Chapter 19 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
From the room where I had been re-named, we passed through one gloomy corridor and chamber after another, lighting our own way. Occasionally I saw lamps set in niches cut into the rock, but none of these were lit. I soon became disoriented, though Anna and Cerberus seemed to know the way.
“What is this place? I thought it was an underground part of one of the Goddess’ sanctuaries, but it is far larger than I expected.”
“This is Roma alia,” said Anna, pronouncing it like one word, Romalia: Other-Roma. “We live beneath Roma. We only visit the city when we must, and we do not answer to its laws.”
“Is everyone here a fugitive?” This was an unsettling thought. To me, fugitives were escaped slaves and criminals. I reminded myself that now I too had fled the laws of Roma.
“We do not welcome all fugitives, even if their cause is just. To do so would draw the attention of the Roman authorities and put Romalia in danger.”
“Why did you come to my aid, then?” If the fact of my rescue were discovered, that piece of news would certainly draw attention. I thought of Caesar and shivered.
“We had a good reason, but it is not for me to tell.” The tunnel was getting deeper now, and I could tell that we were walking downhill. Soon we arrived at an aperture cut into the tufa, like a small window at waist height. Below the window, a kind of platform or shelf was built from rubble. Cerberus leapt onto this and sniffed the air. He noticed a difference where I could detect none.
I leaned over and peered up the rounded shaft. Far above us, there was a tiny half-circle of light. Looking down, I saw that the shaft went deeper still.
“Roma has hundreds of wells and well-shafts,” explained Anna, “but many are no longer used, since the aqueducts were built. Even now, most of that water goes to the rich parts of the city. In the places without fountains and baths, people still use these old wells. The shafts, both used and disused, bring us air. Our job today is to check all the large down-shafts in this region of Romalia and note any that need maintenance.”
“This region of Romalia? Just how big is it?” Anna smiled, and before she could speak, I said “I know! It’s not for you to tell. But what’s the purpose of this platform?” I gestured to Cerberus’ perch.
“We build fires in these lower tunnels to draw air downward, like the one you saw when you met Thana. They bring sweet air, and help create updrafts for other shafts, to vent the smoke for our smaller cooking fires.”
“Where do you get your charcoal and lamp oil?”
“In the markets of Roma, like everyone else. That’s called city duty, but you won’t have an assignment like that any time soon.” Anna beckoned, Cerberus hopped down, his tail wagging, and we continued on our way. Once we passed two other women leading a mule. All were laden with knotted string bags full of vegetables. Anna greeted the women by name and introduced me as Lucia. They nodded politely to me, but didn’t ask questions.
“Who built all these tunnels, and why doesn’t everyone in Roma know about them?” I had lived in Roma my whole life, completely unaware of the existence of this subterranean network. To be sure, my experience was limited, but surely others knew.
“The well shafts were first dug at the time of the Tuscan kings, Servius Tullius and the Tarquins. The kings built the Great Sewer, too. Then the Romans began to quarry the tufa for temples and the foundations of houses. They used fire to draw sweet air to the deepest parts of the quarries. Their slaves tunneled under the city for centuries, and created this network. Some parts go very deep. But when Roma grew successful and powerful, nobody wanted to build with tufa, because it is soft and rough and ugly. So they brought in smoother and harder rocks from elsewhere, just as they bring in water. The tunnels were abandoned and forgotten.”
“Even by the aediles? Don’t they supervise the drains and sewers?”
“Yes, but they only investigate when something goes wrong. In the past, the aediles came down here a few times, but they found no one. We retreated to other regions, and we didn’t leave many clues behind. Besides, the aediles these days have no time to worry about dark tunnels. They’re too busy organizing gladiatorial games and food distributions so they can get elected as praetors.” At this, a warm blush rose in my face, as though I was the one answerable for Caesar’s games and his ambition.
“So no one up there knows about you—about us, I mean?”
Anna considered this. “Very few. One of the mottoes of Romalia is ‘Trust no upsider.’ So we take turns doing city duty. We own a few houses in the city and we come and go through the cellars.”
So far, the only people I had met in Romalia were women. I had assumed that these women belonged to some sort of female priesthood, like the Vestals. But in Roma, only a Vestal could buy or sell real estate without a man’s consent—a father, a husband, or an appointed guardian.
“Who acts as your guardian?” I wondered aloud.
“Nobody. We are free women; none of us has a guardian here,” she explained. “It is not difficult to do business in Roma, especially when the property is modest and the owners eager to sell. They don’t ask inconvenient questions about guardians if we offer a fake name and the price is right—and the money ready to hand.”
Once again, this gave me much to think about. Though their clothing suggested otherwise, these women had money. And they exercised many of the same freedoms as Vestals, but without the careful supervision of the Pontifex Maximus, or any other man. “Then… are there no men, in Romalia?”
“Not even one,” said Anna, and grinned. “Unless you count Cerberus here. Isn’t that right, little man?” The dog turned his head and gave a glad bark.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
I visited the vast underground city of Derinkuyu in Central Turkey’s Cappadocia area years ago, but the complexity and sophistication of the engineering that went into carving the many floors, air and water shafts, and separate living quarters for 30K residents and their livestock into the tufa was astounding. I never realized that similar construction occurred underneath Rome! Thanks for describing this so well. It vividly brought back memories of my visit to a similar place.
You were in Derinkuyu! That is so cool. I read as much as I could about those underground cities as I was writing this. The story started from a dream of an underground city of women beneath Rome, but I myself had no idea that there were real tunnels until I started to research it. I knew of the catacombs of course, but those are outside the city.
Sorry, that should have been 20K residents 🙂