Chapter 35 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
At dawn on the Kalends, I said a long prayer to the Goddess before stepping into the subterranean chamber beneath the shrine of Plenty in the Royale. In the crepuscular light emanating from the metal grille above, the space was easy to examine. It closely resembled the lower room in the shrine of Consus: circular, with a shallow oval pit in the center.
Arntha and Laelia used a mule to pull back the big wheel. While I was with Caesar, they would wait in the passage to guard the tunnel. Now they handed me a wooden ladder, which I braced against the wall beneath the grille. As I started to climb, the grille was lifted away and Caesar’s face appeared in the rectangle of dim light. His expression changed to a look of satisfaction as he recognized me, but he made no comment. He grasped my arms to help me climb the last few rungs, and in another moment, I stood in the small open-air shrine.
I was vividly reminded of the last time I saw Caesar, when he had handed me onto the ladder leading to my burial vault. He was not dressed as Pontifex Maximus today, but wore a long-sleeved tunic, embroidered in gold, without a belt. Later he would don his purple-bordered toga to receive the day’s visitors.
“Let’s replace this for now,” he said, and I helped him settle the cumbersome grille over the entrance. If anyone passed through, he or she would notice nothing out of the ordinary, except that the grille was no longer screwed down and secured by a lock. There was not a single slave about. Caesar must have told them, and the other staff of the Royale, to stay away until later in the morning.
He beckoned for me to follow, and led the way to what I assumed was his private office as Pontifex Maximus. The place smelled like him, with a light hint of cedar and myrrh over the more familiar, woody scent of papyrus scrolls. It was larger than his study in the People’s House, and more crammed with documents. Among the piles of books on his table I spotted the red scroll covers of my old set of Ennius’ Annals of Roma. Seeing the direction of my gaze, he half-smiled, and quoted, “Oh Ilia, the hardships you have borne!”
I had a ready answer: “Nothing more horrible could any law demand.”
He nodded, recognizing the line. “The punishment of the Vestal Minucia. From Book Seventeen, but that volume was missing when I inherited your collection.” He betrayed no discomfort while saying this, but suavely continued, “I discovered the remains of a Vestal, you know, when I was digging the pit for your vault. The men conducting the first excavation found a skeleton under a few collapsed sheets of tufa. I very much fear that your earliest predecessors in the Wicked Field were unceremoniously buried in coffin-sized boxes of stone.”
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” I remarked.
By way of answer he invited me to sit, and moved a box of pens and inkwells off a chair. It was a backless curule chair, the type strictly reserved for men who held Command. I sat.
“I am very glad to see you,” he told me, settling himself in an ancient-looking, high-backed throne of dark, heavy wood. “How different you seem, without your Vestal headdress. Such rustic garments—you look like a shepherdess! Quite charming.” He fixed me with a look, one I remembered from a long-ago banquet, but I was not to be so easily won over this time.
Instead of replying, I waited, and raised an eyebrow.
He knew what I was asking. “I was not certain that you would survive,” he said quietly, “but I had reason to hope. I learned something of the tunnels when I was a youth. I was only fifteen when my father died, making me the head of my household, but I was much under the sway of Cornelius Cinna, my uncle Marius’ right-hand man. Cinna proposed that I should become the Flamen of Jupiter, and marry his daughter Cornelia.”
“You, a Flamen?” I said, incredulous. “And the Flamen of Jupiter!” The high priest of Jupiter was even more hemmed in by restrictions than the Flamen of Quirinus. He could never serve in the military, for he was prohibited from riding a horse or touching iron weapons. He must never lay eyes on a corpse, even if it be that of his own mother. His clothing must never be secured by knots, and his hair and fingernail clippings had to specially disposed of, to guard him from magical assaults. So difficult was it to recruit candidates for the position that it had gone unfilled for many years.
“Why so skeptical?” he asked, pretending to be puzzled.
“Jupiter’s Flamen would have few opportunities for seduction,” I said drily. “To say nothing of fine dining. Or standing for Consul.”
He laughed. “You wrong me, Lucia. In those days I was very keen for the post. Jupiter’s high priest enjoyed many privileges and wielded unique powers. He sat in the Senate and was consulted on all operations of the Republic. Even the Pontifex Maximus could not overrule him in matters to do with the will of Jupiter. As a young man, I was dazzled by the prospect. And then there was Cornelia.”
