Trigger warning: While there is no graphic detail, this section discusses situations where women who are unable to give meaningful consent are raped.
Today we’re back with Atretes. As you may remember, Atretes was a young Germanic chieftain when he was captured by the Roman army and sent back to Italy, where he was sold to a gladiator training school in Capua. Suffice it to say, Atretes is not happy to be there. He only agreed to stop resisting and start training to fight in the arena when his trainer threatened to castrate him.
We’re also given an introduction to Julia’s married life—and it’s not a heartening one. Last week we saw Julia married to Claudius; Julia is 15 and Claudius close to 50. After the wedding, Claudius promptly took Julia back to Capua, where he has an estate. Hadassah, of course, accompanied her. Julia is unhappy in Capua—she’s bored and she misses her brother, parents, and friends.
I started reviewing this book for two reasons: First, I wanted to analyze and discuss evangelicals’ ahistorical narrative of early Christianity. Second, I wanted to examine the way Rivers approaches love, relationships, marriage, and sex, as a way to look at troubling teachings within evangelicalism in these areas. Here we get the second—but even here, what Rivers approves of, as an evangelical author, on the one hand, and what she simply presents as historically approved, on the other, can be difficult to disentangle.
Tharacus, Atretes’ trainer, is running him on a road near Capua. Tharacus is on horseback, while Atretes is on foot. They pause so Atretes can drink from Tharacus’ water pouch.
“You have attracted attention, Atretes,” Tharacus said, grinning as he nodded toward the other side of the road.
Atretes glanced across the road and saw two young women in a peach orchard. One wore a fine white linen tunic, the other a brown tunic with a paler overdress belted with a striped sash.
“She is poised like a hart ready to flee,” Tharacus mocked. “It would seem they have never seen a naked man before.” He laughed cynically. “See how the lady stares.”
Adrettes was too tired to be much affected by the rapt attention of a pretty girl or a shocked little Jewess or, for that matter, by the mockery of his lanista.
Tharacus tells Atretes that once he is in Rome he will have “women of aristocratic breeding” clamoring for his attention—“and men as well.” He speaks of jewels and bodies and tells Atretes that when he fought in the arena, there was one woman who “wanted me to touch her when my hands were still slick with the blood of a good kill” because this “drove her nearly mad with passion.” Based on what little I’ve read of historian Mary Beard (thanks to my readers for pointing me to her!), at least some of this is true—gladiators were treated like pop icons, in some sense.
However, I’m still stuck on the comment, again, about not having seen a naked body before. Julia has already seen a naked man, as we know. And Hadassah, after all the time spent among captives being taken to the slave markets of Ephesus and then Rome, surely would have as well. And besides that, Atretes is later described taking off a sweaty loincloth, so he is not in fact completely naked. He has the same amount of clothing on that Marcus did when he so disturbed Hadassah in the Valerians’ gardens some months before this.
Notice that it is Hadassah who is “poised like a hart ready to flee.” Julia, in contrast, stands and stares at Atretes. The good, godly girl is shocked at male almost-nudity even though we know she’s seen it before (with Marcus, if not before then). The brazen, worldly girl responds to male almost-nudity by refusing to look away.
Tharacus and Atretes continue on their way without saying anything to the two girls in the peach orchard. When they return to the ludus, Tharacus tells Atretes that he has done well and will be rewarded. Atretes bathes (in a facility with all the stages of a traditional Roman bathhouse) and is massaged, loosening his muscles. He eats meat and barley stew and is then locked in his cell for the night. After a while, he hears footsteps.
The iron lock gave way and the heavy plank opened. Gallup stood outside, a slave girl in front of him. She entered the cell without looking at Atretes, and Gallus locked the door behind her. Without a word, she came forward and stood before him. Tares rose from the bench, looking at her. He remembered the beautiful girl in white who had watched him from the shade of a peach tree, and felt a surge of desire and anger. He could have poured his hatred into her and relished it. But this girl was more like the little Jewish slave. When Atretes reached out to touch her, he did so without animosity.
Afterward, Atretes stood on the other side of the cell. He heard a scrape from above and knew a guard had been watching. The stain of humiliation filled his face and he had to stifle the urge to cry out. He had become little more than an animal at which to gawk.
The girl went to the door, rapped twice, and stood waiting. Atretes kept his back turned to her, less because of his own shame and more in consideration of hers. The lock scraped and the door opened, then it closed again and was relocked. The slave girl was gone. The reward Tharacus promised, given.
A deep, debilitating loneliness washed over Atretes. What if he had spoken to her? Would she have answered? She had come to him before, and he had felt the unspoken appeal to say nothing, to not even look at her face. She came to him because she was sent to serve him. He accepted in order to release the unbearable tension slavery built in him, but there was no warmth, no love, no humanity. She gave him a fleeting physical satisfaction, always followed by a drenching shame.
