Chapter XII - Oraculum

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'novum initium et finis'   
                                                                                                                      The Cumaean Sibyl
Apollo was the patron god of Octavian Augustus, and the Sibyl was the prophetess of Apollo.
Virgil's 'Aeneid', which refers specifically to Apollo, Cumae and the Sibyl, is written partly in praise of Octavian Augustus.
After 36BC, Augustus refurbished the temple of Apollo at Cumae, and also the cave of the Sibyl.

'Then to Apollo, a temple of solid marble shall I found,
and holy days, in the name of Phoebus*.
For you, too, there awaits a great shrine in our kingdom,
and here I shall place your oracle, and the riddling prophecies spoken to my people,
and to your service, O gracious one, I shall dedicate chosen priests.
Only do not consign your words to leaves,
to be confused and mocked by every wind that blows,
Sing them in your own voice, I beg of you.'

Virgil - 'Aeneid'
* Phoebus is another appellation for Apollo.

Of course, as soon as the other slaves in the villa heard that Markos had left the villa, along with Gracchus, and his senior freedman, Terentius, the rumours began once again.
Gracchus used the same carriage that Markos had rode in when he had been brought from Brundisium to the Villa.
Markos, however, had no idea where they were going, or what the reason was for the trip, and he was too nervous to ask.
After the events of the 'Convivium' and the 'Munera' Markos didn't know what to think about Gracchus, Terentius and the events in the Villa.
When young Cleon had regaled him with tales of 'debauchery' and 'mayhem', which he had described as occurring in the banqueting hall, Markos had thought that Cleon was exaggerating - making up 'scary' stories for a 'new-boy'.
Since the  'Convivium' and the 'Munera' Markos knew that what Cleon had described was true - and he wished it wasn't - but for two competing reasons.
On the one hand he had found it all frightening - knowing that Gracchus had the power to force him to take part in such possibly lethal displays - but on the other hand he had detected in himself a strange fascination, particularly with the 'munera', and also with the funerals that followed.
It wasn't just the violence and the sexuality that attracted him, however, but also the mystery and and strangeness of the religious ritual which seemed, to Markos, to bring the aura of the Gods close to him for the first time.
Now, this trip to Cumae would have a similar effect on him - but also it would have ramifications and consequences that would effect him for the rest of his life - as you will see.....

