Book question answer guide: A) The Romans, B) Women’s lives, C) The mystery, D) Religious beliefs and practices,

A) The Romans

  1. The Romans practiced a belief called “Paterfamilias,” where the father is the ruling authority of life and Death over each child, spouse, slave, relative, etc., living under his “roof.” He was also the sole person responsible for his family’s well-being and safety, financial dealings, education, marriage arrangements, social status, political appointments, etc. What was Sabina risking by disobeying her father’s orders? Homelessness, he could have retaliated and given her no money or taken away her freedoms. Her father could refuse any future marriage offers or force her into a marriage she didn’t want. He could have forbidden her from practicing her religion.
  2. The free slave labor from captured foreign citizens was intricately woven into every facet of Roman society. Prisoners often came with valuable skill sets that the Romans put to good use. Slaves held positions in households, businesses, and government. What were some jobs that slaves performed in the story? Childhood nurse, cook, private secretary, bodyguard, jail guards, gardener, cook and server, home door attendant/guard.
  3. Both Sabina’s pagan and Portia’s Christian households owned slaves. Christians are admonished throughout the New Testament to treat their servants and enslaved people as Christian brothers and sisters. How does this jive with the culture of the time? It was unheard of because enslaved people were considered non-people. They were property only and could be beaten, raped, tortured, or killed on a whim. In Philemon 1:15-16. Paul is returning a run-away slave Onesimus to his Christian masters.

“For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother. He is especially beloved to me, but even more so to you, both in person and in the Lord.”

  1. The economic and legal system used slavery to pay off debts by selling yourself or family members and as punishment for crime. Did anything surprise you about how slavery was portrayed and functioned in the story?

B) Women’s lives

  1. Sabina’s widowhood is a significant theme throughout the novel. A marriageable age for men was 18 yrs old – early 30’s, for women 14 yrs-19 yrs., although younger marriages were not uncommon. At 20 years old, Sabina accepted a marriage offer from Xeno, a much older non-Christian man. Portia had advised Sabina against it. Why did Sabina agree to the marriage? Sabina felt her marriage prospects were dwindling. She was desperate to get out from under her father’s uncaring control. She had liked Xeno. He was kind. She felt life had little purpose if she wasn’t a wife and mother. Her father was hands-off, and she didn’t have a mother to help arrange and shepherd the marriage process.
  2. Were her reasons based on logic or emotion? Can you relate to times when you made decisions based on emotion?
  3. How would marriage have changed Sabina’s life? It would have given her a respected status as a matron. It gave her the potential for children, also a status symbol. She’d be working and building a future for her own family. She might have more control and money to spend – or not. Xeno may have been against Christianity and forbidden her practice of it – or not. Her freedom stemmed from her father’s indifference; her husband could have a different opinion.
  4. How did widowhood affect Sabina? It placed her back in the perceived dead-end world she was trying to escape. Xeno’s death and the belief that Sabina was cursed made her marriage prospects worse. She is not getting any younger.
  5. What other two marriages in the story didn’t end happily? The silversmith Davos and Marcella were arrested for counterfeiting and the young widow Livia became dependent on her abusive mother-in-law.
  6. How have cultural norms for marriage changed or not changed over time?
  7. Throughout history, women have had few opportunities for independence and personal wealth. Roman businessmen and women (working for a living) were subject to prejudice and ostracism from the higher social circles. Portia, Sabina’s friend and mentor, is portrayed as a wealthy businesswoman. How was this possible? Manual labor and craftsmanship were common for lower-class women needing to support families. If a woman was on her own or her husband or head of the family allowed it, she could work in commercial trade. Because Portia’s husband did not belong to the nobility, his family structure allowed Portia a management role few patrician women had.

C) The Mystery

  1. Sabina does not solve the mystery alone. The reluctant partnership with Yechiel provides some benefits and some disadvantages. What did Yechiel bring to the investigation that helped solve his brother’s murder? Yechiel’s steadfast belief in his brother’s character provided the impetus to pursue inquiries beyond the apparent affair with Marcella or Livia. Benjamin’s dedication to his God eliminated him from worshipping the Gnostic deity. He maintained Benjamin’s disregard for personal glory. Yechiel provided access to the scriptorium and a protector for a single female. He was another point of view and someone with whom to discuss the clues and possible suspects.
  2. What complicated this tense partnership? Yechiel refused to consider options that didn’t align with his perception of his brother, such as the rumors of the affair. Yechiel was married, which made this partnership a stretch. He was stubborn and egotistical. He kept secrets and wouldn’t share his involvement with the coin. His prejudice and cultural suspicion of women and gentiles (people not of the Jewish faith). His total distrust of Christians, and he blamed the church for his brother’s murder.
  3. Many clues led to uncovering the murderer and the motive. How did Livia’s disbelief in Christ and her questioning guide Sabina to the evidence against Valerius? It was Livia’s doubting about the resurrection of Christ that prompted Benjamin to bring her to the Apostle John. Her continued questioning led to Livia memorizing the quote from John’s original letter.
  4. At the end of the book, what happened to Rufus, Benjamin’s fellow scribe and devotee of Valerius? Was this a fitting ending? He took over Valerius’s religion/cult and continued to preach Valerius’s new gospel.

D) Religious beliefs and practices

  1.  To help assimilate conquered lands, the Romans adopted many foreign beliefs and practices and tolerated many more (See my blog Christian Martyrs.) The religions of the day were polytheistic – and people worshipped multiple gods. If adding a few more gods to the pantheon was not a problem, why did many Romans consider Christianity a threat? Worshipping Jesus was not the crime. The obstacle was worshipping the emperor and other local gods. You were considered an atheist if you did not worship the Roman gods who protected the empire. These peculiar Christians and Jews didn’t believe in the pantheon of gods and forbade their members from worshipping any god but the “One True God.” Christians didn’t join in the pagan festivals and sacrifices, thereby neglecting the worship of the Roman gods, who would then vent their outrage and anger on the locals with famines, plagues, floods, etc. B. The Christian prohibition of longstanding Roman conduct, such as infanticide, suicide, and child and temple prostitutes, would have baffled and perhaps enraged a traditional Roman. C. The civic offense was nighttime meetings, which Rome outlawed to limit rebellion and secret plots. Because the Christians’ weekly meetings were kept out of public view, their night gatherings broke the law.
  2. Are Christian beliefs controversial today? Are they considered a threat to society? “More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined, according to David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, two of the world’s leading religious demographers. The trend has not abated in this century. Though the statistics are uncertain and highly dependent on counting methodologies, the number of Christians killed for their faith every year almost certainly lies in the thousands and possibly tens of thousands. According to the International Society for Human Rights, Christians are estimated to make up 80 percent of those persecuted for their religion.”
  3. At times, there was one way to avoid being prosecuted and thrown in prison for being a Christian. What was the “get out of jail free card” that Sabina said Apollos would never use? To offer a sacrifice to the emperor “god,” in 96 AD/CE Domitian. This would declare that you did not believe in the Christian god and that your loyalty belonged to Domitian.
  4. Sabina had good reasons to keep her faith hidden, but God pulled her out of her “safe space” and into the center of a dangerous drama. What were Sabina’s reservations in helping to save her bishop, Apollos? She was risking her father’s political rivals discovering her faith and destroying her family financially, socially, and physically. The wealth of any enemy of Rome was subject to confiscation, and whoever was responsible for the arrest was awarded a share of the seized wealth.
  5. Did Sabina’s risk to save Apollos affect her faith? Many psychologists agree people rarely grow stronger in times of prosperity and peace. Like a muscle strengthening with resistance, character, and faith is built by adversity. We can’t discover God’s life-changing power until he acts on our challenges. Sabina can look back on what appeared to be a no-win scenario and find her prayers answered.
  6. Did Sabina’s actions change her idea of her identity? She discovered a “talent” that she didn’t know she had. Her father acknowledged her savvy in solving the murder. And she found she wasn’t an only child.
  7. How did it change her dreams for her future? At this point in her life, solving a murder is a one-time event. She is lamenting Marcus sailing away. When Sabina is drawn into the next murder mystery, she will have to look more seriously at God’s plans for her future.
  8. If Sabina had remained on the sidelines, how would the story have changed? As Portia pointed out, Sabina was the only one in a position to help. The challenge of being a pagan magistrate’s daughter was also the key to accessing the magisterial “ear.” Apollos would indeed have died, and Valerius would have distributed the counterfeit letter causing potential chaos within the nascent church. For believing Christians, God’s will supersede man’s schemes, and Sabina’s answer to follow God’s call was the story.