Common section

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

February 12, 28 BC

 CLAUDIA STOOD in the middle of her mother’s chamber while a dozen slaves rushed around, plaiting her hair into six even braids and fastening her crimson veil with flowers. She was giddy and shy, always blushing and surprisingly naïve for a nineteen-year-old woman. Perhaps because her skin was so light, every passing emotion colored her face a curious shade of pink. It would begin in her cheeks, then spread to her nose, her ears, and finally her neck. I noticed that Marcella had the same coloring, as if her face were an open scroll waiting to be read.

“The Romans certainly do things differently than the Egyptians,” Alexander remarked.

“Why? What do Egyptians do for marriage?” Claudia asked.

“The bride and groom take a special bath.”

“Together?” she cried.

Julia smiled. “How lovely.”

“How vulgar,” Livia retorted, but no one was listening. She had complained that my brother was allowed in the chamber while Claudia’s veil was being fitted, but Octavia had rightly pointed out that it was no different than watching someone put on a cloak. And there was no more skin showing on Claudia than if she had been mummified in linen like Osiris. Her long tunic was fastened at the waist by a girdle, and like a vestal virgin, she wore her veil so that it covered the rest of her body, including the top half of her face.

“Don’t be nervous,” Octavia murmured. “Agrippa is one of the finest men in Rome.” She turned to Marcella, who was seventeen. “And you will be next.”

Marcella nodded sadly.

“You aren’t going to be lonely without me?” Claudia worried. “You can come and live with me if you get tired of Pompeii.”

“And get in the way of your baths?” Marcella teased. “No, our aunt needs me.”

“Then you will kiss her for me, won’t you? And tell her I love her, even as a matron?” I could hear that Claudia was about to cry, and her sister wrapped her arms around Claudia’s waist.

“Of course I’ll tell her.”

I noticed that Octavia’s eyes looked sad. After so many years of separation, she had ceased to be like a mother to them. She had lost that special bond as surely as Horatia had lost Gaia.

Claudia lifted the hem of her tunic so that she could walk without tripping, and a pair of crimson sandals peeked out. She held out her arms so that we could see.

“Beautiful,” Alexander said.

“As beautiful as an Egyptian bride?”

“Even prettier,” he lied.

We could hear the music and laughing from the atrium, where the pool was illuminated by floating lamps and the dusk was held at bay by hundreds of candelabra. There was no special procession as there was in Egypt. We simply walked with the bride to the granite altar that Octavia’s slaves had carried in. An ewe had been slaughtered earlier, so that the augurs could again declare this a favorable day.

“Look at all the people,” Claudia said anxiously.

Patricians from all across Rome had come for the evening’s celebration, and Octavia said, “This is an important marriage. If something were to happen to my brother, who do you think would take his place? Marcellus is still too young.” She squeezed her daughter’s hand, and Agrippa approached the altar with Octavian and Juba at his side. His eight-year-old daughter, Vipsania, stood on his right, looking curiously at the woman who was to become her stepmother.

“She’s lucky,” Julia whispered, noting the direction of my gaze. “Claudia will be good to her.”

The laughter in the atrium grew muted, and senators in their best togas stepped closer to the altar to hear what was being said.

“Ubi tu es Agrippa, ego Claudia.”

“Ubi tu es Claudia, ego Agrippa.” Agrippa raised Claudia’s veil, and the entire atrium shouted “Feliciter!”

“That’s it?” Alexander asked incredulously. “All of that preparation for this?”

Julia raised her arms and clapped. “It’s done!”

Flute players led the way to the triclinium, where the couches were draped in saffron-dyed fleece to match the bride’s attire. A tall spelt-cake had been decorated with flowers, and as I bent to inhale the fragrance, Livia said merrily, “Soon it will be you.” When I straightened, she called to the old man next to me, “Catullus, have you met Princess Selene?” The deep black of his eyes was masked by a rheumy film, and his hands shook with some ailment of age.

The old senator lowered his cup of wine to smile. “A pleasure.”

“Such a pretty girl, isn’t she? Her mother had four children, and probably could have had more.”

Catullus raised his brows.

“So tell me,” Livia said, “is it true that you are looking for a wife?”

I felt the color drain from my face, and I was too terrified to turn or leave the conversation.

“Yes.” The old man nodded slowly.

“Well, perhaps you would like to spend some time with Selene.”

My heart was beating rapidly in my chest.

