The Waters of Sul
When Lucius Sabinus returned home the image of the girl he had met in the forest that morning was still vivid. He had spent most of the day dreaming about her. At the evening meal he learned that a girl fitting her description had been at his home but a few hours before.
"What was she doing here?" he asked, astonished.
"I found her staring at the house."
"She was tired and muddy. She had been picking herbs along the river and in the marshes. She�s some kind of healer I believe. I sent her to town in the boat. Why the interest?" Julia looked curiously at her stepbrother.
"I met her this morning. Was she not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen?"
Julia pursed her lips.
"Well..." she began grudgingly � and then laughed at his expression. "I�ll grant you she was beautiful. But she was too quiet and serious � too earnest. Rather dull I thought."
"Did you not notice the spark in her eye, the pride in her step? She had a kind of � a kind of majesty. I felt like falling at her feet. She could have been the handmaiden of a goddess!"
"Not by the time she reached me," Julia laughed. "She looked more like a peasant or a slave."
"You must have been blind!"
"Perhaps a woman sees different things in another woman."
"At any rate � she was here!" Lucius cried joyfully. "Praise be to Orpheus!"
"Speaking of Orpheus � the men finished the mosaic today. They�re working on the one on the verandah now."
Without another word Lucius turned and ran towards the new house. The men had finished work for the day and the place was deserted. The pattern on the verandah floor was only half completed. By stepping very carefully Lucius could just avoid the new paving and squeeze through to the door of the Orphic room. There the newly cemented mosaic gleamed, jewel-like, in brilliant colour.
Lucius stared at the figure of Orpheus himself at the centre of the design. Around him animals of many different kinds circled, giving the impression of power and movement, energy whirling around a still centre. Even the trees between the animals seemed to be in motion, their branches tossed by the wind. Orpheus, in his Phrygian cap, was playing his lyre, controlling all by the sweetness of sound. Further out, signs and symbols of the vortex were depicted suggesting the raw force of nature � nature unmanifest, awaiting the shaping and control of a god.
Lucius and his father, Aulus, had taken to the imported religion with enthusiasm. Everything foreign seemed interesting and exotic to them, while their local traditions and customs seemed primitive and boring. With their rise in fortune they had taken on Roman names and in everything they imitated their conquerors � even to using the family name of the Emperor Vespasian, Sabinus, as their family name. Perhaps if the officer who had seduced his first wife had not become Emperor, Aulus would not have been so ready to publicize the affair, nor Julia to boast of her illegitimacy. As it was, none of the local men seemed good enough for Julia, the Emperor�s daughter, and, on her rare trips to town, she scanned all the pilgrims who came to the Sacred Spring in the hope of meeting a suitor worthy and rich enough to take her to Rome.
The Orphic cult had started in Thrace, passed on to Greece and then had been adopted and adapted, like so many other religious cults, by the Romans. Minerva herself, now identified with the Celtic goddess Sul, had been associated in Rome with the Greek goddess Athena, the fierce and wise, the guide, mentor and warrior goddess who had defended the Athenians against their enemies.
Aulus, in rejecting the primitive superstitions of his people in favour of the worldly, sophistication of the Romans, chose Orpheus as his favourite god. Orpheus made sense to him. Orpheus made order out of chaos, like the Romans did. He played his lyre and the lion lay down with the lamb � warring tribes settled down and worked together for the first time under one over-all master. It was unlikely that Aulus, when he made his choice, had any idea of the deeper and more profound implications of the Orphic cult.
He set aside a room in his house for Orpheus and commissioned a mosaic for the floor. A priest was to come when the room was ready, and Aulus hoped his house would become an important centre of influence in the community. Foreigners and Romans might come who could not find satisfaction in the town. Locals, disappointed with the Oracle of Sulis Minerva, might turn to an alternative oracle. Aulus could not wait for the great house to be completed and the priest to arrive. Nor could Lucius. His interest in Orpheus was perhaps slightly different from his father�s. Aulus wanted the power that having such a cult centre in his home would bring, while Lucius genuinely believed in Orpheus and secretly hoped that he, himself, through the rituals, would be able to experience the Otherworld as Orpheus had done.
In their youth Aulus and the centurion, Decius Brutus, had been close friends. He had taken it hard when Kynan, as he was then called, had left. But Kynan�s father, Owein, was not one of his favourite people. To Aulus he was nothing but a troublesome, meddling fool, and in danger of bringing down the wrath of Rome on their heads and cutting them off from the lucrative trade that kept Aulus and his family so comfortable and wealthy.
Walking back from the market that day Aulus saw Owein holding forth among a small group of men in front of the baths. By his gestures he was very angry and the men, though at present silent, were listening intently.
Aulus had heard Owein speak often enough and knew that in that mood it would not be long before he had roused his listeners to the anger he himself felt.
"Hello, old man," Aulus called out, "what mischief are you up to this time?"
Owein cast him a furious look, but scarcely paused in his oration.
"Don�t listen to him," Aulus warned the others, laughing. "He�s full of nothing but hot air!"
"Hot air that will burn you to charcoal one day," Owein snapped. "Pass on, Roman lackey � this news is not for you."
"What news, old man?"
"Ask your Roman masters!" Owein�s lip curled disdainfully.
"I�m asking you."
Several of the men in the group looked uneasy by this time, and were starting to move off.
"Owein tells us that they are planning to put a huge statue of Claudius in the Temple forecourt," someone told him.
"And we are to sacrifice to it as though it is a god," another added.
"There! What do you say to that?" Owein demanded, looking at him in triumph, sure that even he would be shocked at this.
Aulus was � but would not admit it to Owein. He felt the Romans were making a mistake this time. Had they not noticed that the locals were not rational and pragmatic like themselves? They liked things to be mysterious and their gods ineffable and inexplicable. They would never worship an ordinary flesh and blood man � particularly one who had conquered them. The Celts hated defeat and would never lie down quietly under it. The Governor was asking for trouble over this, and would surely get it.
Owein was ranting on.
"There are too many shrines and too many gods here as it is," he grumbled. "Everyone who comes to the town seems to bring his own god and set up a shrine. You can hardly hear yourself speak for the noise of foreign tongues praying to foreign gods, or see for the smoke of sacrificial fires!"
"All the more reason for there to be one god over all," Aulus declared triumphantly, "and that one representing the might of Rome that rules over all the world."
Owein lifted his stick and threatened to strike Aulus.
Aulus stepped back and turned, laughing, to walk away. There, coming towards him, he saw his old childhood friend, Kynan, but Kynan in the uniform of a centurion in the Roman army. He glanced back, astonished, at Owein. The old man, shaking uncontrollably, had fallen back into the arms of one of his companions.
"So, Aulus, old friend," Decius the centurion called out, "you too have fallen foul of my father."
"Decius Brutus is my name now," he said, laughing. "I too am a Roman lackey!"
"Decius Brutus!" Aulus could do nothing but repeat the name. The Roman name.
Decius grinned at his astonishment.
"Come, Aulus, let�s leave these old men to shake their fists at shadows. We have much serious drinking to do." And he put his arm around his friend�s shoulders and led him away. As they turned the corner of the street, they both looked back. Owein, propped up by his friends, was staring after them. When he saw them looking at him he shouted something, but the noise coming from the nearby tavern drowned out his words.
Decius bit his lip and his face shadowed.
"He is a stubborn old man," he muttered. "There�s nothing he can do. Why won�t he accept it?"
"Many of the older ones cling on to their wounds as though they are afraid to let them go. The war with the Romans was a time of excitement � a time when they did great and heroic deeds. Life has been dull for them since."
"Well, if he keeps this up, he�ll find out how exciting life can be in a Roman prison."
Aulus could see the deep concern on his friend�s face.
