Chapter 11 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
The next year, Fabia was often ill with a sickness which caused fatigue and wasting. The physician Socles was unable to cure her, although he prescribed possets of bone broth, bread crumbs and grated cheese which at least kept her from growing thinner. Lucia now took on greater responsibilities in the cycle of festivals which the Vestals supervised, serving as the principal organizer and source of ritual knowledge, even as Licinia or the other elder Vestals led the public prayers.
It was Fabia’s wish that Claudia be given more responsibilities too, but Lucia strove without success to interest her in her duties. Even the Vestalia, the Goddess’ principal festival of the year and Lucia’s personal favorite, held no appeal for Claudia, who had just been refused permission to attend a seaside party at a villa near Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber. Fabia’s tolerance of the Vestals’ active social lives did not extend to travel or overnight visits.
“I’ll probably never see Baeae again,” said Claudia sadly, speaking of the popular resort on the bay of Neapolis, south of Roma. “Everyone goes there in the summer, and my sister reigns over them all like a queen! There are more lush gardens and cool fountains than you can imagine, Lucia. It’s very beautiful, and the best people get invited to Lucullus’ banquets in Neapolis. Clodius swears that he serves only nectar and ambrosia.” Her expression, momentarily dreamy, hardened again. “But I’m stuck here in the heat, loading bread into the pantry like a common drudge.”
Indeed, a parade of donkeys was passing through the Forum, decked with flower garlands of pink, violet, yellow and orange, and carrying baskets of fresh-baked loaves. Most of the bread would be distributed to the people at the end of the day, but the bakers also brought choice offerings to the Goddess and to the Vestals themselves: sweet breads made with spices, eggs and honey, breads full of candied fruit, breads stuffed with cheese and olives, glossy breads in the shapes of animals and trees and flowers, breads decorated with hard-cooked eggs and big flakes of salt. Some would be consumed by the Vestals themselves, but most would be burned on the outdoor altars of the Goddess.
Matrons visited the Temple of Vesta with their own offerings at this time, and stopped at the Vestal House to receive a small bag of mola salsa for their domestic sacrifices. It was customary for them to approach barefoot, and laughing women draped in colorful gowns and veils were treading a petal-strewn path from the Sacred Way to the Temple. Some of the women brought loaves of bread made with emmer wheat in the old style, baked in the domestic hearth under a clay dome. Such loaves were made especially for Vesta, whose fire gave bread to the people, and as a festival food recalling the early centuries of Roma, when each matron baked for her family. Nowdays, everyone bought their daily bread from the bakers.
“These homemade loaves are as heavy as iron ingots,” Licinia said to Claudia, “but wait until you taste the fluffy honey rolls which Eurysaces has brought us. No baker in Neapolis can compete with ours in the city!”
Claudia continued to sulk. She was correct in her belief that the richest and most fashionable citizens forsook the city around June in order to enjoy sea breezes. Even Caesar was absent, despite his duties as Pontifex Maximus. He returned in the month of Sextilis, however, for the Opiconsivia, the rite of the goddess called Ops or “Plenty.” Her shrine was located inside the Royale, and only the Vestals and certain other priests had access to it.
The shrine itself was small, and therefore the rite was attended by very few people; Lucia was delegated to represent the Vestals. A public procession and a chariot race would take place afterwards, but her presence was not required at these. Because the Opiconsivia was a ritual occasion, even the few steps to the Royale required the escort of a lictor. This time it was the hulking freedman named Ulpius Phaedimus, one of those Caesar had assigned to protect the Vestals. He smiled at Lucia but did not speak; a lictor never addressed a Vestal unless spoken too, or unless there was a critical need. Lucia greeted Ulpius with a smile, but remained silent during the short walk, her mind occupied with thoughts of Caesar. She hadn’t seen him for nearly six months.
Caesar’s year as a praetor had been turbulent. He had infuriated Cato by introducing a proposal in the Senate to recall Pompeius Magnus from his Black Sea war. Ostensibly this was to restore order to the city, but Caesar implied that his powerful ally Magnus would put a stop to the punishment of Roman citizens without trial, and the Senate’s abuse of emergency powers. Cato scuttled the proposal, and afterwards barely escaped an angry crowd in the Forum. In revenge, he managed to have Caesar suspended from his praetorship, but the Senate reversed itself in the public outcry that followed. Caesar’s great popularity was earning him implacable enemies.
The other attendees of the Opiconsivia were already waiting in the vestibule of the Royale. These were Marcus Marcius Aletudo, the Flamen of Quirinus, and his wife Rupilia, the Flaminica. The Flamines and their wives served the most ancient gods of Roma. They were a venerable group who enjoyed many privileges, but public men avoided the flaminate priesthoods because they were bound by dozens of restrictions. For his part, Aletudo had to wear his spiked skullcap with its tight chin-strap at all times when outdoors, and a laurel wreath when indoors. He could not leave Roma or go near a tomb. He could not divorce Rupilia and remain a Flamen, for theirs was a joint priesthood. His diet was strictly regulated to keep him pure for his daily service to Quirinus, which was the divine name of the city-founder Romulus.
