Chapter 41 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
In Camerina’s stone bower, beneath the Archive, I opened my eyes and saw the Goddess. She stood at my feet, looking much as she had before. Her gown shimmered, and her eyes under the arched eyebrows seemed to cast forth a diffuse light. I breathed in a scent like frankincense. “You have done well, Lucia,” said the Goddess. “Now Thana must learn my daughter’s teachings. If she cannot see the letters with her aged eyes, you must read them to her.”
“I will, My Lady,” I breathed. Every nerve in my body tingled.
“Azdrubal Mago’s ship will return,” she went on. “He is a singularly lucky man, much like Caesar. I am troubled, for Gallia is beyond my reach. I can do little to influence Caesar’s fate, yet he has survived.”
“Survived?” In my surprise, I forgot my awe. “But surely he has won every battle! The Senate voted him a great Thanksgiving.”
“The Belgic tribes allied against him and ambushed his legions. He erred in failing to take precautions, and his six legions were very close to defeat. Had he lost that battle, his head would have been preserved in honey to make an oracle for Boduognatus, the commander of the Belgae. I watched in terror as that branch on the tree of the future grew thicker and more substantial.” The light in the Goddess’ eyes seemed to dim for a moment. “Yet Caesar prevailed. He rushed to the front line with a borrowed shield, and his men surged forward to protect him.”
I realized that my fists were clenched and I was holding my breath. I had never seriously considered the possibility that Caesar could lose—lose utterly, and be butchered, and never return to his city. The Roman legions seemed invincible, for the last time they lost a battle had been decades ago, in the generation of Caesar’s father. Yet that defeat had taken place in Gallia.
“Goddess, you could see him, as far away as Gallia. Could you not assist him?”
“No, my child. Italia is my land, and here I can do much, but other lands are inhabited by other Goddesses. There is more than one in the land of Gallia, and they fight each other. This benefits Caesar.”
“And what of the gods? What of Jupiter?” I asked, thinking of Egeria’s teachings. “Is he king over all the gods, as we have been taught?”
“I am ruled by no god,” she replied. “Jupiter and his kind are different from me. I was here before men and women and their young walked this land. Jupiter and Juno and Minerva, who inhabit the temple on the Capitoline hill, were brought here from other lands. All of their kind came with your ancestors.”
“But… do you never come into conflict with them?”
The Goddess smiled. “Jupiter gathers clouds and sends rain, but the water of this land is mine. He whips up bolts of lightning, but the fire and the air are mine. All these he borrows from me, with my consent. I do not concern myself with all his activities, but neither can he hide from me. If I withhold my consent, he simply fails to act.”
“And does he never chafe against your rule?”
“He is unaware of my rule,” she replied. “Does the eagle battle the will of the winds, or does he merely inhabit and ride them as he is able?”
From this I gathered that the men of Italia were not wrong to worship Jupiter, but neither were they fully informed of the divine order.
“Caesar is not completely beyond my help,” the Goddess continued. “He has my token, the twin of yours. He cannot use it as you do, for he is not a woman of Romalia. Yet if he casts the die, it will reveal my advice in response to a question. You must convey this message. Be my voice, Lucia.”
When I looked up, I could no longer see her, but she repeated, “Be my voice.”
Then I slept peacefully in the luxurious warmth of the alcove, and when I awoke, Camerina was stirring. I asked her whether she had seen the Goddess too.
“Yes, I dreamed of her.” She got to her feet and stretched. “I never attempted the Ordeal, so I cannot speak with her as you can, yet sleeping down here, I often see her.”
“What does she look like to you?”
“Like my grandmother,” said Camerina. She smiled at the memory. “Aged, and a little shrunken, but still beautiful, wearing the blue mantle she wove herself, fastened with her gold cicada pin. In that guise she came and stood over you, and shed a divine light and fragrance, which is how I recognized her. You held converse with her, and the sounds that came from your mouths were musical, like the plucking of lyre-strings.”
“To me she resembles a perfumed young matron in a shining robe, who has let her hair down before going to bed. I suppose she looks different to each sister who sees her. But why is this alcove such a good place to find her? And why is it so warm?”
“It is always easier to encounter the Goddess under the earth, and this is the deepest spot in Romalia. As to the source of the heat, I suspect that a hot spring lies below us, trapped in the rock. Once, in my dreams, I saw a great river running many fathoms below the Tiber, under a layer of hard rock, and felt its heat. But we could never reach it, tunnel as we might.”
I told her about the Goddess’ command that Thana be informed of Egeria’s teachings, and she nodded. “Thana hides it, but her sight is very poor these days. Even our fair copy might be too difficult for her to read.”
I washed in the chilly waters of Styx beneath the eerie blue stars of the cavern, and carrying six lead tablets, ascended to the upper strata of Romalia in search of Thana and breakfast.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: On a few occasions, Julius Caesar was forced to take up sword and shield and fight together with his men, rather than simply directing a battle from behind the lines. His direct participation motivated his men to greater effort, for they could not shirk while their general was putting himself in harm’s way. By all accounts, Caesar was skilled in the martial arts and a very good horseman as well. In his youth, he won the Civic Crown for having saved the life of a fellow soldier in battle. How different war today would be, if generals had to risk their own lives, and not just those of the young people they send into battle.