Marta and I gape at him. “Of course Vesta is a real goddess,” I say defensively, although just this morning I was doubting this very same point. “She’s been worshipped in that temple for over a thousand years.”
“She hasn’t,” Cassius says. “That was a Temple of Minerva until a little over a hundred and twenty years ago.”
“And how would you know?” scoffs Marta.
“Look, my father and grandfather were both pontiffs. And you know one of the sacred duties of a pontiff, right? Keeping the city records, which are meant to be secret. But pontiffs can be a little loose with their tongues in their own families, especially after a few bottles of wine,” Cassius says. “Let’s stop and go back to the very beginning of Vesta. What happened one hundred and twenty years ago in Parcaean history, Olivia?” he shoots.
“The Farrinean Wars ended,” I say.
“Right. And how long did they last?”
“And when the majority of Parcaean men were away fighting a war that decimated our entire country’s population, where were the Parcaean women?” Cassius asks.
Marta and I look at each other and then at him.
“They were minding the store, of course!” he says. “No able-bodied men around meant that they took on a huge share of male responsibility. They were business owners, landlords, even political office holders in their husbands’ absences, although you wouldn’t know it from the history lessons. And when the men came back from a brutal seven-year slog, every day of which they spent missing their mothers, wives, children, and hearths, what do you think they came home to?”
“Um…,” we say together.
“Liberated women. Women doing their jobs. Taking their places. Women who were not minding their hearths or rocking their babies by the fire. And they didn’t like it.”
“So the men all decided to force their wives back home again?” I ask, shocked.
“Not in a collective way,” he says. “But there was a rift in society, and the religious leaders of the time were hard pressed to mend it. Ultimately, a few schemers created an information campaign about the virtues of home, family, and hearth, and started touting a ‘little-known’ goddess called Vesta as the deity to worship to get all those good things back. They snagged a seldom-used, yet rather grand, Temple of Minerva for the home base. And as far as my father or grandfather could tell, the goddess Vesta can’t be found in any myth or text before that time.”
“But if the women loved male responsibility so much, why did they happily start worshipping Vesta? It doesn’t sound as if they were trying to keep any of that power,” I point out.
“At first, it was the men dragging their wives to worship. If they had children, the daughters were regularly being taken to pray to Vesta and learn her devotionals, and it only took one generation for her to become the most popular goddess in the country,” Cassius says.
“And what about the Virgins?” Marta asks. “I assume they were part of the kickoff campaign for Vesta?”
“Yes, that’s logical,” he says. “Also, the virginity thing is simply practical. If they’re going to train you, they want to keep you. And back then they didn’t want any of you vixens seducing all the men who came to the temple, for obvious reasons. Thus, the hot poker in the eye.” He chuckles.
Marta and I stare at him with intense dislike. “Since we’re discussing pokers in eyes,” she says, “why exactly are you risking life and limb to give us this stimulating history lesson?”
“I have my reasons. All will be revealed in time,” he says, waving his hands.
Marta starts to object, but I have more questions. “Are the other gods real?” I ask.
“Are the other gods real?” Cassius repeats, eyebrows raised. “My, my, we have lost our faith in a big way, haven’t we? A little lamp oil and your whole world comes tumbling down. Yes, they are real,” he assures me. “But the religious tomfoolery you heard about today is lurking around every corner. You just need to know how to separate the sound theology from the false. For example, I want to show you something. Do you have a little more time? We need to go deeper into the forest.”
I can’t refuse him now, and I know Marta’s also hooked, so we follow him into the woods. As we walk, he gives us more tidbits about the shift in religious traditions that took place after the war. “Here’s a fun one,” he says. “You know the Polonian Triad statues of Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva?”
“Well, believe it or not, that statue of Mars used to be a statue of Juno.”
“Shut up.” I gawk at him. Juno is the wife of Jupiter and the goddess of politics, along with many other things.
“Yes, the female goddess of politics became rather unpopular with the religious elite. They kept the same statue too, they just fixed her up with a helmet, shield, and spear and all that stuff.”
As unbelievable as this sounds, it could be true. I have always thought that statue of Mars seemed a little busty.
