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Chapter 28 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Tufa blocks in a Roman wall at Banditaccia. Photo: Wikimedia.

I expected the visit with Fabia to make me nostalgic for the Vestal House and its comforts, yet I felt no regret as I descended; instead, I was eager to continue my preparations for the Ordeal. The route to and from Vesta’s Temple was a disused part of the tunnels, and required travel through the Great Sewer, the ancient waterway which ran through the Forum to the Tiber. For this purpose, we used coracles, tiny circular boats of wicker and hide which held one woman, or at most, two.

Many drains emptied into Great Sewer, some carrying the malodorous runoff from public latrines, and others the Forum’s groundwater and the constant flow from the aqueducts. One of these side channels was a tunnel leading to the foundation of the Temple, and here I had stored my coracle. I retraced my watery path and located another channel with a very low, arched ceiling. It was difficult to paddle here, but I persevered and at last reached the spot where the sisters were waiting, directly overhead, to lift me and then the coracle through the entrance. We then closed the hole as best we could with a thin slab of tufa.

I had been living in Romalia now for more than a year, and had performed most of the daily tasks which kept the tunnels habitable and the sisters provided for. I had even joined Laelia, a sister from Second Region, and a crew of others in excavating a new tunnel which would give access to the grove of the Camenae, where the spring was limited (by Roman law, at least) to the use of the Vestals. The Goddess had visited one of the Romalian sisters in a dream, and commanded her to begin the work. When this did not immediately happen, Thana and several other women in succession had the same dream, so an excavation crew was assembled. No one knew the Goddess’ purpose, only that the digging must commence. The crew did not work every day, and the project was expected to take months, if not years.

“You wear a scarf over your face to keep from breathing in the dust,” Laelia told me, “and you swing a pickaxe to create grooves in the tufa. When the groove is deep enough, you hammer wooden wedges into the grooves to split the stone. Once the tunnel is wide enough, there’s the mallet and chisel, for smoothing walls or shaping niches. Your back muscles feel like they’re on fire, but fortunately the shift is only three hours. You can go soak in the hot spring afterward.”

I felt goosebumps on my arms, thinking of the quarry slaves in the time of the Tarquin Kings. I doubted their shifts had lasted only three hours, or that they had enjoyed hot baths after their labors. “Until I heard of the Goddess’ command, I didn’t realize that we made any tunnels. I thought that they were all very old.”

“Sometimes tunnels collapse,” she replied. “Not often, but it happens, and if it’s a route we use regularly, we try to compensate. The hardest part is determining direction. We start a new tunnel at the nearest air shaft, where we can locate north by the sun upside, and use a taut cord to keep our direction true—first down the shaft, and then in the new tunnel. Over time, we’ve dug tunnels to get to pasture outside the walls, and long ago, Fourth Region was connected with the others. But that’s a security risk, you know. It’s safer when intruders can’t easily pass between Regions. That’s why we have the Great Wheel.”

“How often are there intruders?” I wondered.

“There have been more than usual over the last few years; Roma is growing more crowded. Sometimes they try to retrieve things they’ve lost down a well, and they find one of our airways, or they excavate a new room in their cellar and discover a tunnel. Others decide to explore, and get lost. We try to guide them out without showing ourselves. Romans will follow any light they detect, and they fear being underground. Most are relieved to reach the surface again.”

Even three hours of heavy labor cutting and lifting stone turned out to be more than I could manage at first, for I was neither large nor strong. I had to spend most of my shift sweeping up stone chips or leading away the debris-laden mules, but I was keen to master the technique, and at last began to swing my axe with more precision. After a month, my muscles grew accustomed to the work, and during my free time each afternoon and evening, I turned my attention to the Ordeal.

The Ordeal does not require a sister to learn the entire system of Romalian tunnels. Instead, she must memorize those which offer the easiest travel through a given Region, or give access from one Region to the next. Most of the tunnels and chambers were not dug to provide pathways through the city, but as sources of tufa, so they wind aimlessly this way and that, forming a perplexing maze. Still, the ancient workers created main arteries by which to move about within the system, most of them at roughly the same depth, and these claimed my attention. Although they were unmarked, the sisters had given them names which corresponded to those in the districts above: Apollo Street, Goat Track, Long Street. I grew well-acquainted with the horizontal expanse of the network, but its vertical dimensions remained enigmatic. In certain places, I knew, the tunnels went deep, but I had no time to spare for these.

I ranged widely around Romalia, wearing the red headband which proclaimed me a sister in training for the Ordeal. At times, I was blindfolded. Most of the women I met seemed to know my name. “There is Lucia,” they would say. “May the Goddess go with you.” They did not offer directions unless I asked, which I was very often obliged to do. Then someone would stop what she was doing to take my hand and gently guide me onto the right path. Already I needed no lamp to navigate Fourth Region. Elsewhere, I always carried my pouch with lamp, oil, and tools for kindling, together with a flask of water and a chunk of bread, in case I went seriously astray. I knew that the other sisters would look for me if I turned up missing one morning, but First and Second Regions in particular contained many byways which would require hours or even days to search. In these less-traveled parts of the network, the sisters sometimes found moldering skeletons, the remains of ancient explorers who lost their way.

