This section begins with a long lead-up to Atretes’ fight in the arena. Julia is there, waiting, and she’s freaking out. Calabah and Primus are with her. Atretes comes out to the screams of the crowd but doesn’t look in Julia’s direction. When we get Atretes view, we learn that this is intentional. He has decided not to look at her again “until the games are over.” Calabah is quick to jump on this.
“See how he ignores you,” Calabah had said disdainfully. “With all these others screaming for him, why should he care that he’s broken your heart?”
“Atretes! Atretes!” Men and women cried out, tossing flowers and coins down to him.
The memory refueled her hurt and jealousy, and Julia pressed her lips together, her thoughts poisoned by Calabah’s taunt.
Notice how Rivers frames this—Calabah is given the active role. Julia is ever the one being manipulated by others. The idea that Julia could think for herself and realize, herself, that being married to Atretes wouldn’t go well, is apparently foreign to Rivers.
After a very boring fight sequence (at least to this reader), Atretes wins the elimination match and is granted his freedom.
Julia trembled violently as Atretes walked toward a gateway that opened to the stairs he would climb to the platform where the proconsul waited to award the victor. She was torn between jubilation and fear. She loved him and was proud of his triumph, but she knew his newly found freedom would jeopardize her own liberty.
No shit. This isn’t a system Julia is set up to win.
Julia scarcely heard what the proconsul said as he placed the laurel wreath on Atretes’ head. Then the politician’s daughter looped the small rectangular ivory pendant proclaiming Atretes freedom around his neck. Jealousy swept like a hot flood through Julia has the girl pulled Atretes’ head down to kiss him full on the mouth.
Color me skeptical. Color me very skeptical.
Roman men of position and power typically kept their daughters under close lock and key. Their daughters’ virtue was of critical importance. I’m highly skeptical that a Roman politician’s daughter would be permitted to kiss a gladiator in front of full stands of people. In fact—noblewomen weren’t allowed to go to the games in the first place! It wasn’t seemly. This is so all in Rivers’ head.
Julia is worried—very, very worried.
Now that he had his freedom, what was to keep him from trying to make her his slave? Her mouth went dry.
She’s not wrong.
Primus wants to know if she has made a decision about his offer of marriage. Oh and by the way while they were walking around the stands before the games, they noticed some boy prostitutes and Primus told Julia that “Prometheus was such as these until I rescued him” and and Julia was “uncomfortable at the mention of Primus’ catamite.” I find myself extremely curious what the actual reaction would have been—was it seen as acceptable for married men (Primus wants to marry Julia, after all) to have catamites?
Although to be honest, I think we’re to assume that Julia is simply disgusted by homosexuality—after all, we’ve been told before that she is—and not that her uncomfortability has anything to do with her potential marriage.
“So, what have you decided?”
Julia’s stomach tightened until it hurt. When she spoke, her voice was flat. “I’ll sign the agreement this evening and have my things brought to your villa tomorrow morning.”
Agreement? What agreement? She’s moving in with him. It’s a common law marriage. There’s no agreement. Did a Roman woman even have the ability to sign a contract?
Of course, there’s also the fact that Julia ought to have belonged to her first husband’s family after his death, and not to her father, since the type of marriage Rivers had them do was a full and non-returnable property transfer. Same with husband number two. But here she is, somehow still under her father’s authority.
Weirdly, Rivers thinks that if Julia moves in with Primus she gets to control her own money. See, Marcus isn’t happy when he finds out, but Julia is actually full on BAMF.
“The marriage will be mutually beneficial, I assure you,” she said haughtily. “I want a full accounting of what’s mine by the end of the week. Marcus, and from then forward, I’ll handle my own financial affairs. And you needn’t look at me like that! My money will remain mine. Primus can’t touch it.”
Um no, no it won’t. It will remain your father’s.
Rivers has only the most superficial understanding of Roman marriage law, but she somehow twists even that into something it really isn’t. Although let me say this—if Rivers was right about how this worked, this would actually be a really good step for Julia. All her life her money has been controlled by the men she belongs to. If moving in with a man in a common law marriage would let her keep that control, and she found a man who wouldn’t try to control her—as every other man in her life has—I say good on her!
I mean for gracious sakes, look what she’s leaving:
“Who put this foolishness in your head? Calabah?”
Julia glared at him. “Calabah doesn’t think for me. I think for myself. I’m not the fool you think I am.” She ordered one of the servants to bring a cart around while the others took her trunks out to be loaded.
“I never thought you a fool, Julia. Until now.”
Julia’s chin jerked up, her dark eyes blazing. “My jewel box, Hadassah,” she said in trembling fury. “We’re leaving now.”
“Oh, no,” Marcus said, losing his temper further. “Hadassah isn’t leaving here unless I say so.”
“Just what is Hadassah to you?” she demanded with chilling softness. “She’s my slave, though it appears you want her for yourself.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Phoebe said from the doorway.
“Am I being ridiculous, Mother?” Julia’s dark eyes burned as she looked between her brother and Hadassah. “Take the box downstairs, Hadassah, now. And what for me at the sedan chair.”
“Yes, my lady,” Hadassah said softly and obeyed.
Marcus jerked Julia around to face him and held her there. “You’ve changed.”
“Yes,” Julia agreed. “I’ve changed. I’ve grown up and developed a mind of my own. My eyes are open, Marcus, wide open. Isn’t that how you always encouraged me to be? Wasn’t it you who introduced me to all the finer things the world has to offer? Wasn’t it you who told me to watch out for people who would betray me? Well, dear brother, I’ve learned my lessons well. Now take your hands off me!”