Aletudo’s appearance matched his family nickname, which meant “Fatty.” In his snowy toga, topped by an extra layer of fringed wool (yet another requirement for a Flamen), he looked like a heaping mound of whipped cream. Rupilia, by contrast, was thin and wiry in her purple gown. Her long orange Flaminica’s veil resembled that of a bride, and indeed, Caesar had recently presided over the couple’s wedding. The celebration of Plenty was one of their first ritual duties.
Caesar arrived to greet his guests just as Aletudo was removing his skullcap and handing it to his slave. Lucia thought she saw a glimmer of amusement in Caesar’s eye, but he treated the Flamen and Flaminica respectfully, gravely ushering them through a corridor into the shrine of Ops, which was open to the sky, though completely enclosed on all sides. On the stone floor stood an altar and some potted flowers. The group toured the tiny arcade surrounding the roofless area of the shrine. There, shelves overflowed with sacks of barley and emmer wheat, bundles of grain stalks, pots of honey, dishes of olives, and bowls of fresh fruit. Aletudo beamed at the profusion of good foods, but stopped short when he spied a bag of fava beans.
“Oh dear,” he said, “I am to avoid beans, isn’t that true, Rupilia? Perhaps we should have them removed? I’m quite sure that beans are on the list of foods which are nefas before Quirinus. Perhaps we should go, lest we be rendered impure… but it is our duty to celebrate the festival of Plenty!” He drew a square of linen from his fringed cloak and mopped his forehead, while Rupilia wordlessly wrung her hands. Both looked to Caesar for guidance, and he smilingly turned to Lucia.
“Vestal Lucia, you are very learned for one so young. May I have your opinion on this dilemma? It appears that the Flamen and Flaminica cannot honor Plenty without offending Quirinus.”
“Far from it, Greatest Pontifex,” she replied. “The Way of the Elders calls for the celebration of Plenty to include all produce of the Earth, and also that the servants of the god Quirinus be present. So it has ever been.” She turned to Aletudo and Rupilia. “Perhaps the god’s requirement extends only to actual consumption of the beans? But to be completely safe, you could exchange places with me so that you need not sully your gaze with that bag again.”
Aletudo brightened, and Rupilia nodded, looking thoughtful. The necessary adjustments were made, and the prayers proceeded. The rites of Plenty were bloodless, involving only libations of honey mixed with water, and the burning of a variety of produce. Caesar prudently excluded beans from the selection of samples for the altar, winking at Lucia. Afterward he invited the group to stay for refreshments.
“I have Eurysaces’ famous fluffy honey rolls,” he announced, “and grilled octopus dressed with capers and a wine reduction.”
Aletudo’s face fell. “I mustn’t touch leavened bread,” he said sadly, “nor any creature of the sea.”
After the newlyweds took their leave, Caesar and Lucia retired to the dining area of the Royale, which (like the Vestal House) had a table and chairs instead of couches. Caesar explained that he would have liked to update the furniture, but the rough antiques in the Royale were too hallowed to be replaced.
The slaves were already setting out the food. Lucia inspected a heaping dish of fava bean purée, and turned to Caesar with a raised eyebrow.
He laughed, and spread his hands. “I didn’t want their company, I admit. I was hoping for a private meal with you. I’d like to know how Fabia has been getting on, and I want to discuss my calendar reforms. How do you think the Pontifical College would react to a transitional year with an extra hundred days?”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Paul S said:
The sun is shining, the coffee is made, and there’s a new chapter of your novel to enjoy. Bliss!
Enjoy your fika, Paul, as my Swedish-American husband would say : )
Paul S said:
Some of the sweet breads you describe so vividly here would have been welcome.
Yes, something about quarantine really makes me crave bread and pastries!
The baked goods, both savory and sweet, do sound delicious! Are there any recipes or general instructions extant as to how to make them? Have you ever tried? I know I’d be tempted!
That’s a very interesting question, Karen. The famous cookbook of Apicius unfortunately includes no baking recipes, though it does have a recipe for what we would call French toast. The Romans supposedly did not have refined white flour, so their breads were more hearty–but they had an amazing variety of cakes and pastries. I suspect that they did find a way to make finer flours. Even the “French toast” recipe calls for “fine white bread.”
I haven’t tried to reproduce a Roman bread but thanks to quarantine I am just about to attempt to make my own sourdough starter, to leaven bread the way they always did up until the last century! Wish me luck 🙂
Good luck with your baking foray! A good, crusty sourdough is my favorite bread, so that sounds delicious. Perhaps you could add olives and cheese to one of the loaves in homage to Vestalia and your story!
Yes, that is exactly what I plan to do! I have fond memories of the delicious aromas and flavors of sourdough bread in San Francisco.