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Chapter 23 in my novel about a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Mushrooms grown in a Parisian quarry. Photo: Mairie de Paris-Inspection Générale des Carrières. Click for source (Gastro Obscura)

Those were my first two days in Romalia, yet by the time we finished our chores that evening, the place felt familiar. I did not dread the descent into the dark, for during the entire day upside I had been haunted by a nagging fear that a gang of lictors and executioners might rush from the gate to seize me and throw me, cowering, at Caesar’s feet.

In the days that followed, I began to understand how Romalia functioned as a polity, separate from Roma, but tied inextricably to the great city above our heads.

“We are like a hive of bees in a great oak tree,” Thana said. “Our affairs are separate, yet we depend on the tree for our survival. Were Roma to fall, we too would suffer, being scattered to the winds to find new homes.” Thana held authority in Romalia, as I had suspected. Her title was “Counselor” and she served the Assembly of Sisters of Romalia, together with a colleague. Unlike the two Consuls of Roma, the Counselors did not change annually; they served terms of ten years. But of such matters I knew little as yet.

Romalia, Thana told me, had existed since the Great War with Carthage, when the quarrying of tufa inside the city walls finally ceased. Roma lost the Battle of Cannae and faced imminent attack by the terrifying invader Hannibal. All expected the fall of the city. The Senate and People began to seek the cause of the disaster. Two Vestals, Opimia and Floronia, were unjustly accused of unchastity and found guilty. Opimia, the namesake of the Goddess Plenty, was buried by the Hill Gate, but rescued by two female slaves from the Royale, who braved the descent, with help from their male lovers who knew of the tunnels. Floronia pretended suicide, substituting another woman’s corpse on her funeral pyre, and joined Opimia below the earth.

At first their plan was to escape the city, but the Goddess came to both women in a dream, commanding them to continue living within the city walls until their thirty years of service were completed. She said that it was their destiny to found “another Roma,” whose citizens must not include men. Opimia asked the Goddess how they could assemble such a city, and She replied, “Romulus founded Roma as a place of refuge. He accepted fugitives, beggars, adventurers, and immigrants from across the sea. There were no slaves in Roma then. All Romans were citizens, and all citizens were men. You will found another Roma without men, obeying my ordinances. Certain women will come to you as their fates allow, and I will teach you my holy secrets.”

“That,” finished Thana, “is why we bar men from Romalia.”

“And you have preserved the tale all these years,” I said, enthralled by the story. Of course, I knew of Opimia and Floronia, but only as examples of the most heinous misconduct, as traitors whose unchastity had disturbed the Gods’ Peace and brought divine vengeance on Roma. “But I wonder, after such a long time, has the story changed in the retelling?”

“Oh no, child,” said Thana. “We have the account written in Opimia’s own hand.”

This astonished me, for I had assumed that Romalia possessed no books. “How…? Where?” I gasped. Surely no papyrus rolls could survive in the humid tunnels. They would quickly become mildewed and fall apart.

Seeing my reaction, Thana smiled. “I know exactly what is in your mind, Lucia. Yes, we have books here! You will see our Archive, but it is a sacred place. New sisters see it only after they fully learn our way of life. A few even work in the Archive—if they have the necessary skills.”

I nodded and said no more on that subject, but my heart was full. Now I knew that this place could truly be my home. I set to work with two goals: first, to learn the tunnel system of the Region where I lived, and second, to learn every task and occupation which the sisters performed in order to maintain their freedom. These turned out to be far more various than I had realized, and in some cases, more dangerous.

Romalia possessed two food sources which were internal to the tunnels. First, the strange little goats provided milk and cheese, but they were also used as sacrifices for the Goddess, on the rare occasions when blood offerings were required. They were pastured outside the walls, a practice which had long been convenient, but was growing increasingly difficult as the “cities of the dead” outside King Servius’ walls were razed. Respect for the dead, it seemed, was no match for the lure of a prestigious address just outside the wall, and conveniently close to a city gate.

The composted manure of the penned goats was used to grow the other internal food source, the mushrooms which Anna and I had eaten during our day of herding. Three of the four Regions possessed mushroom farms. I spent many a day shoveling the pungent muck from goat pens into baskets, which were then carried either by mule or on our own backs to the farms. The compost was cured for a time, and then inoculated with fibers from a previous crop. The farming chambers were chosen for their proximity to air shafts, for they had to be well-ventilated. If the air grew sour and unhealthy to breathe, this portended a crop failure.

We produced several types of mushrooms, but one in particular, a flavorful variety with a ruffled reddish cap, was in high demand among the privileged classes in Roma. Most of these were sold directly to cooks at the houses of the great, while the less prized varieties were sold in the Vegetable Market or traded for foods we lacked, such as eggs and greens. I remembered eating the redcaps at dinners during my time as a Vestal. It had never occurred to me to ask where they came from, or who grew them.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical Note: As you can see from the photo above, subterranean spaces are often used to grow mushrooms. This source of food and income for the Romalian women is thus quite plausible. The goats are a bit more fanciful, but the composting of their manure is a normal practice in farming, and this compost would make a good medium for growing mushrooms. Romalian goats have been selectively bred for small size, which makes them easier for the women to manage, inside and outside of the tunnels.

Opimia and Floronia were real Vestal Virgins, convicted of unchastity in 215 BCE.