Chapter 4 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her relationship with Julius Caesar. The Ides of March have come in real life. Not just yet in the book.
Now that Lucia was no longer a girl, she was permitted to attend the festival of the Good Goddess. The rites of this goddess were more stringently closed to men than those of Vesta herself. Even her true name was not spoken. The annual celebration of the Good Goddess was held in December in the home of a top magistrate, hosted not by him but by his wife. All images of men must be removed from the house or covered, and all males, even slaves and animals, were strictly excluded. The guests were matrons of Roma, friends of that year’s hostess, but the Vestals helped each hostess organize the festivities, for only they could ensure that the sacred procedures remained consistent from one year to the next.
This year there was a rivalry between the two Consuls, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius, who was already called Magnus, “the Great,” even though he was only thirty-six. Crassus was fresh from a victory over the rebel slave Spartacus. At first uncertain of success, he had made the mistake of asking the Senate for reinforcements. They sent Magnus, who had just completed a long campaign to hold Spain against a Roman rebel, Sertorius. Although Crassus won the decisive battle against Spartacus and his gladiators, Magnus arrived in time to slaughter the remaining fugitives, and claim the credit.
“Poor Crassus!” complained Licinia. “He dared not ask the Senate for a Triumph, for he fought against slaves rather than soldiers, yet nobody admits how dangerous this Spartacus was. Why, he tried to engage Crassus in combat on the field, and killed two of his centurions! Crassus is older and far more distinguished than Magnus. But the younger man received the Triumph, and the lesser man deigned to allow the greater, Crassus, to be his partner as Consul.”
A similar rivalry between Crassus’ wife Tertulla, and Magnus’ wife Mucia Tertia might have been expected, but Tertulla was a woman of passive temperament and delicate health, worn out by the four sons she had borne. Crassus inherited her, so to speak, from his own brother, and less charitable observers opined that he had married her to keep her considerable dowry in the family. Mucia Tertia, Pompeius Magnus’ third wife, was an entirely different case. Where Tertulla preferred to remain insulated within the cocoon of her husband’s magnificent wealth, Mucia Tertia delighted in the showy wings of the social butterfly, and reveled in her position as the wife of Roma’s most admired general. So it was that Tertulla gladly yielded the role of hostess to her more ambitious rival.
Lucia was not included in the planning, so she entered Pompeius Magnus’ house on the evening of the rite eager to learn more of the Good Goddess, who was so called because of her great reputation for healing. Even men could ask for her help by leaving gifts outside her shrine on the Aventine hill. Mucia Tertia welcomed each guest in the spacious atrium, where the funerary masks of Pompeius’ ancestors had been swathed in linen. There were few enough of these, Lucia noticed, in comparison with the abundant masks found in the home of a man like Crassus, whose family, although plebeian, was said to be “older than Romulus.”
The entire house was decked out in vine leaves, and each woman who was not a Vestal wore a garland of greenery. There were violets and other flowers in little pots, specially grown for the rite, and lamps everywhere brightened the rooms. In the atrium there was a platform with a couch, strewn with multiple layers of finely woven cloth in red and purple. Here the guests found the brightly painted wooden image of the Good Goddess, brought from her Aventine temple. About half life-size, she sat on a throne, her head veiled; she held a horn of plenty in her left hand and an offering bowl in her right. Before her was a table, already heaped with fruits, nuts and bowls of grain. Later she would also receive a serving of meat, and a bowl of wine.
The first order of business was the immolation of a young sow, a homely but friendly creature, who was waiting at an altar set up in the garden, so as not to leave bloodstains on Pompeius’ mosaic floors. For this task, the women turned to Fabia, the guest most experienced in sacrificial technique, and her slave Acra. The handling of animal offerings was a privilege usually reserved to men, who learned the necessary skills of slaughter, divination and butchery, and few women possessed them. Fabia carefully intoned the prayers for the safety of Roma and the birth of many fine babies, cast the salted meal called mola salsa over the sow, and ran the flat of her knife over the animal’s back, but it was Acra who quickly and firmly cut the sow’s throat, so that she collapsed with no struggle, and collected the lifeblood in a bowl to pour over the altar. She deftly extracted the liver and handed it to Fabia, who examined it.
“Smooth and flawless! Good auspices from the Good Goddess,” she announced. “Our offering is accepted.” She sliced off pieces of the liver, heart and lungs to burn on the altar with two thigh bones cut from the hind legs. After more prayers, she slowly poured a cupful of unmixed, strong wine on the fire, dousing the embers. After that, the sow was left in the hands of the female kitchen slaves, who would roast the meat for the feast. Fabia washed her hands and arms, but did not change her robe or tunic, which were spattered with the blood of the Goddess’ consecrated gift.
