Chapter 24 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
My first months in Romalia were physically taxing. I was often cold, and my muscles ached from the hard work, but even more challenging was the alternation of dark and light. At first, I woke up at random every night, and during the “daytime” I felt groggy. When I had an upside job, the exposure to bright light left me strangely exhausted, yet unable to sleep.
“The body learns,” said Theodora, the sister who supervised the mushroom farms, traveling from one region to the next to deal with problems and and train any newcomers. “It takes longer for some, but eventually, you will know when to rise and the right hour for sleep, even without the light.”
Theodora had a jutting brow, a prominent nose and a heavy black braid. Unusual among the sisters for her size and strength, she could lift a basket of compost with one hand, and she used to show off by lifting Tita, the mule, so that all four hooves left the ground. Like our goats, Tita was distinctly undersized, but it was still an impressive feat. Once I tried to get my arms around Tita, just to see how heavy she was, but I was puny and had not earned her respect. Testy at being interfered with, she kicked me, and I walked with a limp for a week after.
Eventually I learned Theodora’s story. One day, when we were eating baked eggs and onions after work, I asked whether she had been in Romalia for long. It was a polite way to signal interest, which allowed the other sister either to answer in a few vague words, or to respond with the gift of her story.
“This is my third year,” she replied amicably. “When I came to Roma, I already knew a great deal about the cultivation of mushrooms. I arrived with Lucius Licinius Lucullus, after his battles with King Mithradates, in Asia.”
“Lucullus is a great fancier of gourmet food,” I remarked, remembering Claudia’s bitter complaints at being refused permission to travel to Neapolis and Baeae. After many a weary year fighting Mithradates, the king of Pontus, poor Lucullus had returned home to less than a hero’s welcome. Predictably, Pompeius Magnus had swept into Asia to take all the credit, after Mithradates was fairly beaten. Lucullus was kept waiting three years for his Triumph, unable to enter the city, for no Roman general with the power of Command could enter except in Triumph, and Magnus saw to it that the celebration was delayed. Instead, Lucullus amused himself in Neapolis with his vast wealth, which even Crassus had to admit was impressive. Cicero, I recalled, had been particularly anxious for an invitation to dinner.
“Lucullus is indeed a man of great discernment,” replied Theodora. “I met him when he captured my brothers and me. We were traveling in the country near Cabira, the fortress where the King kept his treasure, and the Romans found us hiding in a cave. We hadn’t time to get to the tunnels, or we would have been quite safe.”
“Do you mean to say that there were tunnels like ours, in the land where you grew up?” I asked in amazement.
“Many of the cities in Asia have subterranean corridors and chambers, much grander than those of Romalia,” Theodora said proudly. “The people use them during invasions, which are quite the usual thing; we even bring our horses and cattle underground. Our overlords are always changing, yet long ago we Cappadocians had an empire of our own. In any case, my brother Artemidorus agreed to show Lucullus the best approach to the fortress of Cabira. We fought on his side in the battle.”
“You fought?” I had heard of women warriors called Amazons, who inhabited the shores of the Black Sea. But I thought that they lived only in the days of the heroes.
“Lucia, surely you have noticed that I am as large and strong as a man?” Theodora’s expression suggested that I must be particularly dim-witted not to have guessed the truth, but I still failed to understand, and spread my hands in a gesture of defeat.
“I was a man, at that time. In the battle, I took some very serious wounds. To the groin.”
“Oh. But you lived,” I said foolishly.
“Yes. The other men, even my own brothers, avoided me after my injury, as though my bad luck might spread to them. Behind my back, they joked about my voice getting higher, though it didn’t change much.”
“You do have a low voice, but I never thought you sounded like a man,” I replied.
“I speak differently, when I am downside, so I sound more like the rest of you.”
The Goddess’ instructions, I realized, did not require every person in Romalia to be born a woman; she merely stipulated that there must be no viri, no men. In Roma, a real man was dominant and strong and self-controlled; men constantly suspected each other of being less than manly. Certainly the loss of manly parts ensured exclusion from the category. Male slaves, too, were not men, but “boys” or “persons.”
Theodora continued, “Once we arrived in Italy, Lucullus hired me to supervise the purchase and cultivation of certain foodstuffs for his kitchens, particularly mushrooms, for I told him how we used to grow them underground, in Cappadocia. But everywhere I went, my story followed. I could not visit the baths. Men in the market sneered at me. Women were kinder, and I got to know Caecilia, one of the sisters who sells Romalian produce in the Vegetable Market. I was curious about her mushrooms, for they were invariably the freshest and best. One day, she invited me to visit her mushroom farm. I was blindfolded and brought down to see the operation in Second Region, which was suffering from rot. I had plenty of suggestions, and after that, one thing led to another.”
“And do you prefer…our way of life? Being a woman?” I asked.
“Yes, I do,” she said frankly. “I’m big enough to defend myself upside, so I don’t suffer as many of the negatives of being a woman. I have lovers here, and nobody scorns me. In fact, I have a lot to offer the sisters. I’d like to be Counselor one day. I’m lucky to be here, and you’re lucky to have me.” This was quite true, but I couldn’t help feeling that Theodora still showed a certain masculine tendency to boast.
That evening, we both attended one of the “song nights” which were the main Romalian entertainment. These were organized by region, though any sister was entitled to attend a song night in any other region. They took place in the kitchens or the larger communal rooms. Women gathered after the evening meal, spreading fleeces and cloaks on the floor around a single lamp which illuminated the circle of faces.
We sang all manner of songs, and used no instruments, relying entirely on our voices and the clapping of hands or snapping of fingers. Much of the repertoire was women’s music, weaving songs or bridal processionals, for which the sisters felt a great nostalgia, though we had no looms and conducted no weddings. There was music for Juno of the Light and for Vesta; the Goddess as she was known to Romalians had her own hymns, but these were saved for sacred occasions. New songs were always in demand, and Theodora was able to contribute several filthy legionary chants, which had everyone in tears of laughter. Most evenings ended with lullabies, and comforted by each other’s warmth, we slept communally.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Six underground cities have been excavated in Cappadocia, Turkey, and there are believed to be many more. The dates are unclear but some of them may go back to the Bronze Age.
If you’re wondering where Caesar is, don’t worry. He’ll be back in the picture before long.