Type: One Shot
Roman Forum must be one of the most impressive ruins I have ever seen in my short life. From the Arch of Titus to the impressive temple ruins, everything seemed imperial and majestic despite their desolate state.
I walked around the temple of Vesta, trying to see if there was anything left except for the podium.
Being a paleoarcheologist, my knowledge of the ancient Romans was limited and I had been curious about this particular temple ever since my friend Amy had forced me to take a vacation she thought was well deserved.
Not finding anything but the stony remains of what must once have been a beautiful temple, I walked up the stairs to the hearth where the holy fire of Rome once burned.
There was nothing left of the temple, I noticed, not the marbles, not the palladium I was curious of, nothing. Disappointed, I walked back down and started toward the fountain in front of the temple.
My hand went to the pendent hanging in my neck without thought and I rubbed it between my fingers, a habit I had developed in my childhood.
I touched the fountain and felt a chill run down my spine. My gut was telling me something was off about the entire place. The air was charged and I grabbed on to the fountain stronger as I felt a spell of dizziness.
I let go of the fountain once I was steady and walked backward. Shaking my head to clear the uneasy feeling, I walked to the House of the Vestals a few steps from the Temple.
I stopped by the statues of the vestals and stood near one with its head severed and the inscription scraped out. There were several with their heads severed.
I touched the cold marble of the statue and a wave of dizziness hit me. I tried to step back but I couldn’t. My head was throbbing and I felt unsteady. I was there and yet I wasn’t. The world seemed to disappear into the dark as I stood there.
Then it all stopped. I could feel the ground around my feet. I looked back at the statue.
It had its head. The inscription was not scraped off. Iulia, a daughter of the state.
Something is wrong
I tried to back away from the statue but my feet wouldn’t move. It hit me then that the inscription was in Latin. I didn’t know Latin.
Then I suddenly turned and walked towards the fountain. The fountain filled with water. I realized I had a pot in my hand only when I bent down to fetch water.
It is to cleanse the temple, I heard a voice in my head that did not belong to me.
My eyes were lowered, although I wanted to look around and see what was happening. Why the fountain still looked new. Why the statue did not look old.
Through my lowered eyes, I saw the reflection in the fountain. A beautiful woman wearing a white robe and her hair styled in a complicated fashion. A woman that was not me. Terrified, I tried to understand what was happening.
I turned slowly and walked to the circular temple of Vesta. The temple was still intact and the marbles were still there. I wanted to gasp but I had no voice.
After cleansing the temple, I stood and went to the fire to kindle it. The fire burned brighter after I added the fuel involuntarily.
I stood there, my head bowed in front of the fire. Once the other women dressed in white robes walked in, we stood in a circle and recited a prayer to Vesta and began to add more fuel to keep her sacred fire alive.
The other women left after the prayer, but I stood there, watching their retreating backs. Then I turned back towards the hearth and offered a private prayer to the Vesta and kindled her fire again.
I stayed up all night, tending to the fire, making sure the fire never went out.
We need the fire, an unknown voice whispered to me again. Scared, I stayed awake as my eyelids refused to close. I took in the beautiful shrine and the hissing fire.
When the sun rose up in the sky and when the other vestals walked in, I bowed. We recited the prayer once more. I walked out after the ritual with the others, leaving behind a brown haired girl, whose robe proclaimed her a Vestal.
I saw the Palatine Hills looming over the House, green and luscious, it was certainly understandable why it was the most important of the seven hills of Rome.
Entering the House of the Vestals, I was taken aback by the striking difference it bore to the one I last saw. The front yard was thriving with life and the building seemed new and I kept walking past it, despite wanting to stop and examine all of its beauty.
I stood in front of a door and looked right ahead, “Accompany me”, I said to a woman standing to the right side of the door. I had seen the woman moving away from the door when I walked in and from the tunic she wore, I assumed she was a slave.
“Shut the door”, I heard myself say before sitting in a chair next to the bed. The room was furnished and elegant. Setting my hands down on the armrest, “See to my hair”, I said.
She started to gently tug at my hair to free it and then she combed through it. I hissed when she pulled a little too harshly. She let go of my hair immediately and bowed, her body convulsing violently as if she was afraid, “Forgive me, Priestess”.
I felt sick when I saw her covering like that. I wondered what being a slave to a vestal would be like. I hoped I was dreaming. I did not own slaves. It was not me.
“You fool! Be gentle or I will have you whipped”, the words flowed out of my mouth. I could only watch as the slave slowly stood and began to touch my hair again, more gently this time.
