Ancient Rome, Bona Dea festival, Cicero, First Catilinarian Oration, historical fiction, Julius Caesar, Vestal Virgins
Chapter 9 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
As the year waned, Roma convulsed in a violent struggle between Lucius Sergius Catilina and the notable advocate Marcus Tullius Cicero, to whom he had lost the Consulship. Though an aristocrat himself, Catilina had gained great favor with the People by distributing clay bowls of food and drink inscribed with his name—a favorite ploy of many a political hopeful—and by proposing a universal cancellation of debts. He believed that the right to guide Roma was his, but most men of his own class were unsympathetic.
“And no wonder,” observed Licinia. “Catilina’s natural allies ought to be the best men of the Senate, but they are all creditors! They are hardly likely to support a remission of debts.”
“Caesar does,” argued Sergia. Catilina was a relation of hers, and she was eager to defend him. “He supports Catilina’s reforms on behalf of the people.”
“Of course he does,” Licinia shot back. “The king of the debtors! Nothing would please Caesar more than to cancel what he owes. Crassus could tell you all about that.”
Fabia was silent. Her long-ago acquittal on charges of incestum with Catilina had quieted the rumors of their affair, but Catilina’s current conflict with Cicero was reviving them. Lucia wondered, not for the first time, what had really happened. Fabia rarely spoke of her past, and Lucia had been too young at the time to be told of the crisis, but she had gleaned a few scraps. Fabia’s defense was that people had burst in on her and Catilina as they talked at the house of a mutual friend, but nothing was amiss. They hadn’t been touching each other, or even standing close together. But what had been in Fabia’s heart? Catilina was good-looking, admirably fit, ruthless, fearless. He lacked Caesar’s intellect and refinement, yet he had the animal attraction of a proud stallion, or a soaring eagle. He was the type who would fight any other man to possess the woman he loved. But what if his rival was the Goddess, and the woman unattainable?
If Fabia did love Catilina, her feelings must be in chaos now. She and Terentia, Cicero’s wife, shared a mother; they were half-sisters from the same womb, even if their fathers were different. But Cicero and Catilina were locked in a struggle from which only one could emerge whole.
In the first days of December, as the Vestals were preparing to celebrate the rites of the Good Goddess at Cicero and Terentia’s new house on the Palatine hill, word came that Catilina had left the city after Cicero confronted him in a fiery speech to the Senate. Catilina had fought back, sneering at Cicero’s humble origins, and many Senators were inclined to agree that the so-called conspiracy was a figment of Cicero’s imagination. Then word came that Catilina was meeting an army in the north, and the Senate declared him a public enemy.
On the day of the festival, several of Catilina’s conspirators had been captured, among them a former Consul and a former praetor. Their guilt was manifest from intercepted letters meant for the Gaulish tribe they hoped to suborn as allies. Cicero, having removed himself and all male slaves from his house to make way for the Goddess’ rites, was brooding over his next move. Should he have the rebels executed immediately, under emergency powers, or should they be permitted a trial?
Because Cicero was strapped for funds and lacked Caesar’s genius for obtaining and spending other people’s money, Terentia’s arrangements were not as lavish as those of Mucia Tertia had been, but the ritual requirements were met. “I hope that all goes well,” she said to Fabia as they walked into the garden. “My husband is anxious that we perform everything with due decorum.”
“Of course he is,” remarked Sergia archly. “Men think we get up to all sorts of no good at these evenings, don’t they? They think we run about naked with our hair loose. Wouldn’t they love to spy on us!”
“They’d be disappointed,” said Claudia sourly. Fabia had recently restricted her evenings out to twice a week, including ritual occasions. “Nothing to see but a bunch of middle-aged matrons and old women drinking until they fall asleep and snore.”
This year Lucia was asked to assist with the sacrifice; she had been in training with Fabia, performing minor tasks during the women’s monthly immolation of a sheep for Vesta, and studying the books of divination. Instead of waiting quietly by the altar, the young sow chosen for the sacrifice struggled to get free, and before Acra cut her throat, the creature let out a disquietingly human-like scream. Fabia frowned, but continued the ritual; such phenomena were common enough not to count as errors. Acra presented the liver, and Fabia motioned for Lucia to inspect it.
This method of divination was an ancient art going back to the time of the Tuscan kings of Roma. The Tuscans in their turn had learned it from the mysterious child Tages, who emerged straight from the earth of a newly-plowed field to dictate a learned discourse on soothsaying. The Vestals possessed this book, written on a long strip of linen which was folded in zig-zag fashion, not rolled like a proper volume. It included diagrams of cow, sheep and pig livers together with lists of the normal variations, deformities, wrinkles and lesions one might find, and the meanings of each. The book had been Lucia’s daily study for the past three months, and she had produced a copy of it for the Pontifical library.
She accepted the liver, still warm with the sow’s vitality, and examined it. The proper number of lobes was present, and its surface was glossy, but it was covered with small milk-white dots. The women gathered in a circle around the garden altar were silent, awaiting a verdict. She glanced at Fabia, sure of the interpretation but uncertain of her authority to deliver it.
