Chapter 10 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome, and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
The next evening, Caesar came to pay a call upon Fabia, and Lucia was asked to be present. Fabia had spent the day visiting those of her friends who were wives of Senators, in order to find out what had been decided regarding the prisoners. There was a distance now, between her and Terentia, and she dared not ask her half-sister for news.
Caesar was shown into the Vestals’ common area, where the priestesses took their meals sitting on chairs at a big wooden table—an outmoded style of dining which had long since been replaced in fashionable homes by the Greek custom of reclining on couches. He folded his lanky frame into one of the thronelike chairs—choosing the Chief Vestal’s seat at the head of the table, Lucia noticed. Acra and Andromeda brought water macerated with fresh mint leaves, and a tray of bread with salt and olives.
Before they even had a chance to break bread, Fabia spoke. “Catilina’s men—the prisoners—I have heard that they were executed. Is it true, Gaius? So quickly?”
Caesar nodded. “The Consul put the case to the Senate early this morning, proposing the death penalty for the captured men as well as…those yet to be apprehended. I argued that it was a rash decision, one which the Senate would come to regret. I proposed that these men be imprisoned for life in separate municipalities in Italy, and that their property be confiscated by the state in recompense for the damage they have caused. To execute Roman citizens without trial, and without the appeal to the people provided for in law—that is not our way. But if the proof of their guilt is so manifest and the current circumstances not convenient for a trial, why not hold them until such time as the Senate sees fit to try them? To do otherwise is to trample and spurn the many in Roma who wished to see Catilina’s reforms implemented.”
Fabia kept her face impassive, expressing neither agreement nor disagreement with these views. “But your words did not carry the day,” she asked, “even though you are to be praetor next year?” Indeed, Caesar was proceeding rapidly up the ladder of offices and honors which led to the Consulship. Between the aediles and the Consuls stood the praetors, the magistrates who served as judges and military Commanders.
“I failed, yes.” Caesar’s expression was bemused, as though the experience of failure was alien to him. “I have Marcus Porcius Cato to thank for that. He told the Senate that acts of treason justify the suspension of the law, because the law cannot exist if the state is overturned. More to the point, he dared to suggest that I myself was one of the conspirators.”
“And were you?” asked Fabia evenly.
Caesar laughed. “Oh, Fabia. I hope you won’t think me arrogant—or cruel— if I say that Catilina made certain errors which I would have avoided.”
“You speak as though his… his attempt to oust Cicero, is something you could approve of.” She left the word treason unspoken. This was dangerous ground. Caesar seemed to be on terms of complete trust with Fabia, but he glanced at Lucia before answering, and she felt herself being weighed and assessed. Finally he spoke:
“Our system of government is rapidly crumbling—some might say it is beyond repair. Public corruption has never been greater. One may behave with rigid propriety, as Cato does, and achieve nothing but a fine reputation. Or one may engage the system as it stands, and achieve much.”
“And if one goes entirely outside the system?” asked Lucia lightly. “What then?”
He smiled. “Most likely, you are denied a trial and executed as a traitor. But there is also a slight possibility that you may fly up to the moon.” Before Fabia could ask what he meant by this whimsical statement, he changed the subject. “But tell me, both of you, about this sign which occurred at the Good Goddess’ festival. Cicero did not allude to it on the Senate floor, but he put it about among his friends that he was acting with divine favor, at the urging of the Vestals, no less!”
Fabia and Lucia described the signs, and told how Cicero had interpreted them. Caesar listened closely. “Had I known of this, I would have insisted on a meeting of the Pontifices and Vestals for the purpose of making a determination. It was not the Consul’s right to do so. Unfortunately, Cicero has confirmed the oracle’s words about a hasty judge. He had the prisoners strangled immediately after the vote. In fact, he personally escorted Lentulus to the executioner, and Cethegus too.”
In the days immediately after the execution of the conspirators, Cicero was hailed as a hero. Yet from the very start, there were voices of dissent. It was customary for an outgoing Consul to address the Roman people from the Prows, the great speaking platform in the Forum adorned with the beaks of ships captured in long-ago battles. The incoming Tribunes of the People, however, refused to permit Cicero this privilege, and Caesar, newly entering upon his praetorship, declined to intercede with them. Yet Cato once again came to Cicero’s rescue, lavishly praising him as the Father of the Fatherland, a title which the Senate then officially conferred on him.
Sergia and Popilia dined out, and reported the gossip. “Cicero has become the greatest bore imaginable,” declared Sergia. “He retells the story at every opportunity and sends everyone fleeing!”
Popilia leapt from her chair and grandly waved her arms, imitating Cicero’s broad gestures: “Catilina could hide nothing from me!” she roared. “I shall tolerate no more! The vengeance of the Republic! I am the Father of my Fatherland!”
Even Claudia laughed. “Clodius says he wants to be named Uncle of the Fatherland, or if not that, then perhaps First Cousin of the Fatherland.”
Publius Clodius Pulcher, Claudia’s clever and charming brother, had recently changed the spelling of his family name to sound more plebeian. Some said that he wished seem less forbiddingly aristocratic, for Clodius had finished a stint in the army, and now aspired to become a public man. Others thought that he was merely imitating his stylish eldest sister Clodia, who had shocked all of Roma with her adulterous liaisons, and inspired a great many impassioned verses by lovestruck young men. In her case, the spelling was a fashionable quirk, adopted after her marriage to her first cousin, Metellus Celer.
“Did you hear that Marcus Junius Brutus is divorcing Servilia?” asked Licinia. “It’s all that dry stick Cato’s fault! When they were debating the fate of the conspirators in the Senate, Cato observed someone delivering a sealed tablet to Caesar. He inquired about it, suspecting that it was from one of the traitors, Lentulus or perhaps Cethegus, but Caesar protested that it was merely a love note. It would be unfair to the lady in question, he said, to reveal any more. But Cato thought he had Caesar trapped, and he challenged Caesar to let him read the message aloud to the Senate.”
She paused to let the scandalous implications sink in, and unable to wait, Popilia interrupted: “It was from Servilia! Cato’s own half-sister! And he had to read every word.” This time she imitated Cato, standing ramrod straight and stiffly booming out Servilia’s endearments: “Come to me soon, O Gaius! How I long for your touch!”
Lucia supposed that the whole incident must be dreadfully humiliating for Servilia, who was now the talk of the town. Her brother Cato would blame her, not himself, for his blunder. On the other hand, everyone knew that Servilia was Caesar’s favorite mistress, so news of the divorce was no surprise. There was much speculation about the paternity of her daughter Junia, as well as her son Brutus. But there was no chance of Servilia and Caesar marrying for love. Caesar was not the sentimental type, and in any case, he was already married to Pompeia.
A few weeks later, the news filtered back to Roma that Catilina’s army had been much reduced. He tried to reach Gaul but was cut off in the north by Clodia’s husband Metellus Celer, and in the south by Antonius Hybrida. His men fought bravely, and Catilina himself, when he realized that his cause was lost, rushed into the vanguard. He was discovered after the battle, far in advance of where his men lay. Around him was an impressive heap of those he had slain.
Fabia received this news in private from Acra. An hour later, Lucia was surprised to find herself invited to Fabia’s chamber. She entered and closed the door softly behind her. Fabia was lying on her couch, dry-eyed and silent. As she looked up, her eyes seemed to burn with an inner flame. Wordlessly the Chief Vestal extended one hand; Lucia sat on the couch and clasped the hand, then gathered Fabia’s thin body into her arms.
“It’s over now,” said Lucia.
“Is Catilina truly no more?” asked Fabia. “I always thought that I would die first.”
“He is no more,” agreed Lucia.
“Then I am free. May the Goddess be thanked.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.
Historical note: The story of Caesar receiving the note from Servilia is true, though I have embellished it. One of the “lovestruck young men” who wrote poetry about the notorious Clodia was the poet Catullus, who immortalized her as “Lesbia.”