Chapter 31 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
As a Vestal I had visited the Shrine of Consus, the Sown God. It was a small circular chamber located below ground level at the first turning post of the Circus, the great stadium where chariot races were held. Its walls were painted with a faded harvest scene, and it contained an old statue of Consus and an altar. Most of the time it was covered, but twice a year, during the Consualia in Sextilis and December, a Vestal and the Flamen of Quirinus visited the spot in order to pray and sacrifice to the god. He was the consort of the Goddess Plenty, and their union gave a bountiful grain harvest. The room into which I now crawled, I surmised, was a subchamber below this shrine. I moved about, groping my way slowly.
The place seemed empty, though my fingers detected an inscription carved directly into the wall. Tracing the letters, I read “Consus is powerful for advice, Mars for war, and the Lares for safekeeping.” Other than that, the place seemed empty, though there was an oblong depression in its center, like a bathtub. I sat on the edge of this and wondered how a harvest god had come to preside over good advice. Perhaps it was because farmers had to be cautious and prudent, for the business of growing grain was unpredictable. It was always best to store away any surplus, to tide one over in the lean years. The dry stone in the basin beneath my feet was strangely warm; I could feel it through the thin soles of my shoes. I eased myself into the “tub” and let the warmth envelop my back muscles, strained from my battle with the wheel. It was very peaceful here, and a nap would be welcome, but I must remember to continue my journey to the Aventine…
“You will go there soon, but not just yet,” said the Goddess. In my weariness I had almost forgotten that invisible, silent companionship, but now, to my surprise, I both saw and heard Her. She hovered across from me, or was it directly above? I could not be certain, for I seemed to be suspended, weightless, in the chamber. I did not recognize Her face, but it was quite distinctive, with a finely sculpted nose, firm chin and arched eyebrows. Her eyes sparkled with intelligence, though I could not tell their color, and her black hair floated free about her face. She wore a gown of some shimmering fabric, and from her there emanated a sweet perfume of cedar-wood and frankincense.
“My Goddess,” I whispered. There was nothing to add; no prayer could express my reverence.
“I wish to offer advice and counsel, and I wish you to deliver it, Lucia,” she said.
“I shall do as you ask, my Lady,” I answered, enthralled. “To whom shall I go?”
“To Gaius Julius Caesar.”
That jolted me. Although she was still there, I felt that I had awakened from a dream. The Goddess smiled and my heart once again filled with joy despite my confusion.
“Caesar?” I whispered.
“My interest in Caesar concerns the future of my favorite cities, Roma and Romalia, and of my land, Italia. I wish to establish them securely, but the options are limited. Most paths lead in other directions, ones which I dislike.”
“Most paths? I do not understand.”
The Goddess paused, and seemed to frown in thought, as though deciding how best to explain. “Time is like a great oak tree. Where we are now is the trunk, which feels sure and solid. The future extends in many possible directions, like branches. I can see which branches are thickest and most likely to become manifest, and I exert influence in the direction I wish, but I cannot compel a given outcome. As for mortals, you are unable to see the crown of the tree, yet you affect it with your choices. Because of you, the main branches sway in the wind, or grow new twigs, or form acorns. Sometimes a great branch breaks unexpectedly, or is slowly eaten away with rot.”
“So you see further ahead than we do?” I asked. “How far can you see?”
“Far enough to know that Roma may outlive me. That is acceptable, for what parent wishes to outlive her children? It is the outcome which I desire, but it is not yet certain. It will happen only if the right choices are made.”
Moved to indignation, I contradicted her. “How can Roma outlive an immortal goddess?” I cried. “This cannot be!” The gods were worthy of our worship because they lived forever, or so I had always believed.
“It is true that gods cannot die, not as you mortals do,” she allowed. “Yet gods, and even goddesses, can be forgotten. When that happens, we sleep, and most of us never wake again. In the path I envision, this is what I shall experience. Yet Roma will not sink into oblivion; my city too will sleep and wake at times, but she will endure for thousands of years.”
“Thousands of years!” I could scarcely imagine such a vast journey through time, but surely the Goddess could. “How old are you?” I impulsively asked.