Catullus frowned. “Doing what?” he asked cautiously.

“Oh, for now, just discussing a few things,” Livia answered.

“And exactly what would he have to discuss with a child?”

I had never been so thankful to see Juba.

“My gratitude for your concern,” Catullus said swiftly to Livia, “but I believe I am wanted over there.”

Livia watched Catullus leave, then fixed her gaze on me. “You will never return to Egypt.”

“And how do you know she wants to return?” Juba asked.

Livia laughed sharply. “Because I know this one. She would have tried to run away if she didn’t think my husband might return her to Alexandria.”

Octavia appeared as silently as Juba had. “Livia,” she said sweetly, “I hope you’re not taking out your anger on Selene. It’s not her fault my brother has disappeared with Terentilla.”

Livia raised her chin. “He’ll never leave me. Terentilla’s nothing more than a theater-whore.”

“He left Scribonia,” Octavia reminded her.

“Because I had something to give him.”

“What?” Octavia asked. “A patrician name? Do you think he needs that now?”

“I remember a letter once,” Livia said pensively. “I believe it was from Marc Antony, calling your grandfather a freedman and a rope-maker from the town of Thurii. Do you really think that without my family the senators will sit quietly—just sit—while the descendant of a rope-maker makes laws for them?”

I recalled my father calling Octavian “Thurinus” once, and now I understood.

But Octavia only smiled. “Yes. And when that time comes,” she suggested, “let’s hope your friends outnumber your enemies.”

There was a loud cheer in the triclinium as the bride and groom took their first sips of wine from the same cup. I noticed that Juba had disappeared. Octavia held out her arm to me. “Shall we?” She led me to a table where Marcellus and Alexander were teasing Julia about how lavish her own wedding was going to be. But when Julia turned and smiled at me, I didn’t have it in my heart to be merry.

The celebration carried on almost until morning, when Octavian returned and announced that it was time for the groom to lead his bride to her new home. Senators began singing crude songs to the blushing bride, and flutists and torchbearers led the way while the guests followed. When we reached the portico of Agrippa’s villa, my brother stumbled over the first step and fell.

“Alexander!” I exclaimed.

“What?” He giggled. Marcellus and Julia giggled, too.

“The three of you are drunk!” I accused.

“It’s the Falernian wine,” Julia protested. She looked at Alexander, still sitting on the first step of the portico, and they all collapsed into laughter.

“Julia, Marcellus, Alexander,” Octavia snapped. “Get yourselves home.” Next to her, Gallia shook her head disapprovingly.

“But the bride hasn’t even—”

“I don’t care.” She cut off Marcellus’s protest, then looked down at me. “You may stay.” It wasn’t an offer. It was a command.

Alexander threw a pleading look over his shoulder at me, while Marcellus helped him up and the three of them stumbled away.

“You are the only one with any sense,” Octavia muttered.

On the steps outside Agrippa’s villa, Claudia was crowning the doorposts with wool, then anointing them with wolf’s fat to bless her new home. When Agrippa carried her over the threshold, he was followed by dozens of drunken senators eager to watch him lay Claudia on her bridal couch and take off her girdle. I would have gone as well, but Livia’s voice cut through the merriment.

“What’s the matter, Senator?” A thin man in a toga had just emptied his stomach into an urn. He rose shakily to his feet, and Livia told him, “You should get yourself home.”

“And miss the untying of the girdle?” He gave a leering laugh and made to go inside, but Livia stopped him with her hand.

“I will send a slave with you. Gallia,” she instructed, “take Senator Gaius back to his villa.”

I saw that the senator was about to protest, until he caught sight of Gallia. Then his smile grew wider.

Gallia hesitated. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have an escort of men, Domine?”

“Not tonight,” he said eagerly. “And the bottom of the hill isn’t far,” he promised.

Gallia searched for Octavia, but she had followed Claudia into Agrippa’s home. Without her, Gallia could never disobey Livia. “Of course, Domine.”

Livia followed the pair of them with her eyes, and when the cheerful throng of senators and well-wishers reemerged, she took Octavian’s arm. “A successful night,” she said happily to him. “Shall we retire?”

A cock crowed in the distance, and Octavian stifled a yawn. “It’s time.”

Guests were summoning their litters, and tired slaves, who had taken too much wine, staggered beneath the weight of their masters. I heard exclamations of horror as one litter bearer or another fell down.

