The Emperor’s Babe

The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo is a novel in verse about Zuleika, a daughter of Sudanese immigrants living in pre-London or Londinium in AD 211. She is married off to a Roman senator, Felix, and is definitely not happy where she is. While the whole book was really enjoyable for me, there was one particular, minuscule part that fascinated me and forced me to look deeper into the background and history of what marriage was in Roman London times.

After a brief Google search, I came across a Wikipedia article about marriage in ancient Rome and while I know Wikipedia is not the most credible of sources, I thought this was still a good place to start. The very first line is, “The lives of elite Roman women were essentially determined by their marriages.” So while elite young men were able to marry in their early twenties after a year or so of military service, girls were married off exponentially younger. “The higher the social position of the girl, the sooner betrothal tended to follow puberty, since marriages were arranged for social reasons.” We all know, from the studies of Falling Angels by Tracey Chevalier that for a long time, women didn’t have the rights that they deserved and were treated as property by their husbands. Zuleika was 11 when she was married to Felix, I was barely starting to even like boys at 11. The biggest component of these marriages, however, was the dowry element. A dowry is the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to the marriage. It is her family’s way of helping to pay for household expenses. While it is never stated if Zuleika’s family provided a dowry, I have to think that there was some kind of payment involved. This idea is incredible to me and makes me wonder to how we ended up with marriage involving a love component.

According to a The Week article entitled “How Marriage Has Changed Over Centuries,” pair-bonding began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life. Eventually, marriage expanded into a means for preserving power. Kings married off their daughters to forge alliances, acquire land, and produce legitimate heirs. In 1215, marriage was added as a sacrament of the church. And in terms of love, “marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion.” A Roman politician in was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd Century B.C. for kissing his wife in public! Marriage didn’t enter the scene until in the 17th or 18th century. Now, marriage is all in relation to love and emotion, so this whole history of marriage is incredibly interesting to see where it progressed from and to think what it could be today if Enlightenment thinkers didn’t think that life was about the pursuit of happiness.

How all of this relates to Zuleika really strikes me because I have to wonder what would have happened if she had been able to choose who she married- her entire life could be different. Maybe if she was given a choice, she could have found someone she loved, could have waited until her body was completely ready to experience the consummation of that marriage, and could have enjoyed a long, happy life with someone that she cared about. Her affair with the emperor probably wouldn’t have happened and then the “disgrace” she brought to her husband wouldn’t have ended with her dying. But this time period didn’t allow for that kind of thinking. Everything was a business transaction and her marriage to Felix allowed for her family to persevere and retain their financial standing.

This idea of marriage has expanded and grown so much throughout the course of history that it definitely affects the theme of Mapping Englishness. Zuleika’s life takes place in a pre-London, an amazing idea to me and definitely brings up the idea of a heterotopia. If you think about it, we are walking, sitting, breathing, living where thousands of people before us who are dead now walked, sat, breathed, and lived. It’s an amazing idea that is constantly in my mind as we walk the streets of London and see the architecture of many of those before us. Marriage is a part of our culture, our history, it’s written in our religion and in our government. I liked the imagery in Virginia Woolf’s “The London Scene” where there is a couple getting married in the industrialized island of St. Clement Danes. This idea of marriage sprouting into a thing of love from a thing of power is incredibly meaningful and I have to think that Zuleika could have lived a more fulfilled and rebellious and crazy life if she wasn’t confined in her societal restrictions.

[For giggles: a Q & A with Bernadine Evaristo AND a BBC “Ten Key Moments in the History of Marriage article]


1 thought on “The Emperor’s Babe

  1. Pingback: History; A Branch of Knowledge | Mapping London

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