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Authors: Rosemary Rowe

The Vestal Vanishes

BOOK: The Vestal Vanishes
Previous Titles in this series by Rosemary Rowe
available from Severn House
A Libertus Roman Mystery
Rosemary Rowe
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
This first world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and the USA by
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2011 by Rosemary Aitken.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Rowe, Rosemary, 1942-
The vestal vanishes. – (A Libertus mystery of Roman Britain)
1. Libertus (Fictitious character : Rowe) Fiction.
2. Romans–Great Britain–Fiction. 3. Slaves–Fiction.
4. Vestal virgins–Fiction. 5. Great Britain–History–
Roman period, 55 B.C.-449 A.D. Fiction. 6. Detective and
mystery stories.
I. Title II. Series
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-067-8   (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8029-1   (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-348-9   (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
he story begins in Glevum (Roman Gloucester, a prosperous ‘republic’ and a colonia for retired soldiery) during late August 191 AD, at the birthday feast of the Emperor. Attendance at this feast and appropriate sacrifice – Commodus had pronounced himself to be a living deity and the reincarnation of the god Hercules – was compulsory for every citizen, though it is doubtful that many seriously believed he was a god. (The compulsion was real enough: St Peregrine was arrested, tortured and finally martyred in Rome, not for being a Christian – that was not, of itself, at this period a crime – but for publicly opposing this birthday sacrifice.)
The Emperor was by this time increasingly deranged, and his lascivious lifestyle, capricious cruelties and erratic acts were infamous. He had renamed all the months, for instance, with names derived from his own honorific titles (which he had in any case given to himself) and, after rebuilding a portion of the city following a fire, announced that Rome itself was henceforth to be retitled ‘Commodiana’. Stories about him barbecuing dwarves and having a bald man pecked to death by sticking birdseed to his head are (probably) exaggerated, but the existence of such rumours gives some indication of the man. However, he clung tenaciously to power and, fearing (justifiably) that there were plots against his life, he maintained a network of spies throughout the Roman Empire.
Britannia had been part of that Empire for two hundred years by now; the most far-flung and northerly of all its provinces, but still occupied by Roman legions, criss-crossed by Roman roads, subject to Roman laws, and administered by a provincial governor answerable directly to Rome (most probably Clodius Albinus at this period, although the date of his appointment is open to debate). Latin was the language of the educated, people were adopting Roman dress and habits, and citizenship, with the precious social and legal rights which it conferred, was the aspiration of almost everyone. But then, as now, there were small groups of dissidents who refused to yield. Although most of the quarrelsome local tribes had long since settled into peace, there were still sporadic raids (mostly against military targets) by small bands of Silurians and Ordovices from the west, who had never forgotten their defeated leader, Caractacus, and his heroic two-year resistance to Roman rule. The army had taken steps to suppress this discontent (creating special ‘marching camps’, where legionary and auxiliary forces were kept in tented camps ready to move quickly against insurgent groups), but there were still occasional forays, although at this date there is no record of any occurring as far east as the action in this story suggests.
However, it is well-attested that these rebellious Celtic bands were often associated with Druid practices – perhaps as an act of additional defiance against Rome, since the religion was officially proscribed. (Unlike Christianity, Druidism had been outlawed for some time, because of the cult of the severed human head, and adherence to the sect was technically a capital offence.) Stories were circulated of its gruesome practices: the sacred groves adorned with severed heads of enemies, the wicker man-shapes filled with human forms and torched, and the use of living human entrails as a divination tool. This suppression of the cult served to drive it underground and secrecy soon added myth to mystery. In the popular imagination the old nature-worshipping religion quickly became a fearsome thing, associated with witchcraft and sorcery – as the text suggests.
This is the background of religious and civil discontent against which the action of the book takes place. Glevum (modern Gloucester) was an important town: its historic status as a ‘colonia’ for retired legionaries gave it special privileges and all freemen born within its walls were citizens by right.
Most inhabitants of Glevum, however, were not citizens at all. Many were freemen, born outside the walls, scratching a more or less precarious living from a trade. Hundreds more were slaves – what Aristotle once described as ‘vocal tools’ – mere chattels of their masters, to be bought and sold, with no more rights or status than any other domestic animal. Some slaves led pitiable lives, but others were highly regarded by their owners, and might be treated well. A slave in a kindly household, with a comfortable home, might have a more enviable lot than many a poor freeman struggling to eke out an existence in a squalid hut.
Of course, the worst fate of all was to be born with some disability. There was no provision for a person who could not compete. Deformed or weakly children were exposed at birth, but some problems (such as deafness, as in this story) were not immediately manifest and therefore law permitted a father to dispose of a ‘defective’ child, perfectly legally, until it was three years old. If for some reason (like Paulina in the story) such a child continued to survive past this age it was regarded as a ‘moral lunatic’ with no rights at all in law, not even to inherit when a parent died.
