Print
Category: Classics & Creative Writing
Hits: 2021

Gardens and Goddesses

The town house of Appius Claudius Pulcher, Rome, 80 BCE

I sat beside Popillia on a stone bench sipping well-diluted wine in the courtyard garden of my father’s house. I scrutinised her face for a hint of emotion. Nothing. Like unpainted marble her perfect cream-coloured skin glowed in the sunlight. She might as well be a statue. Just like the statue of the goddess Venus that stood in the centre of the fountain.

‘How can you be so calm? One day you are planning a carefree summer with us at the villa in Baiae, then the next you have two days to go until the end of your life!’

‘Hardly the end of my life. It’s a great honour…’ I screwed up my face as I interrupted my friend.

‘What rubbish! Maybe if you’d grown up knowing you would be a Vestal from the age of six. If you’d gone to the temple at ten. But you are fourteen, Popilla. Fourteen! You should be meeting men. Falling in love.’ While I frowned, Popillia smiled

‘I am already in love,’ she whispered.

I coughed, choking on the wine. I was particularly prone to choking. My nurse used to say it was caused by trying to think of too many things all at the same time.

‘What?’ I tried again to find some flicker of passion in her beautiful dark eyes. Still nothing. How could she be in love? She never went anywhere that I didn’t know about. Or met anyone when I wasn’t with her. And then it all became clear. As if the statue of the goddess of love had climbed down from her fountain and spoken. Popillia was in love with my brother, Publius. Why hadn’t I realised before? They were very different in character. She was calm and studious and enjoyed reading poetry. He was impetuous and boisterous and loved sports. He was from a patrician family and her family was minor plebeian lately come to a little wealth. They were complete opposites. Of course she was in love with him.

‘But if you are in love then how can you bear to leave your lover?’

‘Because we cannot be married. And so I will remain a virgin in the temple of the goddess, and will learn to love her instead. I’ll tend her sacred fire, and spend my time in prayer and study.’

As Popillia said the word study my brother sauntered into the courtyard.

‘Who is spoiling this perfect summer’s day with talk of study?’

‘Publius, Popillia has to leave for the temple of Vesta the day after tomorrow. Have you any parting words for our dear friend?’ This time I scrutinised my brother’s face. Also nothing. He was grinning as he always did.

Popillia looked down to the floor.

‘I must go,’ she said, standing up. I got up with her and put my arms around her waist, pulling her close into a hug, then I kissed her on both cheeks.

‘Good luck, Popillia. I will miss you. We will miss you.’ She pulled away, nodded, and left, without saying another word. When she had gone I looked towards my brother once more.

‘Don’t you have anything to say? About Popillia?’

He took my wine goblet and drained the remains of the sweet red wine.

‘What a waste of a pretty face.’

 

 

As the years went by I thought of Popillia less and less, until I hardly thought of her at all. I saw her sometimes, walking in the procession on feast days (how her feet must hurt) and with the other Vestals in their box at the games (she always hated the games, how could she stand being so close to the blood?)

And while Popillia lived in the House of the Vestals I got married, and bought myself a villa on the Palatine with my own garden. I liked the garden. Marriage not so much. And my brother didn’t become any more sensible with age and experience. If anything, he got worse.

 

The Villa of Clodia Metelli, Rome, 62 BCE

 

My brother rushed into the garden, looking even more dishevelled than usual. Not that he ever looked pristine. My husband and brother could each be wearing exactly the same grade of toga, and the one would look like a statesman, the other like an unmade bed.

‘Can I hide out here for a few days? Until it all blows over.’ I raised an eyebrow in the arch way I had perfected from years of practice on numerous lovers.

‘You have heard?’

‘Of course I’ve heard. You are the talk of Rome. A stunt like that. Did you really think you’d get away with it?’ My husband Quintus was scandalised, along with the rest of Rome. It was sacrilege. A man intruding on the rites of Bona Dea, the good goddess.

‘Yes…. I don’t know…. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

‘I’m amazed you got out.’

‘Yes, well, you wouldn’t believe what happened.’ I raised an eyebrow again

Publius took my hand and sat beside me on the stone bench as we had done when we were young.

‘You should have seen me, in a long blue dress A shawl pulled over my face so that you could only see my eyes. He motioned as if putting on a stoa, the shawl that all good, modest matrons wore when out in public.

‘It was all going well at first but then that old bitch Aurelia thought that something was fishy and pulled down my shawl. I ran into the kitchens, and you’ll never guess who I bumped into. Your old mate. The one who went to be a Vestal Virgin!’

‘So it was Popillia who helped you escape?’

‘That’s the best bit of the story. She should have been mortified. You see, I really did bump into her. I tripped through the doorway and held out my hands so I didn’t fall, And my hands landed on her breasts. Both of them. You couldn’t have planned it! Nice breasts too, she’s really kept her figure!’ I frowned.

‘She recognised me at once, and led me out of the Regia. It’s quite a maze out back. So, thanks to Popillia, I am here with you now.’

‘Of course she helped you. Don’t you remember? She was in love with you when we were young.’

‘With me? No. I asked her why she was helping me and she told me it was for the sake of my sister. It was you, my beautiful Clodia. You were the person she was in love with.’

I sat back on the stone bench, looking up at the statue of Venus, in my fountain. A copy of the one at my father’s. Who would have thought it? The notorious Clodia. Lover of poets and politicians. The secret beloved of a Vestal Virgin.