Chapter 16 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Lucia’s execution was scheduled for one day before the Kalends of January. The date was therefore considered nefastus or ill-omened, a day when no political or legal business could be conducted. In the week before the Kalends, she finally caught Claudia alone, hurriedly eating her breakfast so as to be out the door before she had to face Lucia.
Lucia took a seat at the table opposite Claudia, who started guiltily but held her ground. “I thought you weren’t allowed out until the third hour from dawn,” she remarked, keeping her gaze on her food.
“It is past the third,” said Lucia. They sat in silence for a moment, and Lucia helped herself to some bread and cheese from the tray. Then she caught Claudia’s eye and asked, “Why did you do it?”
Claudia picked nervously at her bread and tore off small pieces, leaving them uneaten on the table. “I was bored. I thought it would be amusing to send you in my place. Now Volusius has fled to Athens. For what it’s worth, I didn’t think you’d be caught, or that it would end this way.”
“Your amusement is costing my life,” answered Lucia.
“I know. I’m sorry about that.” Then, as if unable to stop herself, she added, “Better yours than mine.”
“May you be handed over to the Goddess as the nefas that you are,” replied Lucia quietly. Claudia rose, scraping her chair sharply against the floor, and swept out of the room. After that, she took care not to be in the Vestal House during Lucia’s hours of freedom.
Despite the severity of her coming punishment, Lucia retained certain rights as a Vestal, including the right to make a will and dispose of her own property. She left her share in the family home to her brothers Aulus and Marcus, even though they had not come to see her. She supposed that they were ashamed. The largest share of her property went to Fabia, and there was a bequest for each of her sister Vestals except Claudia. Technically, she was unable to free Andromeda, who belonged to the Goddess, but she left a sum of money toward the purchase of her freedom. Her books she left to Caesar, “Not because he merits my gratitude,” she wrote, “but because my books deserve a discerning reader and a capable guardian.” On her final journey, she was permitted only a small drawstring bag of personal items. In this bag she placed Ennia’s pearl and coral necklace, her own bee-shaped hair ornament from her mother, a lock of hair from each parent in a silver capsule, and her favorite folding tablet and stylus, which had been gifts from Fabia.
On the fatal day, Lucia was led early in the morning to the hall of the Vestal House to be stripped and scourged. It seemed to her that Caesar carried out the procedure reluctantly, although Fabia became incensed at him for seeming to peer through the gauzy fabric which hid her naked body from his sight. The scourging, it turned out, was less of an ordeal than she expected. Her thoughts were far more occupied with what was to come.
Once Caesar left the Vestal House to marshal the gloomy procession to the Wicked Field, Fabia clothed Lucia in a thin tunic, led her into her own chamber, and with her own hands loosened Lucia’s hair, undoing the six braids and letting the locks fall around her shoulders.
“I have failed you, child. I put it to Caesar that Claudia was lying, and that I suspect her of unchastity with Volusius, but he said that there was too little evidence. To accuse her would mean the revelation of a second unchaste Vestal under his supervision, a thing he cannot countenance. And then there is his precious Clodius!” Fabia stopped to catch her breath. She tired so easily now that even walking the length of the Vestal House caused her to pant.
“You could not have changed the outcome, Elder Sister,” said Lucia. “You are justifiably angry with Caesar, but do not end your long friendship with him over this. I believe that I am part of some larger plan. Regardless of what Caesar has done, it is the will of the Goddess for me to go under the earth now.”
“That may be, Little Sister,” answered Fabia. She hesitated, then said, “Remember what I taught you about the Goddess, on the day I showed you the Pledges. What did you learn that day?”
“As she rules above, so she rules below,” answered Lucia. “I have not forgotten. But Fabia, I am afraid. I know that I will die of suffocation, long before I feel any real lack of food or drink. Is it a very painful thing?”