“Iulia”, I heard a knock on the door.
“Enter”, I sat up straighter, turning to look at the door. A vestal entered the door and firmly closed the behind her. She smiled coyly at me and I returned one of my own. I wondered who she was.
Licinia, the same strange voice answered me.
It was at that moment it hit me that I was stuck within someone else. It wasn’t when I looked into the water and stared into a reflection of another woman, it wasn’t when I recited a prayer I had never heard and it wasn’t even when I saw that slave and felt sick. It was when I heard someone call for Iulia and I responded. My actions were not mine. I was but a visitor looking through someone’s eyes.
I am Eleanor, I told myself, trying to calm down. I was a soul with no body. I was thoughts with no consequences.
She walked in and sat on the bed next to me, with the slave working on my hair. “Will you be coming to the Circus Maximus tomorrow?”
“Of course”, I said with a chuckle and looked at her slyly, “I heard the senator Marcus would be in presence tomorrow”.
“Where do you hear such?”, she looked baffled for a moment before smiling, “I hope we receive news of the war before noontide”
“I certainly hope so, for I can not wait in anticipation”, I could feel my smile dim a little and I felt an unknown fear take over.
War has to be won, a soft voice murdered.
The slave was forgotten as the Vestal and I began to speak of the rituals and duties to be performed before the upcoming Vestalia.
She. She is speaking, I reminded myself and wondered if she would hear if I screamed inside her head.
When she left, I let my head tilt back and body relaxed as the slave’s hand kept working through my hair, weaving back the same complexly fashioned hair that I wore earlier.
It was mid-noon when a knock came on the door. The slave woman sitting at the floor beside my bed walked up to open the door. Another slave stood there, “Priestess, you are asked to come to the courtyard”
I stood slowly and dismissed both the women before walking out the door. The woman who had assisted me with my hair went back to standing at the door.
I looked on with the same awe I had felt before as my feet walked towards the courtyard. I saw all the other five vestals gathered there even before I reached there. I saw a man standing in front of them when I joined them. I bowed my head, my headdress hiding my face entirely as I stood looking down at the ground. I wondered who he was.
Pontifex maximus, the voice was filled with sorrow.
The high priest, I thought and I think I heard a whispered Yes.
“The war has been lost”, the priest said and I heard a collective intake of breath.
“A crime has been committed against the state”, the man droned, “It has reached the Emperor’s ears that Vesta’s holy fire was extinguished”
I swallowed and tried to understand what was going on. Even if the fire had gone out, how would the emperor know?
The fire never went out, the sad melodic voice sighed.
“I, therefore, as a responsible citizen of the great Rome and the Pontifex maximus order a thorough investigation to the carried out. I expect the results of the investigation before the sun sets tomorrow”, with that, he walked away.
“When did the fire go out?”, Licinia’s voice cut through the silence after he was out of earshot.
The vestals looked at each other’s faces. The eldest looking vestal closed her eyes and said, “The war”, she shook her head.
I felt Iulia’s confusion. It joined my own puzzlement as I looked at the senior priestess through her eyes.
Understanding seemed to dawn on her after a few seconds but I was still confused. I felt her anger simmer then. I felt the blood in my veins run faster and I saw flashes of memories. Flashes of a young child playing with an ivory doll with her sisters, flashes of being pampered as the daughter of Rome’s two most important senate-houses, flashes of being taken into Vesta’s temple at six. I remembered being a novice for years. Always following the senior vestals. Being scourged for forgetting to cleanse the temple. How the pain had been a reminder to be perfect for the rest of the days I spent at the temple.
I saw a child whose childhood was lost amidst a series of chores at the temple.
The anger I felt went away as quickly as it came and my face was arranged carefully to not show emotions.
“The slaves are being taken”, a vestal said, looking at the Roman guards escorting a few slaves.
“I believe it is best to retire our rooms and await our questioning”, the eldest vestal breathed and the others nodded.
“May Vesta stay with us”, we said collectively before we began to walk towards our chambers.
When the time came for my questioning, I was escorted by a guard to a narrow looking chamber and I was seated there with the high priest sitting opposite to me. I bowed my head once. His face was straight when he asked the questions,
“As a daughter of the state and a priestess of Vesta herself, you vow to speak only the truth here”, he said in a monotone.
“I vow to speak only of what I perceive is the truth here”, I swore. She swore. Her voice was devoid of feelings even when I felt fear rush through her.
“Did her holy fire ever go out in your watch?”
