Chapter 8 in my novel about a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s tenure as Pontifex Maximus yielded a piece of good fortune for Fabia: the close proximity of his mother Aurelia. The two women had been close friends for twenty years, even though Fabia was nearly young enough to be Aurelia’s daughter—only five years older than Caesar. Upon achieving the office of Pontifex Maximus, Caesar had moved his family into the People’s House, just a short walk from the Vestal House. The original structure dating back to the kings still formed the core of the People’s House, though successive Pontifices had remodeled and enlarged it.
Fabia and Lucia immediately visited with a gift of potted herbs, some candied quinces donated by Licinia, and an offer of any help Aurelia might need adjusting to her new neighborhood. “I don’t mind telling you,” said Aurelia, “this house is quite cramped compared to our home in the Subura, but the move has eased my mind. I feared more and more for our safety, even though Baeticus is a great comfort.”
The ancestral home of the Julii Caesares was located in the Subura, an ancient part of Roma which had grown increasingly rough over the centuries; these days, it was the home of pickpockets, prostitutes and gangs of toughs who roamed the streets at night, robbing and beating anyone they found. The sole task of Baeticus, a slave of massive bulk from Hispania, had been to guard the sprawling house with the assistance of a squad of equally burly men, and to ensure the safety of its female occupants on the rare occasions they left its sheltering walls. The People’s House in the Forum, home to each successive Pontifex Maximus, was half the size of the Julian family seat, just as the Vestal House itself was a rather limited space in which to house six women, yet the Forum was preferable to the Subura. Despite the daytime crowds, the Forum was not as heavily frequented at night, and there were plenty of guards nearby, assigned to protect both the Vestal House and the state treasury in the Temple of Saturn.
“So Caesar grew up in the Subura?” Lucia asked. She found herself quite curious about his upbringing, and what sort of boy he had been.
“Oh yes,” replied Aurelia. “His father was often absent, first in the north at Marius’ colony of Cercina, and then as proconsul of Asia. It was my task to rear Julia Major, Julia Minor and Gaius, my youngest. In those days, the neighborhood was already bad. I kept the girls indoors, but there was no restraining Gaius—after his lessons, he insisted on playing outdoors. He came home many times with a bloodied nose or a blackened eye.”
“It’s true that he first learned to fight in the streets, without even a slave tutor to watch over him,” remarked Fabia, who had met Caesar when both were children and she was newly installed as a Vestal. “He organized a gang of boys in the neighborhood, and they were madly loyal to him. They used to compete by tossing knucklebones in a chalk circle, and the winner took all! He had quite a collection, even some made of silver, and of colored glass.”
“I always worried about him, but his father took advice from Marius, who insisted that no man is worthy to lead if he cannot survive in the streets alone. Gaius learned how the people of Roma live,” said Aurelia proudly, “and he understands that the role of a public man is to see to the public good, not merely to fill his chests with gold.”
Caesar’s family fortunes were closely tied to those of the plebeian Gaius Marius, a rough and ready veteran beloved of the people, who had defeated the invading Cimbri, and the far-off Numidian king Jugurtha. His aunt Julia was Marius’ wife, and Caesar himself had married Cornelia, the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Marius’ closest ally.
Caesar’s daughter with Cornelia was Julia, now a girl of thirteen. When Cornelia died in childbirth together with her infant son, Aurelia had undertaken to rear Julia with that distinctive combination of practical good sense and refined taste which was characteristic of the old patrician families. Although Julia now had a stepmother in Pompeia, Caesar’s wife of four years, the two were not close. As was proper, Aurelia deferred to Pompeia in matters touching the couple’s social life, but Julia was her blood, and Caesar would side with her in any dispute regarding his daughter.
“My son heads two houses full of women, mine and yours,” said Aurelia to Fabia with a smile. “And all of us are celibate, even Pompeia, though I know she would have it otherwise.”
“Oh dear. Is it Servilia this time? Or someone new?” asked Fabia.
“Servilia and quite a few others. There is talk that he has even charmed Mucia Tertia, the wife of Pompeius Magnus,” said Aurelia. “I know that my son is incorrigible when it comes to other men’s wives, but it is not a subject upon which I feel I can deliver a reprimand. His behavior is of course quite improper, yet it does not arise from a lack of self-control, or so I believe. Rather, he sees some political benefit to himself in each conquest. I suspect that they are carefully planned.”
“Still, I feel sorry for Pompeia,” commented Fabia. “Perhaps if she conceives a son?”
“That would certainly get his attention. Yet it has been four years now, and I have no grandson. I have urged Caesar to make the traditional offerings to the Julian Genius for procreative success, yet there is not even a natural child among the slaves. In any case, Pompeia is scarcely likely to conceive when he so seldom visits her bed,” remarked Aurelia frankly, but catching sight of her granddaughter, she changed the subject. “Ah look, here is Julia! My love, come and recite your lesson to Fabia and Lucia.”
Julia, who had just entered the room, was a small, slender girl with dark hair, delicate features, and dimples. Her father’s intelligence shone in her green eyes, but her looks must favor her mother, Lucia decided. Aurelia had reared her according to the same old-fashioned precepts which Lucia’s parents had followed, except that Julia was permitted more formal education. Today’s lesson was on the history of her own family. The girl obediently stood before the visitors, clasping her hands behind her back.
“The Julii are a family of Consular rank including my great-uncle Sextus Julius Caesar. My great-aunt Julia was the wife of Gaius Marius, who held seven Consulships. The Julian family has four branches, the Iuli, the Mentones, the Libones, and the Caesares. We are descended from the Alban Kings, from Iulus the son of Aeneas, who was himself the son of Venus. Our stock therefore claims the reverence due the gods, who hold sway over kings.”
“Very good! And perhaps your papa will be the next Consul from the Julian stock,” said Fabia.
The girl regarded her with a sober expression. “Perhaps, if the gods will it,” she agreed. “Grandma, may I go have my lunch now? Phaedra has made an almond cake.”
“Of course, my darling,” said Aurelia. “Mind you finish in time for your Greek lesson, and remind Phaedra that Pompeia wants no supper this evening. She’s going out.” In a lower voice she said to Fabia and Lucia, “To visit some female friends—she has been increasingly absent in the evenings. I cannot approve, but it is my son’s business to supervise his wife, not mine. By the way, Fabia, are you quite comfortable with the behavior of Sergia and Popilia? I had it from Valeria that they were tipsy at her last dinner party, and although nothing improper was observed, perhaps you ought to exercise more control over their social lives.”
Fabia sighed. “Yes, I ought to. Those two are ill-behaved, but I worry more about their reputations than their chastity. The Goddess is more important to them than they let on. It’s Claudia Tertia who concerns me. She hasn’t the slightest interest in the Goddess, or any sense of duty and obligation. She spends too much time on social calls and dinner parties, and too little time serving Vesta. For a girl from such a venerable family, it’s surprising.”
“Unfortunate indeed. Surely, my dear Fabia, it is time to firmly apply the reins and restrict her movements. And then there is Lucia,” said Aurelia with a smile. “Rarely seen in public, and never the subject of conversation. My son has told me that he thinks you the very model of a Vestal, and he commends Fabia on your training.”
As they walked back to the Vestal House, Lucia remarked on what seemed to her a contradiction in Caesar’s personality. “He wishes to be a man of the people, like Marius, and to secure their love, but he is also a proud aristocrat who prizes the finest luxuries.”
Fabia shrugged. “Oh yes, he has always known his own worth. He was kidnapped by Cilician pirates as a youth, and he got very testy when the ransom they proposed was too low! He made them listen to his poetry and rhetorical exercises, and commandeered all their best food and drink. He lived in the greatest intimacy with them, and joked that he would come back and punish them, once he was released. And after a month, he raised twice the ransom they initially asked.”
“What happened to the pirates?” asked Lucia, but she already knew. “He went back for them, didn’t he?”
“Of course. He headed the expedition himself, and had them all crucified.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.
Historical note: Caesar seems to have been a champion seducer of his friends’ wives. Even accounting for the more relaxed sexual mores of the Late Republic, his behavior was outrageous.
The story of the Cilician pirates is true. Reportedly, Caesar had the men strangled before crucifixion, as an act of mercy.