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Chapter 43 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Coin of Cyrene in Libya with an image of the (now extinct) silphium plant.

Azdrubal was to remain my lover, though I visited him only three or four times a year, usually after he returned from a voyage. I was careful not to give him all our business, though he was an extraordinarily lucky shipmaster. Only once did the Goddess caution me that a ship of his was likely to be lost. That day, when I held my token between my hands and posed the question, it turned colder than the water from our Fourth Region spring, and the chill seeped into my bones, so that I had to go about wrapped in a fleece mantle for the rest of the day, and sip hot watered wine to keep from shivering. I did not trust myself to speak with Az on the matter, so Dru broke the news that we would be working with one of his rivals. For eight weeks I lived in fear, and though I prayed for the safety of the crew and slept in the chamber beneath the shrine of Consus, the Goddess would not come to me. Finally, Dru reported that the ship Jezebel had foundered off the shore of Canopus in Aegyptus during a storm. Azdrubal himself had been aboard another vessel in his fleet of three, and only a few of Jezebel’s crew had survived, clinging to spars from the wrecked ship. The cargo was entirely lost.

In the privacy of his bedchamber, Az shed tears for his men, but he was philosophical about the the financial loss. “If the Jezebel was saved, I vowed to dedicate to Serapis in Alexandria a statue from the melted-down silver of seventy-two denarii, a full pound. Now I need not fulfill that vow. I am glad that you chose not to invest on this trip, Mistress Clara, though when I learned the news from Drusus, I was quite despondent. I thought that I would be deprived of my thousand kisses, but you have come to me after all.” He lifted me in his arms and whispered into my ear. “Give me a thousand, then a hundred, then another thousand and a second hundred. And let us kiss countless times, that we may lose track, and no envious person know the number of our kisses.”

In my twenty-sixth year, and the seventh year of my Romalian life, I conceived a child with Azdrubal.

Pregnancy is surprisingly rare in Romalia. Many of the sisters have experienced it in their previous lives, watching half of their babies die before they learned to walk, and many more of us have lost mothers, sisters and friends to the fevers and hemorrhages of childbirth. Even at the price of forfeiting relations with men, it is no small gift to avoid these sorrows. Those who go with men use Atilia’s contraceptives, the wild carrot seed and the costlier seed of the silphium plant. Yet as she had warned me, her drugs do not always work.

My pregnancy was full of discomforts, and aroused volatile emotions in me and others. Still, the prevailing mood was not one of fear, but joy and hope. Prisca and Anna appointed themselves my overseers, and kept me on a rich diet of meat broth with mushrooms, greens, porridge, and goat’s milk, boiled until sweet, tangy and thick.

By the time I visited Azdrubal to give him the news, my condition was beginning to show. “You are the father of this child but not the paterfamilias,” I told him, using the name which Romans give to the all-powerful father. “If I bear a daughter, I shall rear her myself and you will see her when I choose. If I bear a son, I cannot rear him. If you do not accept him, I will have to find an adoptive family.” In fact, I already had Marcus Papius the turnip-seller in mind as a back-up father, for he and his wife were childless.

Azdrubal was accustomed to my eccentricity by now, including the fact that I always wore exactly the same clothing when I visited him. He was a shrewd man and had long guessed that I was hiding my identity, but he also accepted life as it came, and had no wish to forfeit our nights together. Still, he reacted to my announcement with mingled jubilation and anger. “A son! If you bear me a son, I accept him with all my heart! But you cannot keep my own daughter from me,” he argued. “A girl needs a father to protect her, to provide a dowry! We must be together, Clara. I am not a citizen, and we cannot marry under Roman law, yet we could cohabit and draw up a contract.”

“I can and will keep my daughter from you, if you interfere with my wishes. As one who is not Roman, Az, you understand that people have different customs. Among my people, the mother decides. But if you cooperate, I will do all I can to bring you together, so that she knows who fathered her.”

Frowning, he asked, “And if our child is a boy, do you give me similar rights? To remove him from you completely, if I wish?”

I forced myself to agree, though my inward struggle was great. As we lay together on his couch that night, Azdrubal reserved some of his kisses for my slightly-swollen belly. “Your mother is strong-willed,” he said. “I expect that you will be the same, little one.”

I hoped desperately for a girl, so that I could keep her, but the Goddess told me well before my time that the infant was male. His birthing was long and dreadful, for he was big, like his father. Then I had to let him go. He stayed only a few hours with me before Dru whisked him away to Azdrubal’s house, where Hanna and a wet-nurse were waiting. Prisca and Anna told me that it was best to surrender him quickly, and not prolong the sorrow. Azdrubal sailed immediately for his family home in the west of Sicilia, and placed the boy with his mother, who lived with two of his sisters. I was given no assurances as to whether or when I would see him again. I peppered Dru with questions any time I thought she had been to see Az. She finally took pity on me and shared the precious information that Azdrubal had named him Maharbal Mago.

After I gave birth, I stopped visiting Az, for my emotions with regard to him were too complicated and painful. To keep my mind off my son, I studied with Thana and Dru, learning the rhythms of Romalia: the movements of goods upward and downward, how traffic in the tunnels changed when well-shafts were closed or a house was purchased upside, how new sisters joined the community or, in rare cases, returned to Roma. There were about a hundred and fifty of us, and it was Thana’s role to circulate among the Regions, checking on the welfare of each sister. In this task I joined her, and learned that part of her brief was also to gauge the likelihood that any sister might leave, and wilfully betray our existence to the authorities.

