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Chapter 27 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Bust of the Dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Munich Glyptothek. Photo: Wikimedia.

Three nights later, I climbed the ladder up to the Shrine of the Pledges in Vesta’s temple, and stepped straight into Fabia’s arms.

“My darling!” she cried. “Thana told me that you were alive, but I could not allow myself to believe.” We held each other for a time, smiling through our tears. Then we sat on the floor, for Fabia had been waiting two hours and she was weak. We talked of little things at first—Licinia’s purchase of an amethyst necklace for her jewelry collection, and plans for Popilia to represent the Vestals at the next Opiconsivia in the Royale. Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, had sent Fabia a blue thrush in a cage, to keep her company during her long hours in bed. We both avoided mention of Claudia and her treachery.

“What of Caesar? Has he replaced me yet?” I finally asked.

“No,” said Fabia. “The Pontifical College is beginning to question the delay. Perhaps he wished to wait until after the elections. Now that he is Consul-elect for next year, many fathers will seek him out to propose their daughters as Vestals.” Caesar and Bibulus had won the Consular elections and were to be colleagues, a sure recipe for trouble.

Fabia put a hand on mine. “Thana told me little of your rescue. Did you escape the vault through a tunnel?”

“Yes. I drank your potion to ease my sufferings, yet I was dimly aware when the sisters knocked one of the slabs inwards. They used a heavy pole as a kind of battering ram. Since then, I have learned the area well, and one day I returned to have a look at the vault. The tunnel there is unfinished. For the last ten feet, it is barely wide enough to squirm through. Then they pushed and pulled me for what seemed like hours, to get me out.” I chuckled, remembering the hard, narrow canal of my rebirth. “It seemed quite an odd way to make my entrance to Orcus.”

Fabia’s grip on my hand tightened. “Lucia, your vault was the third one in a series which Caesar commanded to be dug. Each time a pit was completed, he would descend, explaining that he had to inspect it for a sign, some omen known only to the Pontifex Maximus. He rejected the first two locations and asked for the pit to be deeper. I heard the foreman telling him that the third chamber had a significant flaw in the wall, but the hardstone slab would cover it, and the vault would remain airtight. After he viewed it, he announced that he had received the sign.”

“Do you mean that he was looking for a tunnel? But how could Caesar know of Romalia?” I wanted to believe it—to believe that he had desired my rescue, but I knew how carefully the sisters kept their secret. “No man is permitted that knowledge. Some may know of the quarry tunnels, but not of our existence. If Caesar or other Roman authorities were aware of us, surely they would have launched a full-scale investigation.” The Senators of Roma had many political differences, but on certain matters they all agreed. None could abide the idea of secret associations, or indeed, any groups meeting without their permission. They viewed all such gatherings as seditious threats to the state.

“There is a way he could know,” said Fabia slowly. “I will tell you a story which took place more than twenty years ago, before you were born. I was in my early twenties, and Caesar had been married to Cornelia for a couple of years. It was an arranged marriage, yet he loved her deeply, Lucia. I don’t think any woman since has held his heart. Then Sulla marched into Roma with his army, as Marius had before him. Marius was dead by then, but his veterans and friends, those of the People’s faction, fought Sulla’s men outside the Hill Gate. It was civil war, father against son and brother against brother, the kind of bloodshed which most offends the gods.”

Hearing this, I remembered how Fabia had always been reluctant to speak of those days. “Did you lose family in that war?”

“My father and eldest brother supported the Marians, but the other men of my family went over to Sulla when they realized he was ruthless enough to attack Roma—his own city! Sulla made long lists of those who were to be hunted down and killed. My father and my younger brother Quintus were captured and… and beheaded. My uncles Marcus and Caeso were the ones who betrayed them.”

“Oh Fabia, how you have suffered,” I whispered.

“Caesar’s aunt Julia was Marius’ widow, but Sulla was willing to overlook that connection. Still, he ordered Caesar to divorce Cornelia, for her father Cinna was one of his principal enemies. Gaius shocked everyone by refusing, so Sulla added him to the kill list. He was hiding in the house of one of Cinna’s friends when he was betrayed. Sulla’s men surrounded the house, but when they searched it, he had vanished. It was put about that he escaped to the countryside, but he could not have eluded the guards. He must have gone into the tunnels.”

“It would explain how he disappeared,” I admitted, “but what evidence have you? Perhaps he disguised himself as a slave and escaped that way, or hid in a secret chamber inside the house.”

“The Chief Vestal at the time was Fufetia, and she was very old. She must have been visited by the Romalian sisters in her thirty-sixth year of office, as I have been. She would have known of the tunnels. Then too, she was close friends with Aurelia, who pleaded with her to save Gaius. After a few months, all the Vestals went as a group with Aurelia to petition Sulla for mercy, saying that Gaius was very young and meant him no harm or insult.”

“And how did Sulla react?”

“He relented, for a request of the Vestals in such matters is not to be disdained, even by a Dictator. But he warned his friends not to trust Caesar. He pointed at Aurelia and said, ‘That son of yours has within him many a Marius.’”

“How much do you think Caesar knows about Romalia? He was an aedile, after all. Perhaps he gathered information that year, and is waiting for the right time to use it against us.” Centuries ago, the Senate had sternly suppressed a group of women who met at night to worship the wine-god Bacchus. Of course the Senators claimed that the women were unchaste, and hundreds were executed. Such actions could be useful in distracting a mob, or winning their favor.

“I think not,” said Fabia decisively. “Caesar does not forget a good turn, and if he owes his survival to the Romalian sisters, he would not betray them.”

Unless they stood in his way, I thought, but left those words unspoken. “Tell me about Andromeda. Is she well?”

“She is well. With the money you left, we secured Caesar’s consent to free her, but she remains devoted to the Goddess as a freedwoman. She cares for me now, because I am so often ill, and Acra is needed to assist Licinia and Sergia when they preside at the rites.”

“I have a great longing to see her, but Thana did not give permission. She said that it would jeopardize the security of Romalia for me to reveal my survival to friends and family, purely for reasons of sentiment. I swore a mighty oath, and she holds me to it.”

“She is right,” answered Fabia briskly. “Andromeda was distraught when you were condemned, but she has recovered, and her life as a freedwoman is serene. Keeping secrets is a burden, you know, even for such as we, who are charged with service to the Goddess.”

As I took up my lamp and prepared to descend again to Romalia, Fabia caressed my cheek with cool fingers. “You have changed, Lucia. You are so confident now, so grown up. Where is my wide-eyed, timid girl who preferred books to banquets?”

“Books are in short supply in Romalia,” I said lightly. I was tempted to speak of the mysterious Archive, which I had yet to explore, but that secret was not mine to tell. Instead, I kissed her, knowing that this might be the last time.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: The story about Caesar refusing to divorce Cornelia and having to flee Rome is true, though the tunnel part is fictional. The Vestal Virgins did petition for Sulla to pardon him, and succeeded.