It is late in the afternoon as I gaze out of my mother’s villa, I start to wonder at the quirks of fate that gave someone like me a chance to be born, the spawn of an unlikely union between a former slave and a retired vestal virgin in the midst of the Roman Republic. Unheard but true, this is my family’s story…
My mother would often recount the day she became a sacerdotes Vestales, a venerated priestess of the goddess Vesta. At the tender age of seven, she was presented by her father Dominitus Livianus to the Vestal chief Virgo Vestalis Maxima Paulina as an offering to the goddess. Her father told her that she was being considered for the great honor along with nineteen other beautiful, bright, highly articulated and virtuous daughters of plebeian families. While nervously awaiting the decision cast by the lot, the Pontifex Maximus approached her and uttered in a booming voice the unforgettable words: “I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal on the best terms.” Just like that, her hand was snatched and she was yanked from her father’s lap and led to enter the Atrium Vestae, the House of the Vestals. Inside her hair was cut short and bound in white woolen ribands, her shorn pieces was hung on the tree of Capillata, and she was robed in the traditional white stola of vestal virgins. In all the confusion, only one thing remained clear in her mind, she was now freed from her father’s potestas in exchange for a 30-year vow of chastity and sacred duties.
For ten years, she lived in seclusion inside the precinct of aedes Vestae where she spent her days training with five other girls to perfect her required duties. She slept and ate memorizing prayers and hymns, and learning about the divinities and rituals involved in the manufacture of religious substances. At the end of her tenth year, her efforts paid off as she was deemed ready to perform her duties as the guardian of Rome’s sacred fire and symbolic storeroom. She was dubbed as the Vestan Rufina in an elaborate ceremony and her main duty inside the precinct was to tend and keep the undying sacred fire ignis inextinctus burning in the round peaked-roofed shrine of Vesta, goddess of the heart. She devoted her deep concentration and utmost effort in this task for she knew that the sacred fire represented Rome’s bright future and that extinguishing of the fire heralds the visitation of a great evil upon the city and its people. Rufina was also called upon to participate publicly in at least nine annual state rites throughout the year for which many people praise her outstanding competence and poise. In exchange for all her responsibilities, she was considered inviolable and given the privilege of living a social life similar to any other upper class Roman woman without the restrictions of paternal or husband authority, of handling her own property and writing legally binding testaments, of roaming the city in a carriage preceded by a lector or attendant carrying the fasces or an emblem of her authority, and of having special seats at gladiator games and public theatrical performances where she would assist priests as they made offerings for the deity in whose honor the game was held. Rufina said that she considered this a life of contentment until her 15th year as a sacerdotes Vestales when she met my father’s eyes for the first time and her life was changed forever.
On the Ides of May, near her 22th year of birth, as Rufina exited the chapel Sacella Argeorum with her sisters, Pontifices (most important priests) and their magistrates the Praetors to march along the road towards the river Tiber, she accidentally met the eyes of my father for the first time. That brief contact sent a shock of electricity down Rufina’s spine that she almost faltered in her step and actually missed a note of the hymn she was chanting. Fortunately no one noticed her lapse as she continued on, but her mind’s eye was filled with bright blue eyes brimming with sadness and determination. The same eyes that seem to follow her movements as Rufina flung the Argei (straw-stuffed puppets that represent the bodies of old men bound hand and feet) from the parapet of the bridge Pons Sublicius into the river Tiber. The man disappeared after the ceremony but the same eyes haunted Rufina’s dreams for months to come.
The meeting with Albanos Icorandus
The owner of the soulful eyes was the youngest son of the Avarician tribe chieftain Albanos Icorandus. Christened Commos at birth, he was a strapping lad of ten and eight when the Roman proconsul and general Julius Caesar marched his army throughout Gaul in the pretext of assisting Rome’s Gaullish allies against the migrating Helvetii. The Roman army was able to subjugate all the tribes in its path and those who resisted were squashed by the strength of the general and his Gallic allies. Thus, the city of Avaricum made its last stand and Commos helplessly watched his city burn and his entire family die in the carnage left by Caesar’s army. Near the battle’s end, his brother Albanos toppled over Commos’ battle worn body as the former reeled from a fatal stab wound. The unsuspecting Commos then sustained a head injury as he was knocked to the ground and was left for dead while the Roman army marched onwards. Lying unconscious among the Gaullish field littered with thousands of dead bodies, Commos was the only one to rise again and mourn his entire village. His heart was then filled with anguish and a thirst for revenge, so after paying his last respects for the dead, he travelled tirelessly for miles on foot to offer his services to the last remaining Gallic resistance to Rome, the Arveni tribe under chieftain Vercingetorix. But alas, he was too late. Caesar has already defeated Vercingetorix in the plains of Alesia and all Gaul was lost to Roman conquest in what Julius Caesar later retold as the Gallic Wars of 58 BC. Numb with pain and anguish, Commos carelessly attacked a group of Roman soldiers. He was grossly outnumbered leading to his eventual capture as a prisoner of war. He knew his fate and wanted to join his family in death rather than become the slave of Roman scum but his brother’s dying words, “Remember your birthright… Rebuilt your land and honor…” kept echoing in his head and stilled his hand from ending his own life.