I quoted the above in its entirety because I think it’s worth examining. Unless I am very much mistaken, Atretes would not have been forced to couple with the slave girl sent to him. We’re told that he touched her “without animosity,” but touch her he did nonetheless—we can use the word rape, because the girl was not in a position to say no. Her ability to offer meaningful consent was compromised—and it’s fairly clear, from the above, that she wasn’t happy about being there. Note that she refused to look at Atretes, and that Atretes could tell she didn’t want him to look at her face. She was only there because she had to be.
But of course, this is written from Atretes’ perspective, not hers. Atretes rapes the girl, and then feels shame—but his shame seems related at least in part to knowing that he was watched, to feeling like a caged animal to be gawked at. Yes, the same also seems to stem from the lack of physical connection, the lack of warmth and humanity in the action—but it’s not like anyone forced him to rape the girl, or to not talk to her or create a connection.
I’m also curious about how Rivers views this interaction. Certainly, evangelicals believe that sex outside of marriage is sin, and certainly Atretes is meant to be a tragic figure, focused on getting revenge on the Romans, restless and empty inside without the truth of salvation through Jesus. Later on in this story Atretes is converted, and his passion becomes returning to Germany to share Christianity with his tribe. But I’m also not sure whether Rivers sees this interaction as rape, as opposed to seeing it as a natural extension of the sort of captivity Atretes faces.
The next day Atretes is taken to spar with Tharacus in the small exhibition arena. An African named Bato was watching. Atretes nearly killed Tharacus, who waited too long to call the guards to intervene. Bato bought him and likely paid high dollar. Bat0, we learn, serves the Emperor Vespasian. Atretes is bound for Rome.
We next turn to Julia, who has just been summoned to join Claudius in the bibliotheca. She tells the slave, Persis, who was sent to summon her that she has a headache. She does, she insists to Hadassah after the slave leaves. She really doesn’t feel well. Hadassah looks at her reprovingly.
Was she so selfish and foolish as to deny her husband the smallest courtesy?
“I’ve no desire to spend another boring evening in the bibliotheca while he talks dull philosophies. How do I know or care what Seneca thought?”
Hadassah wants Julia to behave like a proper, grateful Roman wife. A commenter suggested, a few weeks ago, that Rivers doesn’t approve of Julia’s parents marrying her off to Claudius, despite the similarity between their rhetoric in defense of this course of action, on the one hand, and evangelical rhetoric about youth and idleness and stability, on the other. But then—how flawed a character is Hadassah meant to be? She is ostensibly driven by something different than the other characters; her devotion is to the Christian God. But then there’s this:
Hadassah could only wonder what Claudius Flaccus would do when told his young wife refused to come to him on the weak excuse of a headache. In the beginning, Julia had played the joyous bride, more to impress her friends than to please her husband. once out of Rome, though, she became painfully polite. Settled in Capua, she became petulant.
Claudius Flaccus was a man of monumental patience, but Julia’s daring to bluntly refuse him might well shatter that virtue. Over the past six months, Claudius had overlooked Julia’s moodiness. However, outright disobedience and rudeness would surely gain his anger. Hadassah was afraid for her mistress. Did Roman husbands beat their wives?
She was also, quite honestly, annoyed. Was Julia so blind she couldn’t see that Claudius Flaccus was intelligent, kind, and gentle? He was a worthy husband for any young woman. Claudius did all he could to entertain Julia, introducing her to his friends, taking her on chariot rides through Campania, buying her presents. Yet, Julia gave not even meager consideration in return. Her gratitude was perfunctory, as though whatever he did was her due and his duty.
To what extent is Hadassah meant to be our stand-in? And to what extent is she meant to be a product of her time? Thus far her discussion of her faith seems very modern, very much the sort of evangelicalism that exists in the present, and not a well-researched attempt to present the beliefs of first century Christianity. Are we meant to agree with Hadassah here, or are we meant to see this as the thought process of someone born and raised in a culture very different from ours, regardless of their religion? I’m honestly not sure.
“He is kind to you, my lady,” Hadassah said, searching for a way to reason with her.
“Kind,” Julia said with a sniff. “Is it kind to press his attentions on me when I don’t want them? Is it kind to demand his rights when the mere thought of him repulses me? I don’t want to spend another evening with him.” She put her hands over her face. “I hate it when he touches me,” she said and shuddered.
We learn that Julia is not yet pregnant, but “not for lack of Claudius’ trying,” so it’s not as though Claudius is being patient and waiting until Julia warms up to him and becomes amenable to the idea of intercourse. No, good, kind, gentle Claudius is requiring sex of his fifteen-year-old wife regardless of her feelings toward it (and given that this is Julia, I can’t imagine that would not know her feelings).
