Chapter 48 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
“Goddess! I now open the thirty-fifth Assembly of the Sisters of Romalia. We are convened to elect a Counselor to succeed our sister Thana. Let all who vote do so in the knowledge that your action is visible to Our Divine Lady, and let all respect the customs of our holy Assembly.”
Those were Dru’s words to the crowd in the torch-lit Cavern Beneath the Rocks, the first I had ever witnessed despite my ten years downside. Assemblies of Romalia happen only at long intervals. Thus in all the history of Romalia, since the days of Opimia and Floronia, this was only the thirty-fifth meeting.
The sisters standing around me like Roman lictors were all from First and Fourth Region. Anna was there, and Camerina’s daughter Amata, who had become a regular companion. Eighteen now, she found in me a willing audience for all the details of the boy and girl in her dream visions, though nobody else would listen to her stories.
“Let candidates for the office of Counselor step forward and mount the dais,” said Dru. This was the part I dreaded: I would have to make a speech. I had spoken in public many times as a Vestal, but always the prayers were carefully memorized. This time, I was expected to compose the speech myself, just as the orators upside did, and to rebut the arguments of any other candidates.
Anna said, “This is it! Goddess be with you.” When I hesitated, she gave me a little shove. I walked to the outcropping of rock which formed a natural dais, and climbed up awkwardly, because of my small size. Theodora, whose supporters included a crowd from Second Region, bounded onto the dais in one energetic step. A few other groups in the cavern stirred and whispered, but nobody else came forward. I gave Theodora a wary smile, and she grinned back at me.
Dru held out two straws, and Theodora drew the long one, which meant that she would speak first.
“You all know me,” she began in her deep, resonant voice. “I have lived among you for more than twelve years, sharing my knowledge on the farms. It was thanks to me that the Second Region farm was saved from a blight, and I have improved each of the others. This is the work of a Counselor. Without disrespect to Lucia, she is young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been secluded as a Vestal Virgin. Where she has never even left Roma, I have lived across the sea and met all sorts of people. I will be a Counselor in Dru’s mold, active and enterprising. I put it to you that it is time for change here. We have great resources, yet we live simple lives with few comforts. Why should we suffer privation when thousands of denarii are stored away? I propose a monthly allowance to each Romalian sister, five sestertii!”
A cry of approval went up from the Second Region group, and there was an excited murmuring among the others. Theodora went on to say more about her former life as a man, when she had learned to fight for what she believed in. “Instead of running away when intruders enter, we ought to engage them and wipe them out. If they never return to tell tales about us, we will be that much safer. I propose that we invest in a high-quality arsenal. As Counselor, I will train the younger sisters in martial skills and tactics. All for Romalia!” she cried, “All for Romalia!”
Theodora’s chant was quickly taken up by her faction, but looking around the cavern, I saw uncertainty. It was my turn to speak. Scores of expectant faces looked up at me from the cavern floor.
“Our fallen leader Thana had a saying,” I began. “In our simplicity lies our freedom. The best argument for simplicity is the ability to live invisibly, as we do, in the midst of Roma. My worthy friend Theodora has done much to improve our farms, yet still we depend upon Romans for food and clothing and tools. The Goddess has ordained that our lives are entwined with theirs.
“The wise men of the Greeks hold that simplicity is a virtue in itself, and many of us value a life free from the desire for possessions. Thana kept to this principle, not even counting her life as her own, but giving it freely for our sakes. Yet when did she ever refuse a request? If a sister fell ill and Atilia prescribed costly treatments, or if the elderly and infirm among us needed to live upside in greater comfort, did Thana not give gladly of our common resources?”
I saw heads nodding, for what I spoke was true, and they all knew it. “When I was reborn here among you, I had only a small bag of possessions from my former life, which was lived in great luxury. That bag lies untouched in the vault of my burial, except for one item, a necklace of pearl and coral. I wore it when I first went upside on Romalian business, posing as a Roman matron. It is worth five hundred denarii at least, yet I treasure it as a legacy from my best friend, a young woman who was kind to me when I was a lonely child. I see now that I have been wrong to keep it, for I was unwilling to leave behind that former life entirely. I give it now to Romalia, to be added to our savings.”
The sisters of Fourth Region cheered loudly, and the others less so, but I could see that they were intent on my message.
“What Theodora says is true: I know little of the wider world and have not traveled. Yet I know more than she of the public men of Roma, and I say to you now that we face a time of great danger! Gaius Julius Caesar is in Nearer Gallia, attempting to win a Consulship from afar, while Pompeius Magnus, Cato and the Senate demand that he lay down his Command and submit to them. Caesar spent the past year suppressing the rebellious Gauls with dire bloodshed. He did not shirk from killing women and children.” I paused to let this sink in. “Do you not see that civil war returns? What do you think would happen if soldiers of Caesar or Magnus believed that their opponents were lurking in the tunnels—if they sent men down here who never returned? Sisters! We would be exterminated.”
Excited chatter broke out at this, but I extended both hands to the crowd, and they fell silent. “We must never underestimate the ruthlessness of Roman men, nor their determination to suppress our freedom. Yet we depend on Roma for our own existence. If you allow me to guide you, I can safeguard both, with the help of the Goddess.”
This time the cheers were unified. Theodora, less confident now but still determined, rebutted my speech by insisting that if we were to face Roman legionaries in the tunnels, it was she who knew best how to deal with them. She was repeating her promise of a monthly allowance when a low rumbling noise began to resound through the cavern. In another moment, we all felt the earth shaking. Dust was dislodged from the roof of the cavern. There were screams, and sisters pushed each other, struggling toward the exit to reach the higher chambers. I prayed, begging the Goddess for mercy and clutching my token pouch, which felt red-hot, like a spearhead fresh from the anvil. The sound and the vibration ceased, as suddenly as they had begun. Dru called for silence, and when her cries were ignored, I joined her from the dais, for I knew what had happened. “Sisters! Sisters! You are safe. You are safe, now. Listen! The Goddess has spoken.”
Slowly they looked up again, with dazed expressions. “The Goddess has avenged herself on our sister who was foresworn, Finola of Second Region,” I explained. “While we were gathered here in Assembly, Finola sought the new tunnel, the one leading to the Capena Gate. She intended to steal the golden tablets of Egeria, which we replaced there after we copied them. The tunnel has collapsed on Finola, and she has paid the price for her treachery, yet now the earthquake subsides. The Goddess is satisfied.” My words hung in the silence of the cavern for a moment; then the sisters broke into a loud babble of excited talk.
At a Roman election, citizens divide up into their respective tribes and cast wax ballots. We Romalians line up by Regions and collect beans from tabulators, a different type for each candidate. Then we drop the bean of our choice into a jug. As the convening Counselor, Dru was not allowed to make a speech in support of either candidate, but she did have the privilege of voting first. She made her preference clear by skipping the first tabulator, who held Theodora’s jar of fava beans, and moving straight to the second, to receive one of my dried chickpeas. This touched me and I smiled, thinking of Marcus Tullius Cicero, whose name meant “chickpea.”
“Had Cicero witnessed my speech, he would have been quite dismissive,” I told Dru after I voted.
“I disagree,” she replied. “He respects success won by words and principles rather than bribes. He would have been proud of you.”
“I don’t yet know whether it was a success,” I pointed out.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss