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Sestia Vaticana

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February 75CE

 

The Saeptia was humming today. Crowds of traders and general browsers thronged the central thoroughfares and filled out most of the individual stores. Some shops it was practically impossible to get into, such were the number of people inside. The security slaves for each unit must be exhausted, having to have eyes everywhere on the lookout for shoplifters and cut-purses. A few bands of Urban Cohorts lounged against columns, supposedly there to ensure a policing presence but instead making a more general nuisance of themselves by ogling women and turned the screws on food-sellers in order to get free meals. Sestia’s slaves had trouble pushing a path through the shoppers to allow their mistress smooth access from store to store. Behind her, two porter slaves carried her purchases so far: several bags of spiced and candied exotic fruits for her sons and several bolts of brightly coloured cloth which she intended to have turned into some dresses for the coming season. When the slave carrying the cloth was barged sideways a dropped one, she gave him several cuffs to the head to make sure he was more careful in future.

 

She stopped in front of the shop of a jeweller. The craftsman had set up a series of boards outside on which he had exhibited a range of his products. Three strong and rough looking German slaves stood in front of this with arms crossed and ferocious expressions, designed to deter opportunist thieves. Sestia edged her way closer and, clearly a lady of quality, the slaves let her past to have a closer look. A shop assistant, eager to make a sale, quickly hurried up with a puppy-dog expression and informed her he was here to answer any queries she may have. Her eyes were immediately taken by a pair of beautiful earrings. Pendants in style. Two of the largest and purest pearls she had ever seen were hung off gentle hoops of thin gold, intertwined along which were tendrils of ivy made from delicately spun and crafted silver. The assistant said, in ingratiating and fawning manner, that the man in her life would surely appreciate her wearing something so beautiful for him. She bit back the urge to say that either (a) there was no man in her life (b) the last such man in her life now lay in an urn in a funerary monument and had no interest now, as in life, for what she wore or (c) that, man in her life or not, she would wear what she wanted for her own sake and not for another’s. She said she would think about it. The assistant gave a surly look, presumably grumbling internally that she was a time-wasting browser and headed off to bother another matron, accompanying two young women, all trilling with delight over a series of amber necklaces.

 

As she headed back into the main thoroughfare she mused internally on how annoyed the comment had made her. There was, she decided, an element of low level resentment in there: that there was no one at present who cared what she wore. She had initially intended to go to her favourite dressmaker. The creations they concocted there were divine. Beautiful fabrics, exquisite embroidery and craftsmanship, the styles bold and eye catching to steal the breath of men and earn the envy of women. Their prices, of course, were correspondingly high but, in her opinion, it was worth it. But then the niggling comment came back. What was it for? Her sons did not care if she made an effort. So, instead, on a whim she decided to cross to the opposite side of the aisle and headed into one of several booksellers that made this area of the Saeptia their own.

 

Even with the noise of the crowds outside, the booksellers seemed an oasis of calm. No doubt the large wooden cases of scrolls somehow had an effect on blocking out or lessening the noise. The shop was split in two halves – to the left lay Greek language texts, to the right Latin and in the centre was the bench were the proprietor and his slaves collected the money and answered queries. As she entered, a young woman was enquiring as to whether they stocked a particularly poet’s collected works. The owner sent a slave off to check the inventory.

 

Sestia immediately headed for the Latin works. She was ashamed that she had no Greek. Not many fathers bothered to expand their daughter’s education to include this language but, even if they did, her father would have decided it was unnecessary. Her sons had been taught it and spoke it as fluently as Latin. If they wanted to annoy her they would intentionally speak Greek in front of her, knowing their mother didn’t understand, until she lost her temper at them and sent them running off with whoops of glee. Her lack of a full education was forever a chip on her shoulder. Now free from the presence of a man in her life telling her otherwise, she was determined to make up for lost time and engage in activities her father and late husband would have disapproved of – namely, bettering herself. As such, she was now reading whatever and whenever she could.