His smile of recollection was so tender that I suffered a pang of envy. Stifling it, I asked, “Was she very beautiful, like Pompeia?”
Caesar shook his head; his gestures grew more animated than usual. “Cornelia was unlike Pompeia in every way! She was lithe and dark and clever and serious, but she loved to laugh. We adored each other from the moment we met. She didn’t even mind the prospect of becoming my Flaminica, she said, for the women of Roma had so few opportunities to serve before the people. Only the Flaminicae and the Vestals have public roles, and once we met, Cornelia had no wish to remain a virgin.”
He smiled at me in deliberate provocation, but I kept my expression neutral. “What prevented you from becoming Jupiter’s Flamen? Or did you hold that office?”
“I did, but only for a few months, before Sulla marched into the city. Marius and Cinna were both dead, and he ordered me to divorce my wife. I chose not to do so. It would have meant giving up the Flaminate, for I could not serve without my Flaminica.” He paused, and added, “You may know that for those married by the patrician rite of eating the spelt-cake, divorce is forbidden under most circumstances, so to accept his decree would have been an act of impiety, and I was very pious then—I wanted to be a worthy descendant of pius Aeneas. But it was also an intolerable insult to my darling.”
“So you, hardly more than a boy, refused the Dictator’s command? You must have expected to die very quickly.”
“I was a hot-headed, foolish youth,” he replied, “and deeply in love. Cornelia was aghast and begged me to divorce her, but I would not be swayed. Sulla revoked all of Cinna’s acts, so I was stripped of the Flaminate anyway. And then something very strange happened. The Chief Vestal, Fufetia, had been conferring with my mother. Fufetia directed me to hide in a house belonging to one of Cinna’s clients, a man whose head had been presented to Sulla in a silver bucket. The place stood empty, for Sulla had not yet awarded it to one of his sycophants. I was sleeping there on the floor when a Tuscan woman came up from the cellar. She wore garments much like yours, simple and undyed, and her black curls were tied with a band. Her name was Thana, she said, and I was to come with her if I wished to live.”
“You were very fortunate,” I told him. On no other occasion, in all the history of Romalia so far as I was aware, had the sisters bestirred themselves to rescue a man. “Do you know why she helped you?”
“She was reluctant, as a matter of fact, but declared that she was bound to do the will of her Goddess. She blindfolded me and led me into the cellar and through what seemed like miles of tunnels. I spent a night underground, hearing women’s voice murmuring all around me, and having strange dreams of this Goddess. The next day, I was given farmer’s clothing and a bag of food, with quite a generous amount of gold, and taken into a tunnel which opened to a tomb outside King Servius’ Wall, near the execution grounds. I stayed off the road, but made my way to Praeneste, and remained there with friends until the Vestals convinced Sulla to pardon me.”
“And what did you conclude, from this experience?” I asked.
“At the time, I was simply grateful to be alive,” he replied. “I had no leisure to consider the matter, but supposed that the Vestals directed some secret guild of women, who used the tunnels from time to time. Later, when I was aedile, I conducted certain discreet investigations. What I learned was… disquieting, but I felt honor-bound not to betray those to whom I owe my life.”
“Thank you, Caesar,” I said. “We pose no threat to Roma. We wish only to be left alone.”
“You must call me Gaius. We have known each other long enough. And now, perhaps you will tell me why you have come,” he suggested, leaning forward to place his hand over mine. “Do you need help?”
His touch shocked me, a little, as did his look. Both told me that he no longer considered me a Vestal, but a woman like any other. Caesar, it was said, never passed up an opportunity to test his powers of seduction. What I had long desired was here, in this room, I told myself, and I was a free woman of Romalia. I gazed into his dark eyes and knew that I could taste the pleasures of love at last, if I wished.
Instead I said, “I have a message for you from the Goddess.”
For the second time in my experience of him, Caesar was surprised. He removed his hand from mine. “The Goddess? Do you mean Vesta, or the Goddess of the women below?”
“Vesta is one of her names. She counts you as her descendant, but she is not Venus. She says that you possess her divine spark, and that if you do as she asks, Roma will last thousands of years.”
He did not laugh, or call me a fool. His expression grew serious. “Not the Republic, you say, but Roma?”
