Chapter 12 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Lucia came away from the Opiconsivia thinking that the goddess, Plenty, had been true to her name. Caesar’s cooks were skilled, and she was able to present a bounteous basket of leftovers to Ulpius, as a token of thanks for his escort. But the occasion had also given her “plenty” to think about.
First, who exactly was Plenty? At her first festival of the Good Goddess, Lucia had been told that one of the Good Goddess’ names was Plenty, and that she had mated with Saturn during the Golden Age at the beginning of history. She ruled the earth and water, just as Vesta ruled air and fire. According to the secret lore of the women of Roma, these Goddesses were one. Beside the heavy stone of the altar in the roofless shrine of Plenty, Lucia had spotted a locked metal grate like the ones in Vesta’s temple. When she asked Caesar about it, he said that he’d had it opened when he first became Pontifex Maximus.
“I was determined to have a look. I don’t want any intruders creeping into my house at night! There is a chamber below, but any tunnel that existed has been blocked by solid stone. It must be the underground part of the shrine, like the one the Sown God has in the Circus Maximus. No doubt it dates from the time of the Kings.”
That made sense to Lucia, because Consus, the Sown God, was yet another consort of Plenty. His underground altar was located at the turnpost of the great Circus, the stadium where chariot races were held. A Vestal Virgin and the Flamen of Quirinus officiated at the rites of Consus, just as they did for Plenty. Air and fire, earth and water. As above, so below. Lucia had served at the Consualia, but she had never descended into the chamber below the altar level; indeed, until now she had been unaware that it existed.
Now Ulpius opened the door to the Vestal House for her, and she absently made her way to her room to lie down and think. In addition to matters of the Goddess, the welfare of Caesar himself occupied her mind. Toward the end of the meal, they had been in the middle of a discussion about calendric intercalation and its impact on festivals, when he suddenly stopped speaking. He excused himself, rose, and took a few steps. Then his legs buckled under him and he slipped to the floor, twitching.
“Goddess help us!” Lucia started from her seat. She reached him in a moment and saw that his limbs were moving of their own accord, in a series of spasms. He seemed to be conscious, for his eyes met hers, yet unable to speak, for he did not answer her anxious questions. Was he all right? Should she call for help?
One of Caesar’s slaves, who was passing through the room, reassured her. “Don’t worry, mistress. This sometimes happens.” He brought a cushion from one of the chairs and put it under Caesar’s head. “My name is Ariston. I’ll be right back with his drink.”
Caesar, however, was already recovering. It had been less than a minute. “There is no need to worry,” he croaked.
“But you’re trembling.” She realized that she was holding his hand, and quickly withdrew hers, belatedly realizing that the gesture could be misinterpreted, either by him or by his staff.
“No need,” he repeated in a firmer voice. “I am subject to these fits, but they never last long.”
“You have the Sacred Disease.” As a Vestal, Lucia sometimes visited the Temple of Aesculapius on the island in the river Tiber, a place where many people came to pray for cures when the doctors could do no more. She remembered meeting a woman with the Sacred Disease, whose symptoms had been very similar to Caesar’s, though far worse. She fell two or three times a day, and lost consciousness during her spasms.
The Sacred Disease, or falling sickness, was the subject of a book by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who stated that it was not, as ignorant persons believed, due to the action of any god, but instead a distemper of the brain, which sometimes secreted an excess of phlegm. This humor, passing into the rest of the body, overwhelmed the veins and caused seizures. Despite the Greek doctor’s learning, Lucia believed, there was something uncanny about the illness. Those who suffered from it sometimes felt detached from their bodies, or smelled and tasted foods that nobody could see. They had powerful dreams, too, in which the gods came to them. Like the priests of Aesculapius, Lucia was of the opinion that such individuals were marked by the gods, for reasons unknown to mortals.
“Yes,” admitted Caesar, as Ariston helped him to the table, where a restorative drink and a moistened towel waited. “The sickness has been with me since I served in Hispania. The main danger is the fall itself. The fits are not painful, but I usually end up bruised.”
“Who knows of this?” she asked.
“A few. Not many. And now, you.” He sipped his drink and grimaced. It looked and smelled like unmixed wine, macerated with pungent herbs. Caesar normally drank very little, but the wine, she supposed, would calm the tremor in his limbs. After a moment, he added, “Usually I am able to pass it off as a case of sudden leg cramps. I can even control it, to some degree.” So he was conscious during these episodes, as she suspected.
Lucia wondered whether the sickness could be—was already being— used against him by his rivals. Any weakness in a public man was likely to be exploited. The indignity of a fall, and the spasms and twitches of a seizure, would be held out by opponents as signs of physical frailty, of unmanliness. In Roma, a virile man—a true man—never lost control of his mind or body.
“I should leave you to rest now.” She would have liked to question him more, and especially to learn whether he had experienced any of the uncanny symptoms, but she knew it would be improper. He could hardly be pleased that yet another person was aware of his condition. This knowledge was, after all, a potent weapon.
He waved a hand and smiled ruefully. “You did well today, Lucia. We will speak again.”
Lucia could tell that Caesar wanted her to say nothing to anyone of his affliction, and also that he did not wish to ask her for that favor. She thought of consulting Fabia; as an old family friend, the Chief Vestal might know his secret. But this was merely an excuse to speak of him, to let her thoughts dwell on him. Her fascination with Caesar had grown uncomfortably intense, and was most improper. She resolved to master it, and to keep silent.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Caesar is thought to have had epilepsy, though there are other theories as to the nature of his ailment.