Chapter 45 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
When Finola finally betrayed us, it was no surprise, but I did not expect to hear the news from her own lips. It was January, and there were no Consuls, for the elections had been twice-delayed due to the fighting between Clodius’ gangs and those of Milo. One day Finola arrived in the First Region kitchen, breathless and bruised yet dry-eyed, to confess to Thana.
“I told Ulf everything,” she said, sounding defiant. “I went to our old flat and and Ulf was there. He asked why he should take me back, what good I was to him, and I said that I knew a secret. A secret that Clodius would be grateful to learn.”
My heart sank at that name, but Thana stayed calm. “Go on, Finola. What did you reveal, and were you believed?”
“Ulf is one of Clodius’ men, and he wants to be given his own squad, so he laid aside his work and listened. I said that we live down here, hundreds of us, with no men to supervise. I told him of the well shafts we use in First and Second Region, and I spoke of the Aventine house.”
At this, cold anger flooded my veins. “Finola, what of your oath? Do you care so little for the Goddess’ vengeance?” I cried, but Thana gripped my arm.
“We need not worry about that now,” she said firmly. “What else, Finola? Did you speak of the other Regions too? The other houses?”
“No, for he had a woman in the back room of the flat. Our neighbor Tyche, screwing my man, in our own bed! I went for her eyes, to scratch them out, and Ulf swung his fist at me. He near knocked my head off my shoulders, and locked me in the back room. When I came to, it was morning. I signaled some friends in the street to bring a ladder so I could climb out the window. Then I ran to the Good Goddess’ shrine.”
“So Ulf has known of this since yesterday,” said Thana. “Would he have gone to Clodius already?”
“I expect so. He planned to take me along today, but now I’ve escaped, he must realize that I came back to sound the alarm. I know I did wrong, but please don’t throw me out. I have no other place to go.” Despite her words, Finola looked far from terrified, and I was not surprised when she added, “If I had some money, I could leave Roma. But if you kick me out, I’d have no choice but to go back and tell him all the rest.”
“I see,” said Thana. “No, child, we will not expel you, though you have done a nefas. Nor will we give you money. You must turn your mind to appeasing the Goddess, for she will surely punish you. Now go and see Atilia about that black eye.”
Thana waited for Finola to get out of earshot, then pulled her token from its pouch. She held it in one hand, eyes closed, rocking her upper body back and forth. She shivered at one point like someone with a fever, and the rocking grew faster. Meanwhile, I tried to calm my anger and fear by taking slow, deep breaths. Finally Thana opened her eyes. “Lucia, you will do as we have agreed, and direct the evacuation.”
Only later did it occur to me that contrary to her usual practice, Thana had revealed neither the question she asked, nor the Goddess’ response.
She had long since tasked me with preparing for the anticipated breach in Romalian security, and I had developed a set of emergency plans whereby the sisters would gather their few belongings at one signal, and evacuate at another with lamps extinguished. Almost all of us could navigate in the dark if necessary, at least along the main tunnels. Those who could not must be led by the hand. Sick and infirm sisters lived either in the healing Shrine of the Good Goddess or in houses upside, so they were as safe as we could make them.
The trickiest part was the avenue of retreat. There were three possibilities. The first was to descend to the lowest tunnels, where pursuit was unlikely, but I did not favor this option, for if we ever faced a truly determined opponent—say, one with Caesar’s iron will—we could lead him straight to the Archive, and that must never be. The second was the traditional method—to withdraw to another part of Romalia. Yet we did not know where the intrusion would happen, or whether there would be multiple attacks. Both Thana’s efforts and my own to consult the Goddess on this crucial question had been met with frustrating silence.
I chose Region Four as the place of retreat in an emergency, for it was most remote, had the fewest entrances, and could be shut off from the rest by the Great Wheel. This plan had the added advantage of protecting our flocks from observation. True, the mushroom farms could not be concealed, but I thought it likely that intruders would attribute them to upsiders. A third option was suggested by Dru.
“It’s simple, Lucia,” she had told me. “Have them come upside. They can hide in plain sight and disappear into the crowds.”
