Voice in the Wind: The Death of Good Claudius

Voice in the Wind, pp. 201-211

This week we’re going to cover chapter 14. It begins like this:

“They think it’s my fault, ” Julia said, tears streaming down her cheeks as she lay pale on her bed. “I see the way they look at me. They blame me for Claudius’ death. I know they do. It’s not my fault, Hadassah. It isn’t, is it? I didn’t want him to come after me.” Her shoulders shook as she sobbed again.

“I know you didn’t,” Hadassah said gently, holding back her own tears as she tried to comfort her distract mistress. Julia never intended harm. She simply never thought of anyone but herself, nor did she consider what the results of her actions might be.

Holy double freaking standard batman.

The tragic morning of Claudius’ death began with Julia whining about how bored she was. She wanted to go to a private showing at a gladiatorial ludus and she needed Claudius to accompany her. Accustomed to her complaining, Claudius hardly bothered listening to her. He was deep in his studies. Julia pressed him and he refused, politely informing her he was finishing a thesis on Judaism. Julia left the study in a silent rage. She changed her clothes and ordered a chariot.

Persis, more worried about his master’s reputation than his mistress’s, informed Claudius that Julia had left the villa unescorted. Claudius was angry to be interrupted yet again because of Julia. A cup of wine calmed his nerves. he supposed in Rome it was permissible for a young married woman to go about the countryside unchaperoned, but in Campania it was not proper. Press offered to send someone after her, but Claudius said no. It was time he and Julia spoke plainly. He ordered a mount from the stables.

An hour later, his horse came home without him.

Alarmed, Persis gathered several others and went to look for his master. They found Claudius two miles from the ludus, his neck broken by a fall.

Let’s remind ourselves of what Rivers just said about Julia, from Hadassah’s perspective:

Julia never intended harm. She simply never thought of anyone but herself, nor did she consider what the results of her actions might be.

That statement applies just as much to Claudius, if not more so. Claudius married Julia without so much as asking whether she wanted to marry him. He married her because she looked like his deceased wife, who sat with him while he read about religions, and he wanted a replacement. In other words, he thought of no one to himself, and he did not consider what the results of his actions—either in marrying her or in ignoring her interests once they were married—might be.

Later in the chapter, Julia says this to Hadassah:

“I should never have married him,” Julia said one day, pale and distraught. “I should have refused no matter what Father said. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning. Claudius wasn’t happy, I wasn’t the wife he wanted. He wanted someone like his first wife who was content with studying dull scrolls.” She wept again. “It’s not my fault he’s dead. I didn’t want him to come after me.” Her tears turned to irrational rage. “It’s father’s fault. If he hadn’t insisted I marry Claudius, none of this would have happened!”

Do you know what Claudius did not do? He did not try to learn about or engage in his new wife’s interests. Marriage goes both ways. How could Claudius expect Julia to put any effort at all into learning about his studies if he ignored her interests completely, and let on that they disgusted her (he did not like gladiatorial combat)? Claudius should not have married Julia, expecting her to be the reincarnation of his wife. But once married to her, he should have shown some interest in her interests.

In any marriage today, a couple will have shared interests. Of course, that’s because they already know each other, and Claudius and Julia did not. However, in any marriage the couple will also have interests they don’t share, and in a good marriage each partner will respect that about their partner, and will sometimes engage in their partner’s interests as well—visiting a symphony with a music-loving partner even though that’s not your thing, perhaps.

Claudius would have made Julia very happy if he’d agreed to take her to the ludus once a month. Or he could have looked for shared interests—chariot racing, perhaps, or something else. If Claudius had shown the least interest in Julia’s interests, she might have been willing to sit and talk scrolls with him from time to time, asking questions about what he was studying and perhaps becoming proud of her husband’s knowledge even if his studies weren’t her thing. But Claudius did none of that. Instead, he did this:

The tragic morning of Claudius’ death began with Julia whining about how bored she was. She wanted to go to a private showing at a gladiatorial ludus and she needed Claudius to accompany her. Accustomed to her complaining, Claudius hardly bothered listening to her.

And yet it was Julia who “never thought of anyone but herself” and failed to “consider what the results of her actions might be.” I mean really, what did Claudius think would happen, bringing a fifteen-year-old girl into his household and then ignoring her completely when he realized that she was a real person and not the fantasy he had imagined her to be? What did he expect her to do—sit in abject misery month after month while he was “deep in his studies”?

When he found out that Julia had left the villa, we’re told that “Claudius was angry to be interrupted yet again because of Julia.” That was his response—not worry, concern, or remorse for ignoring her. Anger at Julia for again interrupting him.

To top it all off, Julia didn’t go to the ludus at all. She left in a chariot, alone and for some reason without even Hadassah, but her intentions were quite different.

Hadassah sat down beside her and took her hands. “Where have you been?”

“I was on my way home to Rome, and then knew it was no use. Father would just send me back. So, here I am, a prisoner again in this dreary place.”

In other words, Julia had intended to run away. That is how unhappy she was with Claudius. Here Claudius was angry at her for running off to the ludus when she wasn’t supposed to, angry at her, when in fact she had run away because she was that unhappy with him.