I myself stumbled upon a disused tunnel in First Region, which ended in a rounded chamber. Here was a great heap of disarticulated bones, clearly human. I inspected the pile closely, looking for clues to their identity, but aside from the occasional hank of hair or scrap of shoe leather, I found nothing. Thana told me later how the sisters, consulting the Goddess, had learned that this was a place of disposal for slaves who perished centuries ago while working the quarries.

“I put the question this way: Shall we honor the Dead by placing their bones in our own burial grounds with due ceremony? And the answer was received: These my children have found their home. So we added them to our annual prayers, but we have not disturbed the remains.”

As I wandered the narrow corridors in the dark, my thoughts often returned to these dead men whom the Goddess counted as her children. Whereas slaves in Roma participated in worship only within the home, and had no role in most public rites, the law of Romalia made all sisters citizens with a share in both labor and worship. Even Thana, despite her duties as Counselor, could be seen ladling soup or picking mushrooms. She liked to move about the Regions, observing the daily tasks and lending a hand. Such behavior in a person of authority, male or female, would have shocked any of the Romans with whom I associated in my former life. To perform humble tasks was to be shamed. We Vestals were the only exception, for despite our privilege, we worked with our hands.

Late one night in Second Region, I was retracing a path which I thought might be a shortcut to the main artery called Lupa Street, after the Lupercal shrine above, a grotto dedicated to the mother wolf who had suckled Romulus and Remus. Quite without warning, a male voice said, “Who’s this now?” The voice belonged to a bearded man in a dark tunic and cloak, with a sack over his shoulder. He had just turned the corner, only a few feet away, and had a hand on the tunnel wall, feeling his way. The scent and sweetness of the air told me that a well-shaft was somewhere in the vicinity.

Trying to stifle my panic, I remained silent. Our eyes met. “Who are ye?” he asked curiously, and added, “I’ll take that lamp.”

Hindsight teaches many lessons, but there was little time to think in that moment. I ought to have pinched out the lamp and tossed it well past him, to turn his attention away from me for the few seconds it would take to elude him in the dark. But habits of economy, well-ingrained over the past year, made me reluctant to let go of my lamp and its expensive oil. Instead, I extinguished the lamp and tried to keep hold of it as I turned to run.

Very quickly, he reached me in the darkness, simply by moving forward, and gripped my shoulders, pulling me roughly against him. “I’ll know who ye are,” he said. “Speak.”

“I came from the cellar,” I blurted out. “Of…of the big house.”

“Torquatus’ house?” he asked. I nodded, the back of my head against his chest. I could feel his heart pounding hard, though whether in fear or excitement I was unsure. The sack on his back shifted with a metallic clang, and I realized that this man was likely a thief, who had crept into one of the luxurious Palatine houses during the night, and escaped with a haul of silver goblets or jugs.

“Ye’ll show me the way there, and let me out the door,” he said. “But first ye’ll pay fer puttin’ out that lamp.” He pushed me to my knees. This man was very different from Volusius, but I knew that he intended the same thing. I jerked hard to the left, trying to throw him off balance. I nearly got away, but as I flailed in the dark, he managed to seize my left wrist, wrenching it painfully. Again I sank down under the pressure of a hand on my shoulder and I knew he was fumbling with himself, trying to position us both so that he could do as Volusius had done. By my Goddess, that will not happen, I thought.

In the same instant, I remembered that I possessed a weapon. At my side, still thrust into my belt, was the sharp chisel which I had used that day as I hammered large chunks of tufa into fragments small enough for the mules to carry in their baskets. I stopped fighting and let the intruder push me to the floor of the tunnel, but with my right hand, I slipped the chisel from my belt and held it rigidly outward at the level of my waist. He threw his weight onto me and impaled himself, then reflexively tried to draw back. As he did, I shoved the chisel upward into his belly with both hands, feeling it slide through his innards with little resistance. He bellowed loudly and began to thrash, then rolled off me. Though I couldn’t see, I sensed that he was clawing at his wound. I gained my feet, and ran, still tightly clutching the chisel.

At first I simply fled without thinking, and in my blindness, I blundered more than once into the walls. Soon, however, I realized that he was not close on my heels. I paused and leaned against the cool tunnel wall, trying to breathe quietly. His groaning was still audible, though far behind me. I was disoriented, unsure of my location. I replaced the chisel in my belt, wiped my hands on my cloak, and began moving forward slowly with arms outstretched, feeling at shoulder height for some niche which might contain a lamp, or any other identifying sign. I passed two tunnel mouths on the right, then one on the left. The floor rose slightly on a gentle incline. My heart leaped with relief and a strange kind of joy. I knew where I was. “Goddess be praised,” I whispered, and hurried ahead.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss.

Historical note: The Great Sewer is better known as the Cloaca Maxima, which still empties into the Tiber.

For all their great engineering knowledge, the Romans did not possess the secret of the compass at this time, so Laelia and her sisters could not use one to determine the direction of their tunnels underground. Instead they had to use a clumsy system of stretched lines.