Sacred Fire is a historical fiction that follows the life of Tuccia, a Roman woman who is elected as a child to be a priestess for the goddess Vesta. As a Vestal Virgin, she must perform her duties with exactness to ensure the existence of the Republic. Her most important responsibilities are 1. to keep the fire of Vesta burning constantly, and 2. to keep her virginity. Any breach in her duties would displease the gods, condemn Rome to ruin, and condemn her to death.
The sun set over the river Tiber, turning the currents into flowing pink ribbons. Tuccia gasped and clutched the edge of her seat. Whenever their carriage passed over the Tiber, Rome was close.
Tuccia jumped out of her seat and pounced onto her father’s lap. “We’re almost there!” she squealed. This trip was such a rare and anticipated treat, she could hardly sleep the night before. Her family only made the half-day journey to Rome to see the festivals, when wreaths of flowers hung from every door and yellow lamps transformed the city into a glowing religious spectacle. The only other time they went to the city was as a gift for Tuccia’s sixth birthday.
“Which festival are we going to, tata?” Tuccia asked as she pulled on her father’s toga.
“I told you, we aren’t going for a festival,” he reminded patiently as he tried to hold her still.
“Then what are we going to do in the city?”
He opened his mouth to answer and glanced at her mother out of the corner of his eye. She was staring out the window with her arms crossed. Tuccia wondered why she had been unresponsive all day. Before he could speak, she turned her head and mouthed the word “no.”
He cleared his throat. “It’s a surprise,” he said.
He ran his fingers through Tuccia’s brown hair and pushed her off his lap toward her seat. She sat and swung her legs up and down as she gazed at the passing river. Her mother’s eyebrows tightened before she turned back to the window.
The wheels bumped across the boards on the bridge, jarring Tuccia. Soon it rolled into view—the city of stone buildings and brown roofs that was so massive, it looked like it rested in the sky. It all but leaned forward, on the verge of toppling over. The tops of the Palatine and Aventine hills, both roofed with stone and marble, rose above the city gates. As the carriage passed into Rome’s shadow, Tuccia felt small in a way that was breathtaking.
The carriage descended into the congested streets that brimmed with other carriages, horses, donkeys, sheep, cattle, and people on foot. It was next to impossible to move through the swarm of bodies. The driver stood from his seat and yelled at people to clear a spot so the carriage could move several feet at a time. He wound around the rows of marble columns supporting heavy ceilings, fountains spurting glistening water, and monuments displaying noble statues that were littered through the city.
Tuccia leaned out of the carriage and let her mouth hang open as she tried to see everything around her. As always, her eyes weren’t big enough to take it all in.
The sky faded to twilight and the streets cleared enough for their carriage to move smoothly. The sound of the horses’ clops melded with the wheel’s thuds and the grand buildings passed too quickly for Tuccia to get a good look at them.
The moment the carriage slowed to a stop, Tuccia leapt from her seat. She bounced on the balls of her feet and waited for her father to open the door. As he lifted her out of the carriage, Tuccia noticed a small round temple with a thin pillar of smoke curling lazily from the roof.
“We’re at Vesta’s temple!” Tuccia cried as she clapped her hands. The goddess of the hearth was her favorite; she loved giving Vesta food at every meal and watching it burn. Tuccia was fascinated by the eternal hearth-fire in the temple that protected the city. Her family recently went to the annual Vestalia festival, the only time of the year when women could go into the temple to view the constantly burning fire. No matter how much Tuccia had begged to go inside, her mother insisted that she wasn’t old enough yet.
Tuccia held her parents’ hands as they approached the white temple. Twilight gave way to darkness, and the reflections of the fire licked the inner temple walls. Though Tuccia craned her head and stood on her tiptoes, the fire was hidden from view. She pouted and hoped that for this visit, they might change their minds and let her inside.
A large audience surrounded the temple, conversing in soft, reverent voices. The street was too narrow for such so many people and Tuccia’s family was forced to take a place at the back between the Regia and the Temple of Romulus.
Tuccia searched for a glimpse of white. She wanted to find her favorite part of her favorite goddess: Vesta’s priestesses. Not only were the six Vestal Virgins the most sacred women in Rome, but in Tuccia’s opinion, they were also the most beautiful. It made Tuccia burn with jealousy that they got to care for the fire and that they were the only people in Rome who could go in the temple whenever they wanted.
As Tuccia tried to find the vestals in the crowd, she wondered what it would be like to talk to these women and what kind of consecrated things they would say. She recalled how reservedly majestic the Vestal Virgins looked when they stood at the head of Rome’s rituals. Perhaps she would sense their power in ever word they spoke.
