Chapter 13 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
It was December once again, and time for the Good Goddess’ festival. This year, Lucia was surprised to learn that Caesar’s wife Pompeia had secured the honor of hosting the rites. His praetorship had been controversial enough to cast this privilege into doubt, but the invitation from the People’s House duly arrived.
Nobody knew exactly why Caesar had married Pompeia. Caesar was related to both Marius and Cinna, the great men of the People’s faction, yet he had chosen as his second wife the granddaughter of their greatest enemy, the dictator Sulla. Perhaps it was simply her beauty, reflected Lucia. Unusually for a woman of Roma, Pompeia had golden hair and blue eyes. She was tall yet graceful, with a voluptuous figure that prompted the city’s poets to compare her with Helen of Troy. Caesar was a lover of beauty, and even as a young man he had begun to acquire silver tableware, Greek sculptures, inlaid furniture from Bithynia, and staggeringly expensive pearls, which now adorned his wife. The People’s House in the Forum was too small to hold the larger items brought back from his youthful travels in Greece and the East, and much of his collection remained under guard in the Subura house, which he still owned.
Lucia wondered what it would be like to wield power over men, the kind that came with feminine beauty. Because of her status as a Vestal, men never signaled interest in her the way they did with women who were potential lovers. She had seen the looks exchanged at dinner parties, the compliments paid, the tidbits of food offered and accepted. But even had she been free to marry—and eventually, as many wealthy matrons did, to choose a lover—would any man have wanted her? She was short and very slender, almost childlike in build, with dark hair and eyes. When she looked in a mirror, she was not displeased with her features, but neither did she find them beautiful. Sergia and Popilia both powdered their faces and applied rouge when they thought they could evade Fabia’s scrutiny. They did this not to attract men, but for their own satisfaction, yet such deceits, such cheating of nature, struck Lucia as acts beneath the dignity of a Vestal.
Pompeia and Aurelia welcomed their guests, including all six of the Vestals, in the atrium of the People’s House, where the Aventine statue of the Good Goddess was already set upon a bed of winter greenery and expensive tapestries.
“This house is a labyrinth,” warned Pompeia. “It must be several centuries old, and it’s full of rooms, every one of them cramped and dark. We’ve temporarily converted the dining room into a real triclinium where you can recline, and you’ll find that Caesar has made up for the lack of space with the quality of the food and drink.”
Fabia was well enough to attend, so she officiated at the immolation, assisted by Acra and Lucia. Twenty-five women, including the musicians, crowded into the tiny central courtyard, the only place in the house which was open to the sky and could accommodate an burnt offering. The walkway around the courtyard was filled with potted flowers and swags of greenery, plus a great many little hanging lamps, which dotted the space with cheerful points of light.
To Lucia’s relief, there was no repetition of the previous year’s disquieting omens. The sow fell silently under Acra’s knife, and the offering was accepted. Afterwards, the women headed straight for the dining room, where the flute and tympanum could already be heard, along with exclamations at the quality of the “milk” and the richness of the silver wine service. Aurelia presided over the magnificent bowl, ladling out the wine with her own hands and directing the slaves as they replenished trays of mushrooms in garlic wine sauce, dormice stuffed with honeyed figs, and dried pears poached in cream with black pepper. Soon there was dancing, and the women linked hands to stamp out the rhythm, forming a line that snaked from one room to the next.
Lucia had more wine than she was accustomed to, and felt a headache coming on. She stepped out of the noisy dining room into the tablinum, which was Caesar’s private office and one of the larger rooms. His books and documents had been cleared off the writing table and stowed on shelves or in wooden chests, yet the space itself seemed to echo his presence. Masks and busts of Julian forebears, too numerous to fit in the atrium, rested here close to the lampstand, but they were covered up for the festival. A small statue of Venus caught her eye. Completely naked, the goddess crouched to bathe, bending her right arm over her head, and touching her breast and underarm with her left hand. The Julii traced their ancestry to Venus, but this image was in no way maternal. A silver bowl on the writing table was filled with knucklebones of sheep and goats, and replicas in glass, ivory, and precious metals; this must be his boyhood collection.