“No”, I said, looking straight at him with my veils covering my face partially.
“Did the fire ever go out after you ever bestowed with Vesta’s blessing?”
“Once. When I was a novice. The priestess responsible was scourged”, I said, my voice still neutral.
He nodded, knowing it was true since it was he who had delivered the agonizing punishment. I relived the moment in her memory.
“Do you happen to know anything about how the fire went out now? If you suspect any of the vestals of not being proper, you may speak freely of it”, he said.
“No. The vestals have been most proper”, my was voice firm when I offered that tendril of truth.
He nodded again, apparently satisfied. I felt relief coursing through her when she thought it was over.
“If there is anything that you believe will hasten the process, I ask you to speak now “, he said. I wondered why he kept asking the same question.
“I have no knowledge of anything”, I claimed.
“You may take your leave. The slaves are being asked to testify now. I shall see you at the courtyard in the morning”, he said to me and gestured to the door.
I was allowed to walk out of the chamber freely, without the hindrance of a guard at my back. I walked to the temple of Vesta. Standing in front of her shrine, I offered her a prayer.
One by one, the other vestals joined the prayer. Our duty to Vesta taking priority over everything else.
When the prayers were said, the vestals began to retreat except one. It was her turn to tend to the fire, I realized, slowly walking out of the temple.
In the morning, I had to prepare myself with no slave to do the chore for me. I went to the courtyard after visiting the temple.
I waited at the courtyard as all the vestals gathered and a guard asked us to follow him to the questioning room from yesterday.
Tension sizzled in the air as we stood in front of the high priest, waiting to know what he found.
“I did not have to wait a long time to know the answer”, he said, “One of the slaves has testified against you”
I felt Iulia’s urge to flinch at his tone but my spine only got straighter. There was no sound in the tiny chamber except the sound of everyone’s breath before the priest clapped to call to the guard. “Bring me the slave”
My eyes widened as I looked at the slave who walked in, covered in bruises. Iulia’s fear increased. I felt her desperation hit me hard and tried to push her thoughts away from mine. The effort only increased the intensity of how I felt her and I was not able to separate me from her. I became her.
“Do you testify for your mistress’ crime?”, he asked the woman who had fixed my hair yesterday.
“I do”, her voice rang out clearly, her head bowed.
“What crime of hers are you testifying for?”, he asked, not looking away from her.
Intimidation, the melancholy voice said.
“She is unchaste”, the woman said. There was a sharp gasp to my right side.
“I object”, I said.
“You were not given leave to speak”, the priest chastised me before turning back to the slave.
“How do you know of this?”, the priest questioned the woman.
“I overheard her speak of her lover”
“And who was it that she was speaking with? When did they converse? ”
“Priestess Licinia. Yesterday”, the woman’s voice dipped.
“Do you know who the lover was?”, the priest asked.
I saw a flash of uncertainty cross her face. To blame a powerful senator most certainly did not appeal to her. “No”, she said simply.
I wondered how convenient it was that he did not ask what she overheard.
He called the guards again and asked for the woman to be taken away.
He turned to Licinia and asked, “Did you know of Priestess Iulia’s transgression?”
“I do not think she committed the crime”, her voice infused with anger.
“That only leads me to believe both of you were involved in a heinous crime. I think we all heard what the slave had to offer”, he said his eyes moving from one vestal to another.
“It was not a lover we spoke of”, she said finally, when his eyes came back to her.
“You do admit you spoke to Priestess Iulia about a man?”, he opened a parchment he held in his hand.
“I never refuted that. I only claim it wasn’t a lover we spoke of”, Licinia’s voice was rising.
I saw flashes of two young girls laughing inside the temple of Vesta, I saw one of them standing nearby while the other was being tended for a terrible injury, I saw them in the courtyard, I saw them together watching chariot races, I saw Licinia playfully hitting me as she laughed.
I felt the moment she realized that the state was going to come down on her and her friend. There was no way out. No claim of innocence from a priestess believed to have gone astray would be considered truthful. There was a moment of silent acceptance of her fate.
I understood the choice Iulia made next. Drawing a deep breath, “It was only me. Licinia did not know of my crimes”. They needed but one lamb.
Licinia’s head snapped towards me and the priest turned slowly. “Why did the slave think you were talking to her?”
“I do not know”, I offered simply, looking straight through him.
“Who was your lover?”, the priest demanded.
“The Emperor”, the lie rolled off my mouth easily, even though I could hear my heart beating rapidly in my chest. I understood her lie. Her anger at the injustice.