I nodded. “Roma, the city.”
He rose, and took a few steps, rubbing his chin in thought. The floor, I noticed, was covered by an unusual many-colored carpet with a floral design, well worn in the area where he now paced. Finally he said, “This prophecy…I have heard it before, but I cannot recall the source. Was it in one of your Vestal books? Could Fabia show me the text?” He saw my expression and raised a hand to forestall my question. “She is as well as can be expected,” he said. “I plan to appoint your successor soon, with Fabia’s agreement, but she is too weak to rise from bed now. I fear that it will not be long before we lose her.”
I bowed my head, accepting this news, then said, “You know what I speak of because you have dreamed it, probably more than once. There is no written prophecy; the Goddess appeared to me only days ago to command me to see you. She says that you wish your province to be Illyricum, but instead, it must be Gallia. The fate of Roma depends on it.”
Caesar stared, and I could see that he wanted to believe, but was still uncertain. “It is true that I had Illyricum in mind,” he admitted. “Gallia Across the Alps has already been assigned to Metellus Celer, and I could hardly embark on a war of conquest to the north without ruffling his feathers. At the moment, Cato has prevailed upon the Senate to ruin me financially by assigning ‘the woods and meadowlands of Italia’ as my proconsular province. But Crassus and Pompeius Magnus will come to my aid—I have passed the legislation they wanted, and they will secure the province I choose.”
“Perhaps Nearer Gallia, then. It must be Gallia,” I repeated. “You will go, you will survey that land, and you will conquer it after several years.”
His eyes widened as I spoke. “I shall do as you and the Goddess ask,” he affirmed at last. “You must wish me happy,” he added after a moment. “I am betrothed to young Calpurnia, Piso’s daughter. Piso’s grandfather was murdered by Gauls, the Tigurini. Perhaps I shall have an opportunity to avenge him.”
“May you have many sons,” I said politely, aware of his need for an heir, and he half-smiled. I presumed that the marriage had been arranged in order to cement his relationship to Piso, whom Caesar, Crassus and Magnus would doubtless support in the Consular elections for the next year. Calpurnia must be a teenager now, and Caesar was more than twice her age. I knew now, as Calpurnia did not, that she would enjoy only a few months with her new husband before he left Roma for a years-long absence.
Having delivered my message, I rose to go; I wanted to leave him before I had time to regret my choice. He took my hand again and pressed it gently. “Lucia, there is one more thing I wish you to know. Volusius is dead.”
The mention that name on Caesar’s lips brought back a little of my old paralysis, but the hand enclosing mine was warm, and I managed to ask “Was that your doing?”
“Yes. His life was forfeit the moment he touched you. I asked Marcus Antonius to track him down, and he was captured in Athens. He was to be conveyed to Roma to stand trial, but he attempted to escape during the journey back, and Antonius took measures which… which Volusius did not survive.”
“Whatever he did, it was probably faster and less painful than being flogged to death in the Forum,” I remarked.
“Very true. I was not looking forward to that duty,” he admitted. “Now, flogging you was an entirely different matter.”
“If that is your best effort at flirtation, I fear that the demands of the Consulship have put you sadly out of practice.”
At this, he chuckled appreciatively. I tried to pull away, but he retained his hold. “Come, Lucia, say that you forgive me.”
“I will think about it,” I temporized, looking away. It was difficult to refuse him anything. “Our meeting has given me much to consider, but I must go.” This time I managed to withdraw my hand. I hurried from the office and down the corridor toward the shrine of Plenty, fingering the pouch at my neck. When we reached the entrance to the under-chamber, I turned and handed him a tiny knucklebone. “I have two of these, and can spare one,” I told him. “Keep it safe, and go with the Goddess’ blessing.”
“Farewell, ,” he said as he placed me on the ladder. “I shall write to you when I am in Gallia. Where might I reach you?”
“Right here,” I said as I climbed down. “Have someone you trust slip your letters through the grille, but keep it locked. Say that they are prayers for Plenty, and that the messages must find her in the earth below.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: In case you are wondering about the date, we have now reached Caesar’s consulship (59 BCE). The Triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus was in full force that year. Of Caesar’s first wife Cornelia, we know very little, except that when she died in childbirth, Caesar delivered a funeral oration for her. This was an unusual honor for a young woman.