Sunday, December 26, 2010

Vestal Virgin 1 - Suzanne Tyrpak

"On the far side of Palatine Hill, a mile from the House of Vestals, the urban mob squirmed on stone benches at the Circus Maximus. The chariot races had ended and clouds of grit settled on the arena, coating the spectators. Women poured out of the gates leaving men to watch the afternoon’s more gruesome entertainment.

Horns squealed and a water organ moaned, announcing the procession of gladiators.

The Retiarii carried tridents and nets; Thracians, square shields and swords; Secutors, oval shields and daggers. Schooled in combat, massive in their builds, gladiators stood a chance for victory. A chance to live.

Not so for Marcus. He would face wild beasts unarmed. A death more shameful than crucifixion.

Beneath the spectator stalls, he waited to be summoned. Grasping the wooden bars, he stared out of his cage and recalled the fate of a prisoner of war from Germania. Destined to fight the lions, the captured soldier had gone to the latrines—a stinking row of holes in a long bench—and, using the stick meant for wiping away excrement, he rammed the salty sponge into his throat.

Beasts or suicide. The only choice.

Out in the amphitheater the crowd stamped their feet, shaking Marcus to his bones. He prayed he wouldn’t shit himself.

Wooden tiers towered over the arena and held more than 150,000 people. As noon approached, the spectators devoured goat cheese and barley bread, apples and pickled eggs—while they waited for dessert.

“Answer when you hear your name,” the lanista shouted.

Taskmaster of gladiators, the lanista filled his purse by treating men like animals. Society did not respect him, although his barrel of a stomach proved he ate lavishly.

“Marcus Rubrius Honoratus.”


Marcus slid his hands along the wooden bars, splinters prickling his palms. His back was broad from wrestling, his arms knotted with muscle from lifting lead weights in the gymnasium, but he was no gladiator. His thoughts turned to Socrates. Soon he’d have the chance to test that great philosopher’s theory of immortality, to learn firsthand if his soul would perish or cross into the Plain of Oblivion and continue to the River of Forgetfulness.

The lanista unlocked the cage. Tugging Marcus by a leash, he dragged him into the torch-lit hallway and ordered him to kneel. Squaring his shoulders, Marcus reminded himself of the dignity with which Socrates had faced his execution.

“I said, kneel.” The lanista cracked his whip, and two brutes forced Marcus to his knees amid steaming camel dung. “Rome has no tolerance for treason.”

“Or truth.”

The barbed whip scored welts across his back.

Marcus clenched his teeth, refusing to register the pain, searching his mind for words of wisdom. That which destroys and corrupts is evil, Socrates had said. That which preserves and benefits is good.

Above him, in the amphitheater, the crowd roared for blood.


The sun crept toward noon.

Elissa climbed the road leading from the forum, the soles of her leather slippers slick against the flagstones. Although the temperature was cool and left no doubt that it was autumn, a rivulet of sweat ran down her face. She pushed onward, glancing at the seven hills as she reached the pinnacle. A patchwork of terra-cotta rooftops gave way to parkland girded by six miles of gray tufa blocks. Beyond the Servian wall, golden fields and olive groves offered the promise of freedom. A false promise, Elissa thought—all Romans were slave to Nero.

“Jupiter,” she said, tears choking her voice, “Ruler of the heavens, protector of the empire, I beg you to spare my brother’s life.”

She swiped her eyes, angry with herself for showing weakness. Ten years ago, when she had been wrenched out of her childhood, she’d sworn all her tears were spent. Ten years ago, when she had been nine, a golden coach drawn by four white geldings had arrived at her parents’ house. They’d hoisted her into the coach. One doll, her comb and hairbrush—no other belongings.

The Vestal Maxima sat in the coach. Her voice floated from beneath snowy veils, “Are you frightened, child?”

Trembling, tears streaming down her face, Elissa shook her head. Through the coach’s window, she saw her parents. Her new position was an honor. She would be rich and powerful, but her parents’ faces appeared solemn as if witnessing a funeral.

The wheels of the coach squeaked, began to roll.

Elissa craned her neck in order to keep her brother in her sight. He ran alongside the coach, yelling, “Bring her back!”

“Marcus!” she called out to him, until her throat was raw.

“Drive on,” the Vestal Maxima ordered the coachman. “The sooner we depart, the sooner she’ll forget.”

But Elissa never forgot that day, never forgot crying out to Marcus as he disappeared within a cloud of dust.

Redoubling her pace, she hurried toward the Circus Maximus.

Marcus was no traitor. The idea was preposterous. He had loved Nero, only too well. His fault had been to question the princeps, attempting to steer him away from disaster. Hopes had been high for Nero when at age seventeen he’d come into power. Initially, advisors kept him on an even keel, but now Burris was dead, Seneca banished, Agrippina murdered, and Nero charted his own course.

If only I had prayed more, Elissa thought, perhaps the gods would have protected Marcus. She wondered if her hubris had led to her brother’s plight, her questioning of the gods’ power—the damning words she’d written. She reached into her stola, seeking the letter, words she must destroy before they wreaked more havoc. As her fingers touched the papyrus, two boys raced around a corner, forcing her into the gutter and a stream of putrid water.

“Look out,” one of the boys shouted, without pausing to offer help.

“I hear music.” The other motioned for his friend to hurry. “The procession is starting.”

They bolted down the hill toward the Circus Maximus.

Stumbling from the flow of waste, Elissa followed. Her slippers, soaked and no longer white, slapped the paving stones.

Down by the river, the air felt humid, smelled of fish. She saw the boys far ahead, skipping, laughing, as if going to a carnival. Gathering her robes, she clomped along the riverbank, sinking in the mud.

The fish market, usually a hub of excitement with boats docking to unload their catch and fishmongers arguing with customers, stood empty. Screeching gulls swooped over abandoned tables.

It seemed as if all of Rome were at the Circus.

Elissa sought a shortcut through an alleyway, wide enough to accommodate only one donkey. A baker had thrown fermenting bran into the gutter where pigs now feasted. A woman, a toddler secured on her hip, stepped onto an overhanging balcony. The boards groaned, threatening to collapse. Hoisting a bucket over the railing, the woman dumped out slops, and the pigs groveled happily in the rain of excrement. The stench stung Elissa’s nostrils, burned her eyes. Regretting her decision not to come by coach, she hurried on.

A donkey-cart laden with earthen tiles clattered around the corner, forcing her against a fire-blackened wall. During daylight hours the only carts permitted on Rome’s streets were those bearing construction materials—nothing would deter Nero’s voracious building plans. The cart rattled through the gutter, splashing filth.

“Watch where you’re going,” Elissa wanted to shout but, accustomed to the hushed confines of the House of Vestals, her voice came out as a whisper.

She wiped something sticky from her eye.

Spattered with mire, she might have been a common prostitute. She continued past a fire-gutted tenement. Once painted brilliant yellow, the plaster walls were charred and stained with soot. Amidst scrawling graffiti, a poster announced:"

4 out of 5