The crypt was chilly and musty. He remembered waiting for the oracle at Delphi, which was fragrant with bay leaves and barley.
His mind began to drift. He began thinking about the march that would begin that same afternoon and he wished he had brought along something to write with or could begin dictating orders to a scribe. A shame to be wasting time like this.
Finally the voice came. “Pilgrim, come forth!” This time it was a girl’s voice. It was cheerful, not lugubrious or trance-like as he had suspected it would be. Pilgrim, eh? So the old priest hadn’t forgotten that one and was directing the oracle. Damn!
Caesar walked forward a few paces and saw an open niche on the wall. A cloth like a curtain hung on the other side and blocked his view of the oracle.
“Blessed is the man who comes to the god,” she said. “Welcome!”
The girl spoke very slowly and clearly in faultless Greek. She had been chosen to be an oracle as a child and educated by other, older oracles in a school for priestesses. They all spoke Greek and their model was the Delphic Pythia or perhaps the oracles at the Temple of Apollo in Athens. Hearing such competent Greek charmed Caesar, who loved language and good diction. He had expected to hear an ignorant girl talk clumsily. This oracle spoke classical Greek better than he himself. That was the way a god would speak, all right. Now that was a start!
He reached up and moved the curtain aside to see the girl. A woman of about his own age sat on a tripod, so high her head nearly touched the ceiling. She wore a simple tunic and her blonde hair was cut short. She looked intelligent. She didn’t notice Caesar. He looked around the room where she sat and was relieved to see she was alone: the High Priest had gone. Caesar quietly closed the curtain again.
“Child of the gods,” began the oracle. “Caesar!” She had learned his name. “Do not be troubled. Fortune has favored you above all other men. She will assist you and protect you until your work is accomplished here above. You must have faith—She will not abandon you, though now it seems that you have been cast aside. Do not complain, as you did yesterday after seeing the statue of Alexander. Yes—by your age he had conquered the world. But his place in Fortune’s plan was less important than yours.”
“Less important?” said Caesar. “Less important than being a tax-collecting quaestor in Spain, two thousand miles from Rome? Less important than collecting debts from Pompey’s clients here? It is Pompey whom Fortune has favored, not Caesar.
Caesar is nobody. My military career went nowhere. Sure, at Mytilene I won the the civic crown but so have half the centurions in the army. Compare that to my Uncle Marius’s record. He beat King Jugurtha and saved the country. Then he beat the Cimbri and the Teutons and saved it again. He was consul seven times. Even my father was praetor.
And as a lawyer I did no better. I showed promise—promise! They told me I spoke as well as Cicero—very helpful! But that didn’t help me win my first case against Dolabella. I had to leave Rome to protect myself afterwards. Between Sulla’s people and the oppositon of the Optimates, I simply can’t get anywhere. Or rather, I get to Hispania Ulterior.”
“You were sent here by the gods.”
“Then they must have no use for me either,” whined Caesar.
“Man of little faith! You are not to presume to know more than they, Caesar.
Don’t you even believe the words that you yourself pronounced at your Aunt Julia’s funeral last year—that you are descended from a hero-king and a goddess? Do you dare to be cynical even here, in the presence of the god?”
Caesar accepted her scolding. For the last time in his life he became the serious child his mother and his Aunt Julia had brought up.
“I was so moved at Julia’s funeral because I was ashamed of myself. She had so much faith in me. I spent half my boyhood at Aunt Julia’s. My Uncle Marius was the consul. They loved me and believed they were bringing up a future consul. I sat at table with them and listened to all the great men of Rome—all the great men who were not Optimates, of course, and whom Marius had forced out of Rome. Sulla was in Asia with his army and we all knew that there would be trouble, probably a civil war, when he came home. But during those years Rome belonged to us, to the people. I was sure I was going to have a brilliant future. Then Sulla came back, he took terrible vengeance and the Optimates got back into power. Since then they have been foiling every plan I ever had. Aunt Julia’s education was not enough. All my talents are not enough. It was only with much bribing that I was able to become quaestor.”
“You speak as though your life were through,” said the oracle. “The best you are meant to do lies ahead. What was the dream the gods sent you?”
“A nightmare, Oracle, a dream full of troubled, unnatural, vicious acts.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said the girl. “Perhaps the vicious acts were not so at all.”
“In the dream I slept with my mother,” said Caesar.
“And you possessed her?”
“I raped her.”
The oracle never hesitated. “That wasn’t your mother but the very Earth, Gea. You possessed the earth itself, the common parent of all mankind. The name of Caesar will live for thousands of years, long after those of Marius and Pompey have been forgotten. You are the man who has been chosen to save your nation from destruction. Because of you, Rome will continue to rule and to civilize the earth until it is ready for another kind of empire and a greater design of the heavenly Creator.”
I wish I could believe that, thought Caesar.
In fact, he did believe it. He had always felt his own superiority to the men around him. He took it for granted. He could never simply watch or suffer the circumstances of his life: his clear vision of them made him intervene. Wherever he went it seemed to him that men needed the direction apparently only he could give them. That was what he could never understand. Most men seemed so helpless—was he the only one who saw the obvious? Why was it his duty to stop and take the world by the hand?
“I can’t possess the world from this end of it,” said Caesar.
“You can possess the world wherever it pleases the gods to give it to you. Go back to Rome,” said the oracle. “Speak to the propraetor and ask for a discharge. Your work here as quaestor is finished. Today—now—your mission has begun.”
“And today’s march north? I can’t simply leave. I am so deeply in debt, I…”
“In Rome you will find help. There is a wealthy man there who will aid you. Go now. The god is with you.”
Caesar walked up the dark stairs of the cellar and out into the open courtyard of the Herakleion. It had stopped raining. The cloud cover had torn open in places and let the sunlight through. His lictors were waiting with the horses. He liked the oracle’s order to ask for a discharge and return to Rome and he was already planning what he would say to the propraetor. He was impatient to begin. Caesar never did learn patience—maybe the gods who had made him impatient, never meant to correct the fault.
Before leaving for Rome he bribed one of the priests to allow a sculptor to make a mold of the temple door reliefs. They were cast in bronze and packed on a ship out of sight of the Herakleion. They would have been a wonderful and surprising—a unique—adornment to his house in Rome. Unfortunately, it was not part of the gods’ plans to allow the reliefs to reach Ostia, the Roman port. They sent a storm to sink the ship.
Return to Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part One)