Rivers switches back and forth from one character’s perspective to another, but not in the jerky unclear way in which Farris did so, and always in the third person. This can make for interesting reading—it gave us perspective into the thoughts and perception of the soldier who carried off Hadassah and her dying sister—but it can also be revealing in other ways.
During the beginning of this section, we are shown the perspective of Severus Albanus Majorian, a generic Roman commander intent on setting a trap for the “foul tribe of Germans” that had been dogging the Roman legions. Telling the story from Severus’ perspective allows Rivers to use terms like “the horde of naked warriors” and “the young barbarian.” But when Rivers turns to Atretes’ perspective, describing his anger as he realizes the Romans who have him surrounded intend to take him alive, she uses language like “a mounted commander” and “a half-dozen soldiers.”
As Severus watches Atretes fell one of the soldiers surrounding him, Rivers writes that Atretes was “taunting the others in that heathenish language only a Germany tribesman could understand.” But later, as Atretes, naked and in chains, watches his captors survey him, Rivers writes that one was “dressed in magnificent armor and a scarlet cloak.” In other words, when we view things from Severus’ perspective Rivers engages in the negative descriptions the Romans used for the Germans, but when we see things form Atretes’ perspective Rivers does not engage in corresponding rhetoric.
Partly this may be because comparatively few German sources (if any) have survived, but the result is to normalize the Romans while emphasizing the transgressive nature of the Germans and their customs. Atretes does spit at the merchant preparing to buy him, and yell “Foul Roman pig!” at him, but that’s as close as we get—and the merchant and Severus immediately begin discussing “what an animal” Atretes is.
It’s possible Rivers is displaying the Roman perspective in this way so that the reader, having met Atretes and his people already, can see that it is nonsense, but it still feels one-sided. I’d like to know what Atretes would have actually thought of Severus’ “magnificent” armor and cloak, and how he would have talked about and described the soldiers he fought.
And in talking through that, I have successfully summarized this section. Atretes is sold to Malcenas, a merchant, to be trained as a gladiator. There is much talk about how much the Romans will love him.
Malcenas admired the straining muscles of the powerful young body. Oiled, he would look like a bronzed god. And that mane of long blond hair. Romans loved blonds!
Oh and by the way, the name Severus Albanus Majorian is wrong. Roman names had three parts—praenomen, nomen, and cognomen. The nomen was the family name, or clan name, similar to a last name today. The praenomen was the individual’s name (think of a first name). And the cognomen was originally a nickname—Albanus was a cognomen meaning “from Alba”—but could be passed from father to son as well. Severus is a cognomen, like Albanus. Majorianus was a cognomen in the late Roman empower.
In other words, the man has three cognomens. Cognomena? Yes, I know I’m outing myself as having taken Latin in high school. Guilty! I did! (Well, homeschool high school, but it counts!) Good old Wheelocks. Anyway, point is, Rivers didn’t do so hot in naming this character. But we’re about to start another Hadassah section, and that gives us another example of her naming’ practices.
Decimus Vindacius Valerian poured more wine, then thumped the silver pitcher down on a marble table. He looked across the marble table at his son, who was lounging on the couch, an indolent look on his handsome face. The young man was trying his patience. They’d been talking for over an hour and Decimus had gotten nowhere with him.
Meet Decimus and his handsome, indolent son, Marcus! We’ll get to what they’re arguing about in a moment, but first, the names. Decimus and Marcus are both Roman praenomen. So far so good! Valerius is a Roman nomen. Uh oh. I have no idea what Vindacius is, I can’t find it in any list of common Roman names. If we’re being charitable, Rivers meant Valerius to be the nomen and Vindacius to be an obscure cognomen, and got them switched. But that’s assuming she looked up Roman naming practices.
Okay, so, the arguing. Decimus wants Marcus to go into politics. He tells him he can purchase a seat in the senate for one thousand sesterces. Marcus points out that Decimus has always hated politics, but Decimus says that was before Vespasian came along and cleaned things up, and that Marcus has the opportunity to be part of a new order. Marcus says he’s had too many friends die due to their involvement in politics—“ordered to commit suicide when Nero suspected them of treason”—and that he’d rather focus on trade. Decimus accuses him of wanting to be “a common merchant” and of wanting only “To eat, drink, and enjoy life before you die” rather than wanting to make a mark.
Wee also learn this about Decimus:
The gods hadn’t been kind to his father the last few years. Fire and rebellion had cost him several warehouses and millions of sesterces in goods destroyed. He’d blamed Nero, despite the emperor’s efforts to blame the conflagration on the Christian sect.
There should be a word for this. Decimus is the kind, wise nonbeliever. He’s not a Christian, but he’s still a good person—or he at least he tries to be. He doesn’t want his son focusing on riches or material goods, he wants him working for the good of the empire—“[Vespasian] will need strong young senators to help him”—and opposes excesses or moral wantonness. Yes, Decimus still needs to be converted to Christianity—this is a work of Christian fiction, after all—but he’s already pointed mostly in the right direction.
At this point Marcus leaves the conversation and greets his mother and sister.
“You and Father have been talking a long time,” Julia said from behind their mother, subtly prying.
Julia?! Julia?! WHO IS THIS JULIA. And yes, this is indeed my high school Latin nerd coming out in force, because this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Girls received the female form of their family’s nomen. Assuming that Valerius is intended to be this family’s nomen, Marcus’ sister’s name should be Valeria. Only a daughter of the Julius clan would be called Julia. And yes, this means that if Marcus had a second sister her name would also be Valeria—the family would have Valeria Major and Valeria Minor, or perhaps Valeria Prima, Valeria Secunda, and Valeria Tertia if need be. There is literally no way this family would have a daughter named Julia.
Anyway, Marcus responds to Julia’s question:
“Just business,” he said and pinched her check lightly in affection. At fourteen, she was becoming quite a beauty.
And then we get this:
Phoebe entered the triclinium, a spacious dining room with elegant furnishings and decorations, ahead of her son.
Wait. Phoebe?! Phoebe is not a Roman name, it’s a Greek name! Marcus’ mother’s name should be the female form of her father’s nomen. This ain’t it. Of course, someone else noted that Hadassah’s brother would not have been named Mark. That was a Roman name, not a Jewish name, and even if used it would have been spelled Marcus, so this isn’t an isolated thing.
There’s more, but I need to call it quits for this week. Enjoy!
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!