Chapter Two in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her relationship with Julius Caesar.
At age six, Caesar’s predecessor as Pontifex Maximus had chosen Lucia from a dozen girls of good family whose parents were both living. She still possessed the tiny white tunic she had worn on that occasion thirteen years ago, her first appearance at an adult gathering.
“You are too young for jewelry, Lucia,” her mother Marcia decided as they were dressing, “but you may have this golden bee for your hair. The bee represents chastity and industry, so it is a fine emblem for a prospective Vestal.”
Lucia knew what industry was. She was obliged to spend two hours a day spinning wool, and another hour learning the loom, for her father Lucius was old-fashioned, a stickler for the Way of the Elders. Her long white tunic was the product of her own labors, although her nurse Berenice had done some of the weaving. But chastity was a more mysterious concept. As far as she could tell, it meant that one had to stay indoors and not be seen by men other than her father and brothers. It seemed odd, therefore, that she was now to attend a grown-up party with a great many strange men.
At the home of Metellus Pius, a grand place across the Tiber river, the girls were allowed to wander the central flower garden, while the adults looked on from the shaded colonnade: ladies in colorful gowns and vivid jewels, men in snowy white togas. Lucia ignored them, having spied a fountain in the shape of a male toddler with a tight grip on the neck of a goose. From the goose’s mouth, water poured into a shallow stone basin, and this in turn was pierced to let the water rain onto a miniature pond with water lilies.
As she examined the lilies, Metellus Pius spoke behind her. “I bought that piece in Antioch. Do you like it, Lucia? What do you think of naked boys?”
Lucia looked up at Metellus Pius, noting the odd dress of the Pontifex Maximus. On his head was a funny cap with a pointed spike, and he wore a purple-bordered toga, draped so as to reveal an ivory-handled knife in a sheath attached to the belt of his tunic. She thought of her own brothers, who pulled her hair and laughed uproariously at jokes about turds.
“I hate boys,” she said firmly. “Look what he’s doing to the poor goose!”
Metellus Pius chuckled and drifted off to talk to her mother. The very next day, Fabia paid a visit to her parents, and the day after that, Metellus returned to take her by the hand and lead her away, pronouncing the ritual formula: “I take you, Beloved, in perfect accord with the law, to perform the duties which a Vestal accomplishes.” Henceforth she was to live in the Vestal House with the other Virgins, and never have to do with naked boys, and help with the roasting of the sacred grain, and tend Vesta’s fire, and perform a great many other tasks, and wear her hair in the six braided locks. Her father was very proud.
Chastity, it turned out, was what the Goddess valued most, together with attention to detail and a good memory. Each task had to be undertaken in a state of utmost purity, which meant fasting beforehand, or avoiding certain foods, and taking care lest one inadvertently come into contact with someone in mourning. The daily prayers must be spoken without hesitancy or slips of the tongue; otherwise it was necessary to atone for the errors by purifying oneself and beginning again. Above all, the Goddess’ flame in the temple must be tended night and day, and never allowed to go out. If it did, the Vestal responsible would be scourged by the Pontifex Maximus, a dreadful and humiliating punishment. Worse, the infraction would debated by the College of Pontifices, who must consider whether the event was merely unlucky, or a prodigious signal from heaven and a threat to the Gods’ Peace. Such deliberations required a knowledge of the affairs of the State. If the State was prosperous, the sign might be dismissed as insignificant, but if Roma was under threat, sterner forms of atonement would be required.
All this and more Lucia learned from Fabia, who was a kind woman, but unhappy. Lucia supposed that this was because of her thwarted desire for a baby. Although Fabia never spoke of it, Lucia saw the adoration in her eyes whenever they visited a matron to admire a plump, smiling girl or squalling, red-faced boy. Once, a mother suspected that Fabia’s yearning envy might harm her son, and covered the child in a cloth decorated with big round eyes, to reflect the malign influence back on its sender. This insult, reported to Metellus Pius by a haughty Vestal named Sergia, caused a scandal which required a meeting of the College. They deliberated for three hours, and ruled that Licinius Fronto must atone to the Goddess and the City for his wife’s disrespect to the Chief Vestal. He was required to fund the cost of a new slave, skilled in the dressing of ladies’ hair, for the Vestal House.
“What do Metellus Pius and his cronies know about the will of the Goddess?” complained Fabia, who would have preferred to quietly let the matter drop. “They only want to save themselves the expense of a new servant.” For her part, Fabia had to be content with “mothering” the other Vestals, most of whom rejected her efforts. Licinia was a year younger than Fabia, and devoted herself to pastries and real estate when not on duty. Sergia and Popilia were also grown women, and left the Vestal House at every opportunity. They were mad for every kind of public game and performance, and as Vestals, they always got the choicest seats, with an awning to shield them from the sun. They also found plenty of opportunities to talk with men, and Fabia constantly had to reprimand them for wearing cosmetics.
Ennia was Lucia’s closest friend, just five years older. She was the descendant of a famous poet from the south of Italy who had written about the history of Roma, and her chamber was always full of dusty old scrolls. Ennia told Lucia how once upon a time, the daughters of the King had performed the duties of the Vestals, in the days before the Republic. The king’s role in maintaining the Way of the Elders and the Gods’ Peace was now divided among many priests, but the Pontifex Maximus still had his offices in a building called the Royale. Other cities in Latium had their own Vestals, including Lavinium, the ancient city founded by the Trojan immigrant Aeneas. Ennia was very learned, able to read both Latin and Greek. She even knew something of the Oscan language spoken in the south, and taught Lucia a few words.
Lucia herself was in need of mothering, and at first missed her home terribly, for visits with relatives were discouraged. Then, only two years after her consecration, both her parents succumbed to an epidemic fever which savaged Roma like a hostile invader, then quickly receded as hundreds of funeral pyres burned outside the walls of the city. Together with her two brothers, Lucia inherited a share of her family home on Wide Way, but once her parents were dead, she rarely saw Aulus and Marcus. In the early days of her service, Fabia would tuck her into bed, and her body-slave Andromeda would brush her hair, or sing lullabies and stroke her back. It was from Andromeda that she learned Greek, for her father had not deemed that language necessary to her education. Every day was busier than the last, for the Vestals were expected to assist at many a public ceremony, and the tasks required by the Goddess were unceasing.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.
Historical note: Most of the ritual information is accurate–including the weird costume of the Pontifex Maximus. Metellus Pius was Pontifex Maximus from 130-63 BCE.
Ennia is the fictional descendant of the great Roman poet Ennius.