, , ,

Chapter 15 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Heads of goddesses from the temples in the Largo Argentina (a city block in Rome, which today includes a cat sanctuary). Photo by author.

Over the next few days, Lucia’s situation did not improve. The people of Roma were restive, and crowds buzzed with news of Clodius’ disgrace. Like Caesar, he was a member of the People’s faction, and most were inclined to dismiss his behavior as a harmless prank, though they took a darker view of the mystery man who had been caught in the very act of violating a Vestal. Clodius’ defenders seized on this episode to argue that his own transgression was minor by comparison, and sanctimoniously insisted that the other man must be found and punished, together with his wanton Vestal lover, in order to maintain the Gods’ Peace.

Meanwhile, Caesar’s embarrassment delighted Cato, who promptly accused him of converting the People’s House into a brothel, and sarcastically inquired whether the praetor had plans to rent out the Royale, or perhaps Vesta’s temple itself, for private bacchanals. For his part, Caesar divorced Pompeia only days after that disastrous evening, while publicly taking a lenient view of Clodius’ behavior. When Cato demanded to know why he was divorcing his wife if he thought she was innocent, he calmly answered, “My wife must be above suspicion.” According to Fabia, Caesar was not only angry with Pompeia, but also with his mother for not having prevented the intrusion. Fortunately, Aurelia had taken the precaution of sending young Julia to stay with relatives during the festival. Nobody could question the purity of Caesar’s daughter.

On the day of her own questioning, Lucia was ushered into the courtyard of the Royale, where the Pontifices, the Flamines and the Vestals were seated in a circle of two rows. She stood in the center before Caesar, who wore the full Pontifical regalia, including the skullcap with its spiked finial. He sat on his ivory curule chair with its curved legs, and two assistants behind him took notes.

As Chief Vestal, Fabia administered the oath, and Lucia duly called down upon herself the wrath of Vesta, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, and all the gods and goddesses of the Senate and People of Roma, should she tell an untruth or omit information pertinent to the inquiry.

“Vestal Lucia, tell us the events of the night in question,” said Caesar. Realizing that hesitation or fear could easily be read as guilt, she tried to forget the circle of inquisitors and to focus instead on relating the story fully and accurately, keeping her eyes on Caesar. It helped that Claudia was seated out of view behind her, though she felt the other woman’s eyes boring into her back, as she described how Claudia had sent her to the Red Room.

He stopped her there. “Claudia has testified under oath that you asked her the way to the Red Room. What is your answer to that?”

Lucia met his gaze. “She lies. It was she who told me to go there.”

There was a hiss behind her, and Claudia stood up. “How dare she accuse me!” she cried angrily. “The Claudii were Consuls of Roma when this woman’s ancestors were mucking out stables!”

“Claudia, sit down. Now.” Caesar did need to bellow; his voice, though calm, was cold as an iron blade on a winter’s day. Lucia resolutely remained facing forward, so she did not see how Claudia reacted, but she must have obeyed, for he nodded at Lucia. “Proceed.”

To describe the violence itself was more difficult, and her voice sometimes caught in her throat. Caesar stopped her occasionally, asking what she recalled about the man’s appearance, height and weight, but she was able to offer few details. “It happened very quickly,” she said. “Mainly I remember that she—I thought it was a woman then—that he had a cheap wig, and his cheeks and lips were rouged. He was tall, though I didn’t realize that until he stood up. And… he was heavy.”

A murmur spread around the room. Caesar asked her to continue. “I was terrified. He had a hand over my mouth. He pulled up my gown.” She felt her face growing heated. “I felt something poking at me. Between my legs. Then there were shouts and a light in the room, and he leapt up.”

“Are you still virgin?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” This caused a renewed buzz of whispers. Caesar sighed.

“Greatest Pontifex, if I may,” interjected Fabia, her voice low and tense. “Lucia is completely ignorant of such matters. Surely this very fact speaks to her innocence.”

“Ah…hem, perhaps a physical examination might be in order?” The speaker was Aletudo. He looked embarrassed.

“I have taken advice from three Greek doctors and six midwives,” said Caesar. “They tell me that there is no reliable physical indicator of virginity. As the priest delegated to oversee the Vestals, I hesitate to set a precedent for such a test. After all, if the physicians are correct, we might find that several of the current Vestals lack the requisite physical signs. That would be very unfortunate for the College.”

“To be sure,” agreed Aletudo, patting his moist temples with his handkerchief.

Caesar directed Lucia to withdraw to the waiting room in the Royale while the College deliberated. This took a couple of hours. At some points she heard echoes of the discussion and raised voices, though she could make out none of the words. Caesar’s expression had been impassive. He was not hostile toward her, but neither was he noticeably friendly. Finally she was told to return to the courtyard.

“Vestal Lucia, this body is split on the question of whether you are telling the truth. I am inclined to believe you,” he said. “Yet the problem before us is more difficult than this. What is clear is that your person has been violated during an act of reckless unchastity. This raises the question of whether it is possible for you to continue as a Vestal. The Goddess cannot be served by one who has been violated. But having been consecrated to the Goddess, neither can you resume life as a woman of Roma. The consecration of a Vestal cannot be undone. She either completes her thirty years of service… or she dies.”

“Caesar!” Fabia’s eyes were pleading. “Surely there is some other way… some other solution to the dilemma?”

“Vestal Lucia, you are nearly as learned as Fabia. Is there another solution to the dilemma?” The question was not merely rhetorical, she realized, yet she had been skilfully manipulated into a corner, and she knew the answer already.

“No,” she said. “My life belongs to the Goddess.”

Back in her chamber in the Vestal House, as Andromeda and a few of the other slaves loudly wept and dug at their cheeks with their fingernails, Lucia reflected that the outcome of the inquiry was convenient for Caesar. The people of Roma were hotly defending Clodius, whose daring antics entertained them. Clodius was like a mischievous, younger version of Caesar himself, but with a harder edge. He resembled those vipers one saw in the markets, which rose swaying from baskets and danced to the music of a flute. They entertained the crowds enormously, but every so often, they bit. Clodius was Caesar’s ally, or rather, Caesar wished to support Clodius without seeming to do so. And Caesar himself was under heavy attack in the Senate. He was Pontifex Maximus, after all. He needed to get his house in order and see to the Gods’ Peace. The drama of a Vestal’s execution would satisfy the people and serve his interests very well.

In addition to all this, there would now be one less person in Roma who knew his secret.

Lucia was not to be spared the humiliation of the ancient rite of purification by which unchaste Vestals were executed. The sacred books detailed the procedures minutely. There could be no deviation, she thought hopelessly. Not the Vestals themselves, but the male priests of Roma, had ordained the procedures, with no exceptions for rape. The coming ordeal would be difficult, perhaps even agonizing. But Goddess, you will help me, she thought, remembering Ennia’s calm acceptance of death. You rule both above and below. You will be there, in the depths of the earth. She dismissed Andromeda and the other serving women from her chamber, and began to pray.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: To my knowledge there is no ancient discussion of what would happen if a Vestal Virgin were raped. Ritually speaking, it made little difference whether her violation happened by consent.