, , , ,

Chapter 47 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.

Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul, an 1875 painting by Adolphe Yvon.

It was Dru’s role to convene the Assembly of the Sisters of Romalia, which met whenever a Counselor died or retired. The venue was the cavern of the Shrine Beneath the Rocks, the only space in Romalia large enough to accommodate all the sisters—or nearly all, for those who had chosen a life of contemplation, like Camerina, avoided politics.

The last Assembly had met eleven years before, when Thana experienced a recurring dream in which she foresaw my execution and burial. When she consulted the Goddess on whether the sisters ought to concern themselves with a condemned Vestal, she was told Do not allow the flame to be extinguished, for a flame is a guide in the darkness. Thana was confident that the Goddess’ message instructed the sisters to rescue me, but considering the risk involved in interfering with Roman affairs, she had deemed it prudent to convene the Assembly and put the question to them.

Thus it was that the sisters voted to rescue me, just as they had chosen, long ago, to rescue Caesar from the Dictator Sulla’s vengeance. Thana strongly believed that I would one day be Counselor, and she had treated me as a sort of apprentice, entrusting me with great responsibility. Still, the election was no foregone conclusion, as Dru explained. “Theodora wanted to be Counselor almost as soon as she arrived here. She’ll surely run against you.”

My first impulse was to say “Let the burden pass to her; I don’t want it!” In earlier days, I would quickly have yielded to Theodora, who was older and far more experienced. Yet I was still sworn to Our Divine Lady, and she had foretold my service.

“Perhaps it is not yet my time to lead,” I reasoned. “What do you advise, Dru?”

Dru raised an eyebrow. “What would Thana say?”

“Always consult the Goddess!” we said in unison, and laughed.

“I will sleep in the shrine of Consus tonight,” I assured her. “But Dru, what do you want? Would you prefer Theodora?”

“I would not,” she replied. “I surprise myself, for you know so little of the world, Lucia. I used to think you belonged in the Archive with Camerina, reading your old books. But you are well-named. There is a light in you, and it comes from the Goddess. I believe that you would give your life for Romalia, as Thana did. I am far from certain that Theodora would do the same.”

That night, Arntha helped me move the wheel in the shrine of Consus. After long experience sleeping in the shrine, I had learned to bring fleeces, in case the Goddess failed to shed her own warmth on me. This time, I did not lie down in the shallow pit immediately, but extinguished my lamp and sat brooding, with my back to the cold wall. I was still mourning Thana, and the idea that I could somehow take her place seemed ludicrous. Then too, I wanted no conflict with Theodora. Truth be told, I found her intimidating because of her great size and strength, yet these were qualities to be valued in a community of women. Theodora could easily have shifted Consus’ wheel from its base, whereas I could only do so with great exertion, or the help of my friends. Most of our life in Romalia depended on physical labor, the daily tasks of transport, cooking, cleaning, and tending fires. I prided myself on my fire-tending skills, and never scorned menial chores, but I could not run a mushroom farm or herd goats on my own. I had failed to acquire the knack of cooking tasty meals, and the mules tolerated rather than liked me.

“How can I ask for their votes?” I said into the inky darkness. Though I felt no sign of the Goddess’ presence, sometimes it helped to speak to her aloud. The divine ones can hear thoughts when they need to, but they arrive far more often when we call to them, just as friends respond to an invitation.

Sighing, I inched my way over to the pit and arranged myself in its chilly embrace. “I am planting myself here,” I declared, “like a seed in the cold ground.”

“Yes, for you are a seed of the Goddess, just as I am. And the cold Earth is the seed’s safest bed.”

It was a male voice, light and musical. At the sound, delicate white tendrils sprouted around me, straining upward through dark soil toward the warmth above, and drawing nourishment from the cool moisture below. They burst forth into the light as serried rows of standing green blades. Consus, the Sown One!

“Lord who feeds and preserves us, all honor to you,” I said. “How may I serve you?”

