Chapter 42 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Lucia, servant of the Goddess, to Gaius Julius Caesar, greetings. All Roma resounds with the celebration of Thanksgiving for your victories, Commander, and hears your description of the Belgic battles with wonder. Now that you are retiring to winter quarters, I venture to hope that this letter finds you in continuing good health.
I am sorry that Briucacha, queen of the Tulingi, was more inclined to meet you in battle than in bed. Yet surely she could regret honoring her word as little as you could regret an honorable opponent.
I have a message for you from One we both know, who asked me to be her voice. If ever you are uncertain of your course, toss the tiny die I gave you, the knucklebone which is the twin of one I carry, and you shall have your answer.
This letter, written by my own hand, I entrust to your freedman Gaius Julius Ariston, at the Royale.
When Shipmaster Azdrubal Mago returned to Roma, he invited Dru and “a guest” to dinner at his home, politely omitting my name, as was the custom of his people. “Drusus” promptly collected from him our investment of sixty thousand sestertii plus twelve thousand in profits, but declined Mago’s kind invitation, pleading a prior engagement and promising to send his ward instead.
I dressed in the same clothing I had worn to the meeting in the spice shop, hoping that Azdrubal would not notice. Dru hired me a litter, and I was carried outside the city, to the neighborhood across the Tiber. This area had long been settled, first by the polyglot sailors who frequented the shores of Tiber, then by immigrants from Pompeius Magnus’ new eastern province of Syria and the client kingdom of Judaea. The streets of the Jews, Dru said, were far safer than those inside the walls, for the gangs headed by Clodius and his rivals did not bother with Trans-Tiber. In recent years, it had grown more fashionable, and Clodia (always ahead of the trend) had a villa there.
Azdrubal’s house was architecturally Roman, with an atrium for receiving guests, but the furnishings reflected his life as a shipmaster. Instead of murals in the Roman style, the walls were covered with glazed tiles in white and sky-blue, and there were woven rugs rather than mosaics on the floor. On a high console, an intricate wooden model of a many-oared ship was proudly displayed, in place of the usual ancestral masks. Beside it there were pearly sea-shells, and branches of red coral. The large atrium pool, open to the sky, was not pristine as in a traditional house. It contained soil, fish, a small fountain, and water lilies.
Accustomed now to the spartan bareness of Romalia, I found the room dazzling but confusing, and hardly knew where to focus my gaze.
“Mistress Clara, you are here at last! What a delight.” Azdrubal came forward to greet me, and kissed my cheek. Unconsciously, I had been expecting my host to appear in a toga, but of course he was not a Roman citizen, and not entitled to the privilege of that cumbersome, awkward garment. Instead, he wore a long unbelted tunic of sumptuous red cloth, interwoven with gold threads. Caesar would have approved.
Azdrubal guided me through his tablinum, which was stuffed with scrolls in a beguiling state of disarray, and into the triclinium, where two wide couches faced each other, with small tables in between. The couches were placed so that a pair of diners could recline face-to-face, yet each could use their right hand to eat.
His servants, who looked suspiciously like leather-skinned, weatherbeaten sailors, brought us warm water and towels to wash our hands. I wondered whether any of them was a true house slave, but deemed it rude to ask. The oldest, a grizzled, one-eared man named Danel, seemed to act as steward, and took it on himself to mix the wine.
“Danel, you haven’t asked whether the lady prefers her wine neat,” said Azdrubal, winking at me. Ignoring this playful sally, Danel presented me with a well-watered cup. Then, as my host said a brief prayer in Punic, each of us tilted a splash of wine into the bowl Danel extended.
“I can tell by the scent that this is a fine vintage, but I have no wish to be intoxicated,” I told Azdrubal. “It impedes conversation.”
“True, and we have much to discuss,” he replied. “I want to negotiate a contract for several voyages, but Drusus puts me off, saying that each investment is to be decided in its own time.”
“My guardian is correct. I am delighted with your success, but I must remain free to make other… alliances.” I smiled politely. I was already enjoying this.
Azdrubal returned my smile. “Yet what you have to offer is so attractive, you can hardly blame me for seeking exclusivity.”
“This way, you too retain your freedom,” I pointed out.
“I should very much like to surrender it, for a time,” he replied. He seemed about to say more, but Danel returned with the appetizers: toasts with olive and anchovy paste, and tiny pastries stuffed with spiced chickpeas and raisins. Our hands touched as we reached for the food.
“Tell me of your journey,” I said.
“We sped over the sea like a shearwater, and every port beckoned us with full purses,” he said, gesturing broadly with his wine cup. “I sold most of my Alexandrian cargo before we even reached Messana, but I saved some pepper and cinnamon for our friend Irenus.”
