Here we turn briefly to Atretes. He’s getting angry at Julia. Because of course he is. Because everything Julia touches goes wrong. Hadassah has come to fetch Atretes to Julia, for sex, of course. Atretes goes, but he is not pleased.
Where had Julia arranged for them to meet this time? In an inn? In the storage chambers of her brother’s villa? At a feast, where they could steal a few minutes together in a private room? His mouth tightened.
Each time she summoned him in this manner, another piece of his pride was chipped away. Only when he had her in his arms, begging for him to love her, did he feel his pride return. Yet later, in his cell, when he had nothing to do with his time but think, he hated himself.
We could slave read this as the inner thoughts of a slave trying to work out where his agency begins and where it ends—how to navigate within a society where his status is both exalted (as a gladiator) and circumscribed (as a slave). We could read it as the inner musings of a captive trying to work out his feelings toward citizens of the enemy nation that enslaved him. And these things absolutely are in play. But I don’t think we’re meant to read it in these ways alone. Atretes is a man, after all, and Rivers is writing in a sexist tradition.
Rivers tells us that Atretes is slated to participate in an elimination match of twelve pairs. Based on what I read in Mary Beard’s book about the coliseum, this seems a bit excessive. Of the twenty-four gladiators, only one will be left alive, and that one will be freed. That is a colossal waste of money. Atretes, of course, is hoping to be that one gladiator who lives and is freed, and because this is fiction, we know he will be.
Atretes decided if he lived through the match and gained his freedom, he would never be brought to Julia again. Julia would come to him! He’d buy a villa on Kuretes Street and send a servant to bring her, just as she now sent Hadassah to bring him.
He’ll show her!
This is such unhealthy thinking. I still haven’t worked out how much of it is meant to come from Atretes’ status as captive in an enemy nation and how much is meant to show his virulent manliness.
Six months ago, there would have been no question in his mind what he would do [when he was freed]. He wouldn’t even have thought of remaining in Ephesus. But now there was Julia.
Atretes thought of the rude longhouses of his people and compared them to the marble halls of luxury in which Julia had been reared, and he wondered what to do. As his woman, she’d have a prominent position of respect in the community, but could she adjust to life such as he had known?
Would she be willing to adjust?
This whole thing would make so much more sense if we’d been shown a believable relationship between Julia and Atretes … or any relationship at all. That Atretes would even consider the question of whether Julia would be willing to leave her family, money, status, and everything she has ever known to travel to “barbarian” Germany with him shows that he does not actually know Julia.
And that Atretes would even consider changing his plans for Julia shows that we do not know him. It doesn’t feel believable, after everything we’ve seen Atretes say and do. Atretes ultimately decides that he will stay in Ephesus and buy a villa and take Julia there to wife—and again, this does not mesh with anything we have seen of Atretes thus far. I needed to see this change, and I didn’t.
As he glowers, Hadassah takes Atretes to Calabah’s villa. Calabah made sure to be nearby when they arrived so she would get a glimpse of Atretes. Remember, Calabah doesn’t approve of Julia’s dalliance with Atretes. Calabah calls Julia to tell her Atretes has arrived. She used “a tone so saturated with contempt that hot blood rushed” into Atretes’ face, and now we have a problem. A serious problem.
When Calabah tells Atretes that Julia says she isn’t ready to see him yet, Atretes gets angry. Really angry.
Atretes glared after [Calabah] with black fury, then exploded into action. He banged the door open and saw Julia sitting at a vanity table covered with vials of makeup and perfume. Two maids were fussing with her hair, both of whom froze at his entrance. “Out,” he said, jerking his head toward the door. They fled past him like mice escaping to their holes.
Julia sat staring at him with dismay. “I wanted to look absolutely perfect before—”
Atretes pulled her to her feet and yanked her into his arms. When she opened her mouth to protest, he covered it with his own. Her hair came loose beneath his fingers, and pearled pins dropped and scattered on the floor.
Julia struggled. “You’re ruining my hair,” she gasped when he allowed her an instant to catch her breath.
“Do you think I care about your hair?” he asked roughly. “Except to do this.” He dug his hands into hit, clenching it in his fists as he kissed her again.
She pushed at him. “You’re hurting me. Stop it!”
This. Is. Abuse.
