Chapter 29 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
After much anxious searching, I came across some sisters, who were returning from a late-night visit to the kitchen. I saw their lamplight before they hove into view.
“There’s an intruder,” I said to them from the shadows. My voice seemed hoarse and weak, even in my own ears. I tried again. “An intruder, sisters! About twenty minutes behind. I left him in a side-tunnel off Lupa Street. He’s wounded.” They crowded around me, exclaiming at the blood on my cloak. One of them was Arntha, whose high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes, like her name, proclaimed her Tuscan origins. She took charge of the situation, dispatching a companion to spread the word, and began to question me more closely.
“It’s the area directly under Torquatus’ house,” I told her. “He must have entered the tunnels near there.”
She nodded. “I know the place. There’s a well shaft in the alley behind. Perhaps he fell in?”
“My guess is he’s a thief. He must have tried to hide in the shaft when someone came after him.” Some shaft entrances had indentations or irregularities made by past generations of sisters, and these could be used for climbing by the bravest among us. Shafts still in use as wells had heavy ropes by which one could climb or descend safely, but only the most agile sisters entered the tunnels this way. Others preferred the cellar entrances, which normally had steps.
I explained that the man carried a sack of loot, and seemed to be alone, but I had no way of knowing for sure.
“Could he have moved from that spot?”
“Yes, but not far. I stabbed him in the belly with this chisel.” I held it out, noticing the clotting residue of blood on the shaft. My hand trembled.
Arntha’s expression changed. “Are you hurt?” She turned to Finola, a young woman with curly red hair, and said, “Please take Lucia to the kitchen and give her a drink. We will find this man.” By that time, others were arriving. I saw that some of them held weapons—pickaxes, knives, and one spear. As Finola led me away, it occurred to me that a spear might be quite useful in the tunnels, not for throwing, but for holding an intruder at bay.
In the kitchen, Finola gave me a bowl of hot water mixed with wine, which I sipped slowly, still thinking of the stranger and of my experience with Volusius. Then, I had been all but paralyzed with shock afterward, and by a terrible foreboding that life as I knew it was over. Now, I was shaken by the violence, and disturbed by the encounter with this nameless man who thought I was nothing and no one. At last, I understood why so many women chose to live in Romalia, once they discovered it. I felt whole and secure. I knew I would see the man’s face in my dreams, and relive the sensation of thrusting my chisel blade into his guts, but I was safe now, with my sisters.
Finola spoke with an accent I could not identify. Instead of asking her origins, I complimented her lovely red hair, and she took the hint. “I come from Eriu, an island away north, where this sort of hair is nothing special. In Roma, it makes people stare. An upside woman once offered me two denarii to shave my head and give her the hair for a wig.”
She tossed her head a little, and I could see that she was proud of her beauty. “My village was burned by another tribe, who sold me to the Lusitani in Hispania. That was about ten years ago. Then the Romans fought the Lusitani and took control of their land. My master became a slave just like me.” She chuckled in satisfaction. “When they lined us up and valued us for the division, Master wasn’t worth much. He probably got worked to death in the mines, but I caught the eye of the Commander. He set me aside for himself, and a fine ride he was, though he didn’t keep me, more’s the pity.”
“Oh, who was that?” I asked, though her tone made me uneasy. In my previous life, no slave had ever expressed herself so openly on the subject of masters.
“Julius Caesar, he was. A tall fellow, for a Roman. He smelled good, too.”
Of course he did, I thought. “What happened then? You must have been terrified.”
“Yes and no,” she replied. “I knew I was worth something and told him as much. He gave me to one of his officers, and soon I was visibly pregnant.”
“With Caesar’s child?” This possibility shocked me, though it should have been no surprise.
Finola shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe. I’ve never been sicker in my life than on the sea voyage to Roma. I thought I was dying. They kept us shut up in the hold, but not chained. The others got over the sea sickness in a few days, but not me. At Roma, I gave birth, but the child was born dead.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, picturing Finola giving birth in some slave-dealer’s crowded and filthy cages, only to lose her baby. To judge from what the sisters had found in certain parts of Romalia, that child’s body would have been tossed down an old well-shaft, with no rites of remembrance.
“Oh, I came out all right,” she replied. “I was put to work as a wet nurse for a young matron who was too fine to feed her own baby. Her husband freed me because he didn’t want his son sucking slave’s milk. He thought it would make the boy submissive and fearful. Where I come from, in Eriu, even queens give their babies the teat, and their foster-children too. Or if they can’t, they seek out a red-headed nurse to fill the baby with fiery courage.”
“I’m sure that does the trick,” I commented.
“After that, I took up with a freedman for love, like a fool! A toymaker he was, with big hands but clever fingers. Little cows on wheels he made, with a string to pull them, and blocks, and dolls with movable arms and legs. We lived in a flat on the Aventine, full of sawdust, but close to the shrine of the Good Goddess. I used to go to her whenever he beat me, because men aren’t allowed inside the boundary walls.”
“And a good thing too,” I said. By this point, I had heard many stories like Finola’s. The great public men of Roma did not typically beat their wives, for this loss of self-control would shame them if their friends learned of it, and their fathers-in-law would be deeply offended. The general population of men in Roma, however, were less concerned with such niceties. “How did the Goddess lead you to Romalia at last?”
Finola grinned. “I’d say it was me who found the Goddess. I never got pregnant after that first time, and my man, Ulf, wanted a son. In between fights, I spent so many days at the shrine that I came to realize there were rites held down below, with women who didn’t arrive through our gates. Atilia, the priestess there, spotted me one day when I crept into the cavern below to have a look, but when I swore by my Lady Eriu not to tell, she let me stay and even gave me some meat from the sow. Little by little, I learned about Romalia. It reminds me of home, where a woman can rule, at least if she’s born to it, and I like the cool of the tunnels. I never got used to the heat in Roma.”
This put me more in charity with her. “So you don’t miss being upside?”
She looked away for a moment. “I miss my man Ulf. He was a ride, that one. His people came from a tribe in the Province and he was huge, with yellow curly hair.”
“But you wouldn’t go back to a man who hit you,” I suggested.
Finola shrugged again. “Last time I went upside, he was gone.”
Arntha returned, looking grim. “We found the intruder,” she said. “He managed to get up and move, but only a few feet. The kind of wound he had cannot be healed. We have ended his misery. He’s on his way to the Great Sewer now, along with his stolen goods. We’ll need to clear out of this area, in case anyone figures out where he went and comes looking for him.”
In only a couple of hours, the intruder’s blood was swabbed away and the entire community in that part of Second Region, about twenty women, had moved themselves and most of their belongings out of the way. If anyone followed the thief down the well shaft and entered the tunnels, they would find little but stone, air and darkness.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: For Caesar fans, it may be uncomfortable to realize that he likely had non-consensual sex with many slaves and war captives. A Latinist colleague of mine remarked that everyone in Western Europe probably has some of Caesar’s DNA, because he had so many women in Gaul. That conjecture doesn’t take account of Caesar’s apparent low fertility, or his marked preference for free women–especially married women. Caesar’s soldiers boasted of his erotic conquests, but not over captives. Instead, they sang, “Men of Rome, lock up your wives; home we bring our bald adulterer!”