“Speak, Lucia,” said the Chief Vestal. “Explain the sign. You have seen it in the Linen Book?”
“Yes, Fabia. The sacrifice is accepted.” Behind her, Lucia heard Terentia exhale in relief. She hesitated.
“And?” prompted Fabia.
“And a verse oracle of Tages is attached to this sign.” She recited the verses in the ancient Saturnian meter slowly, so as to make no slip of the tongue:
The hasty ploughman drives a crooked furrow,
The hasty housewife fails to sweep the hearth,
The hasty jurist departs the path of justice.
All the women started talking at once. What did the Goddess mean? Was it proper to invoke the oracles of Tages? Should the sacrifice be repeated? Was Lucia expert enough to deliver such an oracle? Was it to do with Cicero or the conspirators?
“Ladies, stop this undignified babbling!” snapped Terentia. As if realizing that her tone was too harsh, she lowered her voice. “The sacrifice has been accepted. That is all the information we need. Lucia is only a novice and we cannot be certain enough of her skills to waste time delving into an arcane verse. Isn’t that right, Fabia?”
Fabia locked eyes with her sister. “Lucia’s recitation is correct,” she said stiffly.
Terentia’s eyes widened in surprise; she had not expected the sisterhood of the Vestals to outweigh that of blood. She changed tactics. “In that case, let us ask the Goddess for another sign in confirmation, something unmistakable.”
Fabia stood frozen for a moment, then slowly nodded, accepting the challenge. She exchanged a glance with Acra, and raised her hands to pray. “O Divine Lady, Nurse of Infants, Healer of the City, Unwedded One, if your message is as Lucia has spoken, give us a sign this night, be it by air or fire or water or earth.”
Fabia sliced off pieces of the spotted liver, the heart and the lungs, placing them on the fire. Acra handed her a bone from each hind leg wrapped in caul fat. She began the usual prayer. The flames enveloped the offerings, diffusing the aroma of sizzling fat. The circle of women was restive. Claudia looked sullen and impatient, and Licinia kept casting longing glances in the direction of the dining room with its waiting “honeypot.” Suddenly the fire flared impressively high. The women gasped. Their faces were upturned to the stars; the moon was nearly full. Red sparks flew and slaves pursued them with buckets of water lest they ignite some part of the surrounding house.
Fabia let the fire burn down in silence, then doused it with a cup of strong wine. “The verses are confirmed,” she said.
“Cicero will hear of this,” replied Terentia, who had regained her composure after her initial dismay. “And now, ladies, let us withdraw to the dining room for cups of milk.”
After the evening’s festivities, which were unusually muted and brief, Terentia insisted that Fabia and Lucia accompany her across the street to report the signs to Cicero. They found him talking with his brother Quintus, and his neighbor, Publius Nigidius Figulus.
“And to think that Catilina tried to kill me,” he was saying. “Me! Was there ever such infamy, to send his thugs to the home of a duly elected Consul of Roma, with murderous intent? Only by my foresight in placing guards about the house did we escape utter destruction! Why, here is Terentia. Is the party over so soon, my dear? I thought you ladies would be indulging until dawn,” he said, winking at Quintus.
“There has been a sign from the Good Goddess, Cicero,” replied Terentia. “A great flaring of the sacrificial flame. It rose past the roof line, quite unexpectedly, and cast so many sparks that I feared for the house.” Nigidius Figulus looked intrigued at this. He was a man of great learning, noted for his investigations into arcane subjects and ancient lore. It was whispered that he practiced magic.
Cicero leapt up. “You have doused all the sparks?” he asked anxiously. But before Terentia could answer, he went on, “A flare, a sign…yes, this is very good. The Good Goddess herself speaks on a night of such import for the Senate and People of Roma! She tells me to implement what I have resolved for the good of the state, to the increase of our security and glory…no, a tricolon, I think.” He wrung his hands in a nervous gesture as he paced, already composing an oration. “To the increase of our security, the safety of our people, the glory of our city!”
“There is more, Cicero,” said Fabia sternly. “Lucia, explain what you saw on the sow’s liver.”
Lucia gave a description of the liver and recited the verses. Nigidius Figulus raised an eyebrow. “A hasty jurist? Well, Marcus?” He turned to Cicero.
Cicero shook his head. “A hasty housewife,” he corrected. “The verses were clearly for the Vestals—a warning, to be sure—a warning to keep the civic hearth clean. The sign intended for me is not the verse, but the flaring of the fire.” Before Fabia could respond, he added, “My thanks to you admirable ladies for this most enlightening information! I must lay my plans, ready my speech for tomorrow. I’m sure you understand… No doubt you are fatigued from the night’s revels, eh?” In his hurry to be rid of them, he all but showed them to the door.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.
Historical note: Cicero prided himself on foiling the Catilinarian conspiracy. Generations of Latin students have read his First Catilinarian Oration, in which he confronted Catiline before the Senate and advised him to go into exile.
Paul S said:
Your writing is very rich and vivid. It really helps the reader to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of life in Ancient Rome.
Thank you! I fear that Ancient Rome in real life smelled much worse than I let on 🙂