Chapter 46 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
It seemed to be the end of everything I loved. Our secret was known, and Thana lay beside me in a pool of blood. The grief and shock were too fresh for tears, but I spoke prayers, and arranged my friend’s body in a more dignified position, with her hands folded over her chest. It felt wrong to leave her, yet I knew that I had to get to the Palatine as quickly as possible, and assess the severity of the intrusion beneath Cicero’s house.
I kissed Thana’s forehead and rose, calculating the shortest route. After twenty minutes, I knew I was close, but there were no torches, no shouting men. I stopped to listen. There was only a sniffling noise, the sound of a woman’s quiet weeping.
“It’s Lucia,” I said. “Where are you, sister? Are you hurt?”
“I’m here, Lucia.”
“Anna?” I found her sitting against the tunnel wall, and extending my hands to touch her, I realized that she was holding Cerberus. He was very still.
“Tell me, sister.”
“When they were ready to move the Great Wheel, I realized that Cerberus was gone. It was so unlike him… usually he’s at the center of action, and he loves the mules. I knew he’d left Fourth Region, so I stayed outside when they moved the Wheel. Laelia is angry at me, for I caused a delay. I figured he was nearby, since he likes to keep track of me and rarely strays far.” Her voice broke and she sobbed again.
“Is he dead?” I asked gently.
“I’m not sure. I think he’s dying.”
“Let’s keep you both warm.” I removed the fleece cloak I was wearing and folded it around her shoulders and arms, enveloping the little dog as best I could in the dark. Cerberus stirred a little then, and whimpered.
“He’s hurt, but he knows you’re with him, and he’s safe now,” I said. “Anna, tell me what happened.”
“When I couldn’t find him right away, I began to fear that he knew somehow—that he’d sensed the intruders and gone toward the Palatine. I’d heard the crotala—the signal said they would come here. So I ran all the way. Men with torches had entered from the sewer. They were shouting something about Clodius. Cerberus was right ahead of me, and he attacked. He bit one on the leg, and the man kicked out, hard. Cerberus got crushed against the wall, and he screamed in pain. I ran to him and the men saw me, but they were leaving. They said they’d be back.” She sniffled again. “Lucia? You smell like blood.”
“Thana is dead,” I told her. The words sounded like nonsense, so new and strange was the idea of Romalia without its venerable Tuscan Counselor. “She went to meet them and sacrificed herself. Clodius may be dead too. That’s why the men left in such a hurry.”
Later we learned that Publius Clodius Pulcher, who once violated the sanctity of holy rites, had indeed paid his debt to the Goddess. It was no coincidence, people said, that the scuffle broke out just as his escort was passing the Good Goddess’ shrine on the Appian Way. As the wounded Clodius escaped to an inn, Milo’s gladiators battled the Tribune’s armed slaves. At last, they broke through and finished Clodius off. Milo had the corpse of his rival cast naked into the road.
That was the signal for days of rioting, and all-out war between the gangs. Casualties were high. A great mob of Clodius’ men, thirsty for vengeance, carried his body to the Senate House and burned the structure to the ground, turning it into a funeral pyre. Roma was descending into anarchy. The Senate passed the Ultimate Decree, awarding a sole Consulship to Magnus in the hope that he could restore order.
Now I understood that Thana had anticipated all of this. She had devoted herself to the Manes and the Goddess together with “every man of the enemy who knows of our existence,” and many had died in the battles with Milo, or been cut down by Magnus’ troops as they suppressed the riots.
As for Cerberus, he was not destined to die that day. Anna and I took him to the Shrine Beneath the Rocks, where Atilia accepted him as another of her patients. At first he was unable to move the lower parts of his body, and he was nursed by the sisters along with several women who were paralyzed and incontinent. The Goddess ignored all attempts at consultation, and I had no hope, for Cerberus was more than ten years old. Then one day Anna met me, smiling through tears and clutching her token pouch. “Cerberus will die at his own proper time. Not the time they chose.”
Gradually, the little dog recovered, and Atilia said that his spinal injury was not the kind that brings permanent loss of movement. He enjoyed two more years of good health, looking after the goats and being fêted as a hero by his many admirers, before he passed away, sleeping beside Anna in Fourth Region.
Thana’s funeral was a spare but heartfelt affair. We carried her in slow procession to the First Region burial chamber, amid beautiful song. Unlike the people of Roma, we do not burn our dead, but lay them to rest in the deep tunnels. In the month of Februarius, we visit their chambers to pray and sing anew. Dru delivered her eulogy, beginning with the traditional words: “And now the Goddess who gave Thana’s body takes it back.”
Dru told how Thana had arrived in Romalia ten years before the Dictator Sulla’s triumph, and stood for election as Counselor in the year after it. She was born in the Tuscan city of Volsinii. Though Roma had razed and resettled the city, old ways persisted, and ancient teachings were passed down. Thana emigrated to Roma as the young wife of Arnth Lesnies, a diviner who specialized in sacrificial readings. Roman magistrates sometimes call upon the great expertise of these Tuscans, though they are excluded from all offices of authority. Yet the Romans never think of consulting Tuscan female diviners, so they failed to realize that Thana’s skills exceeded those of Arnth. Thana struck up a friendship with Bantia, an older woman who also haunted the bookstalls in Tuscan Street in the Forum. When Thana was widowed, and at a loss for employment, Bantia told her of a place where a woman might live a simple but free life, communing with the Goddess.
“On the day of Thana’s death,” concluded Dru, “she completed thirty years of service to the Goddess. She always said that her first term as Counselor was spent learning, her second was occupied with leadership, and her third was devoted to teaching.” This made me weep, for thirty years was the period of service allotted to the Vestals.
To my relief, Finola stayed away from the obsequies. I supposed that she was ashamed of the nefas which had led to Thana’s death, or alternatively, that she had gone to look for Ulf.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: It was said by Plutarch and others that a new Vestal spent her first ten years learning the duties, her second decade performing them, and her third teaching them. I am skeptical about the literal truth of this, but no doubt it was part of the lore surrounding the Vestals. Much of that lore has seeped into the customs of the Romalian sisters, founded as they were by two Vestals.