Octavia turned to Juba. “Is it too late to ask you about a statue?”

“I doubt I will be getting much sleep,” he replied. The disappearing celebrants were making enough noise to reach the ears of Persephone as they called to one another in the gloom and shouted for the slaves to be more careful.

“It’s a gift I purchased for my daughter,” Octavia said. “But I’d like to know that it’s authentic before she takes it.”

We walked together to Octavia’s villa, and I wondered if I should mention what had happened with Livia. But before I could say anything, Octavia turned. “Where is Gallia?”

“Gone,” I told her.

She frowned. “With Magister Verrius?”

“No. Livia sent her with a senator to take him home.”

Juba asked swiftly, “Who? Which one?”

“A man named Gaius.”

He exchanged looks with Octavia, who put her hand on her stomach. “Dear gods,” she whispered. “When did he take her?”

“When everyone went inside to see Claudia’s bridal couch.”

“I know where he lives,” Juba said at once. “Below the south shoulder of the hill. I’ll go.”

“Wait! I know a shortcut,” I told him.

“Where?”

“Behind the Magna Mater.”

Octavia gasped. “Through the woods?”

“We used to use it on our way to the ludus. Before Juba started coming with us.”

Octavia looked at him. “Do you know it?”

“No one uses the woods,” he replied.

“We did! Marcellus convinced Gallia to take us that way. I can show you,” I promised. “Gallia would never use it in the dark, but you’ll get down faster.”

Octavia motioned swiftly. “Go. Both of you!”

Juba didn’t protest. He grabbed a torch from a soldier and led me through the press of drunken men and litters to the Temple of Magna Mater. “So where is it?” he demanded. “I don’t see a path.” He handed me the torch, and I picked out the trail we had used every morning.

I had never been in the woods at night, and I was thankful to have Juba behind me, despite his antagonism. “Over here,” I said, lighting the way. I remembered the night that Juba had saved me. “What if he attacks her on the road?”

“With so many soldiers watching the Palatine?”

When we reached the bottom, he took the torch from me and we raced together through a cluster of houses. His scarlet cloak billowed behind him, and the way the moonlight crowned his long hair made him seem more handsome than he was before. We stopped at a house being watched by a group of guards, and Juba approached the first man.

“Has a slave girl entered here?”

“That is none of your business.”

Before the guard could blink, there was a dagger at his throat and the other men withdrew. The torch extinguished itself in a puddle. “Let me repeat my question,” Juba said. “I come from Caesar’s sister Octavia, who would like to know if the Princess of Gaul, her favorite slave, was taken inside.”

The other guards slowly lowered their swords, and the man with the blade to his neck swallowed convulsively. “Yes, she’s inside,” he whispered.

Juba swept past him, and I kept several paces behind as he threw open the doors to Gaius’s house and shouted, “Gaius Tacitus!” There was the sound of shuffling in a chamber off the atrium, and slaves hid behind columns as Juba approached. “Gaius Tacitus!” he shouted again, and this time, Gaius appeared at the end of the atrium. His toga had been discarded, and he was dressed in his thinnest tunic.

“Juba.” He smiled. “And the little princess of Egypt, already budding into a woman.”

“Where is she?”

“Who?”

Juba crossed the room, and immediately, Gaius backed away.

“You mean the Gallic whore?”

There was a moan from inside a chamber off the atrium, and Juba shoved Gaius’s head against the wall. “Gallia!” Juba shouted.

I rushed inside, where Gallia was curled up on the couch. Her pale skin was bared to the moonlight coming through the open shutters, and only her long hair covered her nakedness. “Gallia!” I cried, and she looked up at me with blackened eyes.

“Selene.” She had fought him and lost.

“She’s hurt!” I screamed, and rushed to give Gallia my cloak. There was no sign of the tunic she had worn to the wedding, or the handsome leather shoes that Octavia had given her. “Come,” I told her.

But Juba warned abruptly, “Stay inside!”

We listened to the sound of men scuffling, and when I tried to help Gallia to her feet, I saw that her ankle was swollen.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m so sorry.”

“It isn’t your fault.”

“But I was there. I saw when Livia sent you.”

“And how were you to know what this man would do?”

“Octavia knew! She sent Juba, and if I had told her sooner….”

There was silence outside, and then Juba appeared. “Gallia,” he said, taking her into his arms in a single sweep. She didn’t cry out, despite her bruises.

