'I have been an impious man! I have offended the gods terribly!'

'Yes, and you had best appease them while you can. Confess what you have done, here in the presence of the Virgo Maxima.'

The man convulsed, so violently that I thought he would die then and there. But after a moment he rallied. 'Forgive me…'

'Why did you come here?'

'I followed Catilina.'

'On whose orders?'

'Publius Clodius.' ('I knew it!' whispered Catilina.)

'What was your purpose?'

'We were to follow him into this house, unseen. We were to spy upon him in the Vestal's room. I was to wait until the most compromising moment-except that they never took their clothes off!' He laughed sharply, and gasped with pain.

'And then?'

'Then I was to kill Gnaeus.'

'The man who came with you?'


'But why? Why kill your partner?'

'How better to ruin Catilina beyond hope, than to have him caught naked with a Vestal, along with a corpse and a bloody dagger? Except that they wouldn't… take off… their clothes!' He barked out another laugh. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth. 'So… finally… I went ahead and slit Gnaeus's throat. The poor fool never expected it! Then I was to escape in silence, and raise an alarm outside the doors. But I never counted on Gnaeus making so loud a scream! I dropped my knife-as Clodius told me to do, to be sure there was a weapon to incriminate Catilina. Then I took Gnaeus's knife, and ran to the courtyard. Suddenly lamps began to appear from everywhere, blocking my way to the doors. I remembered a trick my old centurion taught me in the army-I slipped into the pool, as quiet as a water snake, and cut a reed to breathe through. When I came up after a while to see how things stood, the doors had been closed and barred, with a Vestal guarding it! I slipped back under the water again and waited. It's like death beneath the water, staring up at the black sky and all those stars…'

Lightning danced all around us, both to the right and the left. There was a great crack of thunder and the sky split open above our heads to release a torrent of rain. The assassin gave a final convulsion, stiffened, and then grew limp.

As all Rome knows, the trials of the Vestals Licinia and Fabia and their alleged paramours ended in acquittals all around.

Licinia and Crassus were tried simultaneously. Crassus's defense was novel but effective. His reason for passionately pursuing Licinia, it turned out, was not lust, but simple greed. It seems that she owned a villa on the outskirts of the city which he was determined to purchase at a bargain. It is a measure of Crassus's reputation for avarice that the judges accepted this excuse without question. Crassus was publicly embarrassed and made the butt of jokes for a season; but I am told that he went on badgering Licinia until he finally acquired the property at the price he wanted.

The separate trials of Fabia and Catilina quickly descended into political name-calling. Cicero remained noticeably absent from the proceedings, but some of the most respected orators in Rome spoke for the defense, including Piso, Catulus and-probably the only man in Rome reputed to be more impervious to sexual temptation than Cicero-Marcus Cato. It was Cato who made such bold insinuations about the machinations of Clodius (unprovable, since the assassins were dead and the murder had been hushed up, but damaging nonetheless) that Clodius found it convenient to flee Rome and spend several months down in Baiae, waiting for the furor to pass. Afterward, Cicero privately thanked Cato for defending his sister-in-law's honor. Cato haughtily replied that he did not do it for Fabia, but for the good of Rome. What a pair of prigs!

Catilina was acquitted as well. The insistence that he and Fabia were discovered fully dressed weighed heavily in his favor. For my own part, I remain undecided about his guilt or innocence in regard to seducing Fabia. It seems strange to me that he should have spent so much time courting a young woman sworn to chastity, unless his intentions were base; and how did Clodius know that Catilina would respond to a forged note from Fabia, unless he had reason to believe that the two were already lovers? The assassin's repeated lament that they would not take off their clothes might seem, on the surface, to vindicate Catilina and Fabia; but there are a great many things that two people can do while still, more or less, fully dressed.

Catilina's intentions and motivations remain a mystery to me. Only time will tell what sort of character he truly is.

Long after the trials were over, I received an unexpected gift from the Virgo Maxima-a scroll containing the collected poems of Sappho. Eco, seventeen now and a student of Greek, declares it his favorite book, though I am not sure he is quite old enough to appreciate its manifold subtleties. I like to take it from the shelf myself sometimes, especially on long, moonless nights, and read from it softly aloud:

'The moon is set, and set are The Pleiades; and midnight Soon; so, and the hour departing: And I, on my bed-alone.'

That passage in particular makes me think of Licinia, alone in her room in the House of the Vestals.

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