Fabia took Lucia into her arms and whispered in her ear. “There is lore in our Sisterhood about the ultimate punishment, that it does not hurt, but induces visions, and also that the shades of your executed Sisters will come to greet you. I do not know whether these things are true. Keep the Goddess in your thoughts, and once you are in the vault, say the long version of the hymn for the Safety of the Senate and People of Roma twenty times. Wait until you are beginning to feel pain, then use this.” She handed Lucia a small glass ampule of fluid, stoppered with cork. “It will render you unconscious until… the ordeal is over.”
Lucia was to be entombed in an underground vault constructed in the Wicked Field, near the Hill Gate. Once or twice in a century, such vaults were built along King Servius’ Wall, the old city fortification, to receive unchaste Vestals. In times of dire peril, the people often cried out that one of the Vestals must have surrendered herself to lust and become nefas, for the security of the State and the sanctity of Vesta were one and the same. At such times, a Vestal could be executed on the slightest pretext. Just now, there was no great external peril, but as Caesar had sagely observed, the constitution of Roma was starting to crumble. Moralists blamed the vast influx of wealth from conquered states. Traditionalists blamed the clever Greeks, with their wily arguments that turned wrong into right. People were at once deeply anxious and inclined to revels and debauchery, as though awaiting an inescapable disaster.
The other Vestals preceded Lucia out of the Vestal House, where a crowd of the curious had already gathered. Wearing only her tunic and a thin, shroudlike robe about her shoulders, she lay upon the hearse, which had been equipped for this occasion with leather restraints. She was strapped down, and then covered with a blanket, as though she was already dead. She heard the whip crack in the air as the driver urged the horses on, and the wagon slowly proceeded from the Forum in a northerly direction, toward the Hill Gate. A carriage followed behind, holding the Pontfex Maximus and the Chief Vestal, and after that, a cart for the professional executioners. As she was jostled and bumped along the way, she heard noises of lamentation from the crowd walking in the procession. The story of her violation had circulated, and many called all too late for leniency, though Clodius’s most ardent supporters shouted them down.
The numbness and shock which she still felt did not erase her fear. Still, it was fortunate, she supposed, that she had never been terrified of close spaces. She had once met a wealthy man who could easily have afforded a cabin during his sea voyages, but slept on deck with the common people because he dreaded the dark, tomb-like space. Lucia herself had never been to sea, but she would have chosen the privacy of the cabin. She was not afraid of the dark.
It seemed a very short time before they arrived at the Wicked Field and the hearse jerked to a stop. There was a delay during which the Pontifex Maximus checked the final preparations for the rite. Then the concealing cloth was removed, and an executioner, a grey-haired man about her father’s age, unbuckled her restraints. “Now then, I’ll help you up,” he said kindly, as she rubbed her chafed wrists. Lucia was no longer inviolate; any man could lay hands on her now. Before the sentence condemning her, it would have been death for this man to touch her. She meekly accepted his assistance climbing down from the hearse, and he led her to the place where Caesar and Fabia were waiting.
The crowd, noisy until this moment, was held back by a group of determined lictors. The sudden silence was unexpected. In an umbrella pine near the wall, a bird sang. Before her was a sizable pit. About eight feet down, she saw the stone roof of the vault in which she was to be imprisoned. The top of a ladder protruded from a square hole cut in the stone; a small slab was set nearby, ready to seal the aperture. After that, they would heap earth atop the vault, and fill in the pit. Lucia did not look at Fabia; they had already said their farewells, and she was afraid that she might burst into tears if she saw the older woman’s grief-stricken face.
Caesar’s role was to place her on the ladder while uttering a secret prayer in a low voice. He took her hand. “Come, Lucia.” She awkwardly gripped the ladder and stepped down until she was waist-high above the ground level. As she did so, he leaned above her and distinctly said, “May the Goddess accept you as one of her own.” The last she saw of him was his keen eyes, which gazed steadily into hers until the darkness of the vault swallowed her up.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Author’s note: In case you’re wondering, this is not the end of the story.