A man in front of them noticed Tuccia, nudged a few people, and whispered too quietly for Tuccia to hear. When they glanced at her over their shoulders, she smiled back to be polite. Their heads snapped back to the front.
She was about to ask her father how long they would have to wait when her parents exchanged solemn looks. Her mother shuddered and he briefly rubbed her back. Tuccia knew when to ask questions and when to wait for answers. She pressed her lips shut.
The hushed conversations gave way to applause as a tall man in purple robes appeared on the stairs of the temple. He responded by dipping his head. He had broad shoulders and a strong-set face, and when he moved his arms to salute the people, muscles shifted under the sleeves of his tunic. Tuccia thought his slight frown and narrow eyes made him appear harsh. As he scanned the audience, he met her gaze. It felt like ice. Her skin prickled and she inched closer to her father.
“Tata, who is that?” asked Tuccia as she pulled on the hem of her father’s robe. “Why is everyone clapping for him?”
“It’s the Pontifex Maximus. He’s in charge of all the priesthoods.”
“Why does he want to speak to us?”
Behind the Pontifex Maximus stood a long line of priests and their wives dressed in purple robes. Tuccia tried to count them but stopped at twenty. She couldn’t figure out why they had gathered at the temple if they weren’t celebrating a festival, but she hoped it was for something exciting.
A woman in front of her shifted her weight, making a break in the crowd just wide enough for Tuccia to see five women on the Pontifex’s right side. Their white clothing made them shine within the mass of purple.
There were the priestesses of Vesta.
Each priestess was beautiful in the same pure, unadorned way, like the surface of a still lake. Their only decorations were twists in their hair like ropes laid across their brows. Their moves were graceful, even when they did something simple like folding their arms or bending over to whisper in another’s ear. Tuccia wished one of them would look at her.
The Pontifex Maximus raised his hands high above his head and the crowd became silent.
“Citizens,” his voice boomed, “it is a great honor that you and your daughters are chosen to be here today. We selected you from among the most consequential families. Your daughters have been deemed perfect, with no deformities or blemishes. We searched Rome for the best candidates. The best candidates are you!”
Instead of clapping again, the audience stared at him.
“Bring your daughters forward,” he commanded.
To Tuccia’s surprise, her father pushed her toward the temple entrance and the crowd parted to make way for them.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“He’s talking about you. He wants to see all the girls.”
Tuccia’s curiosity overcame her and she let herself be guided to the steps. Other fathers approached the temple with their little girls huddled against their legs. One girl sucked her thumb. Tuccia felt the weight of everyone’s gaze and hunched her shoulders until they touched her ears. A few girls covered their faces until they could summon enough courage to place their hands at their sides. One girl gripped her mother’s green stola and her father had to pry her away.
They looked so childish that Tuccia decided to be brave. She held her head high and tried not to reveal the nauseous stirring in her stomach, or give in to the compulsion to run down to her mother.
The Pontifex Maximus scanned over the girls’ heads. When his severe gaze reached Tuccia, her face flushed red-hot and she had to wipe her sweaty palms on her tunic.
He spoke again, but this time to the girls. “You are the most worthy children in Rome. But only one of you will be chosen.”
Tuccia didn’t know what she would be chosen for, but she immediately hoped she would be picked. Maybe they would see she wasn’t crying or clinging to her mother’s leg and decide to choose her.
The priest continued, “It will be the goddess Vesta who decides which of you will become her priestess—which will become a Vestal Virgin.”
Tuccia’s mouth dropped open. She couldn’t imagine a child standing next to those women, wearing white clothes and saying she was a Vestal Virgin. Tuccia examined the girls’ trembling faces and tried to find characteristics that would befit a priestess, but all she could see were frowns and scrunched shoulders. An image fleeted through Tuccia’s mind of people clapping for her as she was chosen. The fantasy grew into a vision of herself dressed in white robes, going inside the temple, and bragging to her cousins when she got home. Tuccia wanted to be chosen so badly, it almost hurt.
She shook with excitement and her father’s grip on her hand tightened to warn her to be still.
“Being a Vestal Virgin is the greatest honor a woman can achieve,” said the Pontifex Maximus. “Without your service, the citizens of Rome would suffer the displeasure of the gods and be at the mercy of the outside world. Caring for Vesta is of vital importance. You must perform her rituals with perfection and exactness. As long as you are loyal to Vesta, Rome will thrive.”
Tuccia knew the Vestal Virgins were important, but she didn’t know Rome couldn’t function without them. Trying to fathom such a responsibility made Tuccia’s throat tighten. She swallowed and tried to reassure herself that whomever Vesta picked would be able to do all those things.