Holy moly. I mean seriously. From Marcus’ immediate assumption that she can’t think for herself to Marcus’ bizarre demand to control Hadassah to Pheobe’s complete lack of attention to what’s going on in this household to Marcus’ continued insistence on grabbing the women in his life and holding them by brute force—how Rivers can’t see that this is the dysfunction, and not Julia’s desire to have a say in her own life, is beyond me.Run, Julia, run. Also, kudos for finally telling him to keep his hands to himself. Someone needed to say it.
“Julia, please,” Phoebe said, following her. “Think what you’re doing. If you enter a marriage like this, you’ll be sullied.”
“Sullied?” Julia siad and laughed. “Mother, you’ve been locked beyond Father’s walls so long, you know nothing of the world. I’ll be considered a woman of independent means, a man of substance. And you know why? Because I won’t have to crawl to my father or my brother to beg for my own money. I won’t have to account for anyone for anything I choose to do.”
“Do you despise me so much?” Phoebe asked.
The horrifying thing is I’m pretty sure—nearly positive—that we’re supposed to be 100% siding with Phoebe here.
“But Julia, you don’t love this man.”
“I didn’t love Claudius either, did I? But that didn’t stop Father and you from forcing me into marrying him,” she said bitterly.
“You can’t possibly understand, Mother. You’ve done exactly what was expected of you all your life!”
“Explain to me then. Make me understand.”
“It’s quite simple. I won’t be a bond servant to any man, be he father, brother, or husband. Primus won’t dictate my life as Father has always dictated yours. I’ll answer only to myself.” Julia kisses her mother’s pale cheek. “Good-bye, mother.” With that, she left Phoebe standing in the corridor.
Julia’s rhetoric here feels like a combination of perfectly reasonable statements I can absolutely see someone in Julia’s situation making (although honestly, these sections don’t feel much like they’re set in Ancient Rome), sprinkled with a few statements that don’t quite fit. “I’ll answer only to myself,” for example. “I won’t have to account for anyone for anything I choose to do,” is another, though it isn’t as egregious. To me, these statements feel more like something an evangelical imagines someone in this situation would say than what someone would actually say.
Maybe I’m picking at straws. It’s possible. But evangelicals frequently view the world in terms of who one answers to. Everyone answers to God, they argue; those who reject God believe they will answer only to themselves, but they are wrong. Rivers believes what Julia is doing here is wrong. She signals it with these statements. Julia believes she will not have to answer to anyone but herself—and in saying that she walks right into evangelical tropes about worldly people who delude themselves into thinking that.
This section reemphasized a few other things as well. For instance, Phoebe is not a very effective mother—at all. We’re expected to believe that she’s completely ignorant of Marcus’ predation of Hadassah? How? Meanwhile, Decimus has been aware of it for a long time. The interesting thing is that I’m fairly sure we’re supposed to see Phoebe as a good mother—we’ve gotten evangelical scripts suggesting that throughout the book—but the evidence is fairly concrete that she does not know her daughter and hasn’t tried to get to know her, and, now, that she can’t even see what’s going on in her own villa.
Note how she automatically sided with Marcus against Julia, when Julia was completely right and Marcus had just made a statement that should absolutely make Phoebe question her grasp on the situation.
And then there is Marcus. For the life of me I don’t understand how I saw him as at all attractive when I read this book as a teen. But somehow, I did. Dark and brooding and handsome. Part of this, as several readers have noted, is a typical romance novel problem. But this isn’t meant to be some random racy romance novel. This book is Christian fiction. It’s written for an evangelical audience and with an evangelical twist. It’s supposed to mean something more than wet feelings in the pants. And still we get this.
Why couldn’t we have had a kind man—maybe a fellow slave—who loves Hadassah and wants to marry her? Perhaps he offers to buy her and marry her, but she knows she can’t marry him because he doesn’t share her believes—maybe he’s Jewish, and doesn’t know she’s a Christian—or because she believes God has called her to evangelize the Valerians?
I’m feeling more and more like I need to get my hands on the second volume in this trilogy to see whether Marcus actually changes after he is saved. Does he stop being grabby? Does he stop being abusive? Does he stop treating everyone around him like this? Or is the change more ephemeral—does he simply stop demanding sex from Hadassah, because he suddenly believes in celibacy until marriage? It’s interesting to note that in the next book, he doesn’t know Hadassah is Hadassah until the very end, as she wears a veil, so we really never get to see how he treats Hadassah as Hadassah after his conversion.
And if he does change in the second book, well, I’m tired of abusive behavior being treated as something non-Christian men (and not Christian men) do, and as something that goes away at conversion. That’s a load of baloney. Can an abuser be reformed? Sometimes. Can converting to a new religion or ethical system change a person? Yes. But none of this is automatic, and there are plenty of abusive Christian men out there.
My money is on him not changing, though, because I am not entirely sure Rivers sees Marcus as abusive. I think she sees him as motivated by a non-Christian desire for premarital sex. I think she thinks that is his problem—that and the emptiness he feels inside, building his father’s business empire in a life filled with pleasure seeking, without purpose or meaning. I don’t think Rivers realizes that the way Marcus has been treating Julia is abusive, or that not every man who has premarital sex tries to rape women who say no.
And Julia? Damn, girl. Rivers seems to think that she’s governed by Calabah now—because apparently she always has to be controlled by someone—but the speech she gave here was masterful, and I don’t see any reason to think that wasn’t her talking, rather than Calabah. All the things she said were things that had needed to be said for a long, long time.
And yes I know—that means I’m cheering for the wrong character—but honestly, I can’t believe I thought this book was about Hadassah, rather than Julia, when I read it as a teen. Julia is front and center—and a far more fascinating character.
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