When I read this book back in high school, I thought it was about Marcus and Hadassah, and their intense and passionate romance. This time through, the book feels centered on Julia, a flawed but tragic figure. Perhaps this is because, reading the book through this time, I understand Julia as the victim of child marriage and abuse that she is. This adds depth to a character I had read as shallow. Perhaps, though, this is also because Marcus and Hadassah’s romance no longer reads as realistic (or at all romantic) to me.
Already Rivers is building this idea that Marcus and Hadassah are falling for each other. And yet, almost all of their interactions have involved Marcus being rude and antagonistic, and Hadassah being timid or frightened. Think about it: when Marcus saw Hadassah for the first time, he called her ugly; when Marcus came upon Hadassah in the garden, he was naked and it scared Hadassah and he knew it and enjoyed scaring her; when Marcus asked Hadassah to wash his feet he angrily grilled her about her relations with Claudius, and then contemplated raping her.
True, their most recent interaction felt a bit more even, as Hadassah boldly pushed back against Marcus’ plan to disband Claudius’ slaves and Marcus let her. But now, this week, there’s this interaction:
He watched her for a few seconds longer and realized she was praying again. Because of her devotions, he was hesitant to approach her.
His mouth tightened in anger at himself. What was the matter with him? Hadassah was a slave. Why should he care if she was disturbed from her prayers or anything else? It was his will that mattered, not hers. He strode toward her purposefully. She heard him and rose. When she looked up at him, he felt an odd sensation in his chest. Annoyed, he spoke harshly. “Where is my sister?”
“She is out, my lord.”
“Out where?” he demanded and saw the slight frown flicker across her brow. He could almost read her thoughts. She didn’t want to betray Julia. Silent, she lowered her head. Her loyalty to his sister made him want to be more gentle with her. “I’m not angry with you. I’m concerned about Julia.”
Foundation of a solid, healthy relationship right there.
“The Lady Octavia said she wanted to visit a friend.”
“Do you remember the name of this friend?” he said, thinking it was probably some man.
“I think her name was Calabah.”
“By the gods!” Marcus exploded in anger. Calabah was worse than any disreputable man Octavia might take Julia to meet.
Yes yes, a woman is worse than all of the disreputable men put together. Such Jezebels, women are. But really, think about it—does Antigonus every come in for the same level of contempt Marcus uses when talking about Arria, or Octavia? No. No, he does not. Marcus does not despise Antigonus. He does, however, despise Calabah.
And what, seriously, is with Marcus’ problem with Arria? Arria is basically the female version of himself—grasping at independence, openly promiscuous, interested in pleasure and enjoying life but also in traditional things like business (Marcus) and marriage (Arria).
But, back to the present moment. As angry as he is at Julia for running off with Octavia, Marcus decides he’ll try to bring Julia back without their parents learning where she went, to keep her from getting into too much trouble. This pleases Hadassah, and she laughs.
“From your mouth to God’s ears, my lord,” she said.
Marcus had never heard her laugh before. Looking down into her small, happy face and hearing the sweet sound, he almost cupped her face and kissed her. The change in her filled him with disturbing warmth. It wasn’t lust; he was all too familiar with that emotion. This was something else. It was something deeper, more mysterious, something that had less to do with his senses than his spirit—or his soul as she would call it. She tugged at his heart.
He realized how little he really knew about her.
At this, Marcus looks in Hadassah’s eyes. Doing so freaks him out because “he didn’t need any more complications in his life” and this definitely felt like a complication. So he says adieu and heads off to hunt Julia down.
Hadassah watched him go. Why had he looked at her that way? Hands pressed to her racing heart, she sank down on the bench and closed her eyes,What was this she felt every time he came near her? She could hardly breathe. Her palms grew damn, her tongue sluggish. He had only to look other and she trembled.
Hadassah pressed her hands to her hot cheeks. She had no right to feel anything for Marcus Valerian. She had prayed that God would remove the confusing feelings she had for him and open her eyes that she might better serve. But Marcus had only to appear for her heart to feel as though it would jump from her chest.
Now yes, women fall for abusive men all the time. However, in my understanding these relationships frequently begin with the man being charming and hiding his controlling and abusive tendencies until the relationship is already established. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Marcus has been constantly bristly toward Hadassah from the outset. Even this interlude, which ends with a conspiratorial agreement to keep Julia out of trouble, began with Marcus being harsh toward Hadassah.
This feels more like a romance trope than a believable story. It’s the sweet, inexperienced young girl falls for rich, broody playboy storyline, with its corollary rich, broody playboy changes his ways under the spell of sweet, inexperienced young girl narrative. Actually, there is something somewhat Fifty Shades of Grey about this story. And none of this narrative is responsible. I mean really, what kind of message does this storyline send the book’s teenage evangelical readers?
But as long as we’re talking about how horrible women are—*cough* Calabah *cough*—it’s time to talk about Bithia. Through Hadassah’s musings about her pants feelings, Rivers lets us know that Marcus is still sleeping with Bithia, the family’s Egyptian slave girl, and that Phoebe believes Bithia has healing powers and has enlisted her to try to heal Decimus. Not surprisingly, Hadassah, too, attributes supernatural powers to Bithia—but not good ones.
She prayed Marcus Valerian would fall in love and marry a good woman like his mother. She didn’t want to see him fall beneath Bithia’s black spells. Bithia was like Egypt in the Scriptures, seductive and beguiling, beckoning a man to his destruction. Bithia seemed wise in the ways of the world, but she was completely ignorant of what she brought upon herself. Commerce with the powers of darkness might gain her what she desired for the moment, but at what cost in the end?
Rivers recounts a conversation between Enoch and Hadassah, in which the two discussed Bithia. Enoch, as you remember, is a Jewish senior slave of some sort, who was sent to the market to buy new slaves the day he came across Hadassah and brought her into the Valerian household. We’ve talked before about the antisemitism present in Rivers’ portrayal of Jerusalem and of Hadassah’s fellow captives, and here we find more of the same.
“I pray God strikes her dead before she can do more harm to the master with her black arts,” he said as he accompanied Hadassah to the marketplace one morning.
“Enoch, she really believes in her heart that what she is doing will cure the master….”
“And that’s an excuse for what she is practicing on him?”
“She is a deceiver and a sorceress.”
“She is the one deceived, Enoch. She believes in false gods and false teachings because she has never heard the truth.”
“You are too young to understand the evil that’s in the world.”
“If Bithia knew the Lord, things would be different for the master and for her.”
His eyes flashed in astonishment. “What are you suggesting? That I make an Egyptian harlot a proselyte?”
And it goes on line this for a while, Hadassah showing compassion and Enoch enraged that she would even suggest the idea of proselytizing Bithia.
“You would give away what is holy even to unclean Gentile dogs?”
This makes me extremely uncomfortable. Perhaps if Enoch’s religion hadn’t faced millennia of persecution, I would feel differently. After all, it is absolutely true that Christians and Jews approached proselytizing differently.
The problem I’m having with this portrayal is that essentially all of Hadassah’s interactions with Jews, at this time, have been to show a contrast between Hadassah’s compassion, open-hearted love, and patience, on the one side, and Jewish bitterness, dogmatism, and exclusivity on the other.
The only Jew portrayed positively in this book is Caleb, a gladiator Atretes gets to know briefly, but Hadassah never meets him and he appears to exist solely to predispose Atretes positively toward Jews and thus, later in the book, open Atretes to Hadassah’s influence—“I knew another Jew once. He was a good man.” Every other Jew in this book is miserly, bitter, hateful, and narrow-minded.
The message is clear: Christians good; Jews bad. There is no nuance here at all, no understanding that all sorts of people hold all sorts of beliefs, that there are people in every religion that are open-hearted, or dogmatic. Even this book’s Roman characters receive more positive treatment than its Jewish characters. It’s almost like we’re in the New Testament.
This section ends with Phoebe coming out looking for Bithia and noticing Hadassah. Phoebe asks Hadassah to come sing to Decmius and distract him—Pheobe says she heard Hadassah singing for Julia the other evening, she said. Happy to serve, Julia sings a Psalm to Decimus, first in Hebrew, then in Greek, then in Aramaic. It seems that for Rivers, it’s just fine to tap into Jewish culture—writing a Christian character who sings Jewish Psalms and tells Jewish stories—while portraying actual Jews as horrid shits.
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