With Julia off at Caius’ villa, Hadassah has settled into serving Phoebe and Decimus.
Hadassah settled quickly into her new duties, and she delighted in serving Phoebe. They enjoyed spending hours in the gardens working in the flower beds or in the weaving room with the looms. Hadassah loved working in the garden the most, for she enjoyed the pathways and trellises that were budding with the coming spring. She loved the feel of the soil beneath her hands and the scent of flowers drifting in the fresh air. Birds flitted between the trees and pecked at the seed Phoebe placed in open feeders for them.
When Julia later complains that everyone in her family has replaced her with Hadassah, remember this moment. She won’t be entirely wrong. This section also sheds light on Pheobe’s hobbies and interests, making her perhaps more relatable. What happened, exactly? I am increasingly curious about what came before this book. Julia is clearly rebelling against everything that comprises her mother’s life. But why? Is it just the typical angst of teenage rebellion? How did Julia come to so thoroughly reject her mother’s passions?
Was Julia ever socialized with peers who enjoyed weaving, or gardening? I can imagine Julia taking pride in creating new patterns on the loom, basking in the praise that might follow—or pouring herself into a perfect piece of landscaping. She might have found her mother’s single-mindedness tedious, and found ways to segue these interests into something that would bring her acclaim. Rejecting these things entirely was never predestined. What happened?
Part of this has to do with the way Rivers portrays Julia’s generation. Julia, Octavia, Arria—every young Roman noblewoman we meet is obsessed with gladiators and sexual conquests and parties. Perhaps Rivers didn’t consider the possibility of Julia socializing with young women who like weaving and gardening because she assumed they didn’t exist. But this generational divide doesn’t feel right. Are we to believe that the young women of Phoebe’s generation were so substantively different from that of Julia’s?
But let us return to the story. Hadassah has now taken Bithia’s place, and it is she Phoebe calls for when Decimus is feeling poorly. It seems that Hadassah sings to Decimus, and he finds it soothing.
Hadassah stroked the small harp and sang psalms her father had taught her back in Galilee. Closing her eyes, she could pretend she was back there again, with the smell of the sea and the sounds of the fishermen calling to one another. For a brief time she could forget all the horror of the things that had happened since the last journey to Jerusalem.
Sometimes she sang lullabies her mother had sung to her and her little sister, Leah. Sweet Leah, how she missed her. At times, when the night was dark and silent, she would think how Leah and closed her eyes and mind to the horrors of this cruel world and gone peacefully to be with God. She would remember the piercingly sweet memories of running free through the lilies of the field with her little sister, laughing at how Leah bounded through the high grasses like a rabbit.
Many of my readers have commented that Hadassah doesn’t seem to have a personality. I agree, and frankly, those two paragraphs offered more character development than Hadassah has had for 100 pages at least.
There’s something here that’s puzzling me though.
Hadassah found pleasure in serving the Valerians, especially Phoebe, who reminded her somewhat of her own mother as she saw to the needs of the household with simple efficiency. Just as her own mother had spent an hour in devotions to Jesus upon first arising, Phoebe went into her lararium and worshiped her household gods. She placed fresh wafers on the altars, replenished the incense, and lit the burners to send up a pleasing aroma to her many stone gods. Her prayers were no less sincere, however misplaced her faith.
Why is it that Bithia’s religious practices are treated as demonic—as is Julia’s interest in her crystals, later on—while Phoebe’s religious practices, no less pagan, are effectively neutral? More than that—Phoebe’s religious devotion is portrayed positively. Is it because Phoebe is traditional and patriarchal (I almost said good and kind, but she’s not)? Is it because Bithia is Egyptian, and portrayed as having dark skin? Is it because Julia’s interest in crystals is associated with New Ageism? Why does Phoebe get a pass?
Ah, but Marcus’ absence was never going to last forever, and now he’s back. Before heading home Marcus hit the baths, and it was there he learned that Julia had married. Marcus was shocked. He had had no idea. And when Marcus learns that—according to the rumor mill—Julia’s new husband had been Calabah’s lover, he is horrified. Marcus hurries home and grills his father about Caius.
“What do you know about this man?” Marcus said, uninterested in food.
“He deals in foreign goods and arranges trades with the northern frontiers,” Decimus said. He poured himself some more wine. “Other than that, my agents could find out very little about him.”
“And you allowed Julia to marry him with so little information?”
“We inquired about Caius and learned what we could. We invited Caius here numerous times and found him to be intelligent, charming, educated. Your sister is in love with him, and, for all appearances, he is equally in love with her.”
It should be noted that Decimus is lying—or at least not telling the whole truth. Later, after it becomes clear that Caius is abusing Julia, Decimus tells Marcus that he saw through Caius’ charm from the start, that he knew Caius was a snake, and that he allowed Julia to marry Caius in spite of this because “[s]ometimes, no matter how much you want to protect your children, you have to let them make their own mistakes.” Here, Decimus is telling Marcus none of that. This family has serious communication problems.
Still, Marcus isn’t buying what his father is saying. He’s instantly suspicious.
“I won’t relinquish control [of Julia’s estate] until I’m certain this husband of Julia’s isn’t a wastrel.”
“You’ve no legal right to retain control of her estate,” Decimus said firmly. “When Caius Polonius Urbanus took your sister as his wife, he took possession of everything she owns as well, and that includes Claudius’ estate.”
Marcus thought of Hadassah and felt an uncomfortable feeling coil in his stomach. She was one of Julia’s possessions. Who was this Urbanus, and what would he feel toward his wife’s new Jewish maid? Embarrassed by his feelings for a slave girl, he hid behind his concerns for Julia. “And if she wants to leave the financial arrangements as they are?”
“It’s no longer Julia’s right to make that decision.”
But as I noted last week, it would have been had Julia been married sine manu, which was the most common form of marriage for women like her during this period. Rivers never explains why Julia isn’t married sine manu. It would have seemed the perfect option for a situation like this—Decimus could have allowed Julia to marry Caius while both ensuring that Caius wouldn’t run through her money and making it simple for Julia to return home should things go south.
And let’s not overlook Marcus’ fixation on Hadassah. This, too, is something to remember when Julia later charges that everyone in her family cares more about Hadassah than her.Marcus goes to see Julia the next afternoon, and what even is this nonsense.
She was still in bed when he arrived at Urbanus’ villa, but upon being told her brother had come, she wasted no time in joining him. “Marcus!” she cried, flinging herself into his arms. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!”
He was surprised to see her so disheveled. Her waist-length hair was unbrushed, her face devoid of makeup. She looked tired and was trembling, as though suffering the aftereffects of heavy drinking. A small, round red mark showed on her neck, disturbing evidence of passion.
Okay, first, why does Marcus find the hickie “disturbing”? Is it because he doesn’t like to think about his sister having sex? Shouldn’t he be happy that she’s finally found someone she feels sexually passionate about? I mean, it’s not like he’s celibate himself or anything! And second—Marcus, or so we’ve been told, is also a partier. Is it only women who suffer any negative affects of partying, in the universe of this book? That wouldn’t be surprising—only women get STDs in this book—but it’s annoying as all get-out.
But we’re only getting started. It gets far, far worse.
He looked down at here, concerned. “Imagine my surprise when I returned to the news that you were married.”
Julia laughed gaily. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t wait for you. You’d already been gone two months and sent no word about how soon we could expect you. You’ll like Caius. You have much in common with him. He enjoys the games.”
“How did you meet him?”
Her smile turned mischievous. “Calabah introduced us.”
His mouth tightened at her ready admission of defying him and father. “That’s hardly a recommendation.”
Julia let go of his hands and moved away from him. “I’m sorry you don’t approve of her, Marcus, but it makes absolutely no difference to me.” She turned and faced him, angry and defensive. “I can do as I wish now. I no longer need Father’s permission, or yours, to choose my friends.”
Marcus could see Calabah’s influence. “I didn’t come to argue with you. I came to see if you were happy.”
Her chin jerked up. “I assure you I am. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life.”
“Indeed. I’m joyous to hear it,” he said with unveiled annoyance. “You have my congratulations for escaping our clutches and my apologies for intruding on your newfound freedom.”
What in the actual fuck, Marcus. What in the actual fuck.
I’m trying to figure out how I found Marcus so dashing and romantic when I read this book as a teen. Marcus is a prick. At this point he tries to leave and Julia starts freaking out. She hasn’t seen him in months, and in spite of his horribleness, she loves him. She begs him not to leave and assures him that Caius is wonderful and he only dislikes Calabah because he doesn’t know her.
He searched his sister’s face, looking for the radiance of a young bride—and saw along with it the exhaustion of a debauched lifestyle.
Oh for fuck’s sake.
Julia calls for food and gets annoyed at her maid and mentions that she misses Hadassah, that these maids are “so stupid and slow” in comparison to her, and at that point Marcus starts to freak out—“His heart was beating fast and a cold sweat was breaking out over his body”—and asks what Julia did with Hadassah. Julia tells him Caius found Jews “prudish” and Hadassah “homely” and at that point Caius himself walks in. Joyful greeting! Or not. Marcus is standoffish and he and Caius talk about money. Fun.
Marcus stayed only as long as was polite. Julia returned to the peristyle dressed in an expensive fine wool palus. She wore pearls around her neck and woven into the curls piled high on her head….
The dark circles beneath her eyes were covered skillfully by makeup, and pink blushes had been added to her pale checks and her mouth. Had he not seen her an hour before, he wouldn’t have known she was tired and hung over from whatever party Urbanus had taken her to the night before. Her animated chatter grated, and Urbanus’ teasing was full of innuendo, which made her laugh. Unable to stomach any more, Marcus made his excuses and left.
What is Marcus’ problem? At this point, he does not know that Caius is abusive. He suspects that Caius married Julia for her money, but he does not know this for certain and he has no reason to suspect that Caius won’t manage Julia’s money well. Julia has told Marcus that she is happy, and he has been given no reason to believe otherwise. But for some unclear reason, Marcus is upset that his sister has gone to parties, upset that she is having passionate sex, upset that she is drinking.
There’s a disgusting double standard at play here. Marcus is a-okay going to parties himself, having passionate sex, and drinking—but he’s not okay with his sister doing so. He also inexplicably despises the women he parties with. It’s patriarchal and it’s gross. Marcus doesn’t want his sister to be like him, not really—he wants his sister to be like his mother, content, domestic, and safely ensconced at home with children and a household to run.
Remember all those times Marcus told his parents Julia needed freedom? Yeah no, he didn’t mean a word of that. Julia has that freedom now, and is (by all appearances) blissfully happy, and Marcus can’t handle it. He’s repulsed.
What the hell, Marcus. What the hell.
Marcus returns home to a very boring exchange in which Bithia has accused Hadassah of stealing money from the Valerians, and it turns out that actually all Hadassah did was give the “peculium” she received from Decimus to a woman begging on the street. (Rivers tells us that Decimus “gave a quadrant to each of the least of the slaves” every morning. I’d love to hear others with more knowledge of this area of history to weigh in on this practice and whether this is realistic or accurate.) Hadassah, of course, comes off looking like a saint.
“Why didn’t you keep it for yourself?”
She kept her eyes properly lowered. “I have food to eat, my lord, a warm place to sleep, clothes to cover me. The woman had none of these things. Her husband died a few months ago, and her son is a legionnaire on the frontier of Germania.”
Decimus stared. “You, a Jew, gave money to a Roman?”
She looked up at him then, tears in her eyes. She was trembling in fear of him, but wanted him to understand. “She was hungry, my lord. The quadrant you gave me was enough to buy her bread.”
Decimus leaned back, amazed.
As for Bithia, well—they decide to sell her.
With that out of the way, Decimus tells Marcus not to sleep with Hadassah. Yes, really. Talk of selling Bithia has reminded Decimus of Marcus’ penchant for “using” their household slaves, and the revelation that Hadassah gave the only money she had to a soldier’s mother has left him stunned. “This girl is different,” he tells Marcus.
He looked at Marcus. “Hadassah isn’t like the others, Marcus. She’s not like anyone we’ve ever owned before.” She was not like anyone he had ever known.
Reaching out, Decimus gripped Marcus’ arm, at once commanding and appealing. “Take your pleasure with the others, but leave this girl alone.”
After his father left the room, Marcus sat on the edge of the dais and raked a hand back through his hair. He had made no promises.
How could he when Hadassah was all he thought about?
Okay, quick recap. Hadassah and Phoebe are made for each other, Marcus is a prick, and Hadassah’s mojo has infected Decimus. Yay.
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