Power, of course, was vested almost entirely in men. Although individual women might inherit large estates, and many wielded considerable influence within the house, daughters were not much valued, except as potential wives and mothers, whereas sons were the source of pride. Indeed, a wife of a rich man who produced no surviving male might well be divorced, although – as suggested in the tale – something resembling haemophilia, (which exclusively affects the males) was clearly present in the population at this time, making the afflicted mothers’ lives doubly tragic. Marriage and motherhood were the only realistic goals for well-bred women, although trademen’s wives and daughters often worked beside their men and in the poorest households everybody toiled. But females were rarely educated, except in household skills, they were excluded from public office, and a woman (of any age) was deemed a child in law.
There was, however, one notable exception to this rule. The Vestal Virgins were a class apart, and this forms the basis for the story in this book. Chosen exclusively from patrician families and subject to the most stringent requirements for entry, prospective Vestals were taken from their homes very young (from six to ten years old) and were bound to the temple for a span of thirty years: ten years in training, ten years of active duty at the hearth and the final ten years training the new novitiates and – it appears – sometimes dealing with suppliants. During the thirty years of service at the shrine she must remain a virgin on pain of dreadful death, but on retirement she might marry while still enjoying a pension which – uniquely – was provided by the state. (The old saying that ‘life begins at forty’ is said to have its origins in the Vestal life.)
Duties at the shrine included keeping alight the sacred Vestal flame, on which the fate of Rome itself was rumoured to depend, as well as making the special ‘mola salsa’ which was used at public sacrifices. So important was their role perceived to be that the priestesses of the hearth had special rights: a Vestal Virgin could testify in court, sign documents and make legal contracts like a man. Her life in the temple was a luxurious one, but the punishment for failure to observe her vows was horrible (being ritually walled up with a day’s supply of food and drink – so that no one could be directly guilty of her death). She was considered to be legally ‘married’ to the shrine: she wore a costume and distinctive hairstyle very like a bride’s, entered the temple with a dowry and although the Vestal House enjoyed the usufruct of that (just as a husband would) it appears she was permitted to take it with her when she retired (rather like a woman who might have been divorced).
If she chose to marry afterwards (as many did) these privileges automatically ceased and she passed under the aegis of her husband, like any other wife, but since a retiring Vestal was likely to be both wealthy and well-connected, it is perhaps not surprising that such a bride – as the book suggests – was regarded a considerable catch.
Moreover, there were very few Vestals overall – the original Vestal House in Rome housed a maximum of eighteen at one time: six in training, six in service and six to teach the newcomers. It has been argued that this is the only proper shrine, and that therefore there were only ever six serving Vestals at once in the entire Empire.
There is, however, some counter-evidence: there are remains of what was, almost certainly, a Vestal temple in Pompeii, and relics of the cult – or something very like it – are found in all corners of the eastern empire. It is therefore reasonable to postulate an equivalent daughter-house in Britannia, although there is no indisputable archaeological evidence for where this might have been. There have long been rumours of a Vestal hearth in Waltham St Lawrence, and that location has been accepted in this story as the likely site.
The rest of the Romano-British background to this book has been derived from a variety of (sometimes contradictory) pictorial and written sources, as well as artefacts. However, although I have done my best to create an accurate picture, this remains a work of fiction, and there is no claim to total academic authenticity. Commodus and Pertinax are historically attested, as is the existence and basic geography of Glevum. The rest is the product of my imagination.
Relata refero. Ne Iupiter quidem omnibus placet
. I only tell you what I heard. Jove himself can’t please everybody.
t was the Emperor’s birthday, so – like every citizen in Glevum who valued life and limb – I was at the temple for the public sacrifice. Not that I actually inwardly believed that Commodus was a deity at all, let alone the living reincarnation of Hercules, as he claimed, but it was not wise to say so. Our Imperial ruler might not really be a god, but he is certainly the most powerful man on earth and he has ears and eyes in every part of town. Casting doubt on his presumed divinity was likely to prove fatal in most unpleasant ways.
So I was there, with all the rest of my fellow citizens, dressed in my best toga and cheering right on cue. I had proffered the obligatory little flask of perfumed oil – bought for the purpose at a special booth – and had it accepted by the attendant priest to be poured out on the altar at the proper time. I drew the line at paying a whole denarius to buy a withered branch of palm, though the streets around the temple were crammed with stalls of them.
I had learnt my lesson at last year’s sacrifice. Palms did not grow in this most northerly of provinces, and the ones that were imported in honour of the day were not only expensive, but so dry and fragile they had a tendency to crack if they were waved too hard. Moreover, some of them looked suspiciously like plants I recognized, carefully slashed to resemble the traditional frond – though I could be wrong, of course, I have never seen a proper palm tree in my life. So I’d ignored the traders this time and contented myself with finding a safe spot at the back of the temple court beside the colonnade where any lack of waving was inconspicuous. (We were in the Capitoline temple for the spectacle – the Imperial shrine was in a smaller building in a grove within the grounds, but there was not room for everybody on a day like this.)
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