Immolation

They came for me as I was grinding the last of the roasted spelt. My sisters stood by with downcast eyes. I did not know who of them believed in my innocence. I found that I was troubled by this. I would go to my death willingly, but I was unwilling to let the ravenous Republic destroy my virtue in their eyes

I remain as I have always been, steadfast, beholden to no man, the eternal bride of Rome. I have not done these things that are put upon me. They know this. Yet my cousin, my supposed ravisher, lies dead and unburied outside the walls, and today I walk the path of no returning to the Evil Gate. It is the will of the Pontifex Maximus that I end my days of service in ignominy. I do not leave the sisterhood in grace. No retiring reward for these decades I’ve given them. No peaceful garden in which to rest these weary bones. A Sanctuary of Trees

I am to die for the sins of the state.

It began with the hunger. Now it is said that Ceres withheld her blessings and Vesta turned her back on our homeland because of my impiety and incestuous comportment. They say I am the cause even as they fail to draw the line between me and the hunger I created. They say the sibyls spoke of impropriety but were unheeded. For who would suspect a Vestal? Even the act of misgiving would be an affront to the goddess I serve. But, they say, the evidence became overwhelming; it was apparent that Vesta was chagrined. They determined to root out the offense and so arrived at my door.

But I remember those days. I do not remember any impious acts of my own, but I do recall theirs. I remember blackened fields and Coriolanus at the gates. I remember the siege engines groaning and fiery missiles shrieking in the night. I remember the terrible winter that followed in the wake of the Volsci. I remember the hands held out, the distended bellies, the empty eyes of the children. I remember the dead. So many more than the young men who defended the walls with their bodies. I too went hungry.

But there was no hunger in the halls of the Flamines. There was no dearth of offering given to the thundering gods of war and dominion. Indeed, the fires burned high on the alter of Quirinus even as we struggled to find salted meal to lay upon the sacred hearth. And now, like his mother, I am blamed for the famine that war wrought. Though unlike Rhea Silvia there is no evidence in my womb. Because there was no act. Nor did I quench the fire I tend. Rather I went without bread than betray my vows like that.

They did not go without bread.

When the second solstice passed with no harvest there was death in the streets. Yet the patricians had plenty. For they had well-defended estates far from the martial fields, and their wealth brought them grain from distant lands. They baked bread in great ovens while hunger stalked the children of lesser men. They feasted while I and my sisters starved. They brought no offerings to placate the deities of hearth and harvest. Yet they say I am to blame.

In those days, my cousin Cassius, the consul of Rome, saw the suffering. I do admit to swaying him in that respect. I opened his eyes, not through the dubious charms of my sex, but with words of woe. Our people were dying. Perhaps the deities were offended. Perhaps bread on the altars could remedy that. But not before hundreds more would die. Cassius was moved to intercede, not with the gods, but with men.

He simply asked that productive land be given to the needy plebeians. The patricians were enraged. But even the plebs turned on him as the fields recovered. His reforms were too generous. His belief that no person should want when there was abundance for some was too radical. He threatened the order with wanton benevolence. And so they needed to find other fault in him to silence this minacious kindness before it spread.

And so they came to me.

Cassius is my friend, my ally, my confidant, and my father’s nephew. He is not my lover. But Cassius is a virtuous man, beloved of many and friend of the rex sacrorum. He could not be falsely accused of something easily disproved without repercussion. So they needed a hidden offense, one that would strike to the heart of Rome and yet could not be seen. 

It was the vicious wife of the Flamen Dialis who suggested our supposed infidelity. She often cut her eyes at me during the course of her duties. She envied my position of power tied to no man though she could have led a similar life had her father given her to Vesta as mine did. I knew her mind. Yes, I could read it in her eyes alone, but I had confirmation from my chamber slaves.

A vestal virgin, detail of an engraving by Sir Frederic Leighton (c. 1880)

So then when the time was ripe she saw her chance to cause me harm. What better way to indict Cassius than to name him my illicit love. There need not even be proof — other than the woes of the state. And I would fall with him. Her poisoned words spread from her husband to the other flamines and thence to the rest of the patricians. Soon it was common knowledge that Cassius and I had caused the very hunger that his land reforms sought to redress. Of course this was his goal! It was his guilt that prompted such an outlandish distribution of wealth.

They came for him first. He likely spent his last days beaten and imprisoned. I do not know; they allowed no communication. My worried message to him after his incarceration was submitted as the only evidence of our liaison. I would not have written had I known that this letter would corroborate the accusations against him. He was rendered and thrown into the wilds, alone and unburied. His widow and children now go hungry in the streets. And I? I walk the path to my immurement. 

I will go. And tomorrow a child will take my place grinding grain and salt at this altar.


This story is the more or less true tale of Oppia, one of only a handful of Vestal Virgins to be accused and convicted of violating her vows. All of these women shared similar stories. They were all made scapegoats for the Roman state.

The Virgins had great power and high visibility. They also lived under a strict rule of chastity. If they were to lose virginity, which was broadly defined as “self-sanctity”, they were automatically punishable by death, which was traditionally live burial (immolation) in graves that were not to be tended. In other words, they lost all identity for all time.

This public punishment was a horrifying spectacle, not unlike the witch burnings of the Early Modern Era. When the state needed to sway public opinion quickly and decidedly, there was no better target.


Wednesday Word

for 8 June 2022

sanctuary

Vestalia began yesterday. For me this means re-centering. Focusing on the home and the hearth. It means re-membering what is real and therefore important, holy. Like everyone, I tend to drift away from my own priorities, caught up in the busy-ness of human culture. This is the time for me to come home, metaphorically and in practice.

Part of that practice is carving out a sacred space in which to live these priorities of mine. My hearth is my center. My garden is my holy ground. My home is my sanctuary from all that enrages and saddens and confuses me. I find my faith in this place that I love and that loves me in return.

I especially believe in trees, what we see of them and what must be beyond our sight for them to be as they are. Like Gene Logsdon, I have made A Sanctuary of Trees out my life. Trees are beings, full of life and living wisdom. An orchard or woodland grove embodies the sort of calm patience that I seek for sacred space. For me, building sanctuary means planting trees everywhere as well as nurturing those within my reach. Also it means not abusing them with acts that make this world inhospitable to them, but that is less within my power to affect.

Vestalia falls in early June when I am wandering about with loppers, a shovel, and a bucket of saplings. It is a good time to reflect since my body is occupied but my mind is quiet. And I think I’ve done well with this brief candle of time that I’ve been given. My hearth-tending and sanctuary building will last for centuries, giving food, comfort and beauty to many generations.

Yes, I believe in trees, but what is your center? What is your hearth-stone? How do you make sanctuary? It is time to consider these things.


©Elizabeth Anker 2022


Wednesday Discourse

Wednesdays are open posts. Anything you feel like sharing (except the usual injunctions against foul messaging).

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