Chapter 52 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s return brought the rule of law, and once the wild street parties concluded, life for us in Romalia became safer. The extensive new construction above Third Region required us to avoid certain routes for a time, but the lack of intrusions made me wonder whether Caesar had instructed his aediles not to investigate the tunnels. The market for redcap mushrooms soared with the influx of new senators into Roma, for Caesar had repaired the losses to that body by adding many of his old allies from Nearer Gallia. Henceforth, all Italian men were to be citizens, and many aristocratic provincials, whom Caesar deemed assets to the Republic, were likewise rewarded.
The great calendar reform, which he had planned long ago, was instituted at last. The current year was stretched to 445 days in order to align Roma’s calendar with the Sun and constellations, and the People delighted in repeating Cicero’s moody remark that even the Lyre rose and set by Caesar’s decree. Starting in January, the new calendar would have 365 days, with an extra day each fourth year. A wall was set up in the Forum, on which Romans could survey the entire year, and all the holidays, together with the fasti and nefasti, days when business was conducted or forbidden. Well before the Kalends of January, however, Caesar himself left for Hispania, to deal with Magnus’ sons and Labienus, the last remnants of the Senatorial faction.
I applied myself to the familiar round of daily tasks, and circulated about the Regions, as Thana had before me, sharing meals and song nights. Amata kept me up to date on the doings of Octavius and Octavia, the young people who figured in her dream visions. (Octavia now had three young children, and the teenaged Octavius was engaged in priestly pursuits, perhaps even in Roma, she thought.) Sometimes I was asked to settle disputes, and there were always the accounts to keep. The work was absorbing, yet I was restless. I missed Azdrubal terribly, but whenever I thought of him, my mind dwelled on the son I had lost for the sake of Romalia. During the warm months, I was still responsible for selecting our shipmasters. By this time I knew the handful of men with whom Dru was willing to work, and I could choose among them using my token. Still, I preferred to sleep in Consus’ shrine or in the Archive, seeking confirmation from the Goddess.
Late in Februarius, as Camerina nodded over the Archive catalogue in the blue cavern, I settled myself on the fleeces in the warm Nook. I spoke a prayer to the Goddess, beseeching her to show me which shipmaster should be favored with our next investment, and lay down to sleep, extinguishing my lamp. It seemed only a short time later that I heard the roar of men’s shouts and saw clashing weapons on a grassy plain. I seemed to be passing through the midst of a battle, where armed combatants pierced each other with spears, and hacked with swords. They were Roman legionaries, intent on killing each other. I was seized by fear, for though they seemed unaware of my presence, some of their thrusts narrowly missed me, and I had no control over my movements. At last I glided smoothly to the place where Caesar fought on foot, flanked by his tribunes. I had heard public readings of his Gallic commentary, and knew that he ordinarily observed battles from behind the lines, passing up and down to issue instructions as needed. But in desperate cases, as when the Belgae ambushed him, he fought in the front line alongside his men. Now, in this final battle, he did so again, though he was no longer young.
“All will be well,” said the Goddess, who watched invisibly beside me. “He hazards his own life, in order to rouse his men, and in turn they willingly die for him. But Gaius will and must survive this battle. He has not yet chosen between his son Ptolemaeus, whom the queen calls Caesarion, and his grand-nephew Octavius.”
Octavius! At last I began to grasp the import of Amata’s dream-visions. Octavius and his sister were related to Caesar, and part of the Goddess’ plan. Caesar’s marriage to Calpurnia was without issue, so his sister’s grandson had been the likeliest heir, until his liaison with Cleopatra.
“But Caesar is very rich,” I protested. “Can he not make provision for both boys?”
As we watched, the battle lines separated, but the outcome was still unclear. The withdrawal of the ranks revealed the dead and the wounded, writhing on the trampled, bloodstained grass. Still clutching a battered shield and a sword, Caesar surveyed the enemy’s substantial losses. Then his eyes moved to his own men, counting, assessing. He began to walk down the line, exchanging a word here and there with an infantryman or centurion. The scene faded, and I was suspended in darkness.
“Caesar can provide for both if he bends the law,” said the Goddess, “yet only one can be heir to his achievement. He prefers Caesarion to his dull grand-nephew, but his son is still an infant, and a foreigner. Roma will not accept him as sole ruler. Gaius must choose Octavius; it is the final step in my design.”
“Sole ruler? Is Caesar to become a king, and found a dynasty? But that would be the end of the Republic, a return to the days of the tyrants!”
“Hardly that,” replied the Goddess. “In the days of Tarquinius the Haughty, Roma was a small town on the outskirts of the Tuscan lands, vulnerable to any invader. Now Roma is mistress of all Italia, and exercises Command over millions of people. The city’s position will be secure, if Octavius is chosen. He is no soldier, but no further conquests are needed. He lacks my Gaius’ divine intellect, but I require a steady and shrewd man now, not a brilliant one.”
“Am I to deliver this message, my Goddess?” Even as I formed the question, I recoiled at the thought of instructing Caesar on his choice of heir. Fond as he was of me, he would find it presumptuous. Then too, I liked the queen, and I did not wish to be responsible for dashing her hopes.
“That will not be necessary, for I perceive that this battle has revealed to Caesar his own mortality. He understands that he cannot wait for Caesarion to grow into a man. Octavius is eighteen, old enough to wield Command. It will be contested by Antonius, but he will choose the foreign queen over his own people, and thus he will come to ruin.”
Quite suddenly, I felt despair at this burden of knowledge. Another civil war was in store, it appeared, just as Roma and Romalia were emerging from five long years of fear, grief and uncertainty. Caesar had been ruthless, yet he had pardoned many in the hope of re-establishing amity. Was it all to be in vain? Romalia, I knew, could not exist without Roma, and all my sisters’ freedom depended on the Goddess’ successful efforts to succor the great city upside. Yet my mind shrank from the vast scope of her plotting. She was like a spider at the center of a immense web, I thought, constantly drawing silken strands from her swollen abdomen, and delicately tugging now this skein, now that, to seal the fate of her victims.
Although Goddess did not hear the thoughts of my innermost mind, she was well aware of my horror. “Do not grieve, Lucia,” she said. “My plans are about to bear fruit. What prosperity Italia will see! What power and peace Roma will enjoy, with all her dominions! Octavius has no divine spark, but he too shall be accounted a god. His branch on the tree of the future is firm and strong, and he shall fulfill My will.”
I was silent for a time, absorbing her words. “And Caesar,” I asked at last. “What is to become of him?”
“He has played his part in my plans and I shall reward him, but his branch on the tree is soon to snap.”
“No!” I cried involuntarily, but the Goddess inexorably continued, describing in detail the last two twigs on the branch of Gaius Julius Caesar, the two possible futures which awaited him. I could not block out her voice, though I tried. I could not erase the knowledge. My head whirled in a cyclone of confusion and grief.
“Lucia, Lucia, wake up, dear one!” I opened my eyes, disoriented, as Camerina set down her lamp beside me and took my hands in hers. “You were having a nightmare, but there is nothing to fear.”
“Oh Camerina,” I whispered. “How am I to tell him?”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The battle which Lucia sees in her dream-vision took place at Munda in Hispania in 45 BCE. In this last battle of the civil war, Caesar’s longtime opponent Labienus was finally defeated, together with Pompeius Magnus’ son Gnaeus. Cato and Magnus themselves were long dead, while Cicero had made his uncomfortable peace with Caesar. Caesar had no heir and therefore he had to choose between his natural son with Cleopatra (which would have been illegal) and his grand-nephew Octavius. He is known to us as Octavianus or Augustus.