as his lascivious friend or his own amoral mistress. He wanted Julia to enjoy herself, not to be completely corrupted after only one hot afternoon at the arena. Antigonus had already remarked once that Julia was growing into a lovely young lady, and that was enough to warn Marcus of his intentions. Julia was far too impressionable and would probably fall easy prey to an attack of Antigonus’ experience. Marcus intended to make sure Julia didn’t. She’d remain intact until she was married to a man of their father’s choosing, and then she could do as she pleased.
Oh joy. We next learn that, though Julia doesn’t know it, her father has already chosen her a husband, and will announce his selection within the month.
He had looked at his father cautiously, wondering why he was telling him about the engagement. “I’ve never given Julia free rein under any circumstances,” Marcus had said to reassure him. “She’s my sister, and I will see her reputation protected.”
“I know that, Marcus, but you and I both know that Julia has a tendency to be excitable. She could be easily corrupted. You must shield her whenever possible.”
Oh. Typical patriarchal ones. Got it.
Who is Julia going to be married off to? Funny you should ask.
“Who have you chosen for her?”
“Claudius Flaccus! A worse mate you couldn’t find!”
“I’m doing what I think best for your sister. She needs stability.”
“Flacks will bore her to death.”
“She will have children and be content.”
“By the gods, Father, do you even know your own daughter?”
Decimus stiffened, his dark eyes flashing. “You are foolish and blind where your sister is concerned. What she wants is not what is best for her. I hold you partly responsible.” Marcus turned away, aware that in his anger he might say something he’d later regret. “Marcus, see that Julia is not compromised while in your care!”
Ah, family harmony.
Marcus reflects on Flaccus for a bit, and we learn that Flaccus has “impeccable bloodlines” and “some measure of wealth and community standing” as well as “bronze-cast traditional points of view and morality.” Flaccus is quite a bit older, is an intellectual, and lost his wife to childbirth five years before this. Because Flaccus was faithful to his wife and his name “had never been linked to any other woman” since her death, Marcus concludes that he must be “either celibate or homosexual” which seems to disgust him.
Wait. Wait. The Romans had far different views on same-sex relations than we do today. They didn’t have the understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation that we do. Nor did the Greeks. It was generally more about the sexual position—provided a man was in the dominant sexual position (i.e. penetrating), whether he had relations with a woman or (typically) an adolescent male was unimportant—and men were assumed to be capable of doing both.
This isn’t to say that the Romans were universally chill about same sex relations (and I realize all of this leaves lesbian activity completely unaddressed). Roman views on sex and sexuality varied, and powerful individuals like Augustus Caesar sometimes made specific efforts to clean up things like adultery (regardless of the participants’ gender).
Anyway, suffice it to say that Rivers hasn’t done her homework, and that Marcus thinks marriage to Flaccus entirely unsuitable for someone of Julia’s temperament. The implication seems to be that Marcus wants Julia to be able to go to the games and do other things she will enjoy, to have the adventure she wants, but only once safely married to a man happy to do all of this with her, thus safeguarding her virtue and her future (and his ambition).
Who knew Julia better than he? She was like him, chafing under the restrictions of a morality that no longer existed anywhere in the empire.
And perhaps that is the central irony—that Marcus cannot see that he, too, is trying to impose a certain morality on Julia. Consider what he said to Julia about Octavia and Arria doing things he would not want to see her doing. Consider that he believes he needs to protect her reputation and keep her “intact” until marriage. Consider that Julia isn’t just mad at her parents for hemming her in with their expectations, but also with Marcus.
And consider how close Marcus comes to realizing this—and yet how far he still was. We learn that Marcus was musing on his father’s choice of Flaccus on the way to the games, and that he let Julia drive the horses because he wanted to give her at least that much freedom, before she was “locked behind the high walls” of her new home with Flaccus. Then we get this:
It was half in his mind to allow his sister any adventure she wanted, but the family honor and his own ambition wouldn’t allow it.
Marcus pretends that his own morality is oh so different from that of his father, but his devotion to “family honor” prevents him from doing anything to help his sister. He thinks he cares about Julia more than anyone else does, but his ambition keeps him from standing up for her, even in the face of a marriage he knows will dash her hopes of happiness. And yet, he fancies himself some sort of tragic heroic figure.
You tell yourself that, Marcus. Such a rebel.
Actually, it’s almost worse than that. We learn that part of the reason Marcus doesn’t want Julia meeting Antigonus is that “Antigonus would seduce Julia and marry her just to guarantee himself future access to the Valerian coffers.” This would be a problem for Marcus because, as we learn, he plans to use Antigonus for a few years to secure contracts, and then dump him. Never once does Marcus consider whether Julia would perhaps be happier with Antigonus than with Flaccus. Maybe Julia wouldn’t be happier with Antigonus given his philandering, but Marcus is too busy thinking about his own ambitions to even consider it.
I’m going to draw the curtain here, and we’ll see Julia’s reaction to the games—and the rest of what happens to her and Marcus there—next week. For the moment, I’ll just mention that I’m more disgusted with Marcus than I remember being when I first read this book in high school. I think Rivers views Marcus’ focus on protecting his sister’s purity as noble and good, but it doesn’t look like that from where I’m standing today.
Rivers’ portrayal of Julia also appears in a different light. Julia is rebellious and headstrong, she wants to experience the world rather than settling down to be a wife and mother like she’s supposed to be. Rivers is setting her up as a foil of sorts to Hadassah, who is kind and patient and humble and unassuming and obedient. Julia is going to get herself in trouble. And that seems somehow tragic, because nothing Julia is feeling right now is unreasonable.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!