“Lucia? There you are. Fabia wants you in the Red Room.” The voice startled her out of her reverie. It was Claudia, pointing down a hallway which led toward the back of the house. Claudia’s eyes were bright and glittering, perhaps from the wine, thought Lucia. She held the Good Goddess’ serpent, which twined itself around her arm and lifted its wavering head to her face.
“Very well. Thank you, Claudia.” This must be the usual initiation for the first-time attendees; perhaps her help was needed. Lucia started down the corridor, all the rooms of which were on the left. The first cubicle held a knot of women, chatting together intimately with cups of wine in their hands. One of them was Pompeia, but she didn’t know the others.
“Which way is the Red Room?” she asked. Pompeia’s eyes widened, as if she was surprised, but she gestured with her cup, saying “It’s at the end of the hall.”
She found her way to the last set of folding doors and opened them. A single small lamp lit the dim room, and only one person was there, a woman softly playing a lyre and crooning to herself. She looked up as Lucia entered, but didn’t speak.
“Oh, excuse me. I thought Fabia was here,” said Lucia in confusion. This must be one of the women hired to provide music for the event. Perhaps she had felt ill and come here to rest. Surely she could not be a matron. Her blonde hair looked like the wigs prostitutes wore, and her face was garishly painted. Lucia was surprised that Aurelia had admitted her to the house.
A low laugh came from the woman, and she set down the lyre.
“I’ll leave you alone,” said Lucia, and turned to go, but the woman stood and with one quick movement pinched out the lamplight. Now the room was almost completely dark, and Lucia felt herself caught roughly in the other’s arms.
“Where is she? Where is she? You came in her place, little Vestal. Dying for it, aren’t you, little Vestal?” The voice was a hoarse whisper, but it was not that of a woman. One arm closed about her in a crushing grip. The man, whoever he was, covered the lower half of her face with a large hand, and used his weight to push her backwards onto the couch.
Lucia scarcely understood what was happening. This was the rite of the Good Goddess; there could be no men here! Was this merely a drunken woman? Perhaps some sort of joke, or trick? The next moment she realized that it was no joke. He held her immobile now with his body, and fumbled with his right hand, yanking up her robe and jamming his thigh between hers. His breath came heavily, and he stank of sour wine. In a panic, she pushed and twisted, screaming uselessly against his hand and trying to get free.
This can’t be real, she thought, and then as she felt his man’s part jabbing at her, Goddess protect me! Sudden shouts resounded elsewhere in the house, and seemed to move closer. The man ignored the sound, intent on what he was doing to her. Then the doorway flooded with light. His hand released her mouth, and her screams joined the rest. With a foul exclamation, the man leapt up and barrelled through the door, pushing women out of his way. There was general confusion. More terrified cries were heard down the hallway, then running feet and the sounds of objects falling or being thrown to the floor.
“Be silent at once! All of you!” thundered Aurelia. Realizing that she was still uttering a keening noise, Lucia abruptly shut her mouth. Her whole body was trembling. She tried to compose herself, adjusting her gown and feeling her head to gauge the damage to her hair. The six braids made for a tight hairstyle, not easy to undo, but the wool bands which normally wound about her head were dangling loose.
“What has happened? Speak, Lucia!” Aurelia sounded upset and angry.
“There was a man in the room,” she managed to say. Thuds and cries were still being heard from other parts of the house, so she raised her voice. “He attacked me.”
“I must find my daughter-in-law,” said Aurelia grimly. “Sergia and Popilia—stay here with Lucia. Don’t let anyone else in.” She swept out with the others, issuing curt orders to the frightened slaves who were now congregating in the hallway with lamps.
“Are you hurt?” asked Sergia, moving her lamp up and down to get a better look at Lucia’s clothing. Popilia sat on the couch beside her and put an arm around her. Lucia sat dumbly, unable to think, feeling nothing. Finally she shook her head. “A little bruised, perhaps.”
“Lucia, when we got to the door, that person—that man—was lying on top of you,” hissed Sergia. “Did he do the forbidden thing?”
Lucia felt as though she was breathing some clear fluid, thick and gelatinous. It took a great effort to move, to speak, to think. What had happened? Was she still a virgin?
Miserably she looked up at Sergia. “I don’t know.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Clodius is notorious in part for having invaded the rites of Bona Dea, disguised as a woman. He was tried for sacrilege and acquitted, but everyone knew he did it. In my version, he has an impious companion in his vile prank.