Last week Marcus sexually assaulted Hadassah. This week we get a brief mention of Atretes’ voyage to Ephesus, and then turn to Phoebe and Hadassah. Phoebe has just learned that Caius is dead. Phoebe called for Hadassah, told her of Caius death, and told her Decimus had gone to help Julia settle everything regarding to the funeral.
She looked at her sadly. “She’ll need you soon.”
Hadassah’s first thought was that she would be away from Marcus. Her heart sank. It must be the will of God. She couldn’t remain here if she was to be unscathed.
I had to reread this several times to try to figure out what Rivers was actually trying to say. If I understand correctly, Hadassah’s heart sank because she is in love with Marcus and doesn’t want to be separated from him even though he just smacked her and sexually assaulted her and then left in an angry huff. Then she considers, realizing that as much as she wants to stay close to this violent, angry man, she would probably end up raped if she stayed, and that her return to Julia’s service must be God’s way of preserving her purity and virtue.
What Marcus wanted, she should never give—not to any man but the one she would one day marry, if it was God’s will she ever marry.
This would have been a good place for Rivers to refer to Paul’s statement that it was better not to marry, given that the end of the world was eminent. When the world didn’t end within the lifetime of the disciples, early Christian theology began to shift, but we aren’t there yet—as of 75 AD, early Christians still expected the end to come at any time. I’m just not sure Rivers knows that.
Perhaps this was the Lord’s way of protecting her from herself; she could not deny that from the moment Marcus and touched her, weakness had washed over her. She had forgotten God … she had forgotten everything but the wild sensations filling her.
And this is how the battle lines are drawn. Rivers conceptualizes of this whole thing as a battle within Hadassah rather than as a conflict between Hadassah and Marcus. This gets Marcus off the hook and positions Hadassah as the one struggling with evil (i.e. with her own sinful influences). I am honestly not sure Rivers realizes that Marcus is an angry, violent man who just berated, hit, and sexually assaulted a woman he claims to love.
A man who acts like this is abusive. Period. Marcus has shown himself willing to hit Hadassah; he claims he did so for her own protection, but such justification is right out of the domestic abuser’s playbook. Marcus has shown that he does not take a woman’s no as a no, despite his earlier claim that he only ever takes women who are willing. Even without her religious objections to sex outside of marriage, Hadassah would do well to steer clear of a man like Marcus.
“I will go to her whenever you say, my lady.”
Phoebe nodded. Rather than feeling pleased, though, she was troubled. “Tragedy seems to pursue Julia. First Claudius, then she loses her child, and now her young husband.”
Hadassah lowered her head, thinking of Julia’s baby, discarded in the garden.
“I should feel more sorry for Julia than I do,” Phoebe said and rose.
I’m sorry, why was Phoebe supposed to have been pleased? Because Hadassah agreed to go to Julia? Hadassah has no say. She is a slave.
More to the point, yes, Phoebe, you DAMN WELL should feel more sorry for Julia than you do! I mean good grief, Phoebe doesn’t know the half of what Julia has been through, and even she states that tragedy seems to pursue Julia! And then, right after admitting that, she says she should feel more sorry for Julia than she does. Phoebe, you are a terrible mother.
Phoebe tells Hadassah that Decimus is getting worse, and that while he used to focus so fully on business that she felt he cared more for his work than for her, things have become different.
“His illness has changed him. He’s grown so restless. He said to me the other day that nothing he’s ever done in his life matters or will last. That it’s all been vanity. The only time he seems to find any peace is when you sing to him.”
This is so typical evangelical. Growing up in an evangelical family, I was told that those who didn’t have Jesus lived lives without purpose, meaning, or fulfillment. I wonder whether there is a confirmation bias at play here—after all, those who convert to Christianity at Decimus’ age typically do so because they felt something was missing, or that they needed something more than what they had. But just because those who convert were looking for something more does not mean everyone feels they’re missing something more. Evangelicals don’t know what to do with the content, fulfilled unbeliever. They will often simply deny such a person exists.
Anyway, Hadassah suggests to Phoebe that it’s the message of God’s love that gives Decimus peace, not the music. After all, she’s singing him psalms and such. Hadassah begins to discuss God’s love for all of his creation, but at that moment Phoebe hears a sound.
Marcus was home. “Mother!” He came striding into the garden. “I just heard about Caius,” he said, his gaze flickering to Hadassah briefly.
Phoebe tells Hadassah to go, and tells Marcus that his father has gone to Julia.
Marcus sat beside [Pheobe] on the bench. “Don’t send Hadassah back to her.”
Surprised, she searched his eyes. “I don’t want to send her back, Marcus, but I have little choice.” She watched his expression closely. “Hadassah belongs to you sister.”
Marcus felt his mother’s intent perusal and turned away, debating whether to tell her Hadassah had taken a beating for Julia and almost died from it. If he did, his mother might change her mind, but Julia would never forgive him. He had no wish to hurt his sister, but he wanted Hadassah here, close to him. He knew the circle of friends Julia had formed since marrying Caius. He knew as well what they thought of Christians.
Okay first, as I’ve already let on, one thing that eats at Julia as this book goes on is her growing feeling that her family has replaced her with Hadassah. While the course of action she chooses based on these feelings is wrong, her feelings themselves aren’t. Her husband is dead and her brother’s first thought is that this means she might want her slave back when he wants her slave close to him, because he’s obsessed with her slave and is trying to seduce her.
Of course, Marcus tells himself that he wants Hadassah close to him because she’s a Christian and he’s worried about Julia’s friends finding out. What he isn’t thinking about is the danger he poses to her. He just hit her, sexually assaulted her, and then stormed out on her angrily when she rebuffed him, after all. If Marcus were actually concerned about Hadssah, he’d be trying to get her freed so that she could leave, perhaps for somewhere closer.
But Marcus isn’t actually concerned about Hadassah’s wellbeing, because if she were freed and left, he couldn’t seduce her. What he’s actually concerned about is his own pants’ feelings. He likely also doesn’t want to free her because he doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions about her life—he has just ordered her to stop seeing the local group of Christians she as been visiting, remember. He, as a man, knows what’s best for her.
So Decimus returns and says Julia is taking Caius’ death well—that she’s probably in a state of shock. Marcus thinks it’s either that or she’s relieved, but even he knowing what happened his mind doesn’t go to poison. Hadassah comes in to sing for Decimus, and Marcus stares at her the whole time. Finally, Decimus dismisses Hadassah, telling her to pack her things and be ready to return to Julia at dawn. Once she leaves, Marcus confronts his father.
Marcus glared at his father in consternation. “Julia has no right to her!”
“And you have?”
Marcus bolted up from his couch. “You don’t know everything that’s gone on in that villa!”
But Marcus underestimates Decimus.
“I know enough of what goes on in this one! If this unfortunate tragedy hadn’t occurred, I would have sent Hadassah back to Julia by tomorrow morning anyway. Your feelings for her are inappropriate.”
“Why? Because she’s a slave or because she’s a Christian?”
Decimus was amazed that Marcus didn’t deny his infatuation. “Both reasons suffice, but neither concerns me. What does matter is that Hadassah belongs to your sister. I doubt Julia would appreciate the irony of your falling in love with her slave. And what would happen if you succeeded in seducing Hadassah and got her with child?”
How did this typically work, in Ancient Rome? Was someone expected to check with a family member before knowing that family member’s slave sexually? Would this have been a legitimate concern?
I’m trying to figure out Decimus here. Is he actually worried about what Julia would think of Marcus shagging her slave, as he claims, or is he actually concerned about Hadassah, perhaps under the spell of her mojo? After all, he knew Marcus was having sex with Bithia and he didn’t do anything to stop him then, so he doesn’t have a problem with Marcus having sexual relations with slaves. Or is it disconnected from Hadassah’s mojo—perhaps Decimus has a problem with people forcing themselves on slaves, and is aware that Hadassah is unwilling?
Either way, Decimus is right to note that Marcus has moved beyond the stage where he cares who knows that he is infatuated with Hadassah. And that makes me only more worried about Hadassah.
Seeing his son’s expression, Decimus frowned. “When we purchased Hadassah, your mother made a gift of her to your sister. Julia is still my daughter, and I love her. I won’t jeopardize what little influence I still have with her over a slave on whom she has a strange dependence. Other than you, whom has Julia trusted? Hadassah. This little Jewess serves your sister with a single-minded devotion that’s rare. Hadassah loves your sister no matter what her faults may be. A slave like her is worth her weight in gold.”
Here Decimus actually makes sense—Marcus isn’t asking for permission to have sex with Hadassah after all, he’s asking for his father to keep Hadassah by him rather than sending her to Julia, as though his own sexual desire for Hadassah should override Julia’s need for Hadassah’s quiet presence in her time of need.
In case you needed more evidence that Marcus is an asshole, you now have it. And to add to that, Marcus presses further, telling things Julia expressed told him not to tell:
“That love and devotion almost got her killed a few weeks ago.”
“I know Caius beat her,” Decimus said.
“Did you know the beating was meant for Julia?”
“Yes. Your sister and mother were blinded by Caius’ charm. I was not.”
“Then why didn’t you prevent the marriage?”
“Because I didn’t want to lose my daughter completely! I forced her into an unwanted marriage, and that turned out to be a disaster. I couldn’t interfere with one she chose for herself.” He winced in pain as he rose from the couch. It was a moment before the pain subsided and he could speak.
“Sometimes, no matter how much you want to protect your children, you have to let them make their own mistakes. All you can do is hold on to the hope that they’ll turn to you when they need you.”