“Ladies, let us adjourn to the dining room,” said Mucia Tertia proudly, “and drink some milk. I believe that you will all be delighted with the quality of this milk,” she added smilingly. “Only the finest is served in the home of Magnus. For the Good Goddess’ festival, he has secured us a Chian vintage.” In the dining area, a huge, ornate silver bowl was set up to serve unmixed wine, a man’s drink. It was said that in the first days of the Republic, any woman who drank wine was put to death, but in modern times, women feasted and drank alongside their husbands. Yet only certain types of wine were appropriate for ladies—sweeter varieties, always well-watered. Tonight, the women would drink their fill of the more intoxicating type, but as custom demanded, they would call it “milk” and refer to the wine bowl as a “honeypot.”
Lucia sampled the expensive wine imported from the Greek island of Chios, but she noticed its effects after only a few sips, for normally she never drank wine at all. She settled for a token amount of wine well-diluted with water, while Ennia accepted a cup of the strong stuff, and the pair lay down to listen to the musicians as the other women gossiped, danced, and passed around the Goddess’ tame serpent, who had also traveled from the temple. It cuddled close to whoever held it, for the night air was chilly. Lucia wondered whether it was female or male, and if so, how one might tell.
Soon the roasted pork arrived, together with bread, olives, fried mushrooms, cheeses, and honeyed fruits. The “milk” flowed freely, and the talk became increasingly raucous and bawdy. The presence of Vestals did not inhibit the matrons, who freely compared their husbands’ bedroom quirks and shortcomings. A few mentioned illicit lovers, but Mucia Tertia boasted that Pompeius Magnus’ name was unusually well-chosen, and that she had no need of a lover when her husband was the most desirable of men.
“Pay her no mind, dear,” said one of the older matrons, a formidable woman named Cornelia. “Mucia has had too much to drink.”
“It’s all right,” she answered, anxious not to seem ungrateful toward her hostess. “Fabia has explained to me the facts of reproduction.”
“Oh it isn’t that—the Goddess’ work benefits from a little salty talk. It’s Mucia Tertia’s intolerable boasting! Ill-breeding will always out, I say. The Mucii have debased their ancient lineage with too many marriages to new money. She and her upstart husband are well-matched,” sniffed Cornelia.
Despite Lucia’s words, all this talk of sex was indeed an education, as were the women’s shocking descriptions of the agonies of childbirth. None of this was new to Ennia, who fell asleep despite the noise, lulled by the wine and food.
Lucia was listening to a particularly gruesome description of a breech birth when Fabia tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for her to follow. She led Lucia into a small chamber in the back of the house, which was dark except for one small lamp. Mucia Tertia was there, and two young matrons who were also first-timers at the festival. All had their heads covered, so Lucia pulled her garment up over her Vestal’s headdress as well.
“It is time for you to learn the true name and nature of the Good Goddess,” said Fabia. “Watch now.” She took a cup of wine, and poured it into a crude and obviously ancient clay bowl. “Repeat after me: If I reveal to any man what I am about to learn, may my blood be spilled as this wine is spilled, and may I be accursed and handed over to the Goddess.” The three younger women repeated the oath, and each sipped from the bowl.
“Men say that the Good Goddess is Fauna, the wife of the god Faunus,” began Fabia. “They say that she drank the forbidden wine, and he beat her to death. Other men say that she was his daughter, and he drunkenly tried to rape her, but she resisted him, so again, he beat her to death. All of this is utter falsehood, but we make no objection when men repeat it in their ignorance. The Good Goddess is much older than Faunus, and much more powerful. She is Maia, the nurse of babies; she is Plenty, who mated with Saturn. When Saturn in time was cast down by Jupiter, the Goddess was united with Vulcan in the purity of air and fire. But she is no one’s wife. She rules the elements of earth and water. As she rules above, so she rules below.”
Remembering her lesson in the temple of Vesta, Lucia wondered whether Vesta and the Good Goddess were co-rulers in the world below, or whether they were, in fact, the same goddess under different names. But it was not for the young matrons to know Vesta’s secrets, so she kept her speculations to herself.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical Note: the rites of the Bona Dea or “Good Goddess” were secret so we know little of what they included, but I have described many of the known details. They were strictly limited to women.