Chapter 36 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Mea lux—“my light,” he had called me, but they were empty words: so I told myself as I helped Arntha and Laelia replace the wheel. Caesar had seen to it that Volusius was punished, but he had taken no such steps against Clodius for his role in the scandal which ended my life as a Vestal—and Caesar’s own marriage to Pompeia. Instead, Crassus paid lavish bribes to ensure Clodius’ acquittal on the charge of sacrilege, while Caesar arranged for him to be adopted by a plebeian, so that he could become a Tribune of the People. Absurdly, Clodius’ new “father” was younger than himself, but only Cato and a few other traditionalists objected.
The wildly popular new Tribune proceeded to banish poor old Cicero and tear down his beloved house on the Palatine, forcing Terentia to flee to the Vestal House for safety. The Senate lost control of the streets to Clodius and his bands of violent youths, who imitated his swaying gait and went armed with long, sharp knives. Early mornings in the Vegetable Market were peaceful enough, but we sisters took care not to be abroad in the afternoons or evenings.
It came as no surprise to me that Caesar secured as his provinces not only Nearer Gallia but Illyricum as well. Then Metellus Celer, who was set to take up the governorship of Gallia Across the Alps, died quite unexpectedly, and Caesar received that province too. Celer’s notorious wife Clodia was suspected of his murder. True, Clodia freely took lovers and always did as she pleased, but I thought it more likely that her brother Clodius had done away with Celer, as a favor to Caesar. It was said that Caesar had formed a pact of Three Men, with himself as the junior partner to Magnus and Crassus, but Clodius almost made a Fourth. He even managed to have Cato sent on a special mission to Cyprus, where he would be safely out of the way, unable to work his rhetorical wiles on either the Senate or the People.
The year of Caesar’s departure saw the death of my dearest friend, Fabia. In my identity as Clara, the vegetable seller, I attended her funeral, which the thugs did not disturb. I joined the procession far behind the Pontifices and the Vestals, who went on foot, surrounded by lictors, and the escort of relations wearing the masks of her ancestors. There were also professional dancers, women who whirled about and clicked castanets with their fingers as the musicians played the double flute. Fabia was to be buried inside the boundary of King Servius’ Wall, a right enjoyed only by Vestals. Space on the Palatine hill, where the Vestals were traditionally interred, had become too costly, however, so they were now cremated and laid to rest upon one of the peaks of the Quirinal, where the Sabines used to live in King Numa’s day.
Fabia’s eldest nephew delivered the eulogy, speaking of her great forebears, especially Quintus Fabius Maximus the Delayer, who had outsmarted the invader Hannibal by avoiding a pitched battle. Finally, there was a public banquet with a distribution of food to both male and female mourners. I found myself in line with Myrto, one of the dancers, and praised her performance.
“Your castanets sound like a language,” I marveled.
“There is indeed a language of the crotala,” she replied, using the Greek word for the instrument. “The movements of our fingers mimic the rhythms of the the words we sing.”
I had an idea. “Could the sounds be used to communicate, over a long distance, if you didn’t want to speak?”
She considered this. “Yes, why not? In the silver mines of Athens, they use whistles to send messages. When we learn the crotala, we begin with short combinations of click and pause, and there are many such combinations, just like the steps of a dance.”
I asked Myrto if she would give me lessons for a fee, and we agreed to meet in the early mornings, because she worked funerals during the day, and parties at night. We made our way to an area where benches had been set up for the humbler mourners, behind the dais where the guests of honor reclined. I was biting into a pastry stuffed with spiced pork when I looked up to see my old enemy Claudia staring at me through a gap in the privacy curtains on the dais. Though I was shocked, I forced myself to meet her gaze blankly for a moment, then look away, as if indifferent. I kept speaking to Myrto, and casually turned so that I was facing away from the dais. After a few minutes, I made my excuses, and left, resisting the urge to run. When I finally dared to look back, Claudia had returned to her couch.
I told Thana what had happened, but she was inclined to make little of it. “It has been four years, Lucia,” she said. “Surely your appearance is quite different without the Vestal’s headdress and veil, so that Claudia could not be certain.”
“Her eyes grew round and lost that sullen, bored look she always had. In fact, she looked terrified. I think she recognized me.”
“If you are worried, consult the Goddess,” she suggested, so I held my token in my hands and calmed my mind, breathing slowly and deeply to open the way for her divine presence. Finally I asked aloud, “Is there danger in my having been seen by Claudia?” There was always a long pause after I framed a question to the Goddess, and as usual I harbored a fear of failure, but at last the knucklebone warmed and the answer formed in my mind: Yes, danger for her. Nothing further was I able to elicit, though I tried twice more, as my mentor shook her head.
“This is always the way when we ask too much. Accept that we are safe, and she has told you all she wishes you to know.”
I was certain that anxiety about Claudia would continue to plague me, but despite our fondness for each other, Thana was not the type of woman with whom I could share all my worries and conjectures. She would have found such a conversation a waste of valuable time. That was when I finally understood that Fabia was truly gone, and I would never be able to confide in her again.
Fighting back tears, I explained my idea about the crotala, and proposed to sell the coral and pearl necklace which Ennia had left me in order to pay for Myrto’s lessons, but Thana briskly replied, “Nonsense, child. We live with few possessions because in our simplicity lies our safety, but that does not mean we are poverty-stricken. I will talk to Drusilla, and we will give you the silver for these lessons. Furthermore, the Goddess counsels me that it is time that you learned how we secure the greater part of our income.”