We talked about this before. Decimus flubbed all of this completely.
Here’s how it played out:
Julia’s marriage with Claudius ended disastrously. Decimus realized he messed up in making her marry him, but never told her that or apologized. Julia met this new guy, Caius, and wanted to marry him. Decimus okayed the match and never voiced any sound of concern, despite believing him to be an abusive lout. When Caius began beating Julia, she did not believe she could go to her father about it—and what reason had he given her to believe that she could? You can’t just assume your kid will talk to you, especially after messing up their life and never listening to them.
Here’s how it could have played out:
Julia’s marriage with Claudius ends disastrously. Decimus realizes he messed up in making her marry him, and apologizes to Julia and admits his error. Julia meets this new guy, Caius, and wants to marry him. Decimus briefly outlines his concerns about Caius but tells her that this time it’s her choice, because he messed her first match up so thoroughly, and that if she ever needs anything she should feel free to come to him judgement free. When Caius began beating Julia, she goes to her father for help, because she knows she can trust him.
Or at the very least, even if Decimus hadn’t told Julia about his concerns about Caius (thinking that would erode her willingness to listen to her), he still could have apologized for his earlier mistakes and told her that she could come to him if she needed anything, and that he wouldn’t judge her. From what we see in Rivers’ book, Julia has spent much of her life being judged by one or both of her parents every time she exerts her own personality or ideas.
Hey, you want more evidence that Marcus is an ass?
“Much of Julia’s trouble was brought on her by her own actions.”
“I know that! It’s always been that way, Marcus. But have you stopped to think? If not for Hadassah, your sister might be dead.”
Marcus went cold. Torn by his love for Hadassah and his concern for his sister, he stared bleakly at his father.
Nice move, Marcus. Nice move.
Rivers tells us that Decimus actually knew “a great deal of what had happened” in Caius’ villa. He sits, after his conversation with Marcus, and thinks about Julia. He thinks of her as a “beautiful, innocent, winsome” child. He thinks of how tortured Julia was when he saw her at Caius’ villa that day, after Caius’ death. He does not think about his own role in any of this.
Through Decimus’ musings, Rivers lets us know that Calabah came to see Julia as soon as she learned Caius was dead, but that Julia refused to see her. Based on Decimus’ musings, Julia doesn’t appear to regret what she’s done, but she is still angry with Calabah—perhaps in part because Calabah is a reminder of what she has done. Julia tells her father that she really did love Caius, and I completely believe that. Poor Julia.
And then we get this:
Decimus hoped Phoebe would be able to give their daughter the comfort she needed, but somehow he doubted it. Something deep and hidden gnawed at Julia. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what it was. He knew too much of what she had done already. His grandchild aborted, paying for her husband’s gambling debts, by prostituting herself. Whatever else she had done, he didn’t want to know. What he knew already hurt him worse than the disease that was eating away at his insides.
He has not told Phoebe any of those things he knows about what Julia has done, by the way. Perhaps that’s because Phoebe is a good woman and must be shielded from such sordid details. Or perhaps he hasn’t told Phoebe these things out of concern for Julia’s privacy, though I’m skeptical.
When I first read the beginning of this paragraph I thought, perhaps naively, that the secret that gnawed at Julia was the abuse she had suffered at Caius’ hands. But no, Decimus has already said he knows about that abuse. The secret gnawing at Julia, then, is that she poisoned Caius. It’s the evil things she has done that gnaw at her, not the terrible things she has suffered at the hands of others in her short life.
Remember, she was married off at age 14 or 15 to a man of 49, who took her far away from her parents and friends to his isolated country estate and repeatedly raped her and grew angry when she showed interest in pursuits outside of his narrow range of hobbies, and when she didn’t show sufficient interest in his own interests. When this man died in an accident, she spent three days surrounded by his slaves, who did not like her, afraid that someone would poison her in retribution for her perceived role in the accident that killed her master.
She was then made to mourn the man who raped her repeatedly, and kept under lock and key by her father. When she started going out with her friends her mother was instantly suspicious and could think no good of her. With no help form her parents she found a man who was both of the right social class and interested in the same things she was, and believed she had finally come into her own.
Then, just when she thought she had a chance of happiness, the man she married began gambling away her money; beating her, sadistically raping her, and smashing her things; and ordering her to flirt and use her womanly charms to help him out of the debts he ad incurred gambling with her money. When she tried fighting back by going farther than ordered in using her body to ease his debts (admittedly ill-advised), he tried to kill her, and, when her slave intervened in the middle of a vicious beating, he promised he’d come back and finish the job.
But no, the thing gnawing at her is the fact that she poisoned her husband after he violently beat her, sadistically raped her, smashed her things, and promised he would kill her. That’s what’s wrong. What else could it be?
Does no one have empathy in this book?