Thus I planned in advance: women in our houses upside must reinforce their doors and keep them barred at all times until the danger was past. If Clodius’ men broke in, the women were to disavow knowledge of the tunnel entrances; these were well-hidden in some cases and less so in others. Everyone in Romalia was to retreat to Fourth Region via the tunnels, unless it was clearly safer and faster to flee upside. In that case, they could wander the streets until dark, then gather at meeting points chosen by Dru. If she pronounced it safe, they would enter Region Four from above.
I was gambling everything on the security of Region Four, yet if Finola was telling the truth, this was our best choice. The only other option was a general evacuation upside, which could send fleeing sisters directly into the path of men coming down.
While the sisters gathered the foodstuffs and utensils from the kitchen into net bags for transport, I found Didia, the best crotala player in Region One. She unhooked the instrument from her belt and tapped out the message, then repeated it. We both heard the faint echo as the signal was sent further down the tunnels. I had visions of helpless sisters rushing into the arms of Clodius’ vicious thugs, and pictured them all as twins of the nameless man who had attacked me beneath Torquatus’ house on the Palatine.
The die has been cast, I thought. On which side will it fall?
I turned to Thana. “Will you go upside now, to help Caecilia prepare in case they get into the Aventine house? They’re most likely to start in First Region. I’ll stay and watch to see how far they penetrate. I know every inch of Romalia and I can keep out of range of their torches.”
Thana’s smile was one I recognized, the one that meant Of course not, child. She said, “You have done very well, Lucia. And… there is something you may not have thought of. Once Ulf reports the information to Clodius, it will be passed around among the men, and the threat will grow.”
“Yes,” I replied. It was true, and a cause for great concern. “But there is nothing we can do.”
“There is the teaching of Egeria,” said Thana. “Do you remember? 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.’” She seized a carving knife from the meager pile of cooking utensils and thrust it into her belt.
“No!” The sinews in my chest grew taut, straining to contain my thudding heart. “That teaching was for Roma, not for us. Please don’t do this, Thana! I still need you!”
“The teaching was for the city,” said Thana, “and we too are a city. Of free women.”
“But… we don’t know where they will enter.” Even as my lips formed the words, I knew what she would say.
“Lucia, the Goddess has spoken at last. They have rejected, for now, the idea of breaking into the Aventine house. Instead, they will enter First Region by the well-shaft on Tanner Road, and Second Region through the sewer entrance near Cicero’s house.” Clodius had burned his enemy’s house, and set up a “Shrine to Liberty” on the site, but once the great orator was recalled, he had successfully sued to recover the property. “I must hurry. They’re coming soon.”
She left the kitchen, not bothering with a lamp. I stayed behind long enough to have Didia tap out an intruder message for the two entrances, then hurried into the tunnels. Moving toward Tanner Road, I passed groups of women carrying bundles of fleeces, chamber pots, and other odds and ends: a net bag full of empty lamps, a pickaxe, a length of rope. Like me, most were already wearing all the clothes they owned, in double or triple layers; we had been dressing this way for weeks. They called out that Thana was traveling in the wrong direction, and that she had ignored their warnings.
A few minutes away from the Tanner Road shaft, I found myself in complete darkness. The bustle of evacuation had passed. A few steps from me, Thana was praying in her familiar, sonorous voice.
“Divine Manes, spirits of the dead who inhabit Romalia, and you, Goddess, who rule earth and air and fire and water, you whose power extends over us and over our enemies, I revere you. I beseech you to rescue and preserve Romalia from those who would take our freedom. As I pronounce these words, I devote every man of the enemy who knows of our existence, together with myself, to the Divine Manes and the Goddess.”
It was done. Once such words were spoken, they could not be called back. Thana moved in near-silence toward the shaft, and I followed. Soon we heard men’s voices and their grunts as they were lowered on a rope and squeezed through the narrow entry window. There was cursing as one man was singed by the flames of another’s torch, and his own fell into the depths.
They had only one torch, but it was much brighter than our lamps, and I moved back to stay out of sight. Thana, however, stepped forward, holding the knife so that it was concealed.
“Leave this place,” she commanded. “You stand on forbidden ground.”
