Chapter 26 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
My first taste of city duty involved selling mushrooms at a busy stall in the Vegetable Market, and it was a shock, far more disconcerting than herding goats with Anna among the silent tombs outside the walls. I had never been anywhere in Roma without a lictor to protect me, and usually a carriage or enclosed litter. A lictor’s job included making way for the important person he escorted, and Roman crowds knew that if one of them failed to give way, he could expect a businesslike clout to the shoulder or the side of the head.
As “Clara,” a free but poor widow helping to run a market stall, I received no such escort. The walk, from our little house at the foot of the Aventine through the Cattle Market to our place of work, was crowded at all times of day. The banks of the Tiber near the Aventine were lined with warehouses for grain and lumber, and the streets were full of prosperous merchants with employees and slaves trailing behind. The place was redolent of sawdust, sweat, and river water.
As for the Cattle Market, it revolted me with its smell of fresh blood and decaying meat. It was also dominated by men—loud, huge men, who slaughtered or directed the sale of penned cattle at one end of the market, and at the other broke them down into sides, quarters and offal for sale. Our mule, Micra, always sped through the Cattle Market as fast as she could, eager to gain the safer ground of the Vegetable Market. This had its own share of shirtless men heaving baskets or loudly advertising their wares, but the presence of so many female sellers seemed to change their behavior. The leering and suggestive calls of the cattle men gave way to a different atmosphere, where women were acknowledged as co-workers and competitors.
Most of the action at this market took place early in the morning. Caecilia and I would load up Micra with our latest batch of mushrooms and set out when the sun was still below the horizon but had begun to light up the sky. At our stall, we opened our sacks and set out a few perfect specimens for display. The market was full of sellers loudly announcing their prices and products, but we had a devoted set of regular customers. Our standard mushrooms were sold by the pound, but the pricier redcaps were weighed out by the quincunx, five-twelfths of a pound. After the weighing, money changed hands, and the produce went into the customer’s bag, or a basket carried by a slave. Meanwhile one of us selected the vegetables we wanted from the other stands, and the vendors held them back. By the third hour from dawn, we were usually sold out, and made the rounds of the stalls, paying for and retrieving our own purchases. Then we retreated to our house, where Micra was sent into the tunnels, and we cooked and ate our midday meal. After that, we rested. Afternoons were sometimes free, but we lived near a public wash-house, so we often cleansed garments for the other sisters, carried them back, and laid them on our roof, where they quickly dried in the heat of the summer month of Quintilis.
The Vegetable Market bustled with people from all over the world, speaking dozens of languages. It was not as good as the Forum for gathering news, but one still heard about the doings of the great public men. From Marcus Papius, turnip-seller and proud citizen of Roma, I learned that Gaius Julius Caesar had returned from several months as governor in Further Hispania.
“He defeated two tribes there and was hailed by his legions as Commander, but he has chosen to forfeit his Triumph,” said Papius in wonder.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Cato found a way to spoil it for him.”
“You’re right!” Startled at my knowledge of politics, he gave me a searching look. Caecilia frowned, and I realized that I was speaking more like a Vestal than a mushroom-seller. Among these people, I had little fear of being recognized, but a suspicion, once planted, could be fatal.
“I heard some men in the Cattle Market say that,” I improvised. “Can you explain what they meant?”
Papius’s puzzlement vanished; he was happy to share his superior knowledge. “Every Commander must lay down his Command before crossing the sacred boundary of Roma, unless he enters in Triumph. But the augurs fixed the date of Caesar’s Triumph after the deadline for standing in the Consular election, and he has to be here in person for that.”
“Can’t he lay down his Command and still have a Triumph?” I knew that this question would confirm my ignorance.
Papius chuckled. “Imagine him driving that chariot up the Capitoline Hill in all that shining armor when he doesn’t have Command!”
“But was there nothing he could do?”
“He asked the Senate to let him declare by proxy, and they were all for it, but Cato took the floor in the morning and refused to yield it. He nattered on all day, a lot of Greek nonsense about how Jupiter Best and Greatest doesn’t live in his temple on the Capitoline hill, but everywhere at the same time, in the earth and the sea and the sky and the air. Well, an hour before nightfall, Caesar gave up, crossed the sacred boundary, and declared for the Consulship.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t understand it—he could have his Triumph, and stand for Consul next year.”
But I understood. Caesar was in a hurry; he was forty now. A Triumph might be useful as an advertisement of his exploits in Spain, but after all was said and done, it was merely a day of self-congratulation and drunken parties. The Consulship was a far more useful prize, and he could afford to lose no more time securing it.
Caesar’s canvassers did not limit themselves to the Forum, but visited all the markets, distributing tokens which admitted Roman citizens to Caesar’s lavish public banquets. The other candidates were Lucius Lucceius, a literary man whom Cicero favored, and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who had been Caesar’s long-suffering colleague as aedile. Now married to Cato’s daughter, Porcia, he was Caesar’s sworn enemy. Canvassers for Lucceius did not bother with the Vegetable Market, but Bibulus’ men distributed bags of grain, and clashed violently with Caesar’s partisans. Once, Caecilia and I hid under our wooden stall as men threw punches and beat each other with clubs. Marcus Papius gallantly used a pitchfork to fend off these ruffians and the looters who took advantage of the chaos to raid our stalls.
“This sort of thing used to be rare,” complained Caecilia. “Now it happens every year.” Caesar, I recalled, had once described to me how public corruption was growing. He thought that the breakdown of the system was inevitable. As the month of Quintilis progressed, the election battles became uglier and more dangerous; on some days, Drusilla passed the word that we were not to show up at the market.
Living upside threw me into turmoil, between the jostling, blinding light and noise of it, the unaccustomed contact with men, and the renewed longing I felt for the Vestal House and my one-time sisters. Once, I caught sight of a carriage preceded by lictors, on its way to the Circus Maximus. Sergia was driving, exercising one of the masculine privileges which the Vestals alone enjoyed among the women of Roma. I imagined her returning at dusk to the Vestal House for dinner, and pictured how she and Popilia would regale the table with the day’s gossip, as Licinia smiled and called for something sweet to end the meal. Most of all, I thought about Andromeda and Fabia, and wondered whether they were alive and well.
“I am not unhappy here,” I told Thana, who asked to see me when my first city duty ended. “In fact, I feel that I belong here as much as ever I did in the Vestal House, but there is a disturbance in my soul, because of the way my former life ended. Fabia was ill when I left. I don’t even know whether she is still alive.”
“She is alive,” said Thana, and held up a hand to still my eager questions. “When a Chief Vestal has served her thirty years plus an additional five, confirming that her commitment to the Goddess is lifelong, we reveal ourselves to her, if the Goddess is willing.”
My mind raced. Fabia was alive, and she knew of Romalia! “Have you seen her? Is she well? Does she know about me?”
“Patience, child! Are you more anxious to ask questions, or to hear answers?”
That silenced me, though I wrung my hands as Thana continued at her own deliberate pace. “Drusilla left a message for her that if she held vigil alone in the shrine of the Pledges in the Goddess’ temple on the third night after the Kalends of Quintilis, she would learn something to her advantage. She kept the appointment, and I came up to meet her. We prayed together, and I explained that we are the sisters who serve the Goddess below, just as she serves the Goddess above.”
At this, I forgot to remain quiet. “Fabia has a great love for the Goddess. She always knew the truth in her heart, for she taught me the saying, As she rules above, so she rules below.”
“Yes, the Vestals know the truth in part, but not the whole of it. Only the most learned of them come to understand that the Goddess has many names, and is one of the elder powers, not merely of Roma, but of all Italia. Like the Vestals who serve her, she guards the safety of the Senate and People of Roma, but she also protects Romalia, for we understand her nature as no others can.”
She caught my eye to see whether I planned any more interruptions, and I nodded for her to continue. “Fabia was overcome with joy when I told her that you had been reborn among us. I also told her that I believe it is your destiny to lead Romalia one day, for the Goddess named you a ‘guide in the darkness’ at the time you were condemned, and said that we must try to rescue you.”
“To lead Romalia? Surely not, Thana.” Even though some of the sisters had hinted of such a prophecy, I was skeptical, for I had never led anything, and had no desire to begin now. In Roma, to be a leader was to be a target. Romalia was different, yet surely women were as competitive and ambitious as men? It was far preferable to remain quietly inconspicuous.
“The Goddess did not speak directly of leadership,” Thana allowed, “but the Assembly agreed upon the interpretation. I put the question this way: Are the sisters of Romalia to concern ourselves with the condemned Vestal? And the answer was received: Do not allow the flame to be extinguished, for a flame is a guide in the darkness.”
“I have some experience interpreting oracles,” I countered, “and this one might mean very little. Is not every sister in Romalia a guide in the darkness? Do we not all lead others at times?”
“We do indeed,” answered Thana. “Yet your words demonstrate precisely that which you wish to refute. Be comforted, Lucia: the time to lead has not arrived. For now, Fabia wishes you to visit her, and I agree that this is desirable. When would you like to go?”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Quintilis, the fifth month in the old calendar, was re-named July in honor of Julius Caesar, after he was assassinated.