"Don�t worry about him," he said soothingly. "He�s all bluster. Nothing ever comes of it. He will bow his knee with the rest when the statue is up � or be excused for age and infirmity. He can stride about with the best of men � but when it suits him I have seen him leaning on his granddaughters as though he is a hundred years old."
They had reached the tavern and pushed in through the crowds inside. Shoulder to shoulder they raised their mugs of British ale to the old times when they had been boys together and life seemed much simpler. Aulus looked at the hard lines on his companion�s face, the scars on his arms and the side of his neck.
"You�ve seen some action I see," he said. "Where have you been and what have you been doing while I stayed at home and made money?" Decius noticed the envy in his voice. He laughed.
"Believe me � you would not have wanted to be where I have been or seen what I have seen."
"Have you been to Rome?"
"Have you seen Vespasian, the Emperor?"
Decius grinned. "I have seen Vespasian, the Emperor."
"How close have you been? What does he look like? You know he fathered my step-daughter, Julia, when he was in Britain?"
Decius raised his eyebrows.
"He was not Emperor then of course," Aulus added hastily.
"I heard you married a woman older than yourself already with a child," Decius remarked.
"He didn�t rape her. They were lovers while he was here. He gave her a ring and promised to marry her. Julia wants to go to Rome and claim the relationship."
"Discourage her if you can. Rome is not like Aquae Sulis and the Emperor is no longer a lonely soldier on an outpost far from home."
"But he will remember her mother. It was not just a casual affair."
"Not to Julia�s mother perhaps � but the man must have had many women in his long career before he became Emperor. There was even a Jewish woman, I remember. But it did not stop him destroying Jerusalem. The world must be full of the illegitimate offspring of Roman soldiers and Roman Emperors. I am sure I have fathered some myself."
Aulus looked annoyed. It had been his ambition ever since Vespasian had become Emperor three years before that he and Julia should go to Rome and bask in some kind of glory reflected from the Emperor�s throne. He, himself, had first thought of the plan, and now Julia, unmarried and feeling the years passing her by, had become obsessed by it. He did not know how he could back out of it now. Decius was obviously a man of some influence and power. He had been to Rome. He had met the Emperor. Whatever his first reaction had been Aulus was sure he could call on his help when the time came. But first the man must meet Julia and be convinced by looking at her that she had Vespasian�s blood in her veins. Aulus had seen likenesses of the Emperor on coins and statues � but he knew they were idealized. It was difficult to be sure of the accuracy of any detail. Julia certainly looked more Roman than Celt � but that might just be because for so long she had believed herself to be Roman and had affected all the Roman fashions. Her nose was on the aquiline side � and that was a point in favour of her being Roman. But any Roman soldier could have fathered her. He had only his dead wife�s word for who it was, and a ring her lover had given her. When this was presented to Vespasian, surely he would remember? A ring of large pearls and lapis lazuli set in gold was surely too valuable for any ordinary Roman soldier to possess. There was no inscription, but the general had said that it was very precious to him because it had once belonged to the grandmother who had brought him up.
"How long will you be in Aquae Sulis?" Aulus asked Decius now. "Will you dine with us tonight?"
The centurion shook his head.
"Sorry. I would like to my friend, but I have to get back to my men. But I will be here for some time to supervise the erection of the statue of Claudius the Governor has ordered. I�ll probably have to stay on until the locals have accepted its presence. Which may be longer than I would wish," he added ruefully, "if my father�s reaction is anything to go by."
"It�s not going to be easy. Do you really have to do this? Have we not enough statues of gods in Aquae Sulis already?"
Decius shrugged. "This one will represent the power of Rome over all the local deities."
"Will it not be like rubbing salt into the wound? Claudius is the one who conquered us. Would it not be better to have another?"
"Who? They are all as corrupt as one another. Perhaps Vespasian is the best of them all."
"Then have a statue of the God Vespasian!" cried Aulus.
"So Mistress Julia could claim she is the offspring of divinity?"