As dishes of baked turbot and grilled octopus and garlicky greens arrived, we talked of maritime matters: the charm of remote islands, the changeable moods of the sea, how seabirds or dolphins can guide lost sailors to land. I sheepishly confessed that I had never been outside Roma, except for a few childhood visits to the beach at Ostia.
“But you have traveled far in your thoughts,” he said. “I have brought you a gift of thanks, Mistress Clara, a book of Greek poetry from Alexandria.”
“You are very kind.” I tried for gracious restraint, but my curiosity got the better of me. “What sort of poetry?”
Azdrubal laughed. “You see, I know the way to your heart. This book is called ‘The Garland,’ because it has short poems by many authors, like a wreath of many-colored blooms. I will give you a sample.” He lay back, looking at the ceiling, and recited in Greek:
In spring are the Cydonian quinces
Watered by flowing streams
Where the Maidens have their
Inviolate garden, and the buds
Beneath shaded vine branches
Swell and bloom, but for me
Love finds leisure in no season.
“Ahhh,” I breathed, as Danel refilled my wine cup. “Who is that?”
“Ibycus. He lived centuries ago, before the glories of Athens. Here is another bit I like, by a woman poet called Sappho.”
I would rather see her lovely walk
And the radiant light of her face
Than all the chariots of Lydia
Or serried warriors in arms.
“Exquisite. Are there others like her?” This would interest the sisters. Perhaps they could set her words to music for song night, though Sappho’s dialect sounded exotic to my ears.
“Sappho was unusual, yet not unique. Among my people too there were women poets in the days long ago. They used to sing songs to the lyre while waiting for their lovers to return from the sea. Here is one by a lady named Sophonisba.” He sang a few lines in Punic and then translated for me:
Mago, I must forget your strong arms
Your warm lips and fiery kisses
The black wing of your hair
On the pillow.
His voice was liquid, deep and velvety. “Mago?” I asked. “One of your ancestors?”
Azdrubal shrugged, his eyes following the servants as they gave us towels to wipe our fingers, cleared the table of all but a few sweets, and left the room. “Mago is a common name among us. Mistress Clara, may I recline beside you?”
I put down my wine cup and drank from those grey eyes. They were like agates, the grey irises outlined by a dark rim. Then I decided. “You may.” Thinking of what was to come, I felt excitement and apprehension. Memories of Volusius in his garish wig and makeup intruded on my thoughts. My attacker. He was mine in a most dreadful way, for I could never truly be rid of him. I feared that if Azdrubal put his weight on me, holding me down as Volusius had, I might panic.
But he rose in leisurely fashion, and knelt by the couch on my left side, and took my hand. He kissed it, and stretched himself out on his side behind me, molding his form to mine. His largeness and warmth were not threatening. I felt safe as he pulled away the veil hanging from my diadem and put his lips to my bare neck. “I lost my freedom the moment I saw you in the spice shop,” he murmured. “So tiny and delicate, yet so strong. Kiss me!”
We kissed for a long time. He seemed to be in no hurry. He removed my diadem and set aside the veil. He unpinned my hair and let it fall about my shoulders, speaking some endearment in Punic. His exploring hand moved in a slow rhythm from the curve of my hip down my thigh, then up again to my waist and in front, to circle my breasts. All the time I felt the heat and hardness of him against me, though two layers of clothing were between us. Our position on the couch did not allow me to reciprocate much, though I placed my left hand over his, dreamily following his movement as he touched me. “Sweet Clara, do you want me as much as I want you?”
“Yes, but I don’t know what to do,” I whispered.
His hand paused. “But you are a widow. Did you never lie abed with your husband and dally in love?”
“Vettius was… very old,” I improvised, remembering the matrons’ chatter at the festival of the Good Goddess. “We had no children.”
“Then I am glad that I haven’t rushed you. But here, feel my masseba, my standing stone.” He placed my hand on him and chuckled, groaning a little. I twisted over then, pulling up his tunic so I could see, and touched him wonderingly. So much bigger than in statues, and the skin was so soft. “Neshma, tell me when you are ready and I will do the rest,” he whispered.
My tunic was around my thighs now. I lay on my back and caught my breath as we joined. No other sensation was like this. He did not allow his weight to oppress me, and as we moved, I thought we were like two oarsmen upon the sea, rowing in perfect harmony, picking up speed and going faster and faster, until we both arrived…where? I didn’t know, but I desperately needed to get there. A different image formed in my mind, of dark eyes beneath a crown of oak leaves, and I shuddered, melting and convulsing in Azdrubal’s arms.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: My Punic poem is fictional, though there was a real woman poet named Sophonisba, who lived during the Punic Wars.