Marcus is restless. His business is going well, he’s making tons of money, and Arria has gone to the country, so she’s not bothering him with her “cloying presence and jealousy.” But still, he was restless.
Life was good, and it was getting better as his wealth grew. So why this gnawing restlessness and vague dissatisfaction?
This is actually the reason I noted a few months ago that I don’t feel like something is missing from my life. I grew up in an evangelical home. I was taught that everyone who wasn’t “saved” felt a sense of emptiness, restlessness, like something was missing. But today, I do not believe in a God, or in sin or eternal life, and I don’t feel like anything at all is missing. But Marcus does, because of course he does, because he is a character in a Christian romance novel.
Restless, Marcus is up late, after everyone has gone to bed. He spies Hadassah.
Julia’s little Jewess came out from the doorway of the peristyle. His eyes narrowed as she walked along the pathway not far from the trellis, where he stood unnoticed. What was she doing outside the house? She had no business in the gardens at this late hour.
This makes me slightly curious about Roman architecture. My understanding is that in wealthy Romans’ city dwellings, the garden would be enclosed, effectively a part of the the house, but with no roof. But Rivers has Marcus leaving the enclosed garden, or “peristyle,” to go “through the arched doorway at the north end of the courtyard to the gardens beyond” where he “wandered the pathways.” Would ordinary rich Romans have had such extensive outdoor gardens, inside the city?
Hadassah kneels and begins to pray. Marcus was shocked.
She was praying to her unseen God! Right here in the garden. But why in darkness, hidden from others’ eyes? She should be worshiping with Enoch at the small synagogue where he and other Jews gathered.
She began to cry as she prayed, speaking in what Marcus assumed was Aramaic.
Marcus moved closer, stirred strangely by the sight of the girl prostrating herself before her god.
There’s the mojo, I suppose.
Marcus thinks about her mother, and about her shrines and alters to the household deities, and the salt cakes she offered there. He considers that she never prostrated herself, that Decimus hasn’t gone near the altars since the two boys in between Marcus and Julia died of fever, and that he himself doesn’t believe in power that comes from gods. I suppose it’s a tour, of sorts, of the household’s belief (or lack thereof) in gods, but it’s also presented as a contest to Hadassah’s prostration.
Hadassah stands, and the moon shines on her face.
Her eyes were closed and a soft smile curved her mouth. Marcus saw in her uplifted face a peace he had never felt, a peace for which he hungered and searched.
Again with the idea that the unsaved are constantly restless and hungry for something more, for a peace known only to those who have been saved through faith in Jesus. It’s interesting to see this play out in a first century romance, before much of Christian doctrine was established. I’m curious how early Christian writings discuss this—were believers assumed to have a peace that the unsafe could see, and that they craved?
But I’m curious about something else, too—would Marcus really have paid this much attention to a slave? We can’t assume that people had the same reactions in the past that we have today. Wouldn’t a slave have been more or less a background object, to those who grew up with the strict hierarchy in place here?
Marcus steps out and challenges Hadassah. Hadassah says his mother told her she could pray in the garden after Julia was asleep. Marcus wonders whether he can trust Julia, given that she had good reason “for enmity against Romans.” Marcus challenges her on this front too, telling her that Rome tolerates all religion “save those that preach rebellion” and that “the Jewish cry for Roman blood” that has been “a common one for years.” Hadassah is trying to figure out if he knows she’s a Christian, or still thinks she’s a Jew. And she’s also freaking out.
Marcus saw only dismay in her expression. He moved closer so he could better read her face, and she reacted then. Her chin lifted just a fraction, and he saw his nakedness mortified her. He grinned, amused by her discomfort. How long and it been since he had seen a girl truly embarrassed by anything?
“Have no fear, girl. I haven’t the least desire to touch you,” he said, though he found himself studying her. She had gained weight over the past weeks, and her hair now lay softly about her face like a dark cap. She was far from beautiful, but no longer ugly.
Hadassah asks if she can return to the house. Marcus tells her no, and stood firmly in her way. This section is told from Marcus’ perspective, and not from Hadassah’s, so we don’t learn what she is thinking. But we learn from Marcus that she “looked ready to flee from him” but that “he doubted she had the courage to try.” Marcus is terrifying her.
Something about this girl intrigued him. Perhaps it was the heady combination of fear and innocence. She reminded him of the statue he had bought from Antigonus, which now stood barely fifty feet up the hill from where they stood. He thought of fair Bithia stealing whatever time she could to be with him. This girl clearly wished to be anywhere but here in the garden with him. He saw she was afraid of him and wondered if it was only because he was a Roman, an enemy of her people. Or was it something more basic? They were alone, he was less than fully attired.
