Chapter 3 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her relationship with Julius Caesar.
On her thirteenth birthday, Lucia’s monthly flux arrived. She had heard all about the monthlies from the other women, so it was reassuring to join their adult sisterhood, but the flux was painful and inconvenient. Andromeda showed her how to use cloths to absorb the blood so as not to stain her fine gowns, and brought her herbal infusions to ease the ache.
That evening, she was invited to Fabia’s chamber and offered a favorite childhood treat, honeyed pears with chunks of tangy cheese. The Chief Vestal hailed from one of the most distinguished patrician families in Roma, while Lucia was of plebeian stock, yet there was an equality in the sisterhood. Fabia performed her share of labors without complaint and rarely referred to her own ancestry, though she was the descendant of Consuls and even a Dictator.
“It’s time for you to learn more about the Goddess, Lucia,” said Fabia, “things that the Pontifices don’t know. Finish your food and wash. Then we will go to the temple.”
They left the Vestal House and climbed the steps of Vesta’ circular temple, which was off-limits to all men, even the Pontifex Maximus. At its center was the raised hearth which held the Goddess’ flame; the smoke rose to a hole in the roof. As a young Vestal, Lucia learned how Romulus had chosen this exact spot to house the civic hearth and the other Pledges of Rule which Aeneas brought from Troy: his own Storeroom gods and the image of Minerva called the Palladium. As long as the Goddess’ flame burned, and these sacred objects were kept safe, Roma could never be conquered. Although Lucia entered the temple almost daily to tend the flame, she had never laid eyes on the other Pledges of Rule, but she had heard of them from the older Vestals.
“Bits of metal and wood, and ugly as can be,” Sergia had said dismissively. Fortunately for her, neither Fabia nor Licinia was present, but Ennia gasped in horror, and Popilia laughed nervously, her eyes darting about to see who might have witnessed the offense.
“If we have to depend on those to save us from invaders, we’re in trouble,” continued Sergia, who prided herself on her education and sophistication. At dinner parties, she loved to discuss politics and philosophy with Senators, many of whom privately believed that the gods were fictions, useful only for manipulating the people. After a few drinks, some had even been bold enough to share these ideas with a Vestal. “Of course, we keep the images handy to impress the unwashed masses,” she added, “but if the Gauls invade, a couple of legions is all we really need.”
“Don’t you trust in the Gods’ Peace, Sergia?” asked Lucia. Her parents had raised her to revere everything sacred. Before she left for the Vestal House, her father had explained that not every story passed down from the time of the Elders was accurate, but that each one nevertheless held a lesson. Sometimes the lessons were hidden, he said, and required careful interpretation. Therefore, she was never to dismiss sacred things as simple or foolish, but instead to remember her own foolishness and lack of knowledge.
In answer, Sergia shrugged her shoulders. “You’ll see when you get your monthlies,” she told Lucia. “Fabia will try to impress you, but it’s a big load of nothing.”
Now Fabia led her past the chests which held the wills of the city’s most important men, and the wills of the Vestals themselves, for they were the only Roman women allowed to dispose of their property as men did. The walls were bare except for a phallic symbol carved in relief; this Lucia knew to be a powerful icon of protection. The Vestals called this power “Fascinus” and offered him monthly sacrifices of intact male sheep and goats. On the floor were two polished metal grilles which gave access to the hollow foundation of the temple. One opened to a small chamber with a pit where the ashes from the Goddess’ flame were kept; this was cleaned once a year in Februarius, before the flame was renewed in the first days of Mars’ month. The other door was locked, but Fabia now removed a key from her belt and opened it. She beckoned to Lucia to follow her down a stone staircase, which led to a semicircular room in the base of the temple. Located directly beneath the temple hearth was a half-column of stone with a little hinged door. Below the door, a niche held a small cube-shaped altar.
