Chapter 17 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Part II: Roma Alia
I, Lucia, devoted servant of the Goddess, set down this account in my own words and with my own hand, in order that those who read these tablets in later epochs, when Her worship has faded, may understand something of Her ways. In the nineteenth year of my life and the thirteenth year of my service to Vesta, I was condemned for unchastity, though my impurity was involuntary, the crime of one Quintus Volusius.
He has been punished.
The vault in which I was buried alive was a space about ten feet long and five feet wide. The roof was low; not much more than six feet. I could stand without ducking my head, but I could also touch the ceiling with my hands if I stretched. A narrow couch was set against one of the longer walls. One of the executioners had placed my drawstring bag of personal items here. There was a small table with some bread, oil, and salt, and a cup of milk. This was a prescribed part of the ritual, as though the citizens of Roma could disclaim responsibility for my death by supplying a token amount of food. There was also a lamp, which lighted the small space quite well. I spied a chamber pot under the couch: my vault had all the comforts of home.
A Vestal’s body belongs to the city and the Goddess. Only the Vestals have the privilege of being interred within the city walls when they die; everyone else must be buried outside. The roads leading out from the gates of Roma are lined with elaborate above-ground tombs, as well as family “dovecots,” underground vaults holding cremated remains in little niches. As an unchaste Vestal, I was to remain inside the city, like my sisters, but at the very perimeter. I was to be put out of the way, and covered up without a marker, so that no one would ever think of me again.
Above, I heard the steady thud of earth being shoveled onto the roof of the vault. I trusted that the architect had known his business; though I was going to die anyway, I didn’t relish the thought of the vault collapsing under the weight of all that dirt. It seemed quite sturdy. The walls were made of hardstone slabs set against the bare earth of the pit. At this depth, there would not be loose dirt, but the porous volcanic rock called tufa on which Roma had been built.
Absurdly, I found that I was hungry; there had been no breakfast that morning. I drank the cup of milk and ate a little of the bread, dipped in oil and salt. Which baker had supplied the bread for Vestal executions? Surely not Eurysaces, baker of the city’s fluffiest honey rolls. This was plain bread, but tasty enough.
Then, following the advice of the Chief Vestal, I stood, held up both hands in the gesture of prayer, and began the hymn for the Safety of the Senate and People of Roma:
Jupiter Great on hilltop’s height,
Juno Savior, Full of Light,
Mars who brings both grain and fight,
All great gods in all your might,
Come to us now from Heaven Bright.
Come to us now, quickly, quickly.
The hymn listed the gods and goddesses of Roma, and came in two versions: long and longer. The original version, dating to the war against Hannibal, included only the oldest deities; many additions had been required since then. Even after the deities with known names were mentioned, it was important to say “and all the gods and goddesses and powers” just in case some had been left out. A full recitation took about half an hour. I decided to to keep track by balling up tiny pieces of bread as counters.
By the tenth repetition of the hymn, my voice was ragged. I lay down a while to rest it, and even slept for a time. When I awoke, I wondered for a moment where I was. The air seemed stale. The flame in the little lamp was steady; no chance of a sudden breeze putting it out.
Around the thirteenth repetition of the hymn, I began to feel the effect of confinement in the close space, the onset of asphyxiation. I drew air into my lungs, but it did not satisfy. I tried breathing more deeply. It was as though I had walked up a steep flight of stairs, and could not catch my breath. For the first time, I felt the stirrings of panic. It was time to use Fabia’s gift, a narcotic potion.
“And now the Goddess who gave my body takes it back,” I said, and drank from the little ampule, hoping its effect would last long enough to spare me the agonies of suffocation. Then I lay on the couch, and tried to compose myself for death.
I must have drowsed, how long I do not know, but I felt more comfortable now. A rhythmic noise had awakened me, a pulsating sound like a heartbeat, and my head felt as though it was wrapped in fuzzy wool. Gradually the sound grew louder, and I watched with detached interest as one of the stone slabs of my vault collapsed inwards. Air rushed and swirled about me. Slowly, a robed female form emerged from a hole behind the slab, and then another. These must be the Manes, the shades of my Sister Vestals, come to meet me, and escort me to Orcus. I tried to raise a hand in greeting, but found that I could barely lift a finger.
The figures stood beside the couch. They touched my neck and face, and spoke urgently. They wanted me to get up. The pair lifted me to my feet, and walked me back and forth in the small space of the vault. I moaned, for I wanted only to sleep. Then one of the women disappeared into the hole. The other pressed me down toward the black space, pushing and pushing. The way to the Underworld is merely a narrow tunnel, I thought, with disappointment. Where are the huge iron gates of Orcus? Where is the great river Styx?
Then there came a time of being pushed and pulled within a tight space, in absolute darkness, with many coaxings and urgings and scraping of knees and knuckles. Being dead was far more difficult than I had expected. I had always supposed it to be a peaceful state, not this constant prodding and yanking. Perhaps it would go on like this forever, as a kind of punishment for my supposed crime, and yet I was so very tired. At last there was a light, but it wasn’t time to get up. Instead, they told me that I could sleep. Sleep now.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss