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Chapter 40 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Gold was often used as a writing material in antiquity. The Pyrgi gold tablets (ca. 500) hold a bilingual inscription in Etruscan and Phoenician recording a dedication by the king of Caere in Italy to the goddess Astarte.

The next day, I talked things over with Thana, who accepted with equanimity what I told her about choosing Azdrubal Mago as our next shipmaster.

“We will find out soon enough whether you are right,” she said. “He should be back in eight weeks, or twelve at the most. And then you may go to him if you wish. But go with your eyes open to the risks. Love for a man can draw you back to Roma, and to enslavement. Many sister has lost her day of freedom, placing herself under the hand of a man.”

“I know.” I kept asking myself what I felt for Azdrubal. Should I suppress it, in order to better serve Romalia? And what about the other, hopeless love, the one of which I could not speak?

Thana saw that I was in doubt. “When you question yourself, always consult the Goddess. You may not get the answer you want, but she is your best guide.”

I would have been abashed to ask the Goddess about such things. Rather than discuss it further, I changed the subject. “On the way back yesterday, we met Caecilia. She reports that the Senate has voted fifteen days of thanksgiving for Caesar’s victories in Gallia. Nobody before has received such an honor. All Roma will be in a holiday mood.”

“And rowdy, and drunk,” Thana finished. “A good time for sales, but a dangerous time for sisters to be upside in the Markets. I must confer with Dru.”

From where we were sitting in the kitchen of Third Region, I heard the rhythmic clattering of crotala and interpreted the sounds. “Something’s happened in First Region—not a misfortune,” I added as Thana leaped up in dismay. “News, they say. Capena Gate.”

“It must be the new tunnel,” she cried. “Let us go, quickly!” On the way, we met Delia, a quick-footed young woman who often served as messenger, running without a lamp through the pitch-dark tunnels. She explained that Laelia and the excavation crew had reached the sanctuary of the Camenae, the nymphs of the grove at the Capena Gate. After almost three years of work, the tunnel was complete. But there was more.

Laelia had aimed for the small temple of the Camenae rather than the springhouse, fearful of breaching the source, flooding the tunnel, and drawing unwanted attention. There were no open well shafts near the Capena Gate and thus no way to check her progress, so she had slowed the work and consulted the Goddess daily, adjusting the direction this way and that as her token directed. That morning, the crew had broken directly into a blind chamber containing a stone box. They were waiting for Thana’s arrival before opening it.

The air in the new tunnel was close and full of a haze of dust, which reflected our lamplight. The tufa was crumbly here, and finer than in most parts of Romalia. Laelia had taken the unusual measure of setting up heavy wooden posts with square planks nailed to each end; these were positioned along the tunnel, as a safeguard against collapse. The chamber was smaller than I expected, the size of a blanket chest. It was constructed much like my burial vault, but with smaller slabs of tufa. One of the upper slabs had cracked and fallen in on the box, with a quantity of soil. We must be quite close to the surface.

“I thought that the Goddess wanted us to access the spring water of the Camenae,” said Laelia, “but all the time, it must have been this. We’ve reinforced the chamber and tunnel as best we could, but I’m nervous. Once the box is removed, we’ll see about closing off this tunnel.” Gingerly, she brushed away the soil and slid the container out. It was quite small yet heavy, made not of tufa, but fine-grained yellow limestone.

“It looks like a funerary box, but smaller,” said Thana. “Perhaps it is only the bones of some poor child, buried long ago.”

On its thong around my neck, my token was very warm, so I knew that the box was important, whatever its contents. Coughing from the dust, Thana removed the lid. Inside was a stack of tiny hammered golden rectangles, incised with letters. She picked up the one on top, squinted at it, and handed it to me. “It’s too small for me to read. Give it a try, Lucia.”

She held the lamp close as I read the first lines:

To inquire into nature and the things of the gods is the best occupation for a man, and the second-best is to teach those who have understanding. Therefore Numa Pompilius the Sabine wrote this book, setting down the teachings of the nymph Egeria. Let the wise keep these words from the sight of the many, and share them with those pure in heart and hands, who seek neither riches nor tyranny.

“The lost book of Egeria’s teachings!” said Thana. “Goddess be praised! Lucia, this is a job for you and Camerina. Go to the Archive and make us a fair copy with larger lettering. Do not close the tunnel yet, Laelia, for we must consult the Goddess. Perhaps she wishes the gold tablets to be replaced. But now it is time to feast our sisters, who have faithfully labored.”

