Chapter 53 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
“I have conceived another child, another royal scion of Caesar,” announced the queen.
“May all the goddesses and gods smile upon you,” I replied. Her announcement startled me, for I had thought Caesarion unique. Despite Caesar’s innumerable liaisons over many decades, no one could point with certainty to natural children of his siring; even the rumors about Marcus Junius Brutus were chronologically implausible.
We were sitting in the garden as usual, nibbling olives and talking of books, and of Cleopatra’s plans for Roma, once Caesar was fully won over and divorced his wife to marry her. “Your Roman law forbids him to wed or bequeath property to a foreigner,” she noted disapprovingly. “This has been Caesar’s hesitation, his excuse. But I have observed that Roman law is easily changed, and that Romans choose which laws to obey.”
“There is truth in this,” I admitted, “for despite their love of the law, the men of the senatorial class bend it to their will. There is an ancient law forbidding the Pontifex Maximus to leave Roma, yet Caesar ignored it.” I sighed, for he was never far from my mind these days.
“You seem troubled, Lucia,” said the queen. “You say nothing of your life with the synod of philosophical women—indeed, you are quite secretive. So I had you followed last time you left this villa, and I learned that you live in a very modest little house on the Aventine hill. Has your synod fallen upon hard times? Shall I give you a gift, to recognize our friendship?”
“You are very kind, O queen,” I replied, “but as you know, we renounce most possessions. Our few needs are provided for by… by a sort of endowment. Rather like the funding you described for the scholars in the Museum.”
“I see,” she said, a little displeased that I had refused her generosity. Then she smiled shrewdly. “And who is the source of this endowment? I should not be surprised to learn that it is Caesar.”
“Not he,” I said quickly. “A rich widow, who made a fortune in shipping.”
“Keep your secrets, Lucia,” laughed the queen. “I apologize for snooping into your affairs! But you must see how intolerably tedious my life has become. The only bright spots are Gaius’ visits. I had dinner with Cicero last week, and he rattled on about some scoundrel named Catilina, and his own brilliant detection of Catilina’s plot to overthrow the state. I was intrigued, until I discovered that this was nearly twenty years ago! Can you imagine? I asked him what he had done lately, and he was quite offended, but he dares not insult me to my face.” She grinned wickedly. “He wants me to send for a copy of Democritus’ Cosmography from the Library, but I shall tantalize him, and leave him panting with unfulfilled desire.”
I pitied poor old Cicero. He was not accustomed to dealing with women who spoke more languages than he did, and possessed better libraries.
“Let us talk of the gods, O queen,” I said. “Is it true that in Aegyptus, the ruler is held to be a god?”
“Yes,” said Cleopatra. “In Roma I am only a despised tyrant, but among my people I am a goddess. For thousands of years each successive Pharaoh has been named the child of Ra. Then too, I show myself to the people as Isis, the consort of Osiris and the mother of Horus.”
“Caesarion is your Horus, then?” I asked.
“And Caesar my Osiris,” she agreed. “We are the divine couple who give life, and overcome death, for at the dawn of creation Osiris was murdered and ripped to pieces, but by the power of Isis he was restored.”
“How can a mortal become a god?” It was a perplexing question. This sometimes happened even in Italia, I knew, but none of the sacred books explained the process.
“There are many ways,” said Cleopatra. “When a mortal possesses the power to give life and take it, to feed and protect or to bring famine and devastation, why then, she becomes a goddess to her people.”
“These are great powers indeed, O queen,” I replied, “but with respect, are they divine? For any Roman who holds Command possesses the power of life and death over others, and the Consuls control the supply of grain, but they are not worshiped.”
“It would be more accurate to say that Aegyptus and the Nilus river control the supply of grain,” observed the queen, “for do we not feed Roma? And is not Nilus divine? But to answer your question, divinity resides partly in the recognition of the people, and partly in the nature of an individual mortal. As you say, the divinity which consists in honor alone is incomplete. The other component lies in the blood of those whose ancestry includes gods, or in the physical transformation of those whom the gods welcome into their number.”
“Physical transformation? I think I understand, for it is said that Romulus was murdered by the senators who were envious of his power, and torn limb from limb. Yet he became Quirinus, the god of Roman citizens.”
“Yes,” replied the queen. “It often happens that mortals with inherent divinity experience violent death at the hands of their fellows. Only afterward do the people see their error, and offer worship. The example of Osiris teaches us that such a one is resurrected, to live eternally. Some of these new gods retain an interest in mundane mortal affairs, while others enter the aether, to contemplate the Boundless Heavens.”
“I see that there are many kinds of gods,” I said.
“And many opinions on the gods,” agreed Cleopatra. “But I give most credence to a Persian Magus I met once, when he came to Alexandria to consult the books of incantations in the temple of Serapis. I was a young girl, thirsty for knowledge. He told me that the gods are of different kindreds, and not, as we Greeks hold, of one descent from Earth and Heaven, but of distinct races. The Eldest, he said, arose from the orb of the Earth as it came to maturity, and encompass all the elements in the lands they inhabit. They are all female, and the people apprehend their presence, yet glimpse them only dimly. After them came the gods and goddesses engendered when people emerged in the lands. These gods were born from the elements and thus from the Elder Goddesses, but they move from one place to another with the people, and most have forgotten the true circumstances of their birth. Third are the mortals who become gods, through blood or transformation, combined with the people’s recognition. For all gods but One depend on the honors of the people. Deprived of these honors, they live on, but in a state like that of one who sleeps.”
“And the One god? Who is that?”
“The Magi teach that One god exists above all others, quite unlike like the male and female deities. Rather, the One is the fiery essence which pervades the cosmos and binds together all matter. Only this One is truly eternal, and will exist when all else comes to an end.”
“And why do all peoples not know of and worship this One god?”
“I asked the Magus the same question,” said the queen. “He replied that most do not know of the One, for the One answers no prayers and does not intervene in the affairs of mortals, as the other gods do. The ignorant pay no heed to the One, instead imploring the many to ease their troubles. But the wise know that the many gods favor now one mortal, and now another. Then too, the wise know that only the One is truly eternal, for in time the orb of the earth will decay and disintegrate, with all its mortals and all its gods.”
This was a shocking notion, for I always believed Earth to be immortal, like the other divine ones. “What then of the celestial gods?” I argued. “The Sun and Moon, and the stars?”
“The celestial bodies are not like the kindreds of gods upon the orb of the earth, but all members of the One,” she replied. “They are unimaginably distant, and glow with the fiery energy of the One. Yet the astrologers speak partial truth when they teach that celestial and earthly events are related. For the One essence binds all things, and it responds to great events, just as the string of a lyre sounds when it is plucked.”
“O queen, your learning is great. For my part, I believe that your Magus was granted a rare insight on the mysteries of the cosmos. My father exhorted me always to remember my own foolishness and lack of knowledge, and thus I have always sought to learn. I will record your teachings, if you permit, and place them in the Archive of my synod. For you have given me a gift more precious than gold.”
The queen nodded graciously and replied, “That pleases me. I should like to be remembered for my learning.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The myth of Isis and Osiris mentioned in this chapter is real, as is that of Romulus’ deification, but the Magus’ theology of the divine ones is my creation.
I nicked the clever quip about “more languages and better libraries” from Stacy Schiff’s delightful biography of Cleopatra.