This week we meet Calabah, who becomes a critical figure throughout the rest of this book and into the next. I couldn’t get a grip on Calabah’s motivations in this section, and I couldn’t remember her motivations from the last time I read this book, as a teen a dozen years ago. So this week I took the time to read through the rest of the book, and—it didn’t help. Calabah’s motivations are as much a mystery to me now as they were before the full reread.
Rivers portrays Julia as selfish and hedonistic, but also as corrupted by others. From this point on out, almost no decision Julia will make is actually her own—essentially every decision is orchestrated by Calabah, and generally for reasons that make no sense at all. What is the message, here? Is it that we don’t truly make our own decisions, even if we think we are free and independent of authority, because we are always under the influence of someone? Or was Rivers unable to imagine Julia taking the initiative and acting independently?
And with that, we turn to Calabah Shiva Fontaneus. Octavia tells Julia that, according to rumor, Calabah met Aurius Livius Fontaneous while working as a dancing girl at a feast he attended. Fontaneus, “taken with her gymnastic abilities,” promptly married her. She inherited his property when he died, thus obtaining both wealth and independence. Color me skeptical. Wealthy Roman noblemen took dancing girls as mistresses, or, if they were slaves, they bought them and thereby obtained access to their bodies—they did not marry them.
When Julia and Octavia arrived, Calabah was speaking to “a small gathering of women”, “presenting new and enticing philosophies.” What were these philosophies, you ask? Here’s a sample:
“When a man dies, does he cry out for his father? No! He cries out for his mother. In each of us is the untapped possibility of who we really are, goddesses who have forgotten our true identities in our prelife. Woman is the fountain of life and only she has the seeds of divinity that can grow and lift her to heavenly plains. We are the bearers of eternal truth.”
I’m curious as to whether Rivers is transplanting into Roman times what she believes feminists say today (or, rather, when she was writing, in the 1990s), as she has done in other cases (see Decimus’ comments on same sex relations), or whether she in fact believes there were women like Calabah saying things like this at the time.
Were there women like Calabah in Rome, circa 70 AD? I am not well versed enough on gender during this period to say for certain one way or another, but I’m skeptical. If women were saying things like this, I suspect it would have been done far more privately than Calabah’s rather public persona seems to suggest. Of course, I could be wrong—there were all sorts of “mystery cults” in Rome, and it is possible there were mystery cults that centered on female power.
“How do we attain this godhood of which you speak?”
“By not giving away our power to men,” Calabah said simply, her smile patient rather than patronizing. She rose and moved around the occupied couches in the room. “We must achieve our full potential in all spheres to earn our godhood,” she said.
Octavia brought Julia, remember, in hopes that Calabah would cut her down for her “provinciality.” The opposite happens. Calabah takes to Julia, and then cuts Octavia down a peg for being too focus on pleasure. Octavia is not happy. But honestly, Calabah’s take-down makes no sense:
“Better that you use your head and marry than waste yourself on barley men,” she said, referring pointedly to Octavia’s numerous alliances with gladiators.
Don’t give away your power to men … but do get married? What kind of feminist cult is this? This is what I mean when I say there’s no internal consistency to Calabah. Does she mean that Octavia should marry to gain access to money and to remove herself from her father’s control, and then negotiate within that marriage to gain the power to make her own decisions, whether overtly or covertly? I don’t feel that we can assume that without its being overtly stated.Calabah’s comment to Octavia about marrying and not wasting herself on “barley men” came after she pointedly asked Octavia whether she has “control over her own purse strings” and told Octavia that she needs “a little more time marching and less pursuing pleasure.” A married woman might have control of her household finances, yes, but depending on the type of marriage a woman either remained under the authority of her father or saw that authority transfer to her husband.
Oh, and, cue the drugs. As Julia drinks Calabah’s wine, and her tension drains away and she feels relaxed and fuzzy—we learn that the wine is laced with “special herbs” that “open the mind,” which feels like a reference to marijuana. Meanwhile Octavia becomes angry and storms out. Octavia gone, Calabah turns her attention to Julia’s problems.
“Fighting your father will not gain you what you want. You must use logic and reasoning to win his respect,” Calabah advised. “Deal kindly with him. Bring him small gifts and sit with him and listen to his woes. Spend some time with him. Flatter him. Then ask what you want and he won’t refuse you.”
This actually sounds like decent advice, when you remember that Julia does love her father, and that she already bought him a gift—a crystal with healing properties—earlier that day. This sounds like something out of that How to Win Friends and Influence People book. It sounds like standard parenting advice as well—you have to build relationship with your children if you want them to listen to you. But because Calabah is saying it, we’re to see it as disingenuous and conniving.
At this point, Marcus storms in and tells Julia they’re leaving. Calabah tells Julia that she is welcome any time as Marcus literally grabs her from the room—so forcefully and so quickly that she is forced to run so that she won’t fall over. Marcus is very handy and spends much of this book grabbing women, usually violently. Julia is completely humiliated.
Oh and by the way—we learn that while Marcus despises Calabah, both Arria (his on again off again girlfriend) and Fannia (his former lover) are part of Calabah’s close inner circle.
When Marcus first arrives, Calabah tells Julia that Marcus is “afraid I might corrupt you with new ideas about womanhood and our role in society.” I’m still unclear what Calabah thinks that role is, however. We’ve heard her advise Octavia to marry and tell Julia to be kinder to her father and work to win his respect, so that he will be more amenable to her requests. None of this sounds revolutionary.
As they are carried home in a litter, Marcus and Julia argue. At one point, Julia says Octavia is “not my friend anymore,” confirming that she is indeed fifteen.
“I’m tired of her always patronizing me and putting on airs. Besides, Calabah is far more interesting.”
A muscle jerked in his cheek. “You liked her idea of women being superior to men, I take it. You liked the idea of eventually being able to become a goddess.”
“I liked the idea of having control of my own life.”
In this exchange, Marcus and Julia summarize Calabah’s teachings far differently. Perhaps not surprisingly, Marcus reads like an evangelical strawmanning feminist teachings. Julia, in contrast, has a goal that is simple and relatable.
Ah, and perhaps that is the deceit of this section and of this entire book—all Julia wants is to have control of her own life, but when she finally obtains that, the road leads to ruin. Is that the lesson of this book? That desire to have control of your life leads to discontent and ruin, while desire to humbly and quietly serve (Hadassah) leads to happiness and contentment?
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