Ack, Julia. Julia, Julia, Julia. The thing is, it isn’t just the three unrelated men in her life who have abused her (first Claudius, then Caius, now Atretes). It’s also—increasingly, and as we shall see in a moment—her brother Marcus. Every man in her life but Decimus has shown themselves willing to slap her around, and Decimus has been weekend by a disease of some sort.
I’m curious. Is this what Rivers thinks men are like outside of evangelicalism? Or is this what she thinks men were like in Ancient Rome? I doubt it is the latter; this doesn’t read like a treatise on abuse rife in a patriarchal society. It reads more like the former—like this is simply what men are like outside of the careful restraining confines of evangelical religion. Except that that’s not how it works. And yet, this book does not have a single man in it who is not abusive. Not one. (Save Decimus, but only perhaps.)
Of course, Rivers adds some back and forth that seems designed to reduce Julia’s status as victim. Julia can’t be an abuse victim, Rivers seems to suggest, because she yells back, and says mean things too. It’s a fight. It goes both ways. Julia is just as angry as Atretes is. And yet, only one party is dangerous, violent, and physical, and it’s not Julia.
When he let her go abruptly, she withdrew angrily, touching at her hair and then turning on him in anger. “Do you know how long I had to sit there while they worked on it just so I would look beautiful for you?”
“Wear it down then,” he said through his teeth. “Like the women they send to my cell.”
Her eyes flashed. “You’re comparing me me to a common whore?”
“Are you forgetting how we met?” he said, still fuming that she had commanded that he wait in the hallway. Who did she think he was? What did she think he was?
Her own temper was roused. “Maybe we should wait for another time when you’re in a better mood!” she said, turning away. She waved her hand as though to dismiss him from her presence.
Instead of going, Atretes grabs her and forces himself on her; when he lets go several minutes later she is “pliant and trembling, clinging to him.” He has made him want her, as Marcus has done so many times to Hadassah. Now that she wants him, he declares that she’s right, another time would be better, and he lets her go and turns to leave. Julia freaks out and begs him to stay. Finally, Atretes orders Julia not to ever make him wait again, and they make love.
As he gets ready to leave, Atretes tells Julia he won’t come to her like this again. Julia begs. She tries to explain why they have to hide their affair, why she can’t go to him at the ludus, or meet him somewhere else openly. She says her father and brother will “marry me off to some richly men at the far ends of the Empire” if they find out. “They did so once before!” she says.
And once again we encounter this problem—the options available to Julia are constrained by the ways her parents and brother have shown themselves willing to treat her. She can’t carry on her affair with Atretes openly (as Rivers suggests so many other women of her class do, women like Arria and Octavia) because her father and brother would force her into another unwanted marriage if she did.
Atretes persists, raising a new possibility.
“And if I were free?”
Atretes implicitly floating the idea that they might marry, if he were to win his freedom. Julia says the possibility that he might win his freedom is so remote she has never thought about it. Atretes doesn’t tell her about the elimination match. Great at communication, this one. Instead Atretes tells Julia not to call for him for a while because “I always forego women before I fight in the games.” At that, Julia becomes worried and distraught at the thought of him in the arena and asks him when he’s going to fight, but Atretes leaves her, still panicking, without answers.
I’ll be the first to agree that Julia is not perfect. She’s absolutely not. But consider everything Rivers has put her through at this point. She was married at 14 or 15 to a man over three times her age, forced to leave her family, her home, and everything she knows to move to his country estate where he isolated her, and then punished her by ignoring her when she turned out not to be a reincarnation of his dead wife. When he died tragically, her parents and brother blamed her for it.
Then, back at home in Rome, she met Calabah through a mutual friend. Calabah set Caius, whom she knew was an abusive drunk philanderer gambler, to pursue and woo her. She married Caius, and was blissfully happy for a short period, until he started gambling away all of her money and beating her. When an attempt to strike back at him failed, he threatened to kill her. Trying to save her life, she poisoned him.
And now this. Julia comes into her own in Ephesus, hosting her brother’s party and building connections with the best families in town. And now the gladiator she takes up a dalliance with (a practice Rivers suggests was common) turns out to be controlling, manipulative, and physically abusive. And yet somehow she can’t extricate herself.
You know what? I’d be more concerned about Julia’s imperfections if she hadn’t been dealt such a shit hand. If Rivers would stop torturing her for once, I might agree that yes, Julia is selfish, and yes, Julia is vain, and whatever else Rivers wants us to think. But instead, I can’t get past the shit Rivers has put through to get to a point where I can even be critical.
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