The Pontifex Maximus swept his hand toward a row of chairs. “Fathers, please sit with your daughters.”
Tuccia’s father sat and pulled her onto his lap. His mouth was tight and his eyes were dark. Tuccia thought she was supposed to be serious too and tried to have a blank face, but she couldn’t keep her smile from growing so wide that it made her cheeks ache.
A servant came forward with a clay bowl in his arms. The Pontifex Maximus removed a bag from the folds of his robes and poured smooth stones into the bowl. The stones made clattering noises as they hit the bottom.
“What’s he doing?” Tuccia whispered in her father’s ear.
He licked his lips. His voice was unsteady. “Each stone has a girl’s name on it, and the name he draws will be selected. It’s a lottery so Vesta can place the name she wants in his hand.”
Tuccia’s mother stared at her from the crowd. Her serious expression was the same as her father’s, but Tuccia noticed her hands shaking at her sides.
Her father continued in a low voice, “Once he has the name, he’s going to take the chosen girl by the hand and pull her from her father’s lap.”
The Pontifex Maximus raised his hand and ceremoniously placed it inside the bowl. The stones rattled as he stirred them with his fingers. Tuccia wished he would hurry. At last he pulled out the name. She couldn’t hear a single person breathe as he walked toward the girls sitting on their fathers’ laps.
He passed by the first girl. She had not been chosen. He passed by the second. She had not been chosen either.
As he deliberately made his way down the line, Tuccia tried to ignore the thumping of her heart and told herself not to be disappointed if she wasn’t chosen. If it wasn’t Vesta’s will, then it wasn’t her will. She bit her lip so she wouldn’t cry if he passed her.
The Pontifex Maximus reached her father’s chair. Tuccia closed her eyes. Pick me, pick me, she pleaded in her head.
A strong hand gripped her and she cried out as it pulled her into the air. Her feet touched the ground. The Pontifex Maximus stood above her with his grip still on her hand. He boomed in a loud voice over the crowd, “I take you to be a Vestal priestess, to perform the sacred Rites, which is meet for the priestess of Vesta to do for the Roman people and citizens.”
The audience applauded. The Vestal Virgins smiled at Tuccia, the new addition to their priesthood. Seeing their beautiful faces directed at her felt like a dream. She beamed and wondered if this miracle could be real.
Tuccia took her hand away from the Pontifex Maximus and threw her arms around her mother’s neck. “They picked me, Mamma!” she shrieked. “I’m going to be a priestess!”
She tried to go to her father, but her mother wouldn’t let go. Her breaths came in sharp gasps as she pressed Tuccia’s head against her shoulder and cried.
Tuccia’s excitement switched to alarm. Though her mother continued holding her tightly, she was able to twist her head around to see her father. Tears also dripped from his reddening eyes.
“Mamma?” she said softly. “Can we go home now?”
At these words, her mother burst into a wail. Panic rushed Tuccia’s heartbeat, and even though she didn’t understand what was happening, she cried too.
“I’m scared, Mamma. Please take me home.”
Her mother held her at arm’s length. Her grip on Tuccia’s shoulders was firm and her face was hard.
“Listen to me, Tuccia. Promise me you’ll be good and that you’ll do everything the vestals tell you. Obey the Pontifex Maximus. Do everything he says. They’ll take very good care of you. And Tuccia…” Her voice cracked. “And Tuccia, remember, we… we really…” She choked on her tears and couldn’t continue.
Her father hugged her more tightly than he ever had before. “Don’t be afraid,” he told her. “I love you, amata.”
The Pontifex Maximus approached them. “Are you ready?” They wiped their faces, nodded, and stood up.
The Pontifex Maximus took Tuccia’s hand. His voice was now soft. “The gods will favor you for your sacrifice.”
Her parents walked to the carriage and stepped inside. Tuccia tried to follow them, but the priest kept a tight grip on her hand.
Then she understood. She was being left behind.
Tuccia’s face blanched. This wasn’t what she wanted. She tried to yank her hand away, but the Pontifex Maximus kept a firm hold. She cried, “Mamma! Tata!” They didn’t even turn around.
There must have been a mistake, because Tuccia didn’t feel in her core that she had received a higher calling and met her destiny. Instead, she felt her destiny was abandoning her and climbing into a carriage.
Tuccia fought against the priest until he grabbed her around the waist and pinned her to his chest. The wheels squeaked and the carriage started to move. She screamed their names louder—perhaps they hadn’t heard her. “Don’t leave! Mamma! I want to go home!” The carriage picked up speed and she screamed until she was no longer saying words.