“By serving the Goddess,” he said, simply.

“I thought I saw you with Her once, the first time I came here. Are you of Her kind, then?”

The blades of green grew taller and thicker, forming a dense grassy thatch. “I arise from Her substance, and our loving union engenders the barley, the millet, the emmer, the spelt. When I awoke, the Goddess was already here, and so was your race, the people of this land who cultivate and honor me.”

“What of Ceres then? The Romans sacrifice to her for the sake of the crops.”

“Ceres teaches the yoking of oxen, the ploughing of the furrow, the sowing, harvest and winnowing. But I am the Sown One.”

“And in our granaries you give prosperity,” I responded, remembering a line from the prayers of the Consualia. Now the green stalks formed tufted yellow heads, swaying in the wind, while the milky roots grew profuse and tangled in their secret beds. “The farmers say that you also give advice. Have you other words for me?”

“The Goddess is full of anxiety for Her scion Gaius Julius Caesar,” said Consus. “The Gauls rebel. See what goes on in that land, where one like our Goddess urges Vercingetorix on to battle.”

Now the long stalks with their heavy yellow heads of grain were enveloped in red flames, grew charred, and fell to ash. I saw the Gauls burning their own crops and villages as they fell back before Caesar’s furious onslaught. Caesar’s men too put torches to the fields, to punish thousands with starvation. And everywhere, a steady rain of blood moistened the land, while the skies echoed with cries of agony. Women begged for mercy as Roman legionaries beat, raped and killed them. Children screamed as they were cut down by swords like hay being scythed. Gallic men’s throats were cut, and the blood rained on, and the earth was saturated.

“Stop! Please, oh, please! I cannot bear it.” I tried to close or cover my eyes, but the images flowed through me indelibly, on and on. At last the blood faded to a trickle. All I could see were fields of ash and mud.

“There will be no harvest this year,” said Consus sadly.

“How can he do this? It is a great nefas! How can the Goddess allow it?” I writhed and shook in my cold bed of stone. “Is this what she wants?”

“No, She looks farther ahead,” the god replied. “See, Lucia, if Caesar prevails, here is Gallia in a hundred turnings of the year.” Now I swooped and soared like a bird of prey, high above the earth, over vast fields of swaying gold, cities of stone with Roman temples and public buildings of gleaming marble, Roman roads crossing the landscape, vines laden heavy with grapes.

“This cannot undo a great nefas,” I insisted. “Surely it is better if Caesar fails!”

“In that case, the Goddess foresees that Roma begins its descent. Other provinces rebel, starting with Hispania. The Senate divides itself and the remaining provinces battle one another. The warriors of Gallia and Germania briefly unite, and Roma is overrun.”

“And in a hundred years, will there be peace and golden crops under Gallic or Germanic rule?”

“No, in that case the branch of Gallia remains as it is now, with many warring tribes.”

“What would you do?” I asked. “If you had to choose?”

“I would choose the path with the most harvests,” he replied. “But I would not forget the year of the burning.”

I must have slept then. I awoke in the dark—aching, chilled, and parched with thirst. I lit a lamp and made my way to Second Region for a hot bath, still haunted by visions of agony. It was a long time before I could sleep through the night again.

Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss

Historical note: Julius Caesar has been accused of inflicting a genocide on Gaul. It cannot be doubted that as a conqueror, he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. However, the UN definition of “genocide” includes intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. On this charge, Caesar is guilty in the sense that he punished certain tribes by wholesale slaughter of the men and enslavement of the women. Yet his intent was never to wipe out the Gauls, nor was it motivated by hatred. He intended them to become prosperous subjects of the Roman imperium, and pay lots of taxes. Eventually, that is what happened–to the ones who survived. Caesar’s conquest put an end to the inter-tribal wars in Gaul, but it was also the end of their freedom. My depiction of Lucia’s dream vision is an attempt to address these difficult issues.