So eager was I to learn more of the book that I grudged every minute of the feast, but I reminded myself that were it not for these women, we would have no beautiful gold tablets with ancient word forms and lettering, and no chance to learn what Egeria had taught her lover, the scholarly and gentle Numa. I lapsed into daydreams over my skewer of roasted goat meat. It is fortunate that Thana was the Counselor that day, and not I, for I still did not understand what is expected of leaders.

Camerina rarely seemed to stray from the caverns of the Archive. I wasn’t sure what she ate or where she slept. She was vigorous but thin, and seemed more pale every time I saw her. When I brought her the box, she sucked in her breath. “I have seen this in a dream,” she said. “There was a man, handsome, with a strong chin and large, liquid eyes. He lay in a grove, playing a bone flute, and a beautiful woman came to him. She was naked, but for her straight dark hair, which flowed all about her like a silken garment. They made love, and then she rose and walked about the grove, speaking and gesturing. Her voice was like the music of the flute, and he listened carefully. Then I saw him inscribing tablets of gold, in two sets, and placing each set in a stone box.”

“Fortunate woman!” I told her. “You saw King Numa, and Egeria. These are her teachings.” We set to work straightaway, dividing up the gold tablets and transcribing the book onto lead, which was a mundane medium for such sacred words, but easier to read, and less likely to be stolen. The result was a compendium of spells and incantations, together with advice on kingship and priestly matters. I was vividly reminded of the books I had read as a Vestal. Much of Egeria’s advice was fundamental to the Roman calendar:

Egeria said: Sabine, if you would worship the gods properly, let the year be reckoned not by the Moon but the Sun, and let there be a year of twelve months, not ten.

Egeria said: Sabine, let the year be divided into days which are fas, good for doing business, and days which are nefas. And let there be free days when even the slave and the mule do no work.

Camerina and I consulted about the Latin, which was readable but full of strange spellings like duonus instead of bonus. Some of the teachings surprised me. The old Roman kings had been alternately warlike and peaceful , and Numa had belonged to the latter group, yet he still had an interest in war, and asked Egeria to advise him on it:

Numa the Sabine said to Egeria: When the citizens are outnumbered and desperate, how may the city prevail? And the nymph replied, “The Leader’s life may be given to the Dead and to the Goddess my Mother in order to save the rest, but this is fas only by the Leader’s voluntary act of self-devotion.”

Indeed, Camerina told me of several points in Roman history at which a general had dedicated himself to the Manes and to Earth, together with the enemy army. He then rode straight to the enemy and was cut down, but in such cases, the enemy always lost the subsequent battle. No one, however, had made this supreme sacrifice for over two hundred years.

Strangest of all was Egeria’s prescription for protection from lightning.

Egeria said: Sabine, if you would protect the city from Jupiter’s bolts, mix honey and wine with the water from the Goddess’ spring in the cave upon the wooded Aventine Hill, where the Woodpecker and the Horned God drink. When they taste of this, they will be unable to move from the spring until they compel Jupiter to come to you.

Egeria said: Numa the Sabine, Jupiter wishes human blood in return for sparing the citizens. When the Woodpecker and the Horned God bring Jupiter to you, ask him how his lightning-bolts may be warded off. When he angrily replies, “With heads,” say in reply, “of onions.” When he corrects you, shouting “Human!,” finish his phrase with “hair.” Then when he tries a third time, insisting “With living—” finish his sentence with “minnows.” These are the ingredients of a spell I shall teach you, by which lightning may be warded off without shedding the blood of your people.

“No wonder the Senate destroyed these books,” said Camerina. “Not only does Egeria accuse Jupiter of demanding human sacrifices, she tells how to outsmart him!”

We worked continuously until the transcription was complete. Then she led me down a few rock-cut steps to a room called the Nook, even deeper than the cavern of the Archive. It was oddly warm, and had a smooth floor covered in fleeces. Too exhausted to question this marvel, I sank down with her, and fell instantly asleep.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: Numa’s tablets would have been inscribed a couple of hundred years before the Pyrgi tablets illustrated above. My description of the content of Egeria’s teachings is guesswork; however, a few early Roman generals did practice devotio, a ritual which ensured the general’s death together with his victory. Also, the strange story about Numa’s stratagem for protecting the people from Jupiter is an authentic piece of early Roman lore.