Voice in the Wind: Slave Auction

Voice in the Wind: Slave Auction March 24, 2017

A Voice in the Wind, Pp. 75-80

The ship Hadassah is being transported on arrives in Ephesus and she and the other women disembark in the midst of a busy waterside scene. Some of those at the docks and on the street yelled insults as Hadassah and the others passed them.

Hadassah burned with shame. Her hair was crawling with lice, her tunic stinking and stained with human excrement.

They’re taken straight to the baths. I’m curious—was this typical, for slaves to be cleaned up and made presentable in the public baths? That seems slightly odd to me, but I’m by no means a historian of Roman slavery or Roman bathing practices. A “robust woman” strips Hadassah of her tunic, shaves Hadassah’s head—“Humiliated, Hadassah wished she could die”—and then rubs Hadassah down with “a fouls telling salve” that “burned like fire” but ultimately kills the lice. After being rinsed with icy water, Hadassah is sent into the baths themselves.

Hadassah entered a vast room in which there was a huge pool shaped of white and green marble. A guard was present, and she hastened into the water to hide her nakedness. The man scarcely noticed her.

The warm water soothed Hadassah’s burning skin. She’d never been in a Roman bath before and looked around in awe. The walls were tiled murals that were so wondrously beautiful that it was a moment before Hadassah realized the scenes depicted pagan gods seducing early women. Her cheeks burned and she lowered her gaze.

Beyond the question of whether a slave destined for the auction would have been sent into the baths themselves (rather than washed privately in an antechamber or some such), I’m again wondering about Roman ideas about modesty—and about Hadassah’s reaction to the murals. Historically, would Hadassah’s response to the murals have been shame because they depicted pagan deities, or because of Jewish or Christian ideas about sex and purity, or both?

Next, Hadassah is given clothing. As we discussed last week, slave auctions at this time typically involved selling individuals nude. I’m curious why Rivers isn’t willing to do this—after all, it’s a book, it’s not like she has to show Hadassah’s nudity. I’m curious because I suspect it may have something to do with Hadassah’s purity—Hadassah is not sexually assaulted as a captive or on the journey, and she is not made to stand naked for all to see while being sold. How would this book be different if these things had happened to Hadassah? Would it?

They were handed clothing, and Hadassah pulled the simple tan tunic and dark brown overdress over her head. She wrapped the red-and-brown stripped cloth around her waist twice and tied it securely. The long frayed ends hung against her hip. She was handed a light brown cloth to drape over her bare head. She tied it at the back of her neck to secure it.

Hadassah isn’t just wearing clothes, she’s wearing a lot of clothes.

Hadassah is sold last. Finally, she’s lifted onto a round table turned by a rope, so that potential buyers can see all sides of her—fully clothed, of course. The auctioneer has to keep bringing her price down, as no one wants to buy. Finally, she is sold for ten seseterces. She’s purchased by “a thin man in a white toga with purple trim” who is dismayed to find that her head has been shaved—he hadn’t been able to tell. “What a pity they shaved your head,” he tells Hadassah. “With hair, you might look more female.” Was it typical to shave someone’s head like this in Ancient Rome, or is this an invention of Rivers’?

The man who purchased her was named Procopus. As Rivers takes us into his musings, we learn that he had never intended to buy Hadassah—or any slave—that day. He’d just been on a walk about the docks. We learn that his wife, Ephicharis, “despised” Jews, and that his friend, Tiberius, wouldn’t want Hadassah because while his interest tended toward young girls, Hadassah was too thin. We learn, too, that his mistress, Clementia, needs a new maid but would not likely be pleased with one so “scrawny.”

Why did Procopus buy Hadassah? Well, it’s like one of my readers said last week in a comment—Hadassah has a strange effect on everyone around her, Christian or not.

What had possessed him to buy the girl in the first place? And what was he to do with her now? Ten sesterces for this mite. ridiculous. … He’d been curious to see the Jewish captives and had felt an unfamiliar pity when this one had had no buyer. He shouldn’t have gone to the docks today. He should have gone to the baths and had a massage.

And there it is—the hand of God is guiding those around Hadassah, and ensuring that she ends up in the right place, which, for the record, isn’t Ephesus. At a loss of what to do with her, Procopus gives her to the Roman centurions loading “ragged, emaciated slaves” bound for Rome, and the arena. Ultimately Procopus doesn’t get anything in return—he quite literally abandons Hadassah there. We learn that the other slaves aren’t Jews, and that Festus, the centurion, despised Jews. Hadassah began praying as she boarded the ship at the end of the column of slaves—at that Festus pulled her out of line.

“You’re bound for Rome,” he said. “You know what that means, don’t you? The arena. I watched you beseech your god to save you, but you’re still bound for Rome, aren’t you?”

After mocking her, he sends her “below with the rest,” and I am at a bit of a loss—who are these slaves and why are they bound for the arena? As Rivers tells it, Hadassah knew these slaves were headed for the arena the moment Festus said their destination was Rome—but they weren’t Jews destined for some sort of bloody reenactment, and surely slaves were sent to Rome for household use and other tasks. This is just confusing.

I would go on, but we’re about to switch to Atretes’ story.

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