Caesar went straight to the Herakleion in Cadiz. It wasn’t just tourism: he had some business for the oracle there. His visit had been announced beforehand—he was coming with the Roman propraetor—and the priests turned out in their white robes and welcomed the two Roman officers on the steps of the temple.
The Herakleion, the most famous shrine in the West, looked from the outside like a Greek temple. The facade was a triangular pediment supported by four columns. You walked up the steep steps, passed through the two central columns and entered through enormous bronze doors.
Caesar stopped to look at the sculpture that covered the doors. “I see you appreciate art,” said the eldest of the priests, smiling. He spoke Greek, not Latin.
“The Twelve Labors of the God,” said Caesar. Caesar’s Greek was fluent. “Very beautiful. Could a reproduction of these doors be made and sent back to Rome?”
“I’m sorry,” said the old priest. “Our rules don’t allow even drawings to be made.”
Caesar nodded. He decided to repeat his question to the priest when he made his donation to the sanctuary. He could just see those beautiful reliefs on one of the doors of a Roman palace he was always mentally designing for himself.
The temple was only partially roofed, so inside it wasn’t dark like Roman temples. The altar at the far end was open to the sky. Even so, the place smelled a little. Every day priests sacrificed a lamb or a dove and sprinkled its blood on the altar. A fire burned on a tripod but there was no statue of the god. The Phoenicians, who had founded the temple a thousand years before, didn’t allow images of their divinities. They had not dedicated it to Hercules but to their own god Melkart, whose famous temple they had left behind in Tyre at the other end of the Mediterranean. Since those days the Phoenicians and even their descendents in Carthage had disappeared and the Greeks had come and Melkart had become Herakles, a Greek god who was so similar to the Phoenician one that everyone just let one do for the other. To the Romans Herakles was Hercules—they were all names for the same god-hero.
He was buried in a crypt under the temple—the mortal remains of him.
“You will notice the various chapels or side-altars,” said the old priest-guide. “This one is dedicated to Old Age; the others are to Poverty, to Art, to Death, to the Month, and to the Year.”
They looked like old attics, filled with strange wax exvotos and dried cloth, wooden and metal undefinables (weapons?), covered with the dust of ages. Each had an altar and each stank with the sacred stench of blood sacrifice.
“If either of your Excellencies would like to make an offering to one of the……..”
“Not right now, Reverend,” said Caesar. “I’d like to consult the oracle.”
The young priests looked at each other in confusion and embarrassment. The old priest said: “The oracle is on retreat right now. She will be unavailable for……”
“Tell her this is urgent,” said Caesar.
“I have no way of reaching her,” said the old priest. “She is in the mountains twenty miles from here in a sanctuary.”
“That’s no problem,” said Caesar, “I’ll send one of my tribunes after her.”
Caesar didn’t ask whether the shrine rules allowed the oracle to be fetched from her sacred prayers. Caesar was like that. Rules were for people who had no choice but to obey them—not for him. He wasn’t going to let an oracle keep him waiting. He had seen oracles in Greece and Asia and he had no illusions about them. He had walked away from the Delphic Oracle in anger because she didn’t seem to understand who he was. She seemed to think he was just another rich Roman student and predicted “a successful career” for him, and “lots of children”—that idiot.
The old priest now at the Herakleion didn’t care for Caesar’s pushiness. Romans thought they could go anywhere and order people around. Everyone else came to the Herakleion with a little humility. “Our rules require the oracle to spend a complete week fasting and praying. That is part of her purification. This is the most sacred time of year and under no circumstances can her duties to the God be interrupted.”
“Don’t you have a substitute?” asked Caesar.
The priest glared at him without answering. He knew what was coming next.
“I would be willing to make a very substantial offering to the temple,” said Caesar.
“Men don’t make offerings to the temple, Excellency, but to the immortal God.”
“I will make one to the immortal god and another to the temple,” said Caesar.
The High Priest was quiet for a while. He was sorry the other priests were hearing this conversation, which seemed to show them that there could be negotiations on such matters as the Holy Rule.
“In any case you couldn’t see the oracle immediately,” he finally told Caesar. “Pilgrims to this sanctuary must spend an entire day in fasting and prayer before their consultation with the oracle. No one is sinless before the God.”
“That’s the first I ever heard of that rule,” said Caesar, beginning to swell. “I have friends who have seen your oracle and no fasting was required of them. I have been to Delphos and to Athens and, though they recommend preparation before seeing the oracle, they don’t insist on it. Besides, I am not a pilgrim.”
“Not a pilgrim?” frowned the old priest. “Then what are you, Excellency?”
The pro-praetor, who had come with Caesar, didn’t like the turn of this conversation. It should have been friendly or at least cordial. He decided to try to re-direct it:
“You must forgive my colleague’s impatience, Holy Father,” he said. “He will take command of an army within a few days and cannot stay here in Gades long. Privately he has told me of a troubling dream and an interpretation by your oracle would ease his mind and allow him to work better. He is a devout man who fears the gods and means no disrespect. But he has the fault of impatience.”
“Perhaps it is time he corrected that fault.”
“He has come here because he believes in the world-famous wisdom of the Herakleion Oracle. That faith alone shows his earnestness and his respect.”
“I will fast and say the reglamentary prayers while on the march to Portugal,” said Caesar. “After I speak with the oracle.”
That afternoon Caesar sent the priest his offering—two talents. That was a huge amount for a consultation with an oracle. On a talent the entire community of priests could live for a month. Caesar borrowed the talents—he didn’t have that kind of money. In fact he was one thousand three hundred talents in debt to Roman bankers. He had borrowed their money to pay for his campaigns as military tribune and quaestor.
How would he pay it all back?
With the booty he proposed to get from the wars he was about to start with the Portuguese. With a little luck he should get those one thousand three hundred talents and much more. With a little luck (and the forcing of luck) he would become a rich man. What would he do with his wealth? Buy his way into the most powerful office in Rome. He didn’t want wealth—he wanted power.
See Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part Two)