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SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead
By John Maddox Roberts
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 John Maddox Roberts
All rights reserved.
I first heard of the O racle of the Dead during the year of my praetorship. I was praetor peregrinus, traveling all over Italy and hearing cases that involved foreigners. It was an extremely agreeable way to spend a year in office and it kept me out of Rome, where things were getting very ugly that year. I spent much of the year in and around Baiae, partly because I had the use of a villa near there and partly because it was a very pleasant place and I could do pretty much as I liked.
"It's not far from here," Sextus Plotius told me. He was a director of the bronze founder's syndicate, a very prominent local eques and, most importantly, he served the best Chian vintage I ever tasted. "Been here forever, maybe from the time of the Aborigines. It's said that Odysseus and Aeneas both consulted the Oracle there."
Baiae is, of course, named for its founder Baios, the steersman of Odysseus. Half the towns I have been in, including Rome, claim to have been founded by a Trojan War veteran or a near descendant of one. This is odd since, if you credit Homer, so many people were killed there that it's hard to believe so many town founders could have survived.
"How wonderful!" Julia gushed. "Can we see it?" My wife was much more interested in religious matters than I. I had already visited the far more famous Cumaean Sibyl, also nearby, and had not been impressed.
"Actually," I said, "we have a perfectly good mundus in Rome, my dear."
"It's not the same thing at all," she insisted. "The mundus just gives us access to the souls of our dead in the underworld. There's no oracle."
"And the dead know the answers to all things," our host added.
I knew that I would end up going to see this marvel. I have never understood why people attribute such omniscience to the dead. Nobody thought most of them were knowledgeable while they were alive and I don't anticipate a postmortem education. Even if they want to contact us, why expect them to tell the truth? Most people are liars while alive, so why shouldn't they continue as such after death? People have such unrealistic expectations.
So, the next morning, I found myself occupying a monstrous litter on its way to the Oracle. Besides myself, my wife, and Plotius, the litter held Julia's cousin, also Julia but nicknamed Circe, and Antonia, a sister of Marcus Antonius, the famous one, Caesar's loyal supporter, soon to be Master of Horse and, in time, triumvir. Behind us in another litter were a few others of our party: my freedman Hermes, a kinsman named Marcus Caecilius Metellus, and a few others whose names escape me now. Being a praetor and holding imperium, I traveled in considerable state in those days, with a whole gaggle of attendants. I'd left my lictors at my villa, since it was a day on which official business was forbidden.
It was an enjoyable trip, because traveling through the Campanian countryside is always enjoyable. Campania holds some of the fairest land in all of Italy. It was once held most unreasonably by a pack of Campanians and Samnites and Greeks and such before we conquered it and settled a lot of good, dependable Roman citizens there to keep the natives in their place. In time we came to a temple on the beautiful bay, with a fine view of the water and the island of Capreae beyond. At the moment we arrived, a fleet of galleys set out from the nearby naval harbor, walking across the water on their oars like aquatic centipedes, adding to the picturesque aspect of the scene, like a fresco come to life.
The ladies made the usual delighted noises as we disembarked from our prodigious transports. Looking around, I gave the temple some attention. It was a strange one, even for southern Campania, where many odd gods are worshipped. It had recently been refurbished to traditional Greek taste, in the Doric style like most Greek temples in Italy. But I could see that it was far older and had been built on a plan I had seen only in certain very ancient ruins, most of them in Marsian territory.
Even odder than the temple were the priests waiting to greet us. Atop the steps were six men in white robes wearing laurel chaplets, clearly devotees of Apollo and quite conventional, but at the bottom were six more robed in black, three men and three women. They wore wreaths of asphodel, a funerary plant, and the priestesses held a number of black dogs on leashes.
"Is there one temple here or two?" I asked Plotius.
"Two, really. The upper temple is dedicated to Apollo, as you can see. The cave of the Oracle of the Dead lies beneath it."
"Those look like priests of Hecate," Circe said. "The asphodel is sacred to her."
"And the black bitch is her tutelary animal," Antonia added. Like many other aristocratic Roman ladies, they knew far too much about foreign cults, especially the less reputable ones. Hecate is Thracian in origin, though she used to be worshipped widely in southern Italy.
"How fitting," Julia said. "Ulysses and Aeneas both invoked Hecate before entering the underworld." She caught my look. "Well, after all, Aeneas was an ancestor of my family." Sometimes I wondered about Julia.
Plotius made the introductions. The chief priest of Apollo was named Eugaeon, and I have forgotten the others. They extended the customary welcome, all the more enthusiastically because I was a Roman praetor. While they did this, they ignored their black-robed colleagues. It was as if these people did not exist. I refrained from asking, willing to go along with whatever local custom prevailed.
Then we got the tour of the temple. As I had thought, the interior revealed far greater antiquity than the exterior with its veneer of white marble and its new, Doric columns. It was murky inside, despite the coating of white paint, which covered what appeared to be older paintings and low-relief carvings. The statue of Apollo was pretty but looked out of place in this gloomy setting. He was in his rarely depicted aspect as Apollo the FarShooter, holding a bow with a quiver of arrows by his thigh. This is Apollo in his aspect as avenger. I was certain that one of the old terra-cotta images had once occupied its plinth, or perhaps one of wood. There were rude Italian gods in this place for many centuries before the Greeks came with their graceful deities.
Back outside, we were turned over to the other lot for the real purpose of our visit. They stood where we had first seen them. None of them had as much as touched the lowest temple step. To my surprise, the first to greet us was one of the women.
"Does the praetor seek wisdom?" she asked, oddly.
"Well, I have a fair store of it already," I began. Julia hit me in the ribs with an elbow. "I can always use more, of course."
"Praetor," Plotius said, "this is Iola, chief priestess of the Oracle."
"The Oracle is the source of all knowledge," she said in that thrillingly portentous voice employed by religious charlatans everywhere.
"Then it has some competition," I observed. "The Sibylline Books, the various prophetesses situated here and there —" another elbow from Julia.
"Frauds," Iola said succinctly.
"How so?" I asked.
"They claim to speak for gods. Our Oracle communicates with the dead. Have you ever known a god personally?"
"Well, they've only come to me in dreams," I admitted.
"But I will wager you have known a great many dead people."
"Um, never thought of it that way," I said, flustered as always when some total loon employs good logic.
She nodded. "Just so. Come with me." She turned and led us around to the rear of the temple, with the other sacerdotes and bitches in attendance.
"Why is the entrance around the back?" I wanted to know.
"To face the sunrise," the priestess explained. "At sunrise on Midsummer Day, the sun is positioned precisely in the center of the doorway and shines straight down the shaft."
"That must be impressive," I said. Roman religion does not make a great thing of the solstices and equinoxes, except to have festivals in their general vicinity, such as Saturnalia. This may have been because, prior to Caesar's reform of the calendar, it was so difficult to predict when they would fall.
The ground fell away behind the temple, so that the cave entrance was situated in the center of a middling hillside. The area around it was positively overgrown with vegetation associated with death, funerals, and graves: asphodel and hemlock, myrtle, cornel, towering cedar, and other, equally evocative plants.
"It's a gloomy gardener that planted this place," I said.
"Nothing was planted here, Praetor," said Iola. "All is as it has always been. The growth here obeys the will of the gods we serve."
"Don't be such a Skeptic, dear," said my ever supportive wife.
The entrance was smaller than I had pictured, and less rugged. It was a tall, narrow doorway surrounded by facing stones carved in a peculiar and antiquated fashion, the designs being similar to the ancient figures and patterns I had seen plastered over in the temple. The stone was deeply weathered and stained and bore no writing in any language. It looked older than the Lapis Niger and I suspected that it predated the appearance of writing in Italy. For the first time I began to take seriously the suggestion that this shrine was indeed Aboriginal. Just before the entrance, instead of the usual altar, there stood a broad stone table laden with cult objects: more chaplets of asphodel, miniature thyrsi or wands of cornel wood tipped with small pinecones, amulets depicting a tripartite woman's face, caps of dogskin, and so forth. There was also a tray of cups and a pitcher, all carved from wood and blackened with age.
"First," Iola said, "you must be purified and protected by the apotropaic rites." This involved a great deal of chanting and fumigation with incense, sprinkling with water from a holy spring, followed by more chanting, and culminating with the sacrifice of a black dog. Iola broke a sprig from one of the cedars, dipped it in the dog's blood, and painted our foreheads, our feet, and our hands with it.
It was all very conventional. I had been hoping for something more exotic.
Iola poured the cups full of something from the pitcher. Like just about everything else in the vicinity, the liquid was black. I knew that she expected us to drink the stuff. Sure enough, each of us was handed a cup and watched expectantly. Julia and the other women knocked theirs back as if they'd never heard of Socrates. I eyed my cup dubiously and the men of the party watched me.
For a while I toyed with the idea of throwing the cup away and going back to the villa. I reflected, however, this was some sort of religious charade, not a likely assassination plot. You don't murder somebody you intend to fleece. So I swallowed the vile liquid and the rest did the same. It was predictably bitter and I was pretty sure I detected oil of wormwood among the ingredients.
We were draped and garlanded with leaves and hung with amulets. Fortunately, only the freedmen of the party were required to wear the dogskin caps, which they accepted with poor grace, Hermes in particular. He had been getting arrogant since I freed him, so perhaps this little humiliation was beneficial.
One of the still-speechless priests or acolytes or whatever brought a flaming torch and the others produced small torches from someplace and ignited them. The flames were streaked with green, a bit of mummery I recognized: certain preparations of copper, mixed with firewood or any other burning medium, will produce green flame. The blackrobed torchbearers filed into the cave entrance and we followed.
My first impression of the cavern was one of disappointment. In the first place, it was not a natural cavern at all, but a man-made tunnel, and not a very big one at that. Its roof was so low that the taller members of the party had to duck their heads somewhat. It was so narrow that the walls brushed the shoulders of the men of the party. The closeness was quite oppressive, though from the giggles I heard behind me, the younger men and women were enjoying it. The smoke from the torches may have contributed to the carefree mood of the young people. Besides the acrid copper scent, I detected a smell of burning hemp. I had encountered this in Egypt and it is known to encourage merriment.
Soon the giggling stopped as the pervasive gloom affected everyone. Every few steps a small niche was cut into the wall, in which burned the flame of a small lamp. With this bit of light added to that of the torches and my improving night vision, I could discern the tool marks on the walls. Every bit of this tunnel had been cut from solid rock, and as we progressed along the down-sloping passage, I was struck by the incredible amount of labor and time that must have been expended in its carving, for surely only a single man could have worked on the rock face at one time; perhaps two if one worked crouching while a second leaned over him, standing. All the same, it seemed an unreasonable way to carve a tunnel. A small gang of miners could have made a wider tunnel in much less time.
Still, there it was. It had been cut with great care, the walls perfectly plumb, the floor smooth and sloping with great regularity. The ceiling was somewhat of a mystery, for what appeared to be centuries' worth of torch soot obscured it. It seemed more like something Egyptians would do than Italians. We are no slouches at stonework, as witness the wonderful masonry of our Cloaca Maxima, built when Rome had kings, and still as sound and perfect as the day the stones were first set in their courses. We carve away whole hillsides and tunnel through mountains to build our roads and aqueducts, but these projects are sensibly planned and carried out for practical purposes: to facilitate transport or carry water or conduct sewage away from a city.
This tunnel to Hell was something else. It was an uncanny work, produced at an immense cost in time and labor for purely occult purposes. My mood seemed to grip the others as well. They became very silent except for occasional shudders and gasps. I do not know whether it was the effects of the smoke or that drink or the stupefying monotony of the priestly chant, but we began to see and hear things (I questioned everyone later and confirmed that we had all experienced the same thing). Streaks of colored light began to dart among us and we heard whispering voices. I could not make out what they were saying, but they had that maddening quality so common to half-overheard conversations that if they were a tiny bit louder we might understand them.
The women became truly frightened, even Julia. We men maintained our stout Roman facade of Stoic impassivity to hide the quaking of our bowels. For make no mistake about it, we were all frightened. The hazards of battle and politics, the terrors of the natural world, these things may be dealt with employing one's physical bravery, strength, and resources. But what may a mortal man do in the face of the supernatural?
Not that I truly believed that these people could take us to the underworld and communicate with the dead, but those feelings of dread are easily aroused under the right circumstances, and they had the circumstances in the form of that tunnel. Thoughts flitted through my mind like those flickering lights, of cleverly manipulated mirrors and hidden holes to bear the voices of whispering confederates. At the Museum in Alexandria I had seen many wonders, all of them performed openly by philosophers without the slightest recourse to supernatural means, but that had not been amid such surroundings.
The tunnel still took us down. It may be that the smoke and drink distorted our sense of time and distance. Sometimes the flames of the torches seemed to draw far ahead of us and every word spoken or chanted seemed to echo endlessly. As always when venturing underground, I found that the weight of earth and stone above me seemed to press down and I had to slow my breathing, knowing that it would take little for me to burst into panic, a state far too undignified for a praetor.
Just when I thought the whole ordeal had become unbearable, the air grew humid and there was a smell of sulfurous water. The tunnel opened somewhat and divided, one way sloping up, the other downward. We came to a room that would have seemed intolerably small for a proper shrine, but after the suffocatingly cramped tunnel it was almost like emerging into open air, though the light was still dim and the air full of smoke and mist.
Excerpted from SPQR XII: Oracle of the Dead by John Maddox Roberts. Copyright © 2008 John Maddox Roberts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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