 

Poetry she liked but it made her feel stupid – she could never craft words so elegantly. History she enjoyed. It was amazing what some people had achieved! What she really liked, though, where books on Nature. She did not pretend to understand them but she was fascinated by the descriptions of strange and fantastical places, of bizarre phenomena and exotic animals and plants. Her more favoured still were travellers’ tales of places beyond the Empire. Journeys into the wild barbarian lands of the north, or to the mythical lands across the great desert in Africa where all was trees, taller than the tallest buildings. Or to the lands on the far side of Parthia where not even Alexander had reached. She had read one book by a traveller who claimed there was an Empire even bigger than Rome with cities that made Rome look like a village; where dragons lived and people could set fire to the sky; where silk bled from trees and magical Emperors lived in celestial palaces with thousands of servants who all killed themselves when their lords died. When she had tentatively asked her sons’ tutor Teodoros if he knew anything about this place he had scoffed, as if she were but a silly, misled woman, and told her such stories were pure fiction – there was nothing but a vast sea beyond Parthia. She had felt like an idiot for letting herself believe everything she read.

 

There was an order to the shelves. Each shelf had a small wooden label attached with a numeral on it. A larger plaque against a wall acted as a guide: I – Domestic Management, II – Estate Management, III – Cooking & Entertaining, IV – History (pre-Augustus), V – History (Augustus to Contemporary), VI – History (Foreign), and so on.

 

She scanned down the list. XIX – Travel. There it was. She browsed the cabinets and shelves until she reached the one appropriately marked. The shelves were then stacked to bursting, in a mish-mash fashion, with scrolls piled up on one another. Small cloth tags were tied to the out edges of the wooden end-pieces which gave easier access to the name and author of the work without you having to unfurl the entire item. She started looking through them methodically. She grew annoyed at how many there were on “the wonders of the Empire.” If she wanted to know about that she could very easily go off on holiday and see it. What she wanted was something about somewhere she would clearly never go! Then she came across one on Britannia. Thinking back to her conversation only the other day with Lucius Cassius she stopped in her browsing. Maybe this would tell her more about the mysterious new province and he would be impressed if she “casually” dropped in a few facts? She tried to pull the scroll out but it was stuck. She pulled harder but it was still sticking. Frowning, she set her foot against the base of the cabinet to steady herself and gave a very firm tug. The scroll flew out but brought down with it a small torrent of others which hit the floor and unfurled, creating a great pile of mess.

@Chevi

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Booksellers were Septima Minor's safe, happy place. Whenever she wanted to calm her nerves, or reward herself, of get away from the house, or battle boredom, she would go to one of her favorite places and browse scrolls. Her grandfather had a remarkable library at home, but she, much like him, was an avid collector, and you never knew when you'd find something rare, or new, or interesting. The search was half the fun, really. Most sellers knew her by name and appreciated her patronage, and while her personal favorites were on the Vicus Tuscus, she also frequented many other shops.

Today, she was in the mood for female poets. It was somewhat a strange request, and since she declined the obvious choice (Sappho), the bookseller sent an apprentice scrambling for other options on the Greek side (likely to have more success than with Roman women). Septima stood around waiting, casually browsing shelves. Another woman walked in, doing the same, until something caught her attention. Before the bookseller could have intervened, she tried to pull a scroll herself, and brought a whole lot of them tumbling down.

Septima winced on instinct, but that was nothing compared to the shopkeeper who ran over with a cry of dismay at seeing his precious wares on the floor. 

"Domina you could have asked for assistance!" was the most polite thing he could muster up, given the circumstances. Septima felt bad for the books, but also felt bad for the woman. She walked over too, picking up some of the scrolls that had not been unfurled in the process. She looked at the tags out of curiosity.

"These must have been on the shelf for a while, it looks like their bindings stuck together. Not many people seeking out literature on the Hyperborean lands, I assume...

@Lauren

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Sestia had the grace to look sheepish as the bookseller gently chided her. The plaintive tone in his voice displayed an admirable care for his wares which went beyond that of a seller to his stock. He began gathering the items up and paid her no further attention, muttering to himself in a language Sestia had never heard. She was left holding the offending book on Britannia and wondering how she could politely step over the bookseller.

A comment from her other side took hold of her attention. A young woman was stood there, curious look on her face, presumably bemused at the scene. She had heard the term 'Hyperborean' before but blushed as she couldn't quite fathom its meaning but guessed, from the scroll she was holding, that it was a proper term for Britannia and the mysterious lands across the northern sea. 

"The gentleman was right, I probably should have asked for help..." she said quietly, looking back over her shoulder at the disgruntled owner as he kept furling items shut and reshelving them. She looked down at the item in her hand. "I can't say I know much about them which I was wanting to remedy." She felt the need to explain herself. "I recently met an old acquaintance just back from Britannia, you see..." Ok, it wasn't much of an explanation.

