Voice in the Wind: Pheobe’s Checklist

Voice in the Wind, pp. 111-120

Let’s see, where were we? Oh, right! Marcus just took Julia to the games. I read Mary Beard’s book on the Colosseum last weekend, by the way. At the time Rivers’ book is set, the games took place in temporary wooden structures, or in the Forum, with wooden seating set up. Looking aback at Rivers’ chapter on the games, she appears to know this—she speaks of spectators “crowding into the theater” and of “three circular walls” with “four superimposed sections.” However, she does have Marcus and Julia sitting together, which would not have happened.

Beard’s book suggests that the only women who attended the games had to sit way in the back in the same section with slaves, and that this likely prevented women of the nobility from attending at all. In describing the gladiator Celerus, Rivers writes that he “stopped before a box of richly dressed women and rolled his hips at them” as they “shrieked in lustful approval.” He then stripped.

According to Beard, the only women of status who attended and were allowed to sit in their own box were the Vestal Virgins. Would they have behaved thus? Rivers says nothing to suggest that she is describing Vestal Virgins, or anyone besides wealthy Roman women. And in fact, she writes that Arria was in the box with Antigonus, who was hosting the games, and she several times describes other wealthy Roman women.

“Marcus, look at that woman. She must have a fortune in jewelry on her! I’ll bet those bracelets weigh ten pounds each, and their set with jewels.”

“She’s a patrician’s wife.”

Rome was far more conservative than Rivers is letting on. If Beard is correct, a patrician’s wife would not have attended the games—or indeed, have been allowed to attend. Arria would not have been there, siting with Antigonus, either—and nor would Julia, or her friend Octavia.

But now we are on to the next section! We are back to Hadassah’s story.

All Jews suffered, not just those who were part of the rebellion. The half-shekel previously collected from Roman Jews for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem was now collected to finance the building of a colossal amphitheater.

Um. Almost? According to Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it has citations), this tax was now collected for the support of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, not a colossal amphitheater. (According to Beard, the Colosseum, which is likely what Rivers means by “colossal amphitheater,” was probably funded at least in part with spoils from the sack of the temple in Jerusalem.)

We’re now with Enoch. He has been watching the sale of Jewish slaves in utter helplessness. Enoch belongs to Decimus, Marcus and Julia’s father, and is sometimes tasked with buying new household slaves. However, Decimus prefers Gauls and Britons. Enoch has wanted to purchase the Jewish slaves he has seen for sale, “to save even one member of his race,” but he has been afraid to do so. On this day, he finally snapped. He bought seven of his brethren. He is afraid he overpaid.

He looked at the girl, wondering why he’d risked buying her at all. Of what possible use was she? Yet, one look in her eyes and he’d felt God’s hand on him, had heard a still, soft voice: Save this one. Enoch had purchased her without question, but now wondered and worried what his master would say. His master was expecting Gauls and Britons, and he was bringing back seven broken Jews, one a small girl with the eyes of a prophetess. Enoch prayed fervently for God’s protection.

I’ve mentioned this before—Hadassah has magic mojo surrounding her that makes everyone she comes in contact with do weird, unexpected things—things they can’t understand—because she’s a Christian, and God is guiding her life.

Enoch arrives home, still worried about his reception.

Decimus was with his wife in the peristyle, where she twirled a daisy between her graceful fingers and listened to her husband.

Likes flowers? Check.

Graceful fingers? Check.

Listening to her husband? Check.

Phoebe is truly a Good Woman.

But Decimus is not pleased.

“Jews are the most treacherous race in the Empire, and you would bring seven into my house?”

I’ve mentioned this before too—Rivers seems to be imputing more modern anti-Semitism onto the Romans rather than taking the time to learn more about what Roman views actually were at the time (read: more nuanced).

“Enoch is a Jew,” Phoebe said with a smile, “and he has served us faithfully for fifteen years.”

Smiles while talking? Check. 

“In this, he has served himself,” Decimus said, staring coldly at his overseer.

Were overseers typically also slaves? Either way, Enoch is.

Decimus is very upset. Very. The Jews Enoch has purchasedare not strong, or prepared for work on his estate.

The Roman’s wife touched her husband’s arm. “Decimus, would you fault a man for compassion?” she asked softly. “They are his people. Enoch has served us loyally. … “

Referred to as “wife”? Check.

Touches husband’s arm? Check.

Speaks softly? Check.

“By the gods,” Decimus said under his breath. He’d seen many captives from many nations, but none so pathetic as these weak, despondent, and spiritless survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Earlier a commenter mentioned that many of Rivers’ descriptions of the current situation of the survivors of Jerusalem—including the description of Hadassah’s washing before her sale as a slave—bring to mind the Holocaust. The same thing seems to be happening here. But there’s something else, too. Why are they described as despondent and spiritless? Is Rivers trying to make a point—that apart from Christ, all causes are pointless, and that having lost their bid for independence, the Jews of Jerusalem would have nothing left to live for?

It feels … off. Did Rivers read any accounts by or about the Jews who were scattered after the fall of Jerusalem? How did they respond? How did they rebuild their sense of identity, and community, without the temple, or away from Judea? In my admittedly limited understanding of the history of Judaism, a great deal of Jewish writings and interpretations came after this point—in other words, the Jews built and created and went on. Now certainly, these are individuals who have just gone through a siege, bloodshed, and a terrible journey and are about to be sold as slaves—and maybe I’m making something out of nothing. Still, it rubs wrong.

“Oh,” Phoebe said, her gentle heart touched with pity.

Gentle heart? Check.

Feels pity? Check. 

“She’s little more than Julia’s age,” Phoebe said, her attention on the young girl whose eyes were dark with suffering and a knowledge of things unspoken. “The girl, Decimus,” Phoebe said quietly. “Whatever you decide about the others, I want her.”

Again with the mojo.

He frowned slightly and looked down at his wife. “For what purpose?”

“To serve Julia.”

“Julia? She’s not suitable for Julia.”

“Trust me on this, Decimus. Please. This girl will do very well for Julia.”

Mother’s intuition? Check. 

Decimus looked at the girl again, studying her more closely and wondering what it was about her that made his wife take her after rejecting so many others. Phoebe had been searching for a made for their daughter for some time. Dozens of slave girls and been presented, but none had been what Phoebe wanted. And now, without the least hesitation, she selected an emaciated young Jewess who was ugly beyond words and probably the daughter of a murderous zealot.

It’s the mojo, I’m telling you.

Marcus and Julia come in. Marcus is disgusted when he’s told his parents have decided to keep the girl to serve Julia. And Julia? Julia is horrified.

“Oh, Mother, you can’t mean it. She’s terribly ugly. I don’t want an ugly lave to serve me!”

It is here that we learn Marcus’ suspicion that his mother has purchased this girl simply because she knows he won’t have any sexual interest in her, ugly as she is. It amuses him. (Would a Roman mother really care about that?) Marcus starts to come around, though, for a different reason: “Jewish morality didn’t amuse him, but a slave to watch over and protect his sister would be good.” I’m wondering, though—wouldn’t Julia already have such a slave? And how could a young slave girl like Hadassah, completely new to Rome and its ways, fill such a role?

“What’s your name, girl?” Phoebe said gently.

Speaks gently? Check. 

“It’s not fair, Mother. I should be able to choose my own personal maid. Octavia chose hers. She has a very exotic Ethiopian whose father was a tribal chieftain.”

Marcus laughed. “Tell fair Octavia that this one is related to Princes Berenice.”

Julia sniffed. “She would never believe it. One look at that girl and Octavia would know she couldn’t be related to the woman who captured Titus’ heart.”

“Then tell her your slave is the daughter of a high priest. Or say she was born of a wprhoetess for her unseen god and has powers to foretell the future.”

Hadassah makes use of the opportunity to take a good look at Marcus.

He was very handsome; his dark hair was cut short and curled slightly on his brow. Broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, eh was dressed in a white tunic with an intricately worked leather-and-gold belt. The leather straps of his expensive candles wove securely around strongly muscled calves. His hands were strong and beautifully made, their only adornment a gold seal ring on his first finger.

I feel like these things would be the last think that would interest Hadassah, in this moment? Anyway, she looks next at Julia, and Marcus notes that there is no “bitterness or enmity” in her glance, only “awed fascination.” “She watched Julia as though his sister was a beautiful creature never seen before.” I should probably stop guessing at what Hadassah would actually be noticing in a situation like this, the situation itself is so far beyond my ken. What’s clear as we go on is this: Hadassah has purposed to leave the past behind and to accept her new situation. She also really wants to stay with this family, because the alternative is death in the arena (Enoch purchased her and the others to save them from this fate).

