This week we return to Atretes, who is the obsession of all of Rome and has just made his hundredth kill. Really, Rivers? Atretes has everything now, riches and fame, but he’s still a slave, and has grown depressed, morose, and bitter (Rivers’ word, not mine). “Some men never adjusted to slavery, no matter how golden the cage,” Rivers tells us. But, change is afoot! Series, a wealthy Ephesian who deals in gladiators, will be in Rome to watch the next games.
Oh and there’s something else. That young Roman nobleman Atretes bloodied shortly after coming to the ludus still has it out for Atretes, and he has the ear of Domitian, who is planning the next games. Bato tells Atretes that at the games he will only need to make one kill—a captive—and Atretes scoffs. Bato is not amused. “Between them, they think they’ve found an amusing way to destroy you,” he tells Atretes. “Freedom may come at a price higher than you’re willing to pay,” he adds. Suspension! Tension! What will this test be?!
And with that, back to Hadassah. We learn that Decimus and Phoebe are planning a move back to Ephesus, for good. Decimus came from Ephesus, and would like to return there before his death, which he senses is coming. Marcus will be left to handle the assets in Rome, and Julia, too, will be left behind. “She was beyond his reach any longer,” Decimus muses. Yes, that’s what tends to happen when you treat someone the way Decimus has Julia.
But for now it’s religion time! Hadassah is playing her harp and singing for Decimus when Phoebe asks her to tell them a story about her God. She tells the story of the prodigal son. The story makes quite an impression.
Phoebe looked at Decimus and was dismayed at the look on his face. His eyes were moist with tears. In all their years of marriage, she had never seen him cry. “You may leave, Hadassah,” she said, wishing she hadn’t asked her to tell a story. This one had pierced her heart and filled her with a terrible, inexplicable yearning.
But Decimus tells her to stay and starts asking questions.
Decimus correctly assumes that the father in the story represents Hadassah’s God. Phoebe remembers about the older son and asks what happened to him at the end—Hadassah had left that part out. Enoch comes in to poor wine at just that moment, and Hadassah has no option but to answer Pheobe’s question and finish the story. Afterward, Phoebe asks Enoch which son he is. After all, Enoch is also a Jew. Enoch says he’s not familiar with this story and leaves the room.
Under continued questioning, Hadassah explains that the story isn’t just about Jews, it’s about all mankind. “We are all God’s children,” she says. “He loves us equally, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free. We cannot earn his love; we can only accept it as a gift—a gift that he will give to each one of us.” Decimus doesn’t miss a word.
Decimus was amazed at her words, amazed even further that she had spoken them aloud. The mask had slipped and the true face of her religion was before him. He wondered if Hadassah even understood the implications of what she offered, or the treat of her ideology to the very structure of the Roman empire.
He tells Hadassah that she may leave.
[Her words] disturbed Decimus. He’d heard words like hers before, cried out in a strong voice to a multitude who’d gathered near the Egyptian obelisk. The man who had said them was crucified upside down. A man called Peter.
“It would seem our little Hadassah is not a Jew after all, Phoebe,” he said solemnly. “But a Christian.”
Where to start?
First, I’m unsure why the story Hadassah told unnerved Decimus and Phoebe so thoroughly. Were they comparing their children to the two sons in the story, Marcus as the older and Julia as the younger? That seems like a bit of a stretch. Why did this story bring them to tears, then?
I’m still unclear on why Decimus and Phoebe are so discontented with their children. Marcus is doing everything he is supposed to do. He hasn’t married, sure, but that seems like something that calls for some match-making, not the sort of anguish Phoebe seems to go through over her children. And while Julia has often been discontent and headstrong, it isn’t like she’s completely thrown over the obligations of her society (that they know of—they aren’t aware of the abortion or her decision to poison Caius, currently underway).
Rivers was very intentional about having Enoch in the room for enough of the story telling to establish that the story Hadassah was telling was not one that would be known to a devout Jew. Based on the way she wrote this section, I’m fairly sure we’re to believe that Enoch now knows that Hadassah is a Christian.
It is unlikely that Decimus, however, would have made such a connection.
There were a multitude of religious sects in Rome during this period, each with their different gods and practices. As I covered eerier in this series, your average Roman wouldn’t be familiar with Christianity at this time. And while Peter was likely killed in Rome, it is unlikely that his death would have stood out or that he would have made an impression on a man like Decimus.
Rivers approaches this story from the present, when we know that Christianity triumphed over and above every other sect in the Roman empire. Rivers imposes that foreknowledge on the past in sections like this, when she assumes that what was then an ordinary, unimportant religious sect, and a small one at that, must surely have already made a splash.