"Is this your shop?" she asked, suddenly worrying that this might be the actual proprietor. She certainly sounded learned enough and women were known to run shops such as these. Some, indeed, even wrote items that graced the shelves.

@Chevi

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The other woman looked sheepish, still holding the original scroll she had aimed for, according to the label something about Britannia. The shopkeeper was tidying up, but he had more sense than to chide a noblewoman who could possibly become a new patron for the shop. Septima tried to alleviate the tension by striking up a conversation. About books. The one topic she was comfortable enough to talk to a stranger about. 

"The gentleman was right, I probably should have asked for help... I can't say I know much about them which I was wanting to remedy. I recently met an old acquaintance just back from Britannia, you see..." 

There was not much literature yet about Britannia. Nothing as detailed as the other provinces, let alone Greece, for example. Septima Minor looked over the scrolls returned to their shelves. She had never thought of seeing Britannia for herself, but there was more and more information trickling in now, even if it was all from Roman authors. "I see... there might be something that is a bit more up to date..."

"Is this your shop?"

"Mine? Oh, no" Septima blinked, blushing a little. She did act like she owned the place. Or at least was very familiar with it. "I just come here quite often. I like books."

@Lauren

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Sestia had recovered her composure a little. "Oh, I love them too!" she said with a smile. "My late husband had lots of books but they were mostly all in Greek and I can't speak or read that...What was in Latin was all very dry, boring manuals on this or that, you know the sort of stuff, how to manage your slaves and the like. I imagine he kept all the good things in Greek to stop me from borrowing them!"

She realised that she was surely whittering a bit...

"I do pass here quite a lot but normally the only time I come in is when I'm with my sons and they go off on a spree so I thought I might try it alone and, well, look how that turned out!" She tried to joke.

"If you could help me find something more...recent...that would be helpful. I don't really know much about there. I don't intend to go! From what I hear it's still mostly a warzone, regardless of what the news-reader tells us. Just, like I said, I met someone returned from there and I don't want to sound stupid."

"Do...do you know much about there?" she asked. Well, she might as well try! This young woman sounded, at least, like she knew what she was about! "Like, for instance Hyperborean...is, is that what the Britons call it there?"

She clumsily remembered her manners. "Sestia Vaticana," she said, introducing herself. "Thank you for at least trying to make me feel less stupid!"

@Chevi 

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Now that the conversation had turned to books, Septima relaxed a little. So did the bookseller. He must have weighed the damage done against two wealthy-looking women discussing his fare with enthusiasm, and wisely left them to their conversation. The lady's face lit up when Septima shared her affection fro reading.

"Oh, I love them too! My late husband had lots of books but they were mostly all in Greek and I can't speak or read that...What was in Latin was all very dry, boring manuals on this or that, you know the sort of stuff, how to manage your slaves and the like. I imagine he kept all the good things in Greek to stop me from borrowing them!"

She didn't have Greek, then. Curious. Septima was raised with excellent language tutors for Greek, the language of education (and sophistication, depending on who you asked). Not all women were, not even all noble women, but it had to be annoying to live in a household surrounded by books you could not read. This lady clearly wanted to, even if her resources were limited.

"I do pass here quite a lot but normally the only time I come in is when I'm with my sons and they go off on a spree so I thought I might try it alone and, well, look how that turned out!" 

"No harm done" Septima offered some consolation with a small smile. None of the books were damaged, and the bookseller would be comforted by a purchase or two. The embarrassment was worse than the actual accident. Septima glanced at the shelves again, scanning the tags showing topics of information about faraway places.

"If you could help me find something more...recent...that would be helpful. I don't really know much about there. I don't intend to go! From what I hear it's still mostly a warzone, regardless of what the news-reader tells us. Just, like I said, I met someone returned from there and I don't want to sound stupid. Do...do you know much about there? Like, for instance Hyperborean...is, is that what the Britons call it there?"

Septima shook her head, happy that she got to share some of her knowledge on the topic. She usually forgot her awkwardness when she could talk about things she had researched.

"No, it means 'beyond the North Wind.' It's a term used for the far northern lands. I'm happy to help."

"Sestia Vaticana. Thank you for at least trying to make me feel less stupid!"

"You don't sound stupid at all. Learning new things is nothing to be ashamed of." Septima smiled. It was something her grandfather told her often. "I'm Septima Minor. Friends call me Clio. Let's see if we can find you something to read about Britannia..."

@Lauren

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Sestia was happy for the help and gratefully accepted. The shopkeeper had by now finished his unexpected clearing up and had returned to his central position, although he now was clearly keeping an eye on her – giving her a looks as if to say “I know you’re trouble!” She ignored him and stood back as her new helper busied herself scanning the shelves with a quick and practiced eye. She read through the labels with fantastic speed, mouthing to herself the titles and authors as she ran through them, slightly pulling out any which may be of use so she could return to them later. All Sestia had to do was stand back and look grateful.

 

Land beyond the north wind,” she repeated. “That is a pretty name for it. Could it be that it is so far north that it is actually beyond the wind?” she could not conceive of something that far north. The furthest north she had ever gone was to one of her late husband’s estates in what had once been Cisalpine Gaul, now incorporated into the province of Italia. She remembered looking up at the towering huge peaks of snow capped mountains in awe. She knew land lay beyond this but still could not help but wonder if structures like this formed a wall around the known world. Mountains so high that no one could climb or cross them. On the other side would just be nothing – the edge of eternity. “I have heard that it is very misty there, like the clouds sleep on the earth, maybe that is because there is no wind?” she said, just wondering aloud. Yet again this week she found herself wondering what this strange land was like. It sounded quite terrifying. Untamed. Cut off from the rest of the Empire by sea. Strange coloured natives baying for blood. So far north that there must be nothing but snow and ice. What on earth was there for the Empire there? What did it actually benefit anyone? Did the Empire just want it because it was there? A universal imperium? Even the Deified Augustus had seen the sense of setting fixed limits. The thought crossed her mind of her sons being sent off there for their first, upcoming military postings. It made her shudder.

 

Well, thank you never the less Sept – I mean, Clio. That is a nice name. Is it a nickname? It is the name of one of the Muses, isn’t it?

@Chevi

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“Land beyond the north wind. That is a pretty name for it. Could it be that it is so far north that it is actually beyond the wind?... I have heard that it is very misty there, like the clouds sleep on the earth, maybe that is because there is no wind?” 

"I... am actually not sure" Septima noted "Hesiod talks about the people who live there, war-like, but with their own gods, and they worship Apollo under another name. But I'm... not sure about the wind."

Those were the questions worth talking about. Septima made a mental note to read up on it some more. Was there such a place that did not have wind, only clouds? Could wind, movement of air, even just... not exist in a land? She couldn't answer all of Sestia's questions, but she was not going to pretend she was better educated than she actually was. They were in a shop full of books, some of them were bound to have answers.

“Well, thank you never the less Sept – I mean, Clio. That is a nice name. Is it a nickname? It is the name of one of the Muses, isn’t it?”

"It is. The muse of history" she nodded with a smile "We use it to tell me apart from my twin sister. We call her Thalia. I am... more of a scholar than she is."

She looked over the shelves, selecting some of the more interesting titles.

"So... you said you have children?"

@Lauren

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She smiled as the woman was able to throw out the names of ancient authorities with the ease of someone wholly comfortable with the subject matter. Sestia could not think whether she had ever, in an off hand manner, been able to reference Hesiod. She was not even sure whether she was able to reference Hesiod full stop. The woman clearly knew what she was talking about and possessed the depth and breadth of literary culture that she was deeply envious of.

 

“Yes, the person I was speaking with has just returned from the legions in Britannia and he was saying just how war like those people are. Some paint themselves blue which is most peculiar. And blue of all colours! How odd. But also how strange if they worship Apollo too? I’ve heard it said somewhere that all the Gods of all the peoples are pretty much the same at heart, they just have different names, just like some flowers and animals are called different things in different places but are still the same, really.” She stopped for a moment, thinking that over. Yes, she had heard it said before but she wasn’t so sure it was right. How the Olympians compared with the animal headed Gods of Aegypt she didn’t know. “Except for the Jews,” she said slowly. “They only have one God. I don’t know how he gets it all done if everything is left to him.”

 

Her smile grew. Whilst it sounds very bizarre, Sestia had never actually met a twin before, at least not to her knowledge. She found it strange how two people could look almost exactly alike as twins were meant to. “How interesting, a twin!” she giggled. “Are you the type which look alike even if, by the sounds of it, your interests differ?”

 

I have two sons,” she continued. “I have always found it rather upsetting that they have had a better education that I have but my father was not one to believe in the benefits of educating a daughter. I am glad to see that not all men have the same view,” she said, indicating towards her. “Both my sons are mad keen on military history and, if their spelling was better and they had more patience, I am sure they could write  books of their own on it!”

@Chevi

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