She then led me on a long tour of Romalia. I thought I had learned the tunnels well by that point, yet much was newly revealed to me. Each Region possessed one or more caches of silver, gold, and the occasional gemstone—carnelian, or rock crystal, or coral. These were secreted in a variety of places, usually deep below the main level of the tunnels. At that time, two were located in Regional burial chambers, long galleries where the sisters’ bodies were placed in coffin-sized niches and sealed up with rubble and mortar or clay. Each niche was labeled with a woman’s name, but some of the names were significant: Aurelia and Chrysothemis referred to gold, Argentina and Thetis to silver. Another cache was kept in the Archive, in a false bottomed niche beneath the Sibylline Books, and still another was hidden in the Aventine temple of the Good Goddess.
If any sister or any person of a future epoch is reading this account with ill intent, know that most of these resources have long since been transferred to the temple banks and silver-men in Roma. May the tunnels collapse upon anyone who desecrates the graves of the Goddess’ servants in search of treasure! When Thana showed me all these things, I asked her how the sisters had amassed such wealth, and for what purposes it was used.
“Surely you have noticed that our needs cannot be fully met through our labors, industrious though we are.” Thana’s hand went to her token pouch as she spoke. “We must buy clothing, food, tools, charcoal and lamp oil. To keep entry to the tunnels secret, we also purchase houses in the city from time to time—an increasingly expensive proposition, even for less desirable properties. Fortunately, the Goddess has supplied us with another source of income. As you know, we have access to information about the future, and such information is extremely valuable.”
This had never occurred to me, and even now I was not quite certain what she meant. “If one knows that crops will fail, one may profit by purchasing grain in the prior year,” I suggested. “But that seems to me a nefas, to grow wealthy by charging high prices to hungry folk in Roma.”
“Nor would the Goddess permit us to profit that way. Instead, we help Roma to grow larger by bringing more trade to the city. We have funded many ventures—not often grain, for the grain merchants have public contracts, but for wine, cloth, fish-sauce, spices…”
“So we have ships?” I asked, much struck by this possibility. I had rarely even seen the sea, much less embarked on a ship. Yet so courageous were the women of Romalia, and so marvelous the wonders I had already witnessed, that the thought of Laelia, or Arntha, or even Anna sailing to Aegyptus seemed quite plausible. I felt quite envious, for Alexandria held a shrine of the Muses which contained a great Library.
“No, my dear,” said Thana, smiling at my expression. “We make loans to the men who conduct this trade. Shipping is fast, but it is very dangerous. Merchants need funds with which to buy and rig their ships, and they must buy a cargo to sell at the ports along the way. We who make such loans are repaid at the end of the venture, plus twenty denarii for every hundred we supply.”
“And the Goddess tells you which ships to fund. She sees the branches on the tree of the future, and she can discern the most probable events.”
“Yes. Yet sometimes our choices fail and our money is lost. I do not think that the Goddess herself errs, so it must be that I have failed in my consultation,” said Thana, frowning.
“She told me that mortals change the course of events in small ways,” I said quickly, “and she can see only the likelihoods, not the certainties. I am sure that it is no failing of yours.”
Thana took my hands in hers. “Lucia, when the safety of Romalia is at stake, we must speak the truth without pouring honey on that which is bitter. Consulting the Goddess is partly a skill which a woman develops, and partly a matter of essence, some inborn quality which Our Divine Lady recognizes in this woman or that. I have spent my life perfecting the skill of consultation, whereby Her promptings become the words which I speak. But my oracles are like moth-eaten papyrus books, or lead tablets with crumbled edges. I must make guesses in order to fill in all the words. Often I am accurate, yet I have sometimes failed. In you, her essence was always present, and it has grown with your residence under the earth, the source of her being. The Goddess tells me that before this Caesar of yours returns to Roma, I will be no more. You must take my place when I am gone, and protect the future of Romalia.”
“No!” I cried, “I have just lost Fabia. I cannot lose you too.” I buried my face in my hands, for the thought of Thana’s death was unbearable to me. Childlike in my grief, I did not consider what Thana herself must have felt when she learned from the Goddess of her approaching end. She embraced me, making wordless sounds of comfort as I sobbed, but soon resumed her customary bracing manner. “Learn to have more trust in yourself, and in the Goddess! You are no longer a girl, Lucia, and there are many to assist you besides me.”
Thana was right, yet I remained anxious. Of trade, I knew only what I had learned in the Vegetable Market. As a Vestal, I had heard many a public man discuss his finances. They all declared that profit made through trade was dishonorable. To sully one’s name with commerce risked expulsion from the Senate. The Way of the Elders, especially for patricians, required men to acquire wealth through farming, and most Senators either owned large estates or aspired to do so. The other honorable way to become wealthy was the path which Caesar planned and which Magnus had already achieved: subduing foreign lands, seizing their riches, and selling slaves through the markets in Roma, Ephesus and Delos. Still, from time to time there were whispers of shipping deals which fetched huge profits, and men such as Crassus felt no shame about dealing in real estate, or investing with the publicans, the tax farmers of the Horseman class who squeezed the provinces.
I now had an inkling of the mysterious work which Drusilla performed on behalf of Romalia. In fact, Drusilla was Thana’s colleague, the second of the two Counselors of the Assembly of Romalia. According to our custom, one Counselor oversaw matters downside, and the other specialized in security and information. I lost no time in seeking out Drusilla, and she agreed to show me more of the world upside during my next round of city duty.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss