The next morning a temple acolyte came to the Roman camp with the news that the oracle was ready to receive the quaestor. The acolyte wore the same white alb as the temple priests, and his head was shaved, which made his eyes seem enormous. He had never seen a Roman camp or any camp of soldiers, and he seemed so fascinated that the guard let him peek in through the gate. A bugle sounded. “What’s that?” he asked the guard, his eyes all full of wonder.
“That’s the call for breakfast.”
“Is the food good?”
“Chah! Coom see, coom sah.”
“Which tent is the quaestor’s?”
“See that big one in the center, with the red flag flying?”
The boy looked at the guard’s armor, his shield and his sword.
“Can I touch your sword?”
“Touch all you want,” said the guard. “I can’t unsheathe it for you, though, kid: we’re not allowed to do that only for the hell of it.”
“Are you going to go fight soon?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Did you ever kill anybody?”
The guard nodded. “Hey, kid, you’d better get back to the temple. They’re going to think you got lost. Or some floozy got her hands on you.” He started laughing as he pictured the floozy getting her hands on the big-eyed boy.
Caesar rode to the temple on horseback, with four military lictors. He was better on a horse than any of them.
It was raining when they reached the Herakleion. A young deacon walked towards Caesar as he jumped down from his dripping horse. Roman riders had no stirrups—there was no stepping down, only jumping. And Caesar was as agile as a boy, though he was thirty-one now.
The deacon showed them where to shelter their horses and he led Caesar alone to a cellar beside the temple. A sickening smell of rotten flesh and incense hung in the air; and as Caesar descended the cellar steps, the smell of mold became strong. There were small oil lamps burning in niches along the stairs to light the way.
The cellar itself was lighted, not very effectively, with two torches on the wall. The place might have been a tomb. Caesar didn’t like to be enclosed that way. He had had to hand his sword over to one of the lictors before coming down and now he felt trapped. Where was the darned oracle anyway? Was she going to pop out of a niche in the wall? Caesar decided this was the last time he played their silly games. Couldn’t these prophets talk to a fellow face to face in a normal room? Such cheap histrionics! “Oracle!” he shouted out. Who gave orders to who?
A voice answered from the wall at the far end of the cellar. But it wasn’t a girl’s voice. It was the voice of the High Priest. “The priestess is in deep meditation, preparing herself to receive the spirit of the God. You must do the same. Without the proper disposition you will learn nothing from the God. Humility, Excellency. You are in the crypt where the body of our Lord lies.”
So the High Priest is going to whip me into obedience, is he? thought Caesar. Does he mean to coach the oracle?
Caesar tried to meditate. Did he feel awe? Did he really believe that the God Herakles would speak to him through the ignorant girl on the other side of the wall?
In politics Caesar was cynical. He would say one thing and do another. He bribed. He schemed, he threatened. He spent fortunes on games and shows to win the vote of the Roman rabble. He was religious in the legalistic Roman way though not at all superstitious. He performed the prescribed sacrifices and observed the religious laws but he never let a so-called divine warning—a faulty liver, a bad omen—keep him from undertaking a battle or a trip. He was known to invent an omen to bring fearful soldiers his way.
And yet an oracle was another matter. The oracle was a god speaking directly, using the girl for his voice. The greatest men of antiquity had consulted the Delphic Oracle in Greece, and her predictions and other utterances had formed part—had determined part—of history. Who could forget the Oracle’s declaration that Socrates was the wisest man in the world? Or her sound political advice to Lykurgus and Solon? Or her advice to Croessus, the vain Lydian king, to know himself?
Caesar had been brought up on Greek myths and the beautiful stories of Greek heroes. He could recite whole passages of the Illiad and the Odyssey. His head was filled with the deeds of Achilles and Ulysses and Agamemnon. Ever since he could remember, Caesar had considered himself one of the heroes.
Not twenty-four hours ago he had puzzled a comrade by complaining that he, Caesar, was getting nowhere. “By my age Alexander the Great had conquered the world.” Was that the career Caesar was dreaming up for himself?
Alexander had consulted the Delphic and other oracles. He had made a pilgrimage to the temple of Isis in the Egyptian desert. He believed the gods spoke through their messengers. Why shouldn’t they?
In any case, Caesar thought he could himself judge by the oracle’s dictum whether it came from an ignorant peasant girl or a god.