Chapter 49 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Gaius Julius Caesar to Lucia, Servant of the Goddess, greetings from Ravenna in Nearer Gallia; may good health attend you, and may you look on the light of the sun, or at the very least, the stars.
I have become accustomed to speak with everyone I know by letters alone, but I should much prefer to see certain correspondents in person. Once, during the contest with Vercingetorix, I dreamt that you frowned and shook your finger at me in outrage. Write to me and say that you are not angry, and would not have me return in disgrace, to be stripped of all I own, and exiled by the likes of Cato and the proud Ahenobarbus! Both hate me only slightly more than they despise my old friend Magnus.
Fortunately I have friends at Roma among the Tribunes of the People. I believe that you met young Marcus Antonius once, at a banquet when I served as aedile. Age has done nothing to subdue his wild appetites, but he is a loyal friend.
I have offered to give up all but one legion and Nearer Gallia, yet Cato will not be satisfied until he sees me in rags—or chains. Soon I must decide whether to attempt a flight to the moon, but truth be told, I would be satisfied merely to glide in the aether. I have vowed a temple to Venus, the Originator of my lineage. May your Goddess smile upon me as I cast the die.
When Caesar crossed a ruddy little stream in January, and his horse trod Italian soil again, he caused jubilation among the People, and panic in the Senate. By the time Roma learned that Caesar led only one legion toward Roma, and not the rumored four, Pompeius Magnus had already fled, greatly injuring his reputation for valor. The “Best Men,” as they called themselves, ran like startled hares. Even Cato preferred to flee rather than negotiate from a position of weakness. Ahenobarbus fought and was easily defeated; Caesar took pleasure in pardoning him. Then he pursued Magnus to Brundisium, intent on renewing their old alliance. By this point, Magnus believed his own propaganda. He insisted that Caesar was an outlaw, and saw no irony in demanding unconditional surrender from an opponent who was now master of all Italia.
I had feared that the civil war would bloody the streets of Roma, but Caesar was anxious to avoid the example set by the Dictator Sulla and, if truth be told, by Magnus himself, who had been nicknamed “the young butcher” in those dark days. Caesar drew up no kill lists, and he pardoned many a man who, like the craven Ahenobarbus, immediately set out to hinder him anew. He kept the fighting away from Roma, and would not permit his legions to pillage Italian towns.
When he set foot again in Roma, it was in such haste that most of the People did not realize he had arrived. I heard later that he had stayed only long enough to raid the treasury in the Temple of Saturn, removing vast reserves of gold and silver. Then he marched six legions off to Hispania to deal with Magnus’ men. Since Magnus had fled to Epirus, Caesar joked that his task was simple: in Hispania he would face an army without a general, and in Epirus, a general without an army. It was not until the autumn that I saw him again. I stood among the cheering throng and watched as he rode on the Sacred Way through the Forum, and mounted the Capitoline Hill where he gave thanks to Jupiter Best and Greatest. He was appointed Dictator for eleven days, long enough to be elected Consul together with his friend Isauricus. There were no other candidates.
I had no expectation of meeting him, and assumed that he would be mobbed day and night by petitioners, clients, messengers, and not a few old lovers. Then too, he would surely devote any free time to his wife Calpurnia and his father-in-law Piso. Therefore I was surprised to find a note in the chamber beneath the Shrine of Plenty, requesting that I present myself at the Royale two days before the Ides, in the early morning. Just as you did before, he wrote. I will await you in the second hour before dawn.
Once again, Caesar helped me off the ladder and replaced the grille. To my surprise, he embraced me and kissed both my cheeks. The tiny courtyard was lit only by his lamp, and we stood in the dim light, assessing the changes in each other. “Ten years,” I said.
“You have changed little. What is your age now, Lucia?”
“I am nearly thirty-two.” Caesar had been in his thirties when I met him. Now he was fifty-one, lean and weather-worn, with lines around his mouth, and hollows beneath sharp cheekbones.
“Surely I look different to you,” he stated, smiling.