And yet, he does not let her go. He asks her her name, and grills her again about her worship practices, asking why she continues to worship a god who abandoned her, rather than choosing another. She stammers, but answers him. She tells him her god has not abandoned her, that he kept her alive and gave her food and shelter and “good owners.” And what about her family, I’m wondering?The conversation turns to something else when Marcus asks why she thinks she has been kept alive—to serve. Marcus sneers. He thinks she’s saying that because it’s what he wants to hear from a slave, but Hadassah tells him that “we all serve something or someone.” He laughs at her, and says he serves himself and his own desires.
“It is the purpose of life, is it not?” he said mockingly, annoyed that a slave girl should look at him with something akin to pity.
“To pursue and grasp happiness wherever you can. What do you think?” She stood silent, eyes downcast, and suddenly he wanted to shake her. “What do you think?” he said again, commanding her this time.
“I don’t think the purpose of life is to be happy. It’s to serve. It’s to be useful.”
“For a slave, perhaps that is true,” he said and looked away. He felt weary. Weary to his very bones.
“Are we not all bond servants to whatever we worship?” Her words brought his head up and around to her again. His handsome face was rigid with arrogant distain. She had offended him. Frightened, she bit her lip. How had she dared speak so freely to a Roman, who could have her killed by mere whim?
“So, by your own words, since I serve myself, I am a slave to myself. Is that what you’re saying?”
This is a standard evangelical line—those who do not serve God serve something else, but everyone is a slave to something. The Christian life is about service to God, they argue, and this in practice often means service to God at the expense of self. But a life dedicated to serving others may not always sound palatable to perspective converts—or to many Christians. So pastors and others also argue that those who are not Christians are also slaves to something—often themselves, or their passions.
But as Marcus points out, the idea that one could be a slave to oneself is meaningless. Rivers doesn’t bother with more explanation here, however. Perhaps she’s assuming that her evangelical readers will see Marcus’ response as nonsense, or perhaps we’ll get back to this specific subject later. Actually, I’m fairly sure we will. Either way, Hadassah is now scared enough that she’s dancing around, and not wanting to answer. “Why was he tormenting her?” she asks herself.
Marcus asked Hadassah’ what her father was a slave to, what his master was, and she says love. Marcus is not impressed. He thinks about Arria and their friends, all of whom believe in love. He equates love with lust. Hadassah wants to set him straight, she can see he doesn’t understand what she meant, but she’s scared. Marcus tells her she can go.
As she goes, Hadassah looks at Marcus.
His handsome face was deeply lined, reflecting his troubled thoughts. Marcus Valerian had everything the world had to offer a man. Yet, he stood there, silent and oddly bereft. Was all his arrogance and affluence only an outward sign of an inner affliction. Her heart was moved?
As many of my readers already know, the central love story of this romance trilogy takes place between Marcus and Hadassah. This is their first one-on-one encounter. Hadassah looks at Marcus—and her heart is moved. He has just terrified her. He held her there in the garden, in abject fear, after her recognized that she was terrified. This was not kind. At all. It also was not accidental. He knew she was terrified. He thought it was funny.
This is a recipe for an abusive relationship. Period.
Evangelicals inveighed against Fifty Shades of Gray. They were apoplectic about it. And yet—this book was one of the best-known Christian romance novels of the 1990s. There are lots of reasons to have a problem with Fifty Shades of Gray, but the the relationship between Christian and Ana was at least presented as consensual. In contrast, there is nothing consensual about the pleasure Marcus took in terrifying Hadassah. Marcus owns Hadassah, and she knows it.
I know multiple women who experienced abusive relationships after growing up in evangelical homes. They generally did not know the warning signs. The possessiveness and controlling nature of their partners was seen even by those in their church communities as a positive thing. One thing is for sure—these women were not given tools for recognizing abusive relationships. Instead, they were given books like this, which suggest that controlling, abusive men like Marcus can change—and that it’s romantic to watch a handsome, wealthy, confident man pursue a terrified but somehow compelling slave girl.
One last thing to address, from Hadassah’s perspective:
What if she told him about the love she meant? Would he laugh or have her sent to the arena?
She was afraid to speak of God to a Roman. She knew what Nero had done. She knew what was happening every day in the arena. So she kept what she knew secret.
We’ve already been over the issue with Nero—it is very unlikely he picked out Christians for persecution, as common myth suggests. There’s another issue here too—Christians were not picked out for persecution until several decades after this, and even then these persecutions were sporadic and regional, not systemic.
Also, in her book on the Colosseum, Mary Beard wrote that public games were typically relatively infrequent in any given community, perhaps only performed a few times a year. Even when the Roman Emperor would host games that lasted for hundreds of days—which were discussed as extraordinary, and not normal, occasions—these games would span numerous years, with breaks in between. In other words, the arena was not open every day.
Rivers’ writing is a product not of historical reality, but of Christian mythology.