“Please take me to Magister Verrius,” she whispered.

I followed them out of the chamber and saw Gaius bent double, clutching his stomach. Blood trickled from his mouth and his wounds. I wondered how many women he’d forced himself on, and then how Juba would explain the murder of a senator.

Outside the house, the guards shifted uneasily. “What … what happened?” one of them asked.

“Go inside and find out,” Juba told them darkly. He carried Gallia to a house in a small copse of trees, where smoke coiled from the opening above the atrium. When he reached the door, he didn’t have to knock. Magister Verrius opened it and saw at once what had happened.

“Gallia!”

Her lip began to tremble, and Magister Verrius led the way through his atrium to a woman’s chamber where the scent of lavender hung in the air. Juba placed her gently on a couch, then followed me outside the room while Magister Verrius took Gallia into his arms. I heard her beginning to tell him the story. Then Juba closed the door and we were alone.

“She should have said no to Livia!” I cried.

“She’s a slave. She doesn’t have that privilege.”

“But what if this happens to her again?”

“It probably will.”

I couldn’t understand Juba’s callousness. There was weeping on the other side of the door, along with exclamations of rage from Magister Verrius, who had never raised his voice to us in the ludus. “So how will you explain the senator’s death?”

“I will say he challenged me. Only you were there to see it.”

His dismissiveness riled me. “Don’t you care about what happened tonight?”

“Of course I do, or I would never have risked my life to kill Gaius. But aside from freeing every slave in Rome and joining ranks with a traitor, what would you like me to do?”

I thought of the denarii Alexander had won at the races, but rejected the sum as being too small. Then I touched my mother’s necklace of pink sea pearls. The golden pendant alone could buy Gallia’s freedom; the rest could support her for many years. I unclasped my mother’s last gift to me, then handed it to Juba.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You deal in old statues and jewels,” I told him. “I want you to trade it for me and buy Gallia’s freedom.” If Gallia was freed, she would never have to obey the commands of a citizen again.

He raised a single brow. “And what makes you think that Octavia will accept it?”

“The denarii from this necklace could feed half the mouths in the Subura.”

“I doubt she needs denarii.”

“Are you refusing?”

He took the necklace and held it up to an olive oil lamp.

“It’s real,” I told him.

“I would expect no less from a princess of Egypt. Was it the queen’s?”

I blinked away my tears. “Yes. But if Octavia accepts the payment, I don’t want you to tell Gallia who it came from.”

“How charitable.”

“It isn’t charity!” I was the reason for what had happened to Gallia. She had defended me once when I had refused to wear Livia’s beaded dress, and made an enemy of a woman who wished to see everyone else suffer. “I owe this to her,” I whispered.

If it hadn’t been the start of Lupercalia and the beginning of a week’s holiday from the ludus, I would never have woken in time to meet with Vitruvius the next morning. When I opened my eyes, Alexander had already left the chamber, and the windows, which usually looked over a dark and richly wooded garden, were brightened by the winter’s milky sun. I listened for a moment for sounds outside my chamber, wondering what time it was and where everyone had gone. Did they know about Gallia? Would Juba be punished for killing a senator?

I dressed as quickly as I could and simply pushed back my hair with my diadem. When I looked in the mirror, only the golden bulla stared back at me. I had traded my mother’s last gift for Gallia’s freedom. In everything he did, Juba was swift. Surely by now some woman was placing my mother’s pearls around her neck, admiring them in a large bronze mirror without ever knowing what they had meant. I closed my eyes to keep the tears from falling, and wondered whether Octavia had accepted the denarii.

I opened my door and listened for Marcellus, but the halls that were normally filled with his laughter were silent. When I peered into the library, I saw Octavia and Vitruvius sitting together. As soon as Vitruvius saw me, he rose. “Octavia would like to speak with you,” he said quietly. I searched his eyes for some indication, but his face was a mask. When he shut the door behind us, I looked at Octavia.

She motioned for me to sit, then she folded her hands and heaved a heavy sigh. “A terrible thing happened last night.”

“Yes. Very terrible,” I said quietly.

“But you may have helped save Gallia from death.”

“I did nothing. It was Juba,” I said, just as it had been Juba who had saved Octavian from assassination.

She studied me with her soft eyes. “And it was Juba who came this morning with enough denarii to manumit Gallia.”

I lowered my gaze to my lap.

“So I freed her.”

I looked up swiftly.

“I am ashamed to say that for all my charity, I was not as generous as you were to Gallia.”

“It was my fault she went with Gaius. I should have stopped her!”

“And defy Livia’s command?” Octavia laughed mirthlessly. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

“We could have found her sooner!”

“You found her before Gaius strangled her, Selene. And if he had succeeded, there would be no one in Rome to tell the tale. Do you think his guards would have given him away? His slaves?”

“Where is she?” I whispered.

“She will live with Magister Verrius now.”

“And you aren’t angry?”

Octavia didn’t say anything. She clasped her hands, then unclasped them. “I am sad that I had to tell Gallia she was free when it wasn’t my generosity that freed her. And I am sad that I will be losing my closest friend. I have been selfish in wanting to keep her a slave. Perhaps I have been selfish in many things.”

“No. You are the spirit of Empanda,” I said earnestly, thinking of the goddess of charity. “And even Empanda must have coveted something.”

“At the expense of a life?” She stood, and I wasn’t sure whose life she meant. That of Gaius, who had died by Juba’s sword, or Gallia, whose life had been given to slavery. “It is possible that Gallia will return,” she said. “But not before she has recovered.” I rose from Vitruvius’s chair and followed her across the room. At the door, she paused. “However, if there are other slaves you wish to free, Selene, I would save your denarii. Gallia may be a friend to me,” she warned, “but I am no Red Eagle.”

I missed the Festival of Lupercalia. While Alexander and Marcellus sacrificed a goat in Romulus’s cave and watched while young men were putting on the skins of the sacrifice, running down the Palatine, and whipping anyone in their path with strips of goatskin, I sat alone in my chamber and sketched. From my room, I could hear the shrieks of the women. They were the ones who stood in the path of the whip to ensure fertility over the coming year, and when there was no more screaming, I heard Marcellus’s voice and assumed that everyone had returned.

Alexander was the first to enter the chamber, and when I saw his face, I jumped from my couch.

“What happened?” I cried.

He laughed. “It’s not mine. It’s goat’s blood.”

“What for?”

“The Lupercalia! And if you hadn’t been sleeping, you could have come. But I felt too sorry to wake you.”

“Sorry for me, or sorry for Gallia?” I demanded, and immediately he sobered. “You think you’re going to be King of Egypt someday, acting like this? After you saw what endless feasting and drinking did to our father?”

“It isn’t endless,” he said quietly. “It’s just one morning.”

“Which happens to come after a night of bloodshed!”

“I heard what you did,” Marcellus whispered. “My mother said you bought Gallia’s freedom.” Behind him, Julia and Alexander both exclaimed, “You freed a slave?”

“And Octavia let her go?” my brother pressed.

“It appears that way.”

“Do you think Gallia will return?” Marcellus asked.

“Your mother said it was possible. If I were Gallia, I would leave Rome altogether.”

“Livia was happy this morning. But when she hears what you’ve done, she’ll be beside herself,” Julia said fearfully.

“Then no one will tell her,” Marcellus replied firmly. “Gallia doesn’t know who it was, and Livia won’t either.”

But my brother scowled at me. “You never cared about the slaves in Alexandria.”

“And in Alexandria, we had a kingdom. Here, what’s the difference between us and Gallia?”

“Citizenship,” Julia said.

“No,” my brother said. “A roll of the dice. We could just as easily have been made slaves.”

“The children of a queen?” Julia exclaimed.

“Wasn’t Gallia the child of a queen?” my brother asked.

She made a face. “The Gauls are barbarians.”

“And what if tomorrow your father decides that Egyptians are barbarians?” I asked.

Marcellus and Julia were silent.

“Please promise you won’t say anything,” I begged, but even though Julia nodded, I wondered whether she could keep such a secret.

That evening, as we walked to Octavian’s villa, Marcellus waited until my brother was ahead of us to whisper, “You have a very kind heart, Selene.”

I was glad there was only a sliver of moon. That way he couldn’t see the rush of blood to my cheeks.

“I had always hoped to set Gallia free when I became Caesar. I wasn’t sure how my mother would take it. You’ve done what I was afraid to do.”

“It was nothing.”

“I don’t think so,” he said tenderly.

Our eyes met, and I wondered for a moment if he was going to kiss me. Then Julia, in one of her new silver tunics, appeared on the portico, waving to us. Marcellus turned, and we said no more.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!