Hadassah is embarrassed at Julia’s frank talk of sex—Julia suggests that “Claudius’ seed has probably gone bad”—and Julia turns the conversation to the gladiator they saw on the road, who “made me quiver inside” and feel “as though I was on fire.” Needless dos ay, this conversation does not make Hadassah feel any more at ease.
Julia sends Hadassah to make sure Claudius knows she really does have a headache—“Just thinking about Claudius gives me a headache”—because she’s suddenly concerned that he may be upset. “It wasn’t proper for a wife to refuse a husband anything,” she remembers, thinking of her mother. She realizes she’s “never seen Claudius angry” and starts to worry about what that might be like. Hadassah’s visit to Claudius gives Rivers the opportunity to give us a glimpse of Claudius’ perspective on how things are going.
Claudius, we learn, married Julia because he thought she was a reincarnation of his late wife, Helena. Julia, it seems, looked just like her—but her only resemblance, Claudius had found, was physical.
Helena had been quiet, pensive, tender, satisfied to sit with him in this room by the hour. They talked of everything—the arts, the gods, philosophy, politics. Even the mundane, everyday matters of what he had said to their overseer had interested Helena. Julia was constant motion and scarcely-contained energy.
Claudius has realized that he will have to pay for his mistake for the rest of his life. He’s stuck with Julia, and already entertaining her has become “tedious.” All Julia wants to do is visit that accursed gladiator training school, which Claudius considers “barbarous.”
Perhaps he expected too much of her. She was young and inexperienced. She had a quick mind, but her interests were far too narrow. His Helena had been cerebral; Julia was physical. While he took some pleasure in Julia’s lovely young body, the pleasure was growing briefer, the aftermath more disheartening. With Helena, he had shared passion and tenderness. Sometimes they even laughed and talked until they slept. Julia suffered his possession in martyred silence. He never remained in her chamber longer than necessary.
Lovely. Another man who rapes an uninterested woman with a compromised ability to consent and afterwards feels disquieted. Poor guys! Have they ever thought about not raping uninterested women with a compromised ability to consent? Like seriously, I’m supposed to feel sorry for this dude? Oh noes! The fifteen-year-old girl you married against her will and regularly rape doesn’t want to sit and talk philosophy with you! How hard life must be!
One last thing before the chapter ends—Claudius comes upon Julia and Hadassah in the gardens one day and learns that Hadassah tells Julia stories from her religion. Claudius is undergoing a study of comparative religions, and jumps at the chance to hear more about the Jewish religion first-hand. So the next time Claudius sends for Julia, Julia sends Hadassah in her place. How handy for Julia—problem solved!
Before reading this chapter, I hadn’t really thought about how complicated it must be to write an accurate historical novel that includes sex. What sex means—how we approach it, what role it plays—has changed over time and across place and society. Oh certainly, there has always been rape. Still, understanding the role sex played in a given society, and the way people would react to various things, requires some amount of research.
Part of me is tempted to believe some such research has taken place. I find both Atretes’ and Claudius’ justification of their actions believable. Claudius is vaguely disquieted by what he is doing, but he doesn’t question his right to take what he wants from Julia’s body, or her duty to give it to him. Atretes, too, is disquieted, but he responds to his discomfort by raping the slave girl sent to him without animosity, rather than taking his frustrations out on her. Neither questions the underlying structures that put them (and their victims) in this position.
For me, though, this is undercut by Rivers’ portrayal of Julia. Rivers treats Julia not as a victim of rape but as a spoiled child. At one point Julia explains her repulsion to Claudius’ touch by stating that “his flesh is pale as death.” Reading this book from an evangelical perspective, this suggests and unjustified worldly concern with physical beauty, especially when Julia later discusses Atretes’ bronzed, muscular body in glowing terms. Rather than a teenage girl subject to rape at the hands of a husband she was forced to marry against her will, we are presented with an ungrateful, selfish young woman who is so focused on the sexually charged excitement of muscular gladiators that she is blind to (and ungrateful for) the attentions of the kind, gentle husband she is lucky to have.
I could imagine a novel set in this same period that explores the reactions of rape victims like Julia in ways that are believable, nuanced, and interesting rather than judgmental. Such a novel would humanize characters like the slave girl sent to Atretes, giving her a name and a backstory, so that we do not focus solely on Atretes’ side of the interaction. Such a story would be complicated and at times extremely difficult to read, but it would capture more realistically the realities within which people had to live and the mechanisms they used to navigate and cope with circumstances we can only imagine.
This is not that novel.
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!