The priest’s face contorted with anger. But there was nothing he could say except, “Very well”, he looked at the parchment in his hand, “Do you know that your crime is treason?”
“Yes”, I could feel my throat constrict.
“Do you know what the punishment for such a crime is?
“Yes”, I was surprised by how strong my voice sounded.
“Then you may return to your chamber. A slave will attend to you shortly”, he stepped away as if being in my presence was a disgrace to him.
I saw understanding in Licinia’s eyes as I walked past her to reach the door. I was escorted to my room and I awaited my impending fate there.
I heard a knock and called out for the person to enter. A slave stood there, funeral clothes in her hand. I inhaled slowly and stood up.
Slowly, my badges of offices were removed and I was attired like a corpse. Once the slave was thorough with my clothing, she stepped away.
I stood straight, a daughter of Rome even when sentenced to a fate undeserved. And even I felt her river of sorrow mixed with anger at her state, I did not think I truly understood how it would feel to be a first woman of the state one moment only to be stripped off all her rights the next.
I walked towards the courtyard, escorted again a guard, where a closed litter awaited me. I offered Vesta a quick prayer and closed my eyes. I sat down on the litter and waited for it to be lifted.
I felt the cover being strapped rather than saw it. I sat still. I felt Iulia trying to suppress her fear. I realized that she knew what was going to happen. I did not. I felt my own panic rise. I was stuck inside her. Did whatever happen to her happen to me?
The litter was lifted and we began to move. I tried to calm myself. This has to be a dream. I’m not inside someone. I can not be.
The noises seemed to die one as the litter moved. I wondered where it was being taken.
Through the Forum, I heard the voice.
I wanted to see what was going on, but the straps were bound and eyes wouldn’t lift no matter how much I tried.
After a while, the litter was set down. I felt the covers being unfastened and I heard the high priest mumble a prayer under his breath, lifting his hands to the sky. He turned to the litter and waited for me to walk out of it.
He led me towards a small vault underground and settled me on a ladder. My face was carefully emotionless as I was being lowered into the hole. Terrified, I tried to understand where I was now. I tried to move with all my will. It was Iulia’s body, however, and she was determined to not give outwardly shows of emotions.
The ladder was drawn back up once I was lowered completely. The vault sealed shut, drenching the entire place in darkness.
Let me out, I screamed. I hit a dark wall in her head.
Hush, the voice said, you are safe.
I stumbled through the tiny vault to find the cot. I sat there, feeling an eternity pass before hunger demanded I move. Her hunger, I tried to remember. I tried to remember that this was not me. That my life was in England.
I wanted to find the bread left down here but I felt her make her decision. Eating would only prolong her agony. And I suffered with her. I felt the hunger and the madness slowly taking her. I rotted there inside the dark hole with her. Slowly dying.
My only solace was the voice that spoke to me.
Why am here?
I wanted you to know, the voice whispered.
The pendant you wear, the voice said.
The only pendant I ever wore was my family heirloom.
It belongs to you, I said when I realized.
One of my possessions taken by the state, the voice turned melancholy.
Why am I here, I asked again.
You’re not, the soft laughter I heard was laced with a sadness I couldn’t fathom.
That was when I died. Iulia died.
I saw the statue with no head again. Cautiously, I walked away from the statue. I turned around to look at the temple, the fountain, the House. My breath slowed down once I saw they all looked like the familiar ruins. Not the brilliant marbles and the green.
I was back in my own body. I looked at the time in my watch. There was no time lapse. It wasn’t a dream.
Looking back at the statue, I saw the inscriptions no longer there. Some statues had their heads and the inscriptions, although I did not understand them.
Pulling my mobile out and googled, “Iulia the vestal virgin”. A few clicks told me that she was a victim of political play of Ancient Rome.
I looked back at the statue. Maybe the brides of Rome were also her scapegoats.
Iulia had been a political pawn. And for a while, I became her.
I finally wrote it. It took me so long to write it. I originally wanted to write about an Empress of Rome but I couldn’t any documents that said much of said Empress except shallow claims.
So I turned to the Vestal Virgins. It wasn’t easy to write about them either. I had to do three days of Google surfing to find enough details. I think the problem was that most websites differed in opinions.
Iulia is not real vestal (I checked before writing). However, Licinia is and no one knows whether she was condemned or absolved. Actually, I got the idea for this when I read about Vestals Opimia and Floronia.
This post is getting really long. Search up vestal virgins and you will find a load of information (except wiki. There’s nothing there).