Chapter 33 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
The Archive lay well below the main tunnels, in an area I had never explored. Our path began in First Region, on the eastern side of the Aventine. The quarry tunnels form a warren there, confused and twisting, but Thana led me downward and down once again through the darkness, until the air seemed very dank and stale. The nearest downshaft window was twenty or thirty feet above, and it was overdue for a charcoal fire to freshen the passages, she said.
“Don’t worry— when we reach the cavern, you will breathe much easier, though it’s always very humid down there.” At last we came to a passageway which was wider than most of the tunnels, and contained a set of stairs carved with greater care. Thana cautioned me to step carefully, and to grasp the “railing,” a groove cut into the stone at chest height. The steps were moist and a bit slippery, but as she had promised, the air here was better. Ahead I heard the sound of water moving over stones, and at last we stepped into the cavern, a most wonderful sight. Its low arching roof was dotted with hundreds of glowing blue lights. So bright were they that even without a lamp, I could have seen my own hands, and Thana’s face.
“It shines brighter than the stars in the vault of heaven!” I exclaimed. At our feet, a stream played briskly over rocks, and reflected the light as it flowed from one end of the cavern to another.
“We call this stream the Styx,” said Thana, “after the river on which the gods swear their oaths. It is very like the stories of Orcus, for there are ghostly little fish and salamanders here, all pale and white. They say that the land of the dead contains its own stars: ours are a kind of worm, the young of a firefly, I think. They cluster on the roof, as you see.”
“If so many creatures live here, there must be egress to the upper world, at one end or the other,” I said. “Have you explored all of this cave?”
“We have tried, but the cavern mouths are narrow. To carry a lighted torch through either entrance, one must stand neck-deep in a cold pool. None of us in living memory has investigated beyond them, but our accounts record that there is a series of caverns like this, connected by narrow passageways, and that the stream empties into the Tiber near Ostia.”
She gestured for me to follow her. “Take care, for the water is more than waist-high here. We can cross on these stepping stones, and the books lie on the other side.”
“In the Isles of the Blessed,” I murmured, picking my way across the rivulet.
“Welcome, sisters,” said a low, musical voice, “I am Camerina, the keeper of the Archive.” Looking up, I saw a woman of about my own size and height, coming to meet us. She was perhaps thirty years of age, and like most sisters, she wore her hair in one dark braid down her back. She dressed in a roughspun tunic, but instead of fabric, her cloak was made of sheep-fleeces sewn together. She seemed to have emerged from a natural “room” in the cavern.
As we approached the opposite wall, I saw that many niches had been chiseled into the living rock, and they held thin, greyish rectangular tablets organized in rows. Dimly, I made out other such niches lining the walls in the other rooms.
“Your books are made of lead!” I said to Camerina. “How could I not have guessed?” In Roma, thin lead sheets are used to make temporary notes, and they are much favored for the curses, buried in tombs or dropped down wells, which hand over one’s enemy to the gods of Orcus. Lead books are unusual, though I recalled that Fabia’s library held at least one, made of thin sheets pierced and bound together with wire.
“Lead is the ideal material for Romalian books,” said Camerina, “soft enough to write on, but durable and impervious to moisture. They are much bulkier than papyrus volumes, but our collection has not yet filled the available space.”
“How I have missed the Vestals’ library, and the Pontifical books!” I told her. “Do you have the prophetic verses of the infant Tages, and those composed by the prophetess Albunea at Tibur?”
“Those and many more,” agreed Camerina. “We even have the lost books of the Sibyl Euphemia, for our founder Opimia sought her out in the early days of Romalia, and the Sibyl dictated from memory the verses which she had sold to the Tarquin king. Those she wrote on palm leaves, but Opimia wrote ours on strips of lead in the same shape. We have Vegoia’s treatise on the interpretation of lightning, and many a book on omens, prodigies, and the reading of signs in water, in fire, in the clouds…”
“And the art of the Tuscan haruspex?” I asked, thinking of the linen book in the Vestal House. “The reading of livers?”
“That art is not practiced in Romalia,” she replied, “but I believe that we possess at least one handbook on the subject.”
“And poetry! Have you Ennius’ Annals of Roma? And Homer’s Odyssey?” She nodded, and I thought my heart might burst, but she cautioned that the Romalian literary holdings were quite limited. There was very little in Greek, and most of the Archive consisted of the annals of Romalia itself, and the many books on sacred matters.
“Yet we lack the holiest treasure of all,” put in Thana. “We do not possess Egeria’s secret books.”
“But I thought that those were lost centuries ago.” In fact, I had always wondered whether they were real, for the tale was difficult to credit. According to the account I learned as a Vestal, King Numa used to dally with his lover, the local nymph Egeria, in the grove of the Camenae. Egeria was expert in all things pertaining to the gods, and gave Numa a set of books which conferred great powers upon him. It was even said that with the help of her incantations, he called down Jupiter from the sky, and shielded the city from lightning bolts. Numa’s will specified that the books were to be buried in a stone box beside his own sarcophagus. More than five hundred years later, they were discovered after a heavy rain exposed the box. When the Senate saw what the books contained, they were so shocked that they had them destroyed.
Calling down Jupiter? It sounded like a tall tale. Still, the Goddess herself had revealed to me that Egeria was her daughter, and I had begun to question whether Jupiter was truly the most powerful of the gods in Italia. It seemed that even he might be subject to the will of the Goddess, when she chose to assert it. Jupiter was a fearsome god, to be sure, but after all, we under the earth had little to fear from his bolts of lightning.
Thana broke in on these reflections, saying that years ago she had consulted the Goddess on the matter of the secret books. “I put the question this way: Are Egeria’s teachings lost beyond recovery? And the answer was received: Forgotten but not lost.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: My Cavern of Blue Light is fanciful for Italy but not impossible, as limestone caves in New Zealand are home to glowworms who emit an ethereal blue light. The story about Numa calling down Jupiter is found in Roman sources; later in the novel you will read more about this. Also, there was really a tradition that Numa had the book buried with him, and when the Senate rediscovered it, they destroyed it.