“It has only happened twice in the history of Romalia,” Thana told me, “and the Goddess punished both oathbreakers, Mettia by a fire in her apartment block, and Hirtia by drowning in the Tiber. But we must be vigilant, for human weakness is inescapable.”

“If a sister is determined to break her oath, what can we do?”

“We do not physically restrain her, for that is not our way. Our task is to anticipate such breaches with the help of the Goddess. If we cannot forestall the breach, we withdraw, leaving the tunnels empty until the danger is past. Fortunately, Roman magistrates have little interest in wild tales told by women, yet in case of emergency, one of Drusilla’s duties is to learn which aediles and praetors are amenable to bribery.”

“Aren’t they all?” I asked. “The magistrates disregard their oaths of office, for they no longer fear the gods.”

“That is correct. A few public men of Roma regulate their behavior according to the precepts of the Greek sages, and thus behave honorably, but even they consider the gods to be metaphors for natural forces, or fictions useful for keeping the peace. Romalian sisters have no such doubts, for we know the Goddess, and she knows our faithfulness to her. Still, some sisters are too lacking in discipline to keep a secret.” She went on to tell me of several sisters who had revealed this weakness, and of others who had failed to inform the Counselors of their upside relationships, as required by Romalian law.

One of these was Finola, the red-haired beauty from far-off Eriu, who had once spoken to me of her love for the toymaker named Ulf. This man had returned to the Aventine area, and Finola visited him while on city duty. Caecilia and the other sisters in the Aventine house noticed her unexplained absences, and easily discovered the reason, but did not confront her.

“That is my duty,” Thana explained, “so I told Finola that she might take Ulf two goatskins the next time she visited, to sew up into little animals stuffed with wool. And I asked her to work some extra shifts in the Second Region farm to make up for her absences from city duty.”

“And how did she take it?” I asked. “Was she sullen and resentful, or did she apologize for her lapse?”

“Neither. She merely nodded, and did as I asked. Now she knows that she cannot deceive us.”

“But Finola told me that Ulf was violent toward her. What if he forces her to tell where she goes when she leaves him?” I was aghast at the possibilities, but Thana remained serene.

“I have consulted the Goddess, as we should always do when in doubt. I put the question this way: Will Finola betray her oath? And the answer was received: After four turnings of the year. So you see, Lucia, we must be vigilant, but it would be unjust to judge or punish her for a transgression she has not yet committed. In the meantime, there is no reason to worry.”

I found myself less generous in spirit than Thana, for I could not meet Finola without inwardly blaming her for her eventual treachery. To be a Counselor, I realized, involved a heavy burden of knowledge. Yet there were also occasions of great joy, as when I assisted Thana in setting the Ordeal for Camerina’s daughter Amata. Raised in Romalia as Dru had been, she knew the tunnels intimately, and was already eager to walk with the Goddess at the age of thirteen.

The Goddess set a rigorous Ordeal for Amata, similar to my own, including visits to all four Regions, plus a descent to the Archives, ending in the Shrine Beneath the Rocks. Camerina was forbidden from greeting or assisting her daughter in any way. “I feared that she would fall into the Styx,” she told me later at the feast, “but she scooted over the stepping stones on her backside, and was quite safe. Then she went into the Nook and stayed there for an hour or so. Eventually she rose and quite calmly found her way out of the Archive. I gave her twenty minutes’ head start, and then followed her here with my lamp.”

A few days after her Ordeal, Amata sought me out, for she knew that I had dream visions of the Goddess, and she wanted to speak of her experience with someone who understood it. She was pale like her mother, but taller, with a handsome straight nose which must have come from her father, Diodorus.

“The Goddess looks like a beautiful woman, very tall, with long, long hair,” reported the girl. “She is naked, but her hair falls about her like a garment. She showed me a little boy who played in a bright open space, full of green plants in rows, with grapes hanging on all of them. His sister, who is my own age, watched over him. The Goddess said that I would meet them someday.”

“That is a very good vision,” I replied. I could not guess at the Goddess’ purpose, but I recognized that she was taking a special interest in Amata. “Did you hear the names of the children in the dream?”

“No, but I am to return to the Archive every month, and I will be able to see them again.” Amata told me every detail of the vision, lingering over the grapes, for she had never seen a vineyard or orchard, and it astounded her that this fruit could exist in such numbers. She was also fascinated by the other children, for her life had been lived among adults. Amata had noticed the boy’s bulla, and I asked whether she knew yet what her token would be.

“Yes, it is a piece of tufa. The Goddess said I could pick any pebble I wished, so long as it came from Romalia. I plucked one out of the Styx, and Merina said that she would sew me a pouch for it.” Amata did not call her mother Mater, for she had fifty mothers and a hundred aunts, as Camerina liked to say.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: Both the seeds of the wild carrot and the seeds of the silphium plant were used as contraceptives in antiquity. Some scholars say that silphium was such an effective contraceptive that the wild plant was harvested to extinction; others think that its contraceptive properties have been overstated and that it was mainly a culinary spice. The ancients also practiced surgical abortions, which were dangerous but probably no more so than pregnancy itself.