She laughed. “Never ask a lady her age,” she chided me. “That is an impudent question, but I shall answer it. I was born with this land, when it emerged from the sea, but I was like an infant then, weak and ignorant. That was endless thousands of years ago, before mortals walked the earth. When you first set foot here,” she added, “I grew strong, and I nurtured you in return. Those who inhabit this land are my children, and Roma is my greatest achievement.”
As she spoke, the Goddess’ love surrounded me, like a warm robe which fit me well. “How can I help to achieve your design, Lady? What must I say to Caesar?”
“He is a Consul of Roma. After he serves, he will be assigned a province to govern. He wishes to go to Illyricum and conquer Thracia or Dacia. Instead, he must go to Gallia.”
I pictured myself trying to convince a skeptical Caesar to change course. It was a daunting prospect. “If he goes to Gallia, he will succeed? He will conquer?”
She sighed, and the warm exhalation swirled about the chamber. “Yes, he will conquer. He will slaughter many. He will be ruthless, and even then the task will require several years. The Gallic chieftains war upon each other, taking heads as trophies, and they prefer to govern themselves. They do not wish to be pacified, or to pay tribute so that Roman nobles can recline on silk and nibble honeycakes. Yet I care not what they wish for, or fear. They are not my children.”
“Surely they are Someone’s children,” I offered.
“If they are, then let Her send a champion to battle my Gaius!” replied the Goddess fiercely.
“Is he as strong as that? He suffers the Sacred Disease, and likes to seduce ladies, and wear finely woven robes. He talks of changing the calendar, and dreams of flying to the moon,” I argued. In fact, I didn’t like the idea of his being away so long—for years.
“He has within him a divine spark,” she answered.
I knew of this, for Fabia had told me of the funeral oration Caesar gave for his aunt Julia, in which he pointed to his divine ancestry. “The Julii are descended from Iulus, son of Aeneas, son of Venus,” I agreed.
She raised a hand in protest and scoffed, “That is a fairytale which his great-grandfather borrowed from some Greek. The truth is that he descends from Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Roma and the most warlike, whose mother was daughter to Numa, the second king and the most scholarly. This daughter, Pompilia, was conceived by Numa with Egeria, one of the Camenae, from whose spring the Vestals draw pure water to honor me. Egeria is my own daughter, and Caesar is my descendant. The spark has faded, in most of the Julii, but in him it shines brightly. Surely even you can see it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, Goddess, I can see it.”
“You will bring Caesar this message, because I cannot speak clearly to him. When the priests of Roma consult flying birds and sacrificial livers, they ask the wrong questions of the wrong gods. Only with the women of Romalia can I make my will known so fully, and with you most of all, my little light, for you too possess my spark.”
“I, Goddess?” I said, disbelieving. “We have no such legend in our family as Caesar does, and my father was a plebeian.”
“Your father Gaius Lucius Castus was a pure Man of the Light, whose family served me in days long past. They called me Juno of the Light. Your mother was a Marcia, was she not? She too was a descendant of Ancus Marcius. You are Caesar’s equal in divinity, and your oak branch on the tree of the future is manifest in my sight: you will lead Romalia.”
I accepted her word, for who was I to dispute it? “And what of Romalia, my Lady? What of the sisters? Will we too last for thousands of years?”
She smiled again, sadly this time. “No, my child. There is no branch in the tree which stretches that far for the sisters. I expect that Romalia will fall asleep when I do, or even sooner, but be comforted: that time is not yet near. Now go. I have already kept you too long, and the sisters worry that you have gone astray and failed the Ordeal.”
With these words, she seemed to recede from me. I extended my hands as if to catch her and keep her from leaving, but it was no use. As she drew back, I saw that she was reclining on a couch with a beautiful golden man. I supposed him to be Consus, the Sown One. His hair was the color of grain stalks at harvest-time. She turned toward him and caressed his face. Then all was dark, and I realized that I was lying blindfolded in the tub-like depression beneath Consus’ shrine. The stone was still warm, but a chill was seeping into my back muscles. It was time to go.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: I have added a sub-chamber to Consus’ shrine, which was very ancient and supposedly founded by Romulus. Nobody knows the origin of Consus’ name, but a folk etymology connected him to the sowing of grain. His consort was Ops (“Plenty”).