“We use no image of the Goddess,” Fabia began, “because the Elders never did. She is the Goddess of Air and Fire, as well as the Hearth which encloses them and makes a home. But now I will tell you something you must never speak to any man. She also rules Earth and Water, here and in the world below.”
“Do you mean in Orcus?” asked Lucia. “After we die, we will meet her? Is she…the bride of Father Dis?”
“As she rules above, so she rules below, but she is no one’s wife, just as we are not wives,” said Fabia. “Remember this always. As she rules above, so she rules below. Do you understand me? Repeat what I have told you.” She waited for Lucia to speak the words. “Now, I must show you the Pledges of Rule, which came from our ancestors in Troy.”
Fabia drew from the pouch on her belt a vial of oil perfumed with frankincense, and poured it over the altar. She held up both hands and prayed, “Pure one, Goddess of fire and air, hearth-warmer, look with favor on your handmaiden Lucia. And you, Shield-maiden, Pallas, Goddess of a thousand works, Healer, City-Savior, look with favor on your handmaiden Lucia. And you, Gods of the Storehouse, Sustainers of Roma, be gracious toward your handmaiden Lucia.” She unlocked the door, and drew aside a little curtain of faded red wool to reveal several objects.
Lucia had been holding her breath. She let it out slowly now, looking at the gods in the dim light from the trapdoor above. Three small figures stood in the hollow space. Two were slender, naked males roughly formed of bronze, figures small enough to conceal in a cloak or toga. One held its right fist to its chest and extended the other hand forward, but whatever item it had once grasped was gone. Its mate was its mirror image, holding its left fist to its chest and extending its right hand. Both seemed to be smiling. The third figure was thin and elongated, made of wood shrunken and darkened with age. Its helmet had a tall crest, and it strode forward with an arm rigidly raised as though to deploy a weapon. The arm was broken off at the elbow. The head was oversized and the eyes were huge, set off with ivory inlays. The mouth was a straight line. This was the holiest image in the city. In the year the Romans first defeated the Carthaginians, nearly two centuries before Lucia’s time, a cinder from Vesta’s fire had kindled the wooden structure of the temple. Caecilius, the Pontifex Maximus, had entered and rescued the Pledges of Rule, but the fire made him blind. He himself explained afterward that this was the correct punishment for any man who laid eyes or hands on the Palladium.
Lucia raised her hands in the gesture of prayer. “Hail, gods of the Senate and People of Roma. May you always be gracious toward us. I am Lucia.” She hesitated, unsure what else to say, but Fabia nodded, encouraging her. She turned back to the gods. “I promise to serve you well for as long as I remain a Vestal, and to honor you always.”
Fabia explained that as an adult Vestal, part of her duty now would be to draw water from the spring of the Camenae, ancient goddesses who dwelled by the old city gate that led to the Appian Way.
“You will collect the water in a special jug which must never touch the ground; in fact, it has a rounded base so that it will spill the contents, unless it is placed in a stand.” She pointed to a bronze stand beside the niche and altar. “Every month, we purify the Pledges of Rule by sprinkling this water as we pray for the safety of the Senate and People of Roma. For now, you will only fetch the water, and study the prayers I assign until you can recite them without error.”
As she examined the stand for the water jug, Lucia noticed that it stood near a metal grille similar in size and shape to the door through which they had come. But they were at the ground level now, or even below it. She pointed to the grille, which was secured with a heavy lock.
“Is that another door downward? Where does it lead?”
“It is a drain,” replied Fabia. “It connects to the Great Sewer built by the kings. Vesta’s temple has stood on this spot since those early days. I surmise that the ancient Vestals used it to dispose of the offscourings when they cleaned the temple at the time of the New Year. But we do not open it.” She turned away, beckoning for Lucia to follow her up the stairs. Lucia understood that she was to ask no more questions.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.
Historical note: The room beneath the temple is fictional…so far as I know. The Pledges of Rome were real, though nobody knows what they looked like.