“Aha, here we are,” Cassius says, pleased.
We’ve arrived at a sunny clearing where stands a large, raised garden bed, growing wheat. The raised bed is very tall, hitting me at about waist height, and one of its walls is made of glass, a rare and expensive material.
“Is this a garden or something?” I ask.
“This is an academic study,” he explains. “The other students would be extremely jealous of my setup, which is one of the reasons I keep this hidden. Look here.” He points to the glass side. Through it, I can see the root structures of each stalk of wheat he’s growing.
“I thought you were Academy of Mars,” Marta says.
He shakes his head. “Academy of Ceres.”
Agriculture. I’m surprised I never knew this about him.
“So we come to our next lesson,” Cassius says. “Olivia, your father owns a farm. He makes gifts to Ceres, I assume? Sacrifices a bunch of poor cows every year?”
“Yes, absolutely. He always gives as much as he can.”
“And in return for that, the priests arrive with carts and carts of foul-smelling ‘sacred earth,’ correct?” Cassius asks.
“Well here’s the big secret. That stuff is actually something we call fertilizer, and it’s manufactured from various natural components. It’s only been around for the last fifty years or so, invented by the priests here at the academy. And it makes plants grow well without any divine intervention. My experiment here is actually testing whether wheat stalks grow taller when they’re given a fertilizer mixture with a higher concentration of phosphorus. Er, that’s the name of a chemical. I mean, we can get into all the details later,” he says. “But the point is, your priests of Ceres are pretending this stuff has some sort of power sent from the gods. I can prove that’s not true. In this first section here, I’m growing wheat with no fertilizer added. The next section contains wheat fertilized with a low-phosphorus mixture, and the dosage increases from there. As you can see, the wheat with fertilizer is doing much better than the wheat without. And you’ll have to take my word for this, but there was no prayer or offering involved whatsoever.”
I can immediately see that the height and stalk size of the fertilized wheat is far superior, and I can even see the effect on the roots as well thanks to the glass side of the trough.
“Does your father ever request sacred rain?” Cassius asks.
“Sometimes,” I say.
He nods his head. “Similar thing. That’s a natural pesticide.”
“So Ceres doesn’t make plants grow?” I say, saddened by this new blow.
“Oh, of course you can help plants grow by invoking Ceres,” Cassius says reassuringly. “It’s been proven many times in experiments just like this one. Unfortunately, the effectiveness decreases dramatically when that method is applied to entire fields, rather than just one plant. In the old days, priests had to stage massive seven-day festivals of constant prayer and hold dozens of sacrifices before their efforts had any effect on grain production. It was very expensive. This is a far better way to do business.”
“Why keep all this secret from the people?” says Marta.
“It’s simple: profit. If only the priests of Ceres know how to make this stuff, then everybody’s going to be sending them lots of offerings. As soon as the private citizens start figuring out how to make it, their importance in the community, and their tithes, will decrease. So they’re very serious about keeping quiet. Only students at the academy who have taken holy vows of secrecy are allowed to know about this.” Cassius smiles. “And now you do too.”
I feel another pang of this morning’s fear. We are not making good decisions today. This is dangerous information, and something doesn’t feel right. “Hold on. You said Gaius asked you to tell us all this?”
“Oh gods, no.” Cassius laughs. “Gaius wanted me to come up with some lie to make you feel better about the whole lamp thing. I’m known as something of an expert on Vesta, you know,” he says proudly. “He was very coy with me too. He didn’t give me any of the fascinating details you shared with Marta earlier. He just said you saw Sextus Tacitus carrying some oil around. But I could tell he was holding something back.”
“Unbelievable!” I shriek. “I would never have told you those things!”
Cassius ignores this. “So I said to Gaius, sure, no problem. I will take care of those poor little lost lambs for you. Don’t worry about a thing.” He laughs. “But unlike Gaius, I am a man of science. I don’t believe in peddling lies. I have too much respect for your intelligence. And besides, I’ve had bigger plans for you girls for a while now.”
Marta and I both look wary. “So what are these big plans?” I ask.
Cassius smiles broadly. “You girls are going to be my next experiment.”