Marcus upends everything by telling Julia to keep Hadassah. Julia is horrified. “She has some mysterious quality about her,” he tells her. In fact he thinks she might be good for Julia. “For all the ravages of a Judean holocaust the girl had survived, there was a sweetness in her face, a gentleness that might soothe Julia’s wild and restless spirit.” Or maybe it’s just mojo. But for all this, Marcus is still dismissive and derisive, and he has trouble keeping a straight face. Partly it seems like he thinks this is a good joke on Julia. And Marcus’ mocking gaze is affecting Hadassah, making her heart lurch, for some reason that is not explained.

“I’ll keep her,” Julia said grandly. “Come with me, girl.”

“Her name is Hadassah, Julia,” Phoebe said softly in reproof.

Speaks softly? Check.

Julia takes Hadassah off and quizzes her. Julia tells her that her father Decimus saw the temple in Jerusalem once, and that he said it was very grand and she is sorry it was destroyed. Julia is upset when she learns Hadassah can’t do hair in proper Roman style, and there is a lot of yelling involved. She finds Hadassah can tell stories, and that is some consolation. Hadassah concludes that Julia is full of herself.

Later, at dinner, we learn this:

The Valerians fascinated her with their heated discussions and obvious differences of opinion. Decimus was dogmatic and rigid, growing angry easily with his son, who agreed with him about nothing. Julia teased and provoked. Phoebe was the peacemaker. She reminded Hadassah of her own mother: quiet, unassuming, but with a strength that pulled the family together again when discussions became too heated.

Peacemaker? Check.

Quiet? Check.

Unassuming? Check.

Holds the family together? Check.

Phoebe is basically already a good Christian evangelical woman (TM).

Octavia comes over and wonders at how ugly Hadassah is. Julia says she tells good stories. “I suppose that’s something,” Octavia says, admitting that her Ethiopian “speaks only rudimentary Greek.” I’m reminded that Rivers earlier told us that Hadassah speaks with a heavy accent. What language are they meant to be speaking? Greek? If so, that would help explain why Hadassah can communicate with them—after all, I would assume she can’t speak Latin.

Octavia and Julia get to talking, and we learn we’ve missed Decimus’ announcement to Julia that she is to marry Claudius Flaccus. Julia is upset, of course, and tells Octavia as much. Octavia says it’s because Decimus “is an Ephesian and covets good Roman blood.” Apparently Octavia’s father is “distantly related to the Caesars through an illegitimate sister of one of Augustus’ offspring,” which must mean he is descended from an illegitimate child of Augustus, because we’re told that this relation means there is “a spoonful of royal blood” in Octavia’s veins.

“I don’t care anything about his royal bloodline. It makes me feel sick to even think of him touching me.” Blushing, she sundered and looked away.

“You’re such a child.” Octavia leaned forward, putting her hand over Julia’s. “Just close your eyes and it will be over in a few minutes.” She giggled.

This won’t be the last we’ll hear about this—more later.

There’s one more thing. Octavia mentions how awesome the gladiator Celerus is, and Julia says she she isn’t impressed.

“You should attend the feds the night before the games, Up close, he’s magnificent.”

According to Beard’s book about the Colosseum, there’s actually little to suggest that these public night-before-the-games feasts were routine, as Octavia’s comments here and mentions earlier suggest. Then there’s this, after Julia calls Celerus’ scars ugly:

“All those scars are what make him so exciting. Do you know how many men he has killed? Fify-seven. When he looks at me, that’s all I can think about. He’s unbearably exciting.”

Hadassah is, of course, horrified by this conversation. So am I.

According to Beard, one match in three ended in a gladiator’s death, and the average gladiator only fought in two matches per year. If Celerus has killed 57, he’s been in 171 matches. That’s eighty-five and a half years of fighting. Even if we assume (contrary to evidence) that every match Celerus has been in has ended in the death of his opponent, that’s twenty-eight and a half years of fighting. Nope. This comment of Octavia’s is born out of Rivers’ acceptance of popular mythology about gladiatorial combat, not historical reality.

We also learn that Octavia would love for Marcus to take interest in her. And Julia knows that. So when Octavia asks about Marcus, Julia responds by sharing all of his recent sexual exploits with her, presumably to torture her. Awesome sauce.

Next week, we find out about the first real encounter between Marcus and Hadassah. This week, we learned that Hadassah has mojo, Phoebe has an impressive checklist of Good Woman traits, and Rivers didn’t read Mary Beard’s book about the Colosseum. Oh, and this week Hadassah came to live with the Valerian family.

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