This section makes me really uncomfortable and contains vivid portrayals of spousal abuse and domestic violence. I’m going to save my readers some grief and do some quick summarizing rather than quoting at length.
Hadassah returns from her secret Christian meeting to find the house in turmoil. Remember how Caius wanted Julia to come to Anicetus’ party in order to flirt with Anicetus and charm him into giving Caius an extension on his debts? Well. The reason Julia got all dolled up before going out with Caius (after Caius smashed her things and hit her twice) was that she planned to do more than flirt with Anicetus. She convinced Anicetus to cancel Caius debts in exchange for an hour in his chambers.
Caius is livid. When Hadassah enters the villa, he is engaged in beating Julia to death. “I’m going to kill you, you foul witch!” he screams, and the only reason he doesn’t is that Hadassah throws herself over Julia’s body, taking much of the beating for her. Spent, Caius leaves the room, smashing more of Julia’s things as he goes and shouting over his shoulder: “I’m not done with you, Julia!” Hadassah is half-dead.
Julia, though bloody and in pain, has her wits about her. She sends the two maidservants who had hovered at the door rather than intervening to hide Hadassah somewhere in the villa where Caius won’t find her when he returns, and then she leaves for Calabah’s house. She’s angry at these two slaves, by the way. Really angry. When they entered the room after Caius left, and told her that Caius had left the villa, she calls them cowards for coming to her aid only after he was gone.
She saw their fear of her. It was right that they fear her. Every slave in this household was going to the arena for leaving her at the mercy of Caius. … Cowards! Fools! They deserved death. She hated every one of them.
I’m curious—how would a slave have been expected to act in this situation during this time period? Would a slave have been expected to intervene on behalf of a mistress, if her husband was beating her? In other words—did these slaves breach protocol, or did they follow protocol? Either way, Julia isn’t actually going to send every slave in the household to the arena. Rivers likely believes she is buffing up Julia’s bad person credentials, but it reads more like internal venting at a time of high stress.
Now we move to Calabah’s, and once again I’m going to mostly just describe what happens. It is here that we learn that Julia spent an hour with Anicetus, because Calabah asks Julia “what happened to make Claus lose his temper so completely.” Julia is defensive. Calabah doesn’t accuse her of anything directly, but is sufficiently pained about it that Julia feels blamed.
“You humiliated him before his peers.”
Julia looked up angrily. “You’re defending him? After all the times he’s made me suffer?”
“I wouldn’t think of defending him. I despise him for all the things he’s done to you for his own pleasure. But think, Julia! You know Caius. You know his pride. You know his rages. He’ll kill you for this.”
Two things to note. First, at various times in this conversation, Calabah touches Julia, and at one point she kisses her on the lips. Rivers tells us that this leaves Julia “with a strange sensation of uneasiness.” Second, Calabah is about to suggest to Julia that she poison Caius, and Rivers tells us that this whole thing was part of Calabah’s plan from the moment she pushed Julia and Caius at each other. No, really.
But first, Calabah tells Julia something else.
“Everyone believes my husband Aurius died of apoplexy.” She turned and looked back at Julia, wanting to judge her reaction when she told her the truth. “In fact, I poisoned him.” She watched Julia’s eyes widen with surprise, but not disapproval. She was curious, wanting explanations, and Calabah continued.
“Marriage to him had become intolerable. He was old and repulsive when I married him, but I remained a constant wife. I managed his financial affairs, his appointments, his estate maters. I gave him sound political advice. I rebuilt his dwindling fortune. Then, after one small indiscretion on my part, Aurius threatened to divorce me.”
I’m sure you can see where this is going, but I’d like to pause to note that there’s a difference between poisoning someone who is otherwise going to kill you, on the one hand, and poisoning someone who has threatened to divorce you, on the other. Calabah tells Julia that she would have been ruined if Aurius divorced her. It’s true, she came into the marriage penniless and would have walked out of it penniless as well—but my moral code draws a big line between threats to one’s life and threats to one’s property.
Still, doesn’t Julia have other options? Calabah covers that.
Calabah let the silence fill the room for several moments before she spoke again. She knew all of Julia’s weaknesses, and now was the time to use them. “You could go to your mother and father and tell them what’s happened.”
“No, I couldn’t do that, ” Julia said quickly.
“Your father has power and influence. Tell him how Claus has beaten you and let him crush him.”
“You don’t understand, Calabah. My father would demand to know why my husband beat me. He thinks I’m to blame for Claudius’ death. If he found out about Anicetus, he wouldn’t take me back.”
There is so much going on here.
First of all, Julia should have had a “sinu manu” marriage, and in reality would have been. This would have allowed her to pack her bags and leave. It also would have meant that Caius would have had reason to treat her better, knowing she could walk out at any time and take her money with her. The whole setup here where Julia is stuck is not accurate for the period.
