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Chapter 21 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Graffito of a crucified man. 2nd century CE, from Puteoli.

Morning brought both light—though it was only the glowing wick of Anna’s lamp—and sound, the familiar bark of Cerberus. Anna showed me how to empty my chamber pot down a disused well shaft which served as a latrine, rinsing it with water from a jug. We greeted a few others as they emerged from a communal sleeping room. Looking in, I saw that there were no cots, but the floor was covered in sheep’s fleeces. Then we visited the bath, a deep cavelike room where a basin cut into the rock was fed by a natural spring. Here several laughing women were pouring buckets of cold water over each other’s heads, or combing and braiding their hair. Unlike other Roman women, we Vestals never visited public baths or revealed our bodies to anyone but our slaves, so I was self-conscious about removing my cloak and tunic. But I was anxious to be clean again, so I stripped and shivered in the cold water like the others.

I had never seen another person naked, other than statues, so my modesty was tempered by curiosity. I tried not to stare, but I was surprised to see how arms, legs, buttocks and breasts could differ so much in individual women. Real women looked nothing like statues—a discovery which made me wonder whether the same was true of men. I chuckled a little, remembering the rotund priest Marcius Aletudo. Then Caesar came very vividly to mind, and I shook my head to make him go away.

Unaware of these disturbing thoughts, Anna was braiding her wet hair. “The sisters in Second Region have a hot spring, but no such luck here,” she remarked cheerfully as I wrapped myself, still damp, in my clothing, replaced my shoes, and retrieved my lamp. “Come along to the kitchen, and you can stand by the fire.”

“Where does this spring exit the tunnels?” I asked, eyeing the channel which drained the basin.

“It empties into the local sewer. We have the Roman aediles to thank for that, I suppose. Otherwise, we’d be flooded.”

In the kitchen, space by the fire was scarce, between those who wanted to warm themselves and the folding racks of clothing set there to dry, but the other women made me feel welcome. There was Ulpia, who spoke with the accent of people from Hispania; Velia, who had the same name as one of Roma’s hills; a Greek woman whose name, Nephele, meant Cloud; and another named Megilla, who was much taller than the rest of us. The air was humid and blessedly warm. We ate griddlecakes wrapped around mashed dates, and drank goat’s milk. Everything, whether food or drink, was served in the same wooden bowls. Cerberus gladly accepted a tribute of morsels from his admirers.

As we passed my chamber, Anna asked whether I was starting to learn my way around. In truth, the labyrinth seemed overwhelming, but I thought that I might be able to find the latrine, the kitchen and the bath on my own. Anna told me that we had traveled most of these winding paths the previous day, yet I recognized none of them. After a time, Cerberus became unaccountably excited and dashed ahead of us. Soon I heard the unmistakable cries of goats, and we reached a very stinky room where a herd of about a dozen were penned. Our first task was to spread layers of lime and straw over their bedding, which was permeated with their leavings of the night. The room was pleasantly warm, and Anna explained that the heat was generated from the composting of the goat dung and litter. We performed the work amidst constant barking from Cerberus and much complaining from the goats, who milled around and massed themselves at the entrance, ready to burst out.

“Time for a daylight job!” said Anna. “This is where Cerberus earns his keep. Follow at the rear, Lucia, and make sure none of them strays off our path.”

At first there was some danger of the stragglers wandering into a side tunnel, but soon the way narrowed and became quite steep. The goats attacked this slope with gusto, even after it turned into a stairway. This breed was unusually small, but they easily leaped and climbed their way up the stairs. Finally, Anna stopped us and commanded Cerberus to “stay” while she had a look around upside. The little dog had all he could do to keep the goats from surging forward, but at last he heard Anna’s whistle and let the herd free. Emerging last of all, I blinked at the bright light, only to find myself not outdoors, but in the shelter of a stone structure. The tunnel mouth opened right in the center of a tomb shaped like a hut, and the front door was open to the air and light.

The goats were already spreading into the green space ahead, which I could see was dotted with other tombs. Slowly I ventured out. The light stabbed my eyes, but the colors and especially the fresh air were welcome.

“We’re outside the Hill gate,” said Anna. “Not that far from the place where they buried you.” She pointed behind us, and I saw the gate, and the gruesome execution grounds just outside it. Three crucifixes were set up there, with people hanging from them. We were too far away to tell whether they were still alive, but the slackness of their bodies suggested otherwise. These must be slaves, for this most cruel of punishments was reserved for slaves and traitors. After Spartacus’ rebellion, Crassus had executed thousands this way, lining the Appian Way with corpses.

“I know. It’s horrible. But that’s why this place is relatively safe. Most people shun this area as bad luck. The only real traffic is the traders coming to and from the Salt Road.”

Anna was right. The guards at the gate would assume we were from a farmstead or villa outside the walls, and few people would come here unless they had to. The tombs were old and neglected. Nobody wanted to bury loved ones here, within sight of the place of torture.

“Are there many herds like this?”

“A few, mostly in our Region. But the rich who don’t want to live inside the walls are buying land and converting it from cemeteries to grand estates and gardens. We hope we’ll be able to pay a fee to graze in the areas where tombs are left standing. Landowners are amenable because the goats keep the tombs tidy by cropping the weeds. But I don’t like it. Too many questions could be asked about who we are and where we come from.”

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss