Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pilate's Wife A Novel of the Roman Empire by Antoinette May

This novel, written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Claudia, the clarivoyant wife of Pontius Pilate, is an interesting portrait of what life was like for a Roman wife living at the time of Jesus Christ. Though Claudia is by no means the typical, ordinary Roman wife, she struggles with a gift that is also a curse--second sight, and the knowledge that she is powerless to change or prevent what she "sees" from coming to pass, as when her beloved sister Marcella is seduced by their cousin, future emperor Caligula, and forced to become a Vestal Virgin as punishment. Even though the principal qualification--virginity--is lacking, the malicious Empress Livia pulls strings to get her in, which years later leads to an even greater tragedy.

While visiting Egypt with her family, Claudia is called by the goddess Isis and initiated into her cult. On her first visit to the Temple, she meets a dark and intense young man with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge studying to become a teacher--Jesus of Galilee, whose path will cross hers again one day, but for now it is just a brief, chance encounter, and Claudia has other things on her mind.

Two years later, when it is time for her to begin thinking seriously about marriage, Claudia becomes enamored of handsome, ambitious Pontius Pilate, a rising star in the political world, who has something of a reputation as a fortune-hunter and a womanizer. Knowing that her own dowry is not substantial, Claudia's hopes are dashed, but, unable to forget Pilate, she begs a love potion from the mystagogue at the Temple of Isis. She is warned that it comes at a high price, by which the mystagogue does not mean money, but spoiled, willful, heedless, and impatient young Claudia is prepared to pay any cost to become Pilate's wife.

Whether it is the love potion working or fate, Claudia and Pilate soon marry. But their happiness is shortlived. Pilate is ruthlessly ambitious, a man who puts his career above both loyalty and family, and a confirmed and unrepentant philanderer, who is disappointed when Claudia fails to give him a son. She begins to fear he will divorce her, for her infertility and also because her family has fallen into disgrace with the Emperor Tiberius, which has led more than once to death and tragedy. Claudia also starts to lament her lot as a Roman woman whose fate rests wholly in her husband's hands and to long to take control of her own destiny.

While visiting the public baths, Claudia overhears gossip that Pilate is having an affair and again resorts to magic potions to win him back, yet again heedless of the cost and the warning that such things bind the person who casts the spell far more than they do the one it is cast upon.

Desperate for a son and heir, Pilate sends Claudia to the luxury spa of the day, the Asklepion, for a regimine of mud baths, massages, and dream therapy. While there she befriends Miriam of Magdala (Mary Magdalene), a warm and learned woman, who also turns out to be one of the most notorious courtesans in Rome. When the healing God Asklepios fails to visit Claudia in a dream, to guide the temple doctors in her treatment, she is subjected to the Asklepion's most shocking remedy of all--a night in the Snake Pit.

Despite her fear and pleading to be spared this horror, Claudia finds salvation in the Snake Pit and emerges from it a much wiser and more confident woman, declaring that Asklepios saved her, "he gave me back myself." The scales have now fallen from her eyes, and she sees her life with an all new clarity. Most importantly, she realizes now that her "love" for Pilate was never love at all, and the mystagogue at the Temple of Isis was right all along, the spells she resorted to to win him bound Claudia, not Pilate, in the grip of an obsession that the enlightenment she found in the Snake Pit has now freed her from.

But Claudia's ambitions to physically free herself from her marriage, despite the cost and scandal, come to naught, and their marriage continues to be one of alternating periods of estrangement and reconciliation during which Pilate continues to pursue other women and his career and Claudia gives birth to a daughter and seeks solace in the arms of Holtan, a gladiator whose life she once saved, and the true love she should have waited for.

When Pilate is appointed Governor of Judea, Claudia dutifully accompanies him to Jerusalem, and there renews her friendship with Miriam of Magdala and hears the disillusioned courtesan's tale of woe, is in the audience sitting beside Herodias for Salome's dance--or rather striptease--that results in the beheading of John the Baptist, and attends the wedding at Cana where water is miraculously transformed into wine. Through it all, Claudia is troubled by nightmares about a crucifixion that will lead to great misery in the world and damn Pontius Pilate's name forever, and a shadowy figure who she knows, yet does not know, nailed to the cross and wearing a crown of thorns, an innocent man whose fate she is powerless to alter.

Pilate's Wife is an enjoyable book that gives a voice to a woman who makes only a cameo appearance in the pages of The Bible and history.

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