Knowing the futility of escape, Commos allowed himself to be chained with the other Gauls. When they arrived at the Roman camps, they were treated like cattle to be auctioned. Their bodies were bared and around their neck signs were hung detailing their origin, age, health, education and other information pertinent to the buyers for assessment. They were then sold to the highest bidder. Commos, together with two other Gallic lads, were bought by the ship merchant by the name of Varius. They were immediately bought inside a ship, chained to their oars and was tasked to row the ship continuously for twenty hours a day with very little food and water. Slackers met with the end of a whip and those with very little stamina were dragged away never to be seen again. Thus Commos’ tedious mechanical life continued for the next three years until the faithful day that Julius Caesar commissioned Varius to prepare him warships to transport two legions of Roman soldiers to Britain. As the battle raged on, the British high tides caused its own destruction on the Romans as their beached warships filled with water and some of their anchored ships smashed against each other leading not only to ship wrecks but also to the loss of lives of those slaves and Romans left beneath the ship’s sterns. Hence Varius lost his interpreter in the midst of a foreign land. When he asked who among his remaining slaves is capable of interpreting the Celtic tongue, Commos, who has been educated in several different languages since birth, saw his chance for more freedom and immediately volunteered. When Varius saw Commos’ potentials, he completely removed Commos from his task of rowing ships; and instead he gave him the new task of his assistant. But with the new job comes a metal collar engraved with the Latin words for “I have run away. Catch me. If you take me back to my master Varius, you’ll be rewarded” that Commos has to wear around his neck at all times. Hence for the next five years, Commos served and learned from his master Varius the ways of ship building on the shoreline of Gaul.
Varius Returning to Rome
In 50 BC, Varius decided to return to Rome and live with his widowed sister Severina. He brought several slaves on his journey and they arrived on the fortuitous month of May during the public rites celebrating the sacrifices to the spirits of the river Tiber. As Varius and his entourage stopped to watch the procession, Commos was mesmerized for it was the first time he had set eyes on vestal virgins and one in particular dazzled him with her beauty, elegance and poise. And when their eyes met, he felt the world literally stop and all his being focused on this one person. Alas, he had to snap back to reality as Varius immediately called his attention to continue their journey as soon as the procession passed. He tried to catch a glimpse of the maiden as long as he can for he was afraid that it would be the first and last time he would be able to gaze upon such a being.
A few months after their arrival in Rome, as Varius and Commos passed a deserted alleyway after finishing some important business deals; they were set upon by rough looking thugs who wanted to relieve Varius of his bag of gold. Commos defended Varius but in the following skirmish, Varius was stabbed to the chest by one of the thugs. While Commos was checking Varius’ condition, Roman soldiers arrived at the scene and witnessed Commos grip the knife protruding from Varius’ chest. They interpreted the act as Commos embedding the knife into Varius’ chest in order to kill his master and escape. No one listened to Commos’ explanation, especially since Varius condition remained critical as he reposed in a coma. And Severina, in her grief, ensured that Commos will be sentenced to death.
Commos has already lost all hopes of redemption as he was led to the guillotine on the scheduled day of his execution. But as the guards led him around a corner, he came face to face with the shrine maiden he admired the most, the Vestal Rufina who was on her way to return a borrowed object to the wife of the fort’s captain. This accidental meeting spared the life of Commos for it was well known that vestal virgins, as guardians of the luck of Rome, can spare the life of any person unjustly accused of a crime and the unplanned meeting proves Commos’ innocence. Rufina swore to the accidental circumstance of their meeting and even visited the comatose Varius to offer her prayers and blessing. This appeased Severina and the Roman people who acceded to the pardoning of Commos. And as luck would have it, Varius awakened the day after to clear Commos’ name. And as his strength grew, Varius showed his gratitude for Commos’ dedication and care by proclaiming the latter his freedom in front of his friends and family and by offering Commos a permanent job in his household. Hence Commos joined the ranks of the liberti and started his life as a freeman in Rome.
Commos and Rufina express their feelings
Despite his new status, Commos never forgot Rufina. He would always be nearby every time she goes out in public to offer a word of greeting. One night, near the second year anniversary of his freedom, he chanced upon Rufina alone and far away from her servants after the execution of an annual public rite. Knowing that it would be the only time he could express his feelings, he took a chance and revealed his intentions. He was already prepared for rejection but Rufina surprised and elated him when she confessed harboring the same feelings for him. However, she cautioned that such feelings cannot be acted upon as long as she holds the responsibilities of her title. She also said that she will never be prepared for the grave consequence of being buried alive should she be accused of crimen incest by losing her virginity. Hence, she promised her commitment if Commos can wait for the end of her term as a vestal virgin. These are the promises they held dear to their hearts for the following years.
True to her promise, at the end of her 30 year service, Rufina loosened her hair from its traditional sexcrines style of a Roman bride and donned a different robe as a sign of her intention to leave the order. Though she was shunned by her sisters who warned her of the fates of those who left the Atrium Vestae, saying that they spent the rest of their lives in depression and regret of losing the pious reverence that their fellow Romans held for them, Rufina’s mind was firmly made up. She was ready to sacrifice everything for her loved one. And so, Commos came for her and married her within the month of her release. A year later, I was born in Rome, entitled to all the privileges of any Roman citizen without restrictions. My father’s hard work and my mother’s dedication have molded me into the man I am today, a senatorial candidate in the Roman Republic.