“You have less hair,” I said with brutal candor, for he was known to be vain about his receding hairline. In fact, I thought that he had hardly changed. He was like a bronze vessel which acquires a few dents over the years, and a patina from much rubbing with wool, but retains the integrity of its substance.
He laughed. “This is why I wanted to see you. Half the people around me are flatterers hoping to gain some advantage, and the other half grovel with fear. I was in need of a bracing tonic.”
I myself needed one of Atilia’s soothing possets, for his presence affected me as always, making my pulse race and my cheeks flush.
“Come,” he said, picking up the lamp. “We have a little time before dawn.” He led me to his office, which was exactly as I remembered, down to the boxes of inkwells and piles of waxed tablets. Just as before, he cleared a curule chair so I could sit.
“Why did you really wish to see me?” I asked.
“I wanted to assure myself that you are well,” he said. I must have looked skeptical, for he insisted, “Indeed I did, Lucia! But it is more than that. I have been thinking of the days before I left for Gallia. As a Vestal, you were the essence of the Republic in my eyes. Yet I buried you.”
“You left hope for my survival.”
“Yes, just as there is still hope for the Republic. Since my return, I have felt… out of place. I was away so long, and everything I did was to secure my position here, and to magnify the glory of Roma. But now that I have come home at last, I feel like a stranger.”
“I had a vision of Gallia, during the rebellion, and I thought you were a stranger then,” I admitted. “I raged against the carnage. The burning of the fields, the slaughter of children!”
He nodded, meeting my accusing gaze. “Neither Roma nor I can brook rebellion,” he stated with finality. “Vercingetorix did not scruple to shield himself behind Gaulish women and children. At the seige of Alesia, he sent them out, hoping we would let them pass, yet he did so in order to give his men more food, and more time. To turn my mercy to his advantage. But I did not let them pass. I told Vercingetorix that he must take them back into the city, to share whatever food and fate were stored up for him. He refused, and they slowly starved, trapped in the space between the walls and our legions.”
“Roma extorts a heinous price for the peace it brings to its dominions,” I said bitterly. “The Goddess knows this, but she cares only for Italia, and for Roma.”
“The divine ones are partial, Lucia, just as we are,” said Caesar. “I have been Pontifex Maximus for most of my life, and this much I know. Perhaps I am superstitious, but I have felt them, from time to time. Venus has long favored me with good luck. And this Goddess of yours—I think I saw her, when I crossed the Rubicon. There was a mist, which resolved itself into a female form, and she beckoned to me.”
“Was she beautiful, with arched eyebrows and a shimmering gown?”
“She reminded me of my mother,” said Caesar drily.
“She is your foremother,” I told him. “You always say that she is my Goddess, but she is yours too—or you are hers. You are no stranger here, Gaius. I think she was welcoming you back to Italia.”
“I won’t be here long,” he replied. “I must go after Magnus, and quickly. He’s trying to assemble an army in the East.”
“Go, and return,” I said. “You are worth more to Roma than a dozen of him.”
“My light!” he cried triumphantly. “You have forgiven me at last!” He took me in his arms and held me against his chest. His heart beat against my cheek. We stood there in silence for a time, and I breathed in his cedar-wood scent. In truth, I had long ago forgiven his offense against me, but now the rain of blood in Gallia lay between us. That was not mine to forgive, and those who might have pardoned him were dead, having returned to the bosom of their Goddess.
Thus we parted, I for Romalia, and he for the labors that lay ahead.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Caesar is famously supposed to have said “Alea iacta est,” “The die has been cast,” when he crossed the Rubicon river, the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. There are various fanciful reports that a vision appeared to him at that time. In Lucan’s Pharsalia, Caesar has a vision of the goddess Roma in which she warns him not to cross the river unlawfully.
During a turbulent time in my life, I myself once had a dream in which a young woman named Alea was washed off a boardwalk by a great wave. After I woke up, I realized that it was a very literal way of reading Caesar’s line: “Alea has been cast away.” So the episode of crossing the Rubicon always had a special meaning for me.