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Chapter 20 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Young man with a papyrus scroll. Herculaneum (1st century CE). Photo: Wikimedia.

There had been daylight when I looked up the well shaft, but by the time Anna and I completed our work for the day, it must have been dark in Roma. I was exhausted and eager for a meal when she led me to a smoky room where a woman named Prisca was cooking over a fire positioned beside an upshaft. Vegetables, bread, eggs and cheese were stored on shelves chiseled into the walls, and a net bag of wooden bowls hung from a rusted iron peg. She ladled out two bowls of hot lentil and cabbage soup. We ate with wooden spoons, sitting on a bench cut from the rock, as Cerberus watched us, alert for any handouts. A loaf of dark bread and a jug of pungent fish sauce was set out, ready for our use.

In the Vestal House, the utensils were finer and the food of higher quality, yet I felt strangely at home here in this community of women, and the hot soup relieved my chill and satisfied my hunger. “Do you find it difficult, living in the dark?” I asked Anna.

She rubbed at the rough, red skin of her facial scar before answering the question. “I was afraid of the dark at first,” she said. “But these days, when I go upside it feels too bright, and in the summer, far too hot. Yet those who never go upside fail to thrive, so we rotate the jobs among us. I suppose that some prefer a job in the light. What do you think, Prisca?”

The cook had large, sad eyes and a thin grey braid hanging down her back. She wiped her hands on her apron and came to join us. Adding a generous dollop of fish sauce to her soup and stirring it, she said, “We have enough to eat. It ain’t no Palatine Hill, but it’s safe down here. I wouldn’t go back.”

“What did you do before?” I asked. I was beginning to realize that I knew very little of people outside the Senators and Horsemen who made up the privileged classes in Roma.

“We don’t ask others about their previous lives,” interrupted Anna. “That’s for them to offer, if they choose.”

Prisca waved off my apology, eager to tell her story. “I was a freedwoman. Used to be a house-slave in the kitchen of Manlius Torquatus on the Palatine. A very fine address, you understand. Fancy food, but we were fed only the scraps. The good leftovers were saved for the clients of Himself, and woe to us if we touched them! I got my freedom when my mistress died. I wanted to stay on, but Torquatus was reducing the staff, so I had to fend for myself. I found a job in a taverna, cooking hot meals, and it came with a room in the cellar, where we kept the wine amphoras and the oil. They wanted a woman down there—less likely to siphon off the wine, they said, and sure enough I never bothered. One day I found a tunnel behind the shelves, all boarded up. You can guess the rest.”

In fact I could not guess, but I didn’t want to repeat my rudeness by asking questions. “You’re a good cook, Prisca,” I told her instead. “Excuse my ignorance, but should we pay you for this meal? I don’t have anything of value with me.”

Prisca showed her teeth in a smile; two or three were missing. “’Course not, Lucia. That ain’t the way downside. You’ll learn.”

We dumped what little was left of the soup into a vessel on the floor for Cerberus, who slurped his meal enthusiastically. Then Anna guided me back to my chamber. She handed me a skin pouch with a small iron firestarter, a flint, and some tinder. “You know how to use this, right?”

“Indeed I do.” If Vesta’s temple fire went out, the Goddess required that it be laboriously re-kindled using a wooden firedrill and plank, the way they made fire in ancient times. For any other use, it was much easier to strike flint on iron. The Vestal House had relatively few slaves, so when the kitchen fire gave out and our lamps needed lighting, we often did the job ourselves.

“Carry the pouch with you all the time, in case your lamp goes out,” advised Anna. “Don’t try to explore any more tonight,” she added, as though I could have walked another ten feet. “Extinguish your lamp to save the oil, unless you’re too scared of the dark. I’ll be back to replenish it in the morning, and we’ll do a new job.”

I fell into my cot and slept dreamlessly. Several hours later I awoke, disoriented. I had no idea what time it was. The silence and darkness were absolute, very unlike the nights in Roma. The air was still, and I imagined for a moment that the entire day had been a fantasy. Perhaps I was still in my vault, gasping my last few breaths, and seeing strange visions? There was a chamber pot under my cot, which I used, then rose and slowly groped my way around the room, assuring myself that the jug and cup of water were still there. I found and mentally checked off the lamp and the tools for kindling. There was a niche in the wall, with some sort of textile. Perhaps this was a change of clothing, or an extra blanket—the two would be indistinguishable.

I lay down again and pondered my change of fortune. This place, Romalia, was truly unlike Roma. Everyone here dressed as the common people did—even Thana, who I assumed was a person of authority—and there seemed to be few material comforts. Here I would surely be expected to perform manual labor, like a slave, but as a Vestal I had been responsible for many repetitive and messy tasks, from gathering and threshing grain, to washing and baking the sacred salt, to fetching water and cleaning ashes from the Goddess’ hearth. The life would not be unbearable, I thought, and perhaps one day I could leave—go to another city. My father had some relations in Praeneste, yet I was by no means certain that they would protect me. Prisca’s story of her life as a freed slave, moreover, suggested the difficulties facing any woman trying to fend for herself, alone in a strange city, without a father or a husband.

As a Vestal, I had never given much thought to whether our slaves were happy. They belonged first to the Goddess, and secondly to us, and they were well-treated, except for poor Mormo, who had to serve Claudia. Andromeda had cared for me in the way many a female house-slave cared for young children. She comforted me when I was afraid, soothed me when I had bad dreams, fussed when I was ill, and even scolded me when she thought I had done wrong. I accepted all these ministrations as my due, since a life without someone to care for my personal needs was unimaginable.

As I grew into a woman and became more independent, I looked to Fabia for guidance, rather than Andromeda. I wondered now whether Andromeda thought of me merely as a job to be finished for the day, so that she could get on with her real life. Childishly, I had assumed that I myself was the center of her life. When we learned that I was to be executed, she had wailed and ululated the way Greek women do at a funeral, scratching red welts into her face with her nails. In my despair, I had sent her away.

Fretfully, I rolled over, seeking distraction from these regrets. In my old life, whenever I couldn’t sleep, I used to light a lamp and read some of Ennia’s poetry volumes, though Andromeda insisted that night-reading ruined the eyes. Here, it seemed, there were no books. A life without books stretched out before me, like a barren desert of years. I sternly reminded myself that I was lucky to be alive.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss