The Frowning Madonna; Chapter One
I was born, for the first time, in the city of Londinium in the year 392 A.D. If I ever knew my natal day, I’ve long since forgotten it. My father, Marius, was a Roman Centurion. An excellent soldier and administrator, he rose through the military ranks, becoming Commander of the Londinium fort. If I dig deep into my memories, a fuzzy image emerges, a handsome man with dark hair and dark eyes; stereotypical Italian. By today’s standards, he was short, but in my mind’s eye he towered over us.
My mother, Tullia, was the daughter of a mid-level administrative official, a bureaucrat employed at the Basilica. She took enormous pride in the fact her father was born in Rome; it gave her some measure of cachet among her native born friends. I remember her as a sloe-eyed beauty; I suppose that’s how she caught my father’s eye. An indulgent parent; I adored her.
We lived a typical upper middle-class lifestyle. Our house sat on the east side of town inside the stout city wall, near the Aldgate. The villa was a sprawling one-story complex covered with a red pantile roof. My most vivid memory was the triclinium, the chamber where father wined and dined his guests. I spent hours laying on my stomach studying the beautiful mosaic floors, covered with images of fish, wild beasts, fruits and images of the gods. I learned my colors and the names of many creatures studying the floor. Our home had heated floors which kept us warm in the winter and on those chilly summer days when rain was our constant companion. When warm, we lounged in a walled courtyard lined with potted limes. Lead pipes carried hot and cold running water, and I had a sleeping chamber to myself. I confess, for almost 1600 years, it was the nicest house in which I lived.
My apologies, I have been remiss in my telling and neglected to introduce myself. My parents named me after my maternal grandmother. Through the centuries, I have answered to many names in multiple languages, but my dearest friends know me by my Roman name, Lalia. What did I look like, you wonder? In my mind’s eye, I am a slight Roman girl with olive skin and jet black hair. My father said I was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, and I believed him. I spent many an hour studying my features in mother’s prized polished tin mirror. Peering at my reflection, I scrutinizing my eyes, my nose, and my teeth. Today my features depend on the body I inhabit, short, tall, pretty, ugly. The sole constant is my personality, fixed, unchanged; I am always Lalia.
Now, back to my tale. Like most wealthy Romans, my family owned slaves. Some worked our farm land located outside the city gates. House slaves cooked, cleaned and cared for the children. Vita was my personal slave, it was she who raised me and my sisters. Vita was not her birth name. It was, I’m sure, some unpronounceable Visigoth word which I cannot recall, if I ever knew it. We used to tease her because she was so tall, taller even than my father. I marveled at her alabaster skin, and her glorious blond hair worn in a long braid as thick as my arm.
Each morning Vita and I walked to the forum, purchasing food for the evening meal. We explored dark alleys and poked our noses in each nook and cranny of the city. Temples, statues, the amphitheater, the Governor’s Palace, and the river itself vied for my curious attention. All my lives, I’ve loved the river, the lifeblood of Londinium. The fourth century river, the Tamesis, called the Tems by native Britons, was wide and shallow. A gentle slope led to the water’s edge, lined with reeds and cattails. Now, man-made embankments keep its water penned inside a narrow channel as it rushes towards the sea. A necessary improvement protecting the town from flooding high tides, still it was untamed and beautiful. During the summer’s lowest tides, we lifted our togas and slogged across to the other side, where banks of wild herbs and berries grew. I spent many a summer afternoon splashing in the cool water, watching fishermen cast their nets and trading ships head out to sea.
The imposing fort dominated the northwest corner of town. All the soldiers recognized me and waved as we passed. In the city center sat the large Basilica where Grandfather worked. Alongside it was the busy forum, the hub of commerce, buzzing with merchants and traders. There were elaborate bathhouses, markets and temples, lots of temples. The law required we worship the emperor, but beyond that, religious choices abounded. The gods spanned the social strata dedicated to crafts, occupations and lifestyles, no one was beneath them. I remember temples dedicated to the Egyptian god, Isis, and a large complex for the mysterious god, Mithras, a former rival of Christianity. Most temples and shrines honored the popular Roman gods; Mercury, Diana, Apollo, Venus, etcetera. And then there was the goddess Cybele.
Cybele, Cybele, bane of my life. Cybele, goddess of motherhood, Magna Mater, the great mother. An ancient deity, she originated in Anatolia in 600 B.C.; the Greeks adopted her, then passed her to the Romans. We copied everyone. Her worshipers hailed from all strata of society, rich and poor, male and female, free and slave. Celebrations and ceremonies often sank into debauched orgies. She demanded her priests undergo castration. A weird and painful price, few volunteered to pay. Vita was a devoted follower; she often snuck me inside the temple when it was quiet to leave an offering; grapes, pomegranates or apples, to please the goddess.
Cybele’s temple perched on a small knoll overlooking the river. Beside it sat a luxurious bath house. The baths were amazing. We went weekly as a family. A civilized process, we moved through a series of rooms, the tepidarium, the caldarium, and then a plunge into the chilly waters of the frigidarium. It sounds gross today, but we slathered our bodies in olive oil, then scraped it off, along with dirt and dead skin. The entire experience reminds me of a day at a fancy London spa, which might run into a hundred or more pounds. You can view the ruins of the bathhouse on Lower Thames Street in Billingsgate. It’s underground now, built over for a thousand or more years. Dru and I visited once, but it made me cry and brought back painful memories; memories best left buried underground.
That reminds me. I haven’t told you about Dru. Her full name is Drusilla, but I call her Dru for short. She’s been my best friend for 1600 years. Her appearance, like mine, altered with the passing centuries. I still recall the visage of her homely Roman face. She had an enormous nose and crooked teeth. One leg was a wee bit longer than the other, and her hair, Oh god, her hair. Sticking out in tufts, it refused to behave no matter the oil, unguents and treatments she applied. Beyond the superficial, she was smart, loyal, kind. Above all, she was the most joyful person I’ve known. She exuded quiet confidence when I was rash and impulsive. She steady my fears and lifted my spirits. I loved her. I love her still.
This was the Londinium of my childhood. The youngest child of the Legion Commandant, my loving father, allowed me to run wild. My three older sisters were model Roman citizens in the making. Mother made sure of that. She taught them to be efficient wives and good mistresses to their slaves, how to keep house and how to pray. Unaware of the decline and impending fall of the empire, I spent my childhood in happy abandon, playing with friends, oblivious to the chaotic world swirling around me. But as the saying goes, all good things must end.
In the year 405 AD, Gaul fell to the enemy, the Germanic hordes crossed the Rhine. They seemed unstoppable. By 410 AD, barbarians knocked at the gates of Rome. Unbeknown to us in our remote outpost, Alaric, King of the Visigoths and his army overran and sacked our far-off capital. When word reached the shores of Albia, it shocked us to our core. The mighty Roman Empire crumbled before our eyes. Desperate, the emperor recalled my father’s unit to the continent. The battle for Gaul took military precedence. The Legion’s departure left Roman Britannia defenseless. The Emperor showed little pity; look to yourself for succor. Despite Father’s promise to return, we never saw him again.
With the Picts, Scots and Saxons baying at our distant walls, the residents of Londinium cowered in temples, praying for relief from unresponsive gods. Our pleas fell on deaf ears. In desperation, my family split the odds and worshiped at different temples, attempting to cover all religious bases. I chose, much to my regret, to honor Cybele for her ability to provide aid and the fact that the cutest boy in town worshiped at her temple. He sealed the deal.
His name was Sirius. His father, a soldier, sailed to Gaul with the legion. Sirius was cute; no, he was gorgeous. Black hair, square chin, a dimpled smile, and the bluest eyes I’d seen. Blue and green eyes hinted at his barbarian blood, a social stigma, but Dru and I didn’t care. Dazzled by a brilliant white smile that gave me funny feelings, he was my first crush. I attended temple services to see him, stand near him, and I prayed he’d notice or speak to me. The safety of Londinium took second fiddle in my foolish romantic thoughts. Against her family’s wishes, I convinced Dru to accompany me and Livia to her temple. Despite months of prayers and offerings, the empire continued its fall into chaos.
Cybele’s temple priests put their heads together and decided what Londinium needed was a real dust up, down and dirty, bacchanalia of a celebration to capture our Goddess’ distracted attention. Cybele was also the goddess of soldiers, so they conjectured any added effort might bring our military men safely home. It was a well-known fact that you could lure a god to your temple with a fantastic show. If we could get her to grace our far-flung temple, we could plead our case in person. Cybele, a cougar in her day, had a penchant for handsome young men. The priests theorized a dedication ceremony might snare her roving eye. They did not have to look far for a nubile fresh faced victim. The honor fell to Sirius.
Excitement faded as the thought of castration, and its painful implications sunk in, marring his anticipation. But there was one interesting potential outcome that could make up for his emasculation—immortality. If the Goddess attended, and Sirus caught her fancy, she could make him one of her immortal lovers, perhaps take him to Mount Olympus. The prospect, I was told on good authority, intrigued both him and his mother. I was deeply disappointed. So was my best friend, Dru.
end of chapter one