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Chapter 5 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

View of the Roman Forum from the Capitoline Hill. Photo by the author.

Lucia first met Gaius Julius Caesar when he became an aedile of Roma. The aediles were the city officials charged with such tasks as repairing the roads, maintaining the water supply, distributing grain, and organizing the great festivals. All Roma marveled at Caesar’s extravagant entertainments, banquets and games.

“Bibulus is quite put out by Caesar’s machinations,” laughed Licinia as the Vestals worked at roasting emmer wheat for the mola salsa, the salted meal used in sacrifices. This annual duty could not be handed off to slaves; it must be performed by those consecrated to the Goddess. “He says that he put up the money for all the food and drink, the garlands and banners in the Forum, and the theatricals, yet Caesar somehow manages to take all the credit while he himself is pushed into the shadows, like Pollux beholding the Temple of Castor!”

“Those two are hardly twins,” Popilia commented dryly. “Bibulus is a rich dullard with a face like a donkey. Caesar may be cash-poor, but he has all the Senatorial wives falling on their backs.”

“Maybe he has the mentula of a donkey,” remarked Sergia.

“That will be quite enough,” said Fabia, who had entered the room in time to hear this last exchange. “Sergia and Popilia, you will be confined to your chambers instead of attending tonight’s banquet.”

The two younger Vestals glared at Fabia, but they did not dare to contradict her, for she had the authority to impose even worse punishments. After all, Caesar’s gladiatorial games were to take place at the Kalends of the next month, and they promised to be the greatest ever seen in Roma. Hundreds of pairs of gladiators were to fight, in honor of Caesar’s deceased father. To miss the games would be disastrous. Still, they showed their displeasure by quitting work for the day and flouncing out of the storeroom.

“Fabia,” Lucia asked when they were gone, “is it an offense to the Goddess to speak of men’s parts while we handle the grain? Is that why you punished Popilia and Sergia?”

“It is unseemly, but not nefas,” replied Fabia. “The Goddess’ own animal is the donkey, as you know, and the image of the god Fascinus is carved on the wall of the temple.” Lucia nodded; one could see similar images of men’s parts all over the city, and these were known to turn back the harmful powers unleashed by the hostile glances of the envious.

“You are young,” continued Fabia. “Do you remember the Triumphal procession of Magnus, when you were nine? That was a small affair compared to the Triumph held when Lucius Cornelius Sulla became Dictator of Roma. Those were dark days, when our men killed their own brothers, as Romulus did Remus.” She shut her eyes for a moment and fell silent. Lucia waited, understanding that these memories were harsh; of Sulla she knew only that his Triumph had happened in the year of her birth. At last Fabia continued, “I was not the Chief Vestal then, but I helped to attach the fascinus to the underside of Sulla’s Triumphal chariot, to protect him from envy as he rode through the city in the robes of Jupiter Best and Greatest, with cinnabar smeared on his face and a crown of laurel on his head.”

“Why is it the duty of the Vestals to look after the fascinus, if we are to keep ourselves apart from men?” asked Lucia. This was something she had never understood.

“Tell me of the birth of Romulus,” said Fabia, in teaching mode now.

“Rhea Silvia, the daughter of the King of Alba, was forced to become a Vestal when the King’s brother usurped his throne,” recited Lucia, who knew the story well. “But Mars had lain with her before her vows, and she was found to be pregnant. The wicked brother could not kill her because she was now a Vestal under the law, so he locked her up, planning to expose the baby. She gave birth to the twins, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by the she-wolf.”

“That is the story most people know. But here is the story as we Vestals tell it: the King of Alba was Tuscan, a man learned in signs from the gods, as most of the Tuscans are. One day there appeared in his hearth a fiery mentula—not a whole man, but the manly part alone. He read the sign: Vesta, the hearth, was united with the God Fascinus in the purity of air and fire. This meant that a holy union was to take place, and the woman who received the fiery member would give birth to a great man, marked by the gods for kingship. The Tuscan commanded his daughter to take this member into herself— for the apparition did not disappear but waited, day after day, in the hearth fire. His daughter counted herself too dignified to submit to such an insult, so she sent her body-slave instead. That slave was the woman who gave birth to Romulus and Remus.”

Lucia was not surprised. During her time as a Vestal, she had learned much lore of the city and the Way of the Elders, some of it secret, and some of it merely little-known. According to Fabia’s story, Romulus, the city’s founder, was the son of Fascinus with Vesta’s chosen one. This explained why the Vestals concerned themselves with images of the male member. “And the slave, what was her name?” she asked.

“She was called Roma.”

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: Roman culture was very fixated on the phallus. It warded off the evil eye and other misfortunes. The part about a triumphing Roman general having a phallus fixed beneath his chariot (by the Vestals, no less) is true.

My “secret” version of the origin of Romulus and Remus is based on the real legend of the birth of Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king; the folklore motif of the fiery phallus is found in other Roman legends as well. Alternative, secret versions of myths were common in ancient Greco-Roman religion.