One of the men was huge and yellow-haired. Two others stood behind him, and from the sounds around the shaft, more seemed to be descending.
“So it’s true,” said Yellow-Hair. He spoke Latin with a noticeable accent. “That little cunt was telling the truth. Clodius will have to listen to me now.”
“This is the sanctuary of the Goddess, and I am her servant,” said Thana. “Your presence here is nefas. I am warning you to leave now.”
So authoritative was Thana that the two smaller, darker men looked uncertain, but Ulf laughed. “Finola told me how it was. You’ve all escaped your men, like she has. You’re out of control, and harboring a lot of runaway slaves.”
Reassured, the smaller men nodded. “You haven’t been properly looked after,” said one, a large-nosed, balding fellow. “Come, mother, let us take you back up. Don’t put up a fight.”
Thana ignored him and continued to stare at Ulf. “I curse you and I hand you over to the Goddess for punishment,” she said. He reacted by raising a fist to strike her, but in one quick movement she slashed across his chest with the knife. Ulf screamed in pain and seized Thana, who made no resistance. He already had his long knife out, and he yanked her head up, drawing the blade across her throat.
I had intended to stay quietly out of sight, but I must have let out a terrible scream, for they started and swiveled around to stare at me. Ulf allowed Thana to sag to the ground, as the lifeblood spurted from her throat in rhythmic gushings. I took a few faltering steps into the circle of light, then rushed to kneel at her side. The light was already gone from her eyes—so quickly does such a wound drain away the vital spirit.
“No, no, no, no!” I muttered. I began to keen as Andromeda once did, when she mourned for me.
My arms were grasped by the two smaller men, but not violently. I was turned to face Ulf, who looked furious. He was soaked in blood, both his and Thana’s, and clearly in pain.
“Where are the rest of you?” he grated out between clenched teeth. “Show me where the others are hiding, woman, or you’ll be the worse for it.”
“Leave this place,” I told him. “You stand on forbidden ground.”
Ulf groaned and slapped me with his massive hand, bloody as a slab of beef.
“Now then, Ulf,” said one of his companions in a coaxing voice. “Now then, that’s a deep cut you have. Let’s get you bandaged.”
Other men were arriving, and catching sight of the blood, they exclaimed in dismay. “Did he just do this old woman? A fine warrior you are, Ulf!”
“Jupiter’s tits!” spat another, a tall man with a head of black curls. He shook his head at the carnage, then turned to me. “Woman, state your name.”
I drew myself up to my full height, which is not much, and glared in turn at each of the men holding my arms, until they released me. Only then did I answer Curly-Hair. I spoke in the voice I once employed as a Vestal, when I uttered the prayers for the Senate and People before hushed crowds. “This is the sanctuary of the Goddess and I am her servant. Your presence here is nefas. Furthermore, your man here has just murdered a citizen woman. You will pay for this with your lives.”
They looked at each other, doubtful now. The speech of the Senatorial class was familiar to their ears. No doubt Clodius spoke in the same accent, and they had heard orations delivered from the Prows in the Forum. More than one now cast a baleful glance at Ulf, who glared at me.
Before he could say anything, there was an uproar of shouting men from the well-shaft. “To Clodius, to Clodius!” Curly-Hair ran back to the shaft and conferred with someone above. The message was audible to the knot of men around me. Clodius had been traveling on the Appian Way with an entourage of armed men, when he happened to pass Milo and his escort coming in the other direction. A fight broke out, and Clodius was hit by a javelin. He had retreated to an inn to nurse his wound.
“Move out,” said Curly-Hair to the rest in a voice of command, and to Ulf, “We’ll sort this another time.”
Ulf narrowed his eyes. “We shouldn’t leave her here.” It was plain that he wanted to kill me, so that I could not identify him later.
But Curly-Hair was adamant. “If this woman is telling the truth, and you off her as well, I’ll testify against you myself. Get your arse out of here now. It’s war, man, war on Milo!” Within two minutes they were gone. I was left in darkness and silence, beside Thana’s body.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The part about Clodius and Milo getting into a fight is accurate. This happened in 52 BCE.