Chapter 44 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
News filtered back of Caesar’s doings in Gallia, where he had pressed his campaigns as far as the western coast. He had ruthlessly crushed the seafaring Veneti, executing their elders and selling the rest of the tribe into slavery, while his legate, the younger Crassus, received the submission of tribes on the south coast.
Despite his victories, Caesar’s enemies in the Senate insisted that he had run amok and exceeded his instructions. He must surrender his provinces, they said, and return to Roma to be held accountable for his criminal behavior. He enjoyed the most unlikely of defenders in Cicero, whom Caesar and Magnus had permitted to return from exile over the objections of Clodius. That winter, the public men of Roma traveled in great numbers to Lucca, just inside Caesar’s province of Nearer Gallia. Several dozen Senators were there, and many more lictors. Some came to arrange loans to finance their political canvassing, for Caesar’s wealth now rivaled that of Crassus, and he was generous. Others wished to learn firsthand what the Three Men would do next.
Caesar was a tireless correspondent, seeking to shape affairs in Roma despite his long absence from the city. Once a year, he wrote even to me. He never forgot that I had withheld my forgiveness for his decision regarding my fate as a Vestal, and Caesar was a remarkably persistent man, always intent on winning everything he set out to achieve. The following letters arrived in due course:
Gaius Julius Caesar to Lucia, servant of the Goddess, greetings. I pray that you are in good health and look upon the sun now and again, for you were always too pale. My own complexion has become quite weathered, I fear, with exposure to the elements.
I received your letter which spoke of the tiny die, your gift. It happens that I know something of knucklebones, for I was accustomed to collect them as a boy, and I learned how they can be weighted, either by nature or by artifice, so as to fall more often on a particular side. I once owned a set of bones that reliably threw a Venus: one, three, four and six. This being the case, I tested your die, the smallest I have ever seen, to learn its peculiarities, but found that it was true, landing one in ten throws on each narrow side, and four in ten on each broad side. Yet when I asked the Goddess whether I should (as I intended) execute the elders of the Veneti so as to prevent any encouragement to rebellion among the other tribes, the die turned up an affirmative six, ten times in a row. Ordinarily I would dismiss divination by dice as superstition, but this phenomenon intrigues me.
My enemies have been quite vocal of late, though Cicero has done good service in keeping them at bay. He is chastened after his exile, poor fellow. The truth is that the Veneti captured some of my officers and had the impertinence to demand their own hostages back in exchange. Had I been weak enough to capitulate, all Gallia would have risen in rebellion, and all my progress to date would have been forfeit.
We have worked it out that Crassus and Magnus will stand as Consuls for next year, and they will extend my command for an additional five years. Crassus will have Syria, and launch his conquest of Parthia, while Magnus will keep Hispania, though I believe he plans to stay in Roma and monitor developments.
I fear that my duties as Pontifex Maximus have been sadly neglected, including the appointment of a new Vestal, a thing which must be performed in person. Before I left for Gallia, I selected a healthy-looking young cousin of Calpurnia to fill the existing vacancy, but another has arisen. You may not have heard of Claudia’s death. When she learned of Volusius’ fate, her mind grew increasingly disturbed, and she insisted to Licinia that she saw his ghost. More recently she claimed to see a certain deceased Vestal, who came to Fabia’s funeral, haunted the temple of the Goddess, and lurked about Claudia’s room at night to steal her personal possessions. This derangement posed an imminent threat to the Republic, for a mad Vestal’s chastity cannot be relied upon. Therefore perhaps it is no misfortune that her maid Mormo found Claudia hanged in her chamber. I have opted for a private funeral, given the unlucky circumstances.
Write to me and say that all is well between us, my light. You may leave a letter at any time with my freedman Gaius Julius Ariston at the Royale.
Gaius Julius Caesar to Lucia, servant of the Goddess, greetings. Having had no letter from you, I pray that you continue in good health and enjoy the light of the sun.
I cast the die in order to have the Goddess’ opinion on whether I ought to make an attempt on Britannia, and at first I thought that your Goddess had turned against me, for although I rolled ten sixes in a row, the expedition proved to be a near-disaster, from which it took all my ingenuity to emerge alive with my men. Nothing can exceed the wild appearance of these Britons, with their long hair and faces dyed blue; I believe they use a pigment of vegetable origin. They drive chariots into battle, very much like the heroes in Homer’s songs. My second expedition was only slightly less arduous, and I resolved not to attempt a full subjugation of the island.
Therefore I was agreeably surprised to learn that the expeditions to Britannia have captured the imagination of the people of Roma, who take great pride in our achievements. I should have liked to reach the western end of the earth, an island called Eriu where the women are even paler than you, and have heads full of extraordinary red curls. Alexandros, after all, reached India before he was thirty, and I, at the advanced age of forty-six, have barely managed to subdue all of Gallia.
It is a painful thing, at my age, to lose my only child. Perhaps news has come to you that Julia died giving birth to my granddaughter, and the infant survived only a few days. Magnus’ grief almost equals my own, for he was besotted with Julia, and she with him. Lucia, you knew her. Pray for my darling and beseech your Goddess to give her rest in whatever afterlife there may be, beyond the loving memories of us who remain. My mother Aurelia too is worthy of your prayers. Though it is natural that the parent leave the light of the sun before the child, I miss her more than I thought possible.
Write to me, my light. You may give your letter to Gaius Julius Ariston at the Royale.
Lucia, servant of the Goddess, to Gaius Julius Caesar, sorrowful greetings.
Surely no letter of consolation on the loss of a child has ever achieved its goal, for not even the golden-tongued Cicero has skill to ease that pain. During her brief life, Julia was the delight of all who knew her. I have visited the Field of Mars to pour libations for Julia and Aurelia. I think of them often, and of Fabia too.
Your exploits in Britannia have silenced your critics for now, although the consul, Ahenobarbus, is envious and bitter, for you and Magnus and Crassus have taken all the rich provinces. The People dream of conquering the island at the end of the world, even as Roma grows more lawless. Clodius’ men remain your partisans, and they battle those of Titus Annius Milo, who takes the banner of Magnus. I do not doubt his grief, but your son-in-law is not to be trusted.
This letter, written by my own hand, I entrust to your freedman Gaius Julius Ariston.
Caesar’s troubles were not over, for Crassus proved incompetent as proconsul of Syria. Jealous of the military glory won by Magnus and Caesar, he crossed the Euphrates to attack the Parthians, but their commander, Surena, crushed his legions. Even the surrender was botched, and Crassus was killed. It was whispered that King Orodes had Crassus’ head used as a prop in a performance of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae. Worst of all was the loss of tens of thousands of men and several gold legionary eagles. The mood in Roma darkened, and the pact of Three Men was dissolved. It was then that Pompeius Magnus began to share the views of the faction who demanded that Caesar lay down his Command, and return to Roma as a private citizen. Without Command, Caesar could be tried for every crime of which Cato accused him. Such was the bad news he received from Roma.
And that was before Vercingetorix began to rouse Gallia to a full-scale rebellion.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: I consider the years from 55 to 49 to have been the most precarious for Caesar, dealing as he was with opposition at home and rebellion in Gallia. A combination of persistence, ruthlessness, shrewdness and luck saw him through.