I do want to be fair to Hadassah, of course. We already know that Hadassah put the blame in the breakdown of Claudius’ and Julia’s relationship squarely on Julia, for not appreciating what she has, and for not trying. We also know that Hadassah believes Julia is selfish, thinking only of herself, but does not appear to apply the same standard to Claudius or, for that matter, Marcus. But, Hadassah does resist assigning all of the blame for Claudius’ death on Julia. When Marcus arrives to deal with the affairs, this exchange takes place:

“This entire tragic fiasco was created by her doing,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. He needed a long soak in the baths and a massage.

“You mustn’t think she’s to blame,” Hadassah said.

He was surprised that she defended his sister so readily. “She defied her husband and he went after her. That makes it her fault in the eyes of some.”

“She wasn’t to blame for the wine Claudius drank before he left. She wasn’t to blame that he wasn’t a good rider and fell from his horse. She wasn’t even to blame for his decision to go and find her. Each person answers for their own actions, and even then, it is God who decides.”

Hadassah thinks Julia selfish and unable to consider others. Hadassah previously urged Marcus to put pressure on Julia to try to be the good wife Claudius wanted her to be, blaming Julia for the breakdown of a marriage she never chose. However, Hadassah doesn’t blame Julia for Claudius’ death. That is at least something. Claudius drank wine (did the Romans have a concept of drunk driving?), Claudius wasn’t a good rider, Claudius chose to go after her. Note what isn’t on the list, though—Claudius chose to ignore his young wife’s interests, chose to neglect her, chose to dismiss her. In a very real sense, Claudius is to blame for Julia’s leaving that day.

I would like to see acknowledgement that Claudius played a role in the breakdown of his marriage, and in Julia’s growing misery. I don’t see it. At all. In a previous chapter Claudius admitted that he was a fool to have assumed that Julia would be a copy of his previous wife, and a fool to have married her. But what of after his marriage? What of how he acted then? No one forced him to dismiss all of Julia’s interests, or to ultimately give up on his wife and ignore her. He chose to care more about himself than he did about her.

But now let’s change the subject a bit.

During the three days between Claudius’ death and Marcus’ arrival, Julia became convinced that the slaves, loyal to Claudius, intended to kill her. Marcus, upon arrival, learned that while this was not the case, it was the case that no one went after Julia that day. After sending a party after Claudius and finding him dead, no one said boo about Julia, who ultimately returned alone, hot and dusty, hours later. Marcus is so upset by this lack of care for Julia that he considers dispersing the slaves and selling Persis as a galley slave. Hadassah begs him not to.

“No one was ever a threat to her. Not ever.”

“Neither were they a help,” he said and moved away from her.

“They loved Claudius. They love him still.”

“Where is the innocence in a slave discarding his duty, Haddassah? Julia’s appeal to send Persis to the galleys has more mercy than what I know should be done. Press should be killed for not seeing to his mistress’s safety.”

Hadassah stood with a soft gasp. “I knew that was what you were thinking,” She came close to him. “Please, Marcus, I beg of you. Don’t bring the sin of innocent blood on your head.”

This is baffling. Marcus is a slaveowner, and he visits the games regularly. He may well have ordered the death of slaves already, and he certainly has called for the death of gladiators in the arena. Besides, Marcus just stated quite strongly that that Persis is not innocent. When Marcus finally agrees not to kill or scatter the slaves, and tells Hadassah to “lay your fears at rest,” Hadassah tells him “It was you I feared for most, Marcus.” That is also a baffling statement. Hadassah feared more for Marcus, at risk of sullying himself with innocent blood, than she did for Persis and the other slaves, at risk of being executed or at the very least forever losing their families and communities?

It’s interesting to note that Hadassah has been forming relationships primarily with the members of the Valerian family, and not with her fellow slaves. She formed a relationship with Claudius, yes, but she did not befriend any of the slaves on his estate, ostensibly her new permanent home. When she lived at the Valerians’ home in Rome we read of her exchange with Sejanus, the cook, and Enoch, who arranged her purchase, but that was the extent of her interaction with the other slaves there.

Downton Abbey, a TV show set in an English manor in the 1910s and 1920s, centers on the Earl of Grantham and his family and their associates, and the family’s servants and their associates. The two groups interact, and there can be feeling between them, but their primary relationships take place within their own group. This does not appear to be the case for Hadassah, whose relationship energy is oriented toward Julia and Marcus rather than toward her fellow slaves.

At the end of this chapter Hadassah feels profoundly guilt-ridden for not having more effectively proselytized Claudius. But I have a question. Why didn’t she proselytize Claudius’ slaves? Sure, back in Rome she might have had Enoch upset with her if she had done that, Enoch who is Jewish and who arranged her purchase so that she would belong to a fair master and not be sent to the arena. But Enoch was in Rome, and would never have come to Capua. Why is Hadassah’s focus on proselytizing her masters rather than her peers?

Rivers has chosen to focus her book on a noble family. The entire story could have been about Hadassah and her fellow slaves, their masters and mistresses serving only as background figures. I suspect what’s going on here is at least in part a romance novel trope. Romance novels about princes, nobility, and wealthy landowners who take a commoner, servant, or slave as a lover, battling impediments and weaving through twists and turns, replete with potent tension and long glances? Those sell.

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