Chapter 55 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
Before going to the Royale to see Caesar, I gave in to my feelings and shed hot tears. I was tempted to break the assignation, that I might not be the bearer of such a dire and unwelcome message. How much easier, if I remembered him as he had been just before he left in pursuit of Magnus, when he held me to his chest and exulted, “You have forgiven me at last!” How much better, if I allowed him to pursue his plans and meet his fate in happy ignorance.
Except that I knew Caesar, and I knew he would prefer to exercise choice in such a matter. Even if there was no good choice.
I bathed my eyes in the chilly water of Fourth Region’s spring, and stared at my reflection in the bucket. At thirty-six, I was surely too old now to be attractive to Caesar, who could have any woman he desired. Just as well, I reflected, considering what I planned to tell him. I re-braided my hair, pinning it up with the gold bee from my mother. I hung the silver capsule from my parents on the same thong which held my token pouch. Otherwise, my dress was the same Romalian garb I always wore. When I reached the Royale, it was already dark. I gave my name to the two guards, one of whom opened the door. Ariston was waiting for me. “In the tablinum,” he said, and handed me a lamp.
Caesar sat in his ancient throne-like chair, poring over a scroll. As I entered, he looked up and greeted me. “Lucia! Charming as always, and younger than your years, for you see so little of the Sun, and he sees so little of you. I, on the other hand, have grown ancient to look upon. I am careworn.”
“To me you are ever the same,” I said truthfully. Still elegantly trim, he wore his tunic long and loosely belted, as always. His clothing was richer than before, and heavily embroidered with gold threads in an oak-leaf pattern. It looked stiff and not very comfortable.
He motioned me to my usual curule chair, which was free of clutter this time. “Ariston says you have some information, some report of physical danger. What is this about, Lucia? I nearly put you off until after the Ides, for I am planning an expedition to Parthia, and there are a thousand details to consider.”
“Yes, I know. That is why I am here.” It was time to speak, but I hesitated. I sat mutely, trying to gather my courage, and failing.
“Lucia! I haven’t much time.” He spoke in a peremptory tone, but the next moment, observing my difficulty, he stood and took my hand. “What’s this? Cold as ice, and trembling. My light, whatever you have to tell, speak it now, so that we both may know.”
I drew a shuddering breath and began. “Tomorrow the senators will meet in Magnus’ theatre, and call you to the session. When you arrive, one of them will hand you a petition and several other senators will crowd around you. They will draw knives and stab you, over and over. Only one wound will go deep, but it will be fatal.”
As Caesar listened, conflicting emotions crossed his face. He looked by turns skeptical, troubled, and angry. “They will offer me violence? Who would dare?”
“Tillius Cimber,” I said, looking up at him. “Servilius Casca. Cassius Longinus. Gaius Trebonius. Marcus Junius Brutus. Many others.”
Caesar laughed. “Absurd!” he insisted. “Lucia, your Goddess deceives you. Brutus would never plot against me. He is Servilia’s son; I am like a father to him. Why, I pardoned him after Pharsalus. He owes me his life!”
“Nevertheless, he plans even now to murder you, and he is not alone,” I stated. “Dozens of men are party to the plot.”
Caesar sat heavily again in the big chair, his expression changing. “This is not the only warning,” he admitted. “Calpurnia has been plagued with nightmares of my death for a week. And others have hinted— I see that now.”
I waited silently, letting him add up the facts and draw conclusions. Finally he said, “I cannot credit that Brutus is a conspirator. It would be dishonorable, after all the favors he has accepted. But Cassius or Casca or Trebonius— yes, that is plausible. If your information is correct, they are hastening to act before I leave for Parthia. But what if I should go tomorrow? Would it not throw the conspiracy into disorder? I could give Antonius orders to seize and interrogate one of them— Casca, I think. He would soon betray the rest.”
As a general, Caesar was famed for speedy and unexpected movement. Now he was thinking like a tactician again. He could outrun and confuse his enemies, breaking up the conspiracy. Antonius would deal harshly with one or two, to set an example, and upon Caesar’s return, he could extend his famous clemency to the rest. His plan was faultless, but the tree of the future would not support it.
“If you leave for Parthia,” I replied, “you will have a seizure after three days at sea. A severe seizure. You will fall, and hit your head, and together these events will render you unable to speak, or to walk, or to feed yourself. You will live two more years in that state.”
Caesar looked pained as I spoke these words. To picture himself with anything less than full control over his mind and body was distasteful, an affront to his dignity. “Your future is like a branching tree,” I continued implacably. “There are only two twigs left in your branch. One ends in assassination on the Ides, and the other in a debilitating seizure.”
