Chapter 25 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
In the months that followed my rebirth, I learned that Romalia’s citizens included several individuals who were not born female. Drusilla, for example, had been exposed as an infant because it was unclear whether she was a boy or a girl. One of the sisters on city duty that day had observed a man setting an open box afloat on the Tiber, and followed the box downstream for a short while until the current brought it back to shore. Inside was a naked, shivering newborn with indeterminate genitals. According to ancient custom inherited from the Tuscans, such a child was a monstrum, a sign that the Gods’ Peace was disturbed. The way to restore equilibrium was to commit the child to water, but not by direct drowning, the way people drowned unwanted puppies. The use of a box, poor protection as it was, shielded the father from the anger of the drowned child’s spirit, just as my own execution by burial had included food and drink.
For reasons of her own, the Goddess had saved us both, one reborn from earth and one from water.
Drusilla, who was fair, tall and lanky, easily passed for a handsome youth when she went upside, just as Theodora passed for a man. The job she excelled at was gathering information, for the sisters considered it essential to their security to know of the doings in Roma. Drusilla used the name Drusus when upside, and although she considered herself to be mostly female, she did not disdain the many advantages of masculinity. “Drusus” was able to loiter outside the Senate House with other men, listening to the debates, and hear the famous orators speaking in the Forum. “Drusus” also received offers of patronage from wealthy and powerful men who wanted to make love to him. He sometimes accepted these offers, if they yielded information useful to Romalia. Thus his physical difference became known to a few, but it did not diminish his popularity, and certain men found him irresistible. Sometimes Drusilla retreated to the tunnels for long periods of rest and prayer, but as far as I could tell, she had no lovers downside.
“My true love is the Goddess herself,” she always said, fingering the pouch which hung from a thong around her neck. This resembled a bulla, the pouch or ampule given to boys to wear until they reached manhood. A bulla contained objects of power and protection, such as a miniature phallus. Yet many of the sisters wore such a pouch as adults. When I asked Drusilla about hers, she explained that it was a token connected with the Goddess.
“A new sister learns the ways of Romalia and undergoes the Ordeal. Afterward, she is able to talk with the Goddess using her token.”
This was new to me, and worrisome. “What is the Ordeal? Is it required of us?”
“No,” she replied. “In Romalia we are all free. Nobody has to undergo the Ordeal, but it is a great distinction to complete it. I spent my whole childhood downside, so I always knew that I would be able to achieve it, and I was ready as soon as I reached the minimum age of thirteen. You simply walk from one end of Romalia to the other, without a lamp. You don’t know the start and end-points until the last minute, and they blindfold you to make sure no light reaches your eyes, in case someone else happens by. But the Ordeal usually takes place in the middle of the night, when everything is dark.”
I knew that inky darkness well. A few sisters never grew fully accustomed to it, and required at least one lamp in their vicinity all night; they slept together in order to save on oil. Most of us came to accept it, and even to love its perfection. Still, the thought of the Ordeal was daunting. By this time I had learned to distinguish differences in the appearance of each tunnel entrance, and certain marks in the floor. I had memorized the sequence of adjoining tunnels in my own Region and I could, with the help of a lamp, navigate most of it. Without light, I would have to rely on memory, touch, and subtle cues: the rising and falling inclines of the tunnels, the slight differences in air quality.
“Does anyone ever fail the Ordeal?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, it’s not unknown. A few leave us when that happens, but most choose to stay, though I’ve never known anyone to try it a second time.”
Regarding the other part of the Ordeal, the ability to speak with the Goddess and the acquisition of a token, Drusilla would not answer my questions, only repeating a formula that was by now familiar: “That is not for me to tell. At least,” she amended, “not yet.”
City duty consisted primarily of buying the supplies we needed, such as foodstuffs, bales of straw, fuel and textiles, as well as selling our mushrooms, goat cheese, and the occasional bundle of undersized goatskins. Thus I first became aware of another mystery surrounding our way of life, for although the sisters lived very frugally, it seemed to me that our income was insufficient to provide for all our needs. Another form of city duty, which Drusilla and certain other sisters undertook, involved the gathering of information to protect and enrich Romalia, but of these activities I understood little at first.
Before I could begin city duty, however, I had to learn all four Regions, and which areas gave access to Roma’s markets, together with the places where it was both possible and safe to enter the tunnels. We traded in the Vegetable Market, across from the Tiber island, and in the great Market just north of the Forum. The oldest and largest Region corresponded to the Aventine hill, while Second Region lay below the Palatine, and Third Region straddled King Servius’ Wall, giving access to the Capitoline and Forum as well as the Field of Mars. My own Region, the fourth, was isolated in the northeastern part of the city, around the Quirinal and Viminal hills.
As I write this account, after the passage of many years, it is still the case that only one tunnel connects Fourth Region to the rest of the system, and this can be blocked by a large stone wheel. It takes two mules or six women to roll the stone into place, though its surface and track are carefully smoothed to ease the task. From the outside, the door then appears to be merely an unfinished frame with solid stone behind it. Several smaller wheels of this type are in use throughout the system, especially in places where the sisters need to prevent accidental access to the tunnels by curious upsiders.
As soon as I learned about these sealed doorways, I realized that the Shrine of Plenty in the Royale, Caesar’s office as Pontifex Maximus, was one such spot. The subterranean shrines of certain deities, such as Plenty and the Sown God, were connected to the tunnels, it seemed. And Vesta’s own temple in the Forum, I suspected, possessed another means of entry, a hole covered by a metal grille, which Fabia had once described to me as a drain.
The principal entrances and exits to the tunnels, however, lay in the cellars of houses owned by Romalia under false names. These were inhabited rent-free by groups of women who had left the sisters but remained faithful to their oaths; most kept shops or stalls in the markets and thus the coming and goings of their wares attracted little comment. In fact, the city held a number of rooming houses open to females only, but unlike the many brothels of the city, these were safe places for widows and others who lacked male relatives. Our Romalian houses were perceived by upsiders to belong in this category, and they tended to be both modest and inconspicuous.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: the wheel closures for passageways in Romalia are attested in Cappadocia, but I don’t know of any examples in Italy.