But let’s ask another question. What if Julia does tell her family? What if she sucks it up and puts herself through that, painful as it would be? Julia expresses concern that her father would blame her for what happened—and frankly, that’s not an unreasonable expectation. Whether Decimus would even want to help (as opposed to telling her to grovel before Caius) is unclear. But even if he did, and if Marcus did—what could they do? They can’t just dissolve a “cum manu” marriage.
But Julia was married “cum manu.” That means Caius could legally kill Julia for her adultery—but only if he also kills Anicetus. That seems unwise. The problem, though, is that if Caius knew Julia cheated on him and did nothing, he could be charged with being a pimp. If charges were brought and Julia was convicted of adultery, she could lose part of her property (either a third or a half) and be prohibited from remarrying.
Now obviously, the extent to which these things were informed would vary, and is something still debated by historians. But in my reading, Rivers does not seem to know that adultery was illegal. This is something we’ve talked about before—teenage girls like Octavia and Arria would not have been running around Rome taking lover after lover. They would have been carefully chaperoned, their virtue policed. Rome in 70 AD was far more like the evangelical Christian ideal than Rivers knows.
Calabah does suggest to Julia that she have Marcus ruin Caius financially, after which Calabah assures Julia that Caius will divorce her. Julia demure.
“And where would that leave me? No, that’s no solution, Calabah. I’d be without an aureus to my name, back in my father’s household with him dictating my every movement. I swore I’d never allow that to happen ever again.”
Perhaps Julia should have considered this option more fully rather than summarily rejecting it and accepting Calabah’s suggestion that she poison Caius. Still, what assurance would Julia have that she would be safe during the carrying out of such a plan? What if Caius told Marcus he would kill Julia if Marcus didn’t stop going after him financially? Still, Rivers has Julia thinking not about that possibility and instead about her money.
So. The plan is for Julia to stay with Calabah for a few days. During that time, Calabah will also talk with Caius and make it clear to him that killing Julia would “bring certain disaster down upon his head” in the form of retaliation by Decimus and Marcus. Once Caius has called down, Julia will return home and give him a few doses of a slow-acting poison over the course of the first week. Caius will be ill with a fever after that, and Julia safe—and playing the part of a devoted wife and nurse.
What of Hadassah? Sometime after her conversation with Calabah, Julia visits Hadassah in the storerooms under Caius’ villa, where she has been stashed to hide her from Caius. Julia finds Hadassah recovering well, though still in danger. She tells Hadassah that she’ll be sending her back to her parents’ house. Hadassah understands—Caius could have Hadassah killed for defying him—but Rivers tells us there is something else going on.
Julia avoided her eyes. She didn’t want Hadassah in the villa when she returned [from staying with Calabah]. It would be difficult enough to do what Calabah instructed without Hadassah present.
And then later on the same page:
Hadassah searched her mistress’s face and saw no sign of compassion or hope. But there was something shining in Julia’s eyes that was frightening in its intensity. She wanted revenge. “My lady …,” Hadassah said, reaching out with her free hand to touch her cheek.
Julia let go of Hadassah’s hand and stood abruptly. Sometimes Hadassah made her very uncomfortable. It was as though the slave girl could look into her soul and see her thoughts.
And then we get even more direct:
She didn’t want Hadassah to guess what she intended to do, for if she did, Hadassah would try to dissuade her, and Julia didn’t know if she was strong enough to ward off Hadassah’s reasoning. She thought of Calabah and felt even more determined. Caius was a threat to her life and he must die. She had done nothing to deserve such foul, brutal treatment at the hands of her husband.
Remember that it is through Hadassah that we get the closest to Rivers’ perspective.
What to make of the morality of Julia’s actions? Readers’ opinions may differ. In general, I would argue that someone should do everything they can to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation before killing in self defense. If Julia has other options, outside of killing Caius, she should take them. But, does she? Caius is within his legal rights to kill her (if he also killed Anicetus), and her father and brother are limited in what they could do to help her, due to her “cum manu” marriage.
A large percentage of women who are tried for marriage were in domestic violence situations. People outside of the situation may be able to point to all of the things these women should have done instead of killing their abusers, but being an abuse victim means living with a high level of stress, trauma, and fear. Sometimes the final option may seem the only option. Of course, in Julia’s case we’re talking about murder that is premeditated and carried out over the course of weeks.
Regardless of what we say of the morality of Julia’s actions, at the very least we can say that her actions are understandable. I mean good grief, Caius swore he would kill her, he beat her savagely, and when he left he wasn’t finished with her. And yet, Rivers suggests that Hadassah would strongly disapprove of Julia’s plan—not only that, but that Hadassah would view Julia’s actions not as self protection but as seeking revenge. Hadassah, remember, saw the beating Julia received, and received part of it herself. She knows Caius swore he would kill Julia. And yet, inexplicably, Hadassah fears Julia wants revenge.
The root of the problem, I think, is that Rivers never took Julia seriously. Rivers always viewed Julia as spoiled, selfish, and cruel, and she interprets her every action—however reasonable or understandable—through that framework. And so here, too, this must be Julia seeking revenge. It couldn’t be Julia literally and very reasonably afraid for her life.