“Even if I stay here and deal with the conspirators myself?” he asked.
“I have always enjoyed the favor of the gods,” he argued. “Good luck has attended me all my life. Have I offended your Goddess somehow, or transgressed against the Peace of the Gods? Perhaps some expiation is required, some sacrifice?”
“The Goddess is not angry,” I said. “She said that you have fulfilled your part in her design, and that she would reward you, but that your branch is… is to snap.” My voice broke and I began to weep.
“Come, come, Lucia! There will be time for tears afterwards.” He raised me to my feet, and embraced me. “I wish to know all. Tell me everything.” Not having to look into his eyes made my task easier. I rested my head against his chest, and tried to recall every detail.
I told him of the Goddess’ plan for Octavius, and her claim that Roma’s greatness was now ensured. He often stopped me to ask questions, especially regarding Antonius, but I could only repeat what the Goddess told me: “He will choose the foreign queen over his own people, and he will come to ruin.”
“Hah. I had thought that might be my fate,” said Caesar. At last he gently held me at arms’ length, and his dark eyes claimed mine. “You spoke of a reward.”
“Yes. You are to become a god, if the conspirators have their way. That outrage will spur the People to honor you. Because you have the divine spark, you will be transformed. At your funeral, a comet will blaze in the heavens for three days, marking your apotheosis.”
“This transformation sounds painful,” he remarked drily. “Dozens of stab wounds, you said?”
“This is no joking matter,” I cried. “Perhaps you believe that Romulus is only a legend, but he was real. Just as he was murdered by the senators and became Quirinus, you will become Divus Julius, if you fall beneath the knives of the conspirators.”
“I hardly know what to believe,” he said, but he sounded in better spirits than before, less strained and shocked. “Wait here, Lucia.” He disappeared for several minutes, and I glumly sat in the lamplight, my mind emptied of thoughts.
When Caesar returned, he extended his hand. “Come on. I’ve told Ariston to cancel my other appointments this evening.”
“Where are we going? To the Shrine of Plenty?” I supposed that he wished to offer prayers to the Goddess, as I would have done in his position.
“No, I’m taking you to bed.”
I was struck speechless at first, but when he led me into a small bedchamber behind the tablinum, richly appointed with a wide couch and red silk cushions, I sputtered, “You cannot mean to… at a time like this?”
“What other time is left?” he asked. “Lucia, mea lux, stay with me. You cannot deny me now!” Before I could answer, he kissed me with a furious need, and I quickly forgot everything else—the Goddess, the morrow, the dire visions. There was something divine in that man.
In bed with Azdrubal, I had always felt quite safe in the circle of his arms. Caesar was different, dangerous and fiery. I thought I might burn up in his bolt of lightning. No doubt he found me an inexperienced lover, but he did not seem displeased. Perhaps I was the only woman left on his list, the only one he had yet to conquer. Afterward we lay on the couch, and I stroked his naked torso, soon to be cruelly pierced and torn. He was nearly hairless, except for a token patch above his manly parts, like a Greek statue. “Do you dislike all the hair on me?” I asked.
“Not at all. You are like the noble tribeswomen of Germania, or the most strictly-reared of Roman matrons,” he said. “In Roma, a plucked woman is invariably a prostitute.”
“And a plucked man isn’t?” I asked.
“Curio once called me every woman’s husband, and every man’s wife,” he replied. “He found my manners and dress insufficiently virile. So did Cicero.”
“Did you sleep with Curio’s wife? And with Terentia?” I asked in accusing tones. He smiled complacently.
“I marvel that you were not assassinated years ago.”
“Lucia, will you do something for me?” asked Caesar.
“Anything that is within my power.”
“If I die tomorrow, Cleopatra will be in danger, and my son. The conspirators may have them marked for death as well.”
“The Goddess spoke of a foreign queen’s future liaison with Antonius.”
“Yes, but not by name. Perhaps the Goddess speaks of some other queen; there are many on the shores of Our Sea. Promise me that you will shelter her and Caesarion in the tunnels, if need be, and help them escape.”
“I shall offer her my help. Whether she accepts is another matter.”
Caesar nodded, satisfied. We both rose and slipped on our tunics—mine of the most humble weave, and his of the most costly.
“I shall write an account of your life, to place in our Archive. I shall say that you transcended the limits on mortal achievement, and ensured that Roma would stand for a thousand years.”
Caesar gave me his half-smile. His last words to me were “Don’t forget my calendar.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: Cicero’s wife Terentia is not on the list of those Caesar is supposed to have seduced. But you never know.