But now we’re back to Atretes, who is in the arena. The captive he has been assigned to kill as part of the games is Chatti—a member of Atretes’ tribe.
Atretes faced the warrior and took up a defensive stance. “Kill me if you can!” he ordered in German.
“You are Chatti!” the man said in amazement.
The warrior lowered his frame. “I will not fight a brother. Not for the pleasure of a Roman mob!” He looked around at the mass of people and spat in the sand.
Atretes saw himself five years before.
Finally, a time marker! That makes Julia 19; Hadassah 20; and Marcus 27. It also means that Atretes has completed his 100 kills within five years—less, really, because he spent part of the time training. Say 25 kills a year. This does not mesh at all with what historian Mary Beard wrote about gladiators.
Atretes believes he has to make the captive fight “or they would both die ignobly,” so he taunts him. “He knew where the fire in a German’s heart lay and fanned the flame until the point of the frame came up again and the young man’s eyes were blazing.” It works.
“You look Roman, you smell Roman … you are Roman!” the warrior said, cutting deeper wounds in Atretes than he could ever know.
Finally the captive fights, and Atretes quickly defeats him.
“I never thought to die at the hands of a brother,” he said quickly, the contempt still all too clear.
“Better me than to be thrown to wild animals or nailed to a Roman cross,” Atretes said.
Atretes makes him get on his feet to die, and drives his sword through his heart. He says the proper words, sending the now-dead warrior to Tiwaz, before letting him fall.
After the fight, Bato tells Atretes that Vespasian has sold him to Sertes and that he will be sailing to Ephesus. Bato suggests that this sale was a result of his victory in the arena. Vespasian had had it out for Atretes even before Atretes nicked that young Roman nobleman in the ludus; presumably, Vespasian has decided that they have now put Atretes through enough.
And Atretes is not unaffected.
Atretes turned his head a fraction and looked at him. Bato had never seen such cold eyes before.
And then, later:
In the darkness of his cell, Atretes buried his face in his hands and wept.
I’m really not sure what to say.
What does Rivers intend by this section? Are we to see that Atretes has reached the sheer bottom? Are we to sympathize with Atretes, to feel he had no other option, or are we to conclude that Rome has finally fully corrupted him? I’m honestly not sure. Between this and Caleb and everything else, Rivers has seemed intent on making Atretes into a tortured soul.
I’m not suggesting that what Atretes has gone through is unrealistic, or that no gladiator in his situation would have reacted the way he is. Not at all. But this is no mere novel; this is a morality tale. What conclusions does Rivers want us to take away from what is happening, and will happen, to Atretes? What point is she making?
At the beginning of this review series, I remember someone saying that they found Atretes’ story more interesting than the other storylines introduced—that it had more potential. I’m curious how readers feel now. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, I’ve found Atretes’ storyline far less interesting than Julia’s. Perhaps it is because he does little but fight and brood. Perhaps his situation is so far removed from mine today that I can’t put myself in his shoes as well.
Perhaps it is because I now identify with Julia. As a teen reading this book, I identified with Hadassah. Like her, I tried very hard to do good, to serve others, and to witness for my faith. Perhaps I identified with her in part because I found it a challenge to share the gospel with others; even when I did meet nonbelievers, in my sheltered world, evangelizing them never felt natural. I wondered if I lacked the courage—much like Hadassah.
Since my teens, much has changed. When I left for college and began forming beliefs that differed from those of my youth, my parents reacted in a way that made it impossible to communicate with them. The emotional turmoil of facing their upset was severe. Sometimes it felt like they no longer saw me, only their idea of what they wanted me to be—and their idea of what I had become. Is it any surprise I now identify with Julia?
In contrast to Julia, Atretes feels more two dimensional. He was an emerging leader in his tribe who was captured and forced to be a gladiator in Rome; he has killed many people in the arena, including people he cared about (Caleb) or very much did not want to kill (this young warrior of his own tribe). He has fame and access to riches and women, but he is deeply unhappy because he does not have his freed, and because of what he has been put through.
Perhaps this only feels two dimensional because it is so far from my own experience, though. I remember feeling, when I read this book as a teen, that Julia was two-dimensional, nothing but a self-centered, discontent, rich girl so intent on seeking “happiness” and pleasure in frivolities and material things that she was willing to throw her own family over.
Here the chapter ends. Decimus and Phoebe discovered that Hadassah is a Christian, Atretes found himself forced to kill a fellow tribesman, and everyone is moving to Ephesus. This chapter feels far less interesting and action-filled than previous chapters; perhaps that is because Julia remains offstage for its entirety.