The carriage that they were riding in was, by Roman standards, luxurious and comfortable - an Roman version of a Rolls Royce or a Cadillac.
Markos found the journey uncomfortable, however.
This was not a physical discomfort, though.
The carriage was provided with many well filled cushions, and blinds to keep out the dust from the road.
The discomfort for Markos was caused by the fact that the whole journey was completed in utter silence.
Neither Gracchus, nor Terentius, who both looked serious and preoccupied, spoke a single word.
Fortunately, Cumae is only a few kilometres from Baiae, so Markos did not have to endure his discomfiture for long.
After a short while Terentius leaned forward to Markos, and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, so as not to disturb Gracchus, who was obviously deep in thought:
"This is Cumae !".
Markos knew about Cumae from his studies with his Latin tutor, Lucius, but had no idea that famous town was so close to the villa.
On their arrival at Cumae, Gracchus decided to have a light meal at a local hostelry.
Markos was unceremoniously 'parked' at a table, which was laden with delicious delicacies, while Gracchus and Terentius stood some distance away, in the bright sunshine, apparently deep in conversation.
Eventually Gracchus and Terentius walked over to where Markos was sitting, and sat down opposite him.
"So, Markos, what do you know about Cumae ?", Gracchus asked, seemingly a little more relaxed.
Marcus, surprised that Gracchus was finally speaking to him, cleared his throat, nervously,
"Well, Dominus, my Latin tutor has been teaching me about Virgil, and the 'Aeneid', where Aeneas goes to Cumae, and meets the Cumaean Sibyl.
Lucius gave me the scrolls of the 'Aeneid' to study, and I read there about the cave of the Sibyl."
Markos then decided to show off, and quoted a piece from the 'Aeneid' that Lucius had got him to learn 'by heart'.
"A spacious cave, within its far most part, Was hew'd and fashion'd by laborious art Thro' the hill's hollow sides: before the place, A hundred doors a hundred entries grace; As many voices issue, and the sound Of Sybil's words as many times rebound."
Gracchus smiled.
"That's very good, Markos ! It seems that my tutors deserve their pay."
By now Markos, Gracchus and even Terentius were all smiling, and the earlier tension of the journey seemed to have lifted.
"Well, Markos, we are going to Apollo's temple first, and then to the cave that you have so eloquently described.", Gracchus continued.
Markos, of course, was bursting to know the purpose of Gracchus' visit.
Was it just a sightseeing visit, the like of which so many wealthy Greek and Roman tourists made, or was Gracchus intending to put a question to the Sibyl ? - and if it was a question, what was it about ?
They finished their meal, Terentius paid the hostelry keeper, (Gracchus never handled money) and, returning to their carriage, they were taken to the Temple of Apollo.
In Virgil's 'Aeneid' VI, Daedalus flies to Cumae, using his remarkable wings, and founds a temple there, dedicated to the god Apollo, and  long afterwards Aeneas confronts the sculpted golden doors of the temple - and after 36BC, Augustus refurbished that temple, and also the cave of the Sibyl. In Greek mythology, Δαίδαλος - Daedalus ("to work artfully") was a skilful craftsman and artist. He is the father of Icarus. 
Daedalus and Icarus
The most familiar literary telling of the story of Daedalus, explaining Daedalus' wings, later left in the temple, is a late one, that of the Roman poet Ovid: in his 'Metamorphoses' (VIII:183-235). Daedalus set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his son Icarus. When both were prepared for flight, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too high, because the heat of the sun would melt the wax. However, the boy, forgetting himself, began to soar upward toward the sun. The blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together and they came off. Icarus quickly fell in the sea and drowned. 
Markos thought the Temple of Apollo very beautiful.
Temple of Apollo - Rome
It was, in fact, very similar to the larger Temple of Apollo Palatinus that Augustus had built in Rome
Octavian built the temple in thanks to his patron god, Apollo, faced in Carrara marble, in thanks for the victory over Sextus Pompeius at the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC, and over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium 31 BC, and was built on a site where a lightning bolt had struck the interior of Octavian's property on the Palatine. It was dedicated on October 9 of 28 BC. Octavian Augustus' private house was directly connected to the terrace of the sanctuary via frescoed halls and corridors.
Temple of Apollo - Cumae 
On arrival at the temple, Gracchus and Terentius, with Markos tagging along behind, were treated as honoured guests, as some of the priests (in this case 'flamines') at the temple were, in fact, 'clients' of Gracchus (and two of the priests had attended the 'convivium' celebrating the birth date of the Divine Augustus).
It must be understood that Roman priests were in no way like the sanctimonious, (and in many cases, celibate,) individuals who pass as priests in modern times.
Rather, Roman priests were charged with performing the rituals of the Roman religion with exactness and scrupulous care, so as to maintain the gods' good will and support for Rome.
Priest of Apollo - Cumae
They didn't necessarily have to understand the words, but there could be no mistake or untoward event; otherwise, the ceremony would have to be re-staged.
Petronius Posing for the Cult Statue of Apollo
They were, in many ways, administrative officials, often members of the government, rather than mediators between men and gods.
These priests were very respectful towards Gracchus, and fussed over Markos, who they knew had been Gracchus' 'cup-bearer' at the 'convivium', and who was therefore presumed to be Gracchus' 'favourite'.
Gracchus, having planned this trip sometime earlier, had prepared the way, and had ordered a new cult statue of Apollo to be created for the temple, (the model for the sculpture was young Petronius -
the teenage gladiator who had fought in the 'Munera' for Augustus).
It was therefore no problem for Gracchus - along with Terentius and Markos, to be taken immediately to the cave of the Sibyl.
Seats in the Cave of the Sibyl
Entrance to the Cave of the Sibyl
The cave of the Sibyl is, to say the least, 'spooky'.
The cave itself has many entrances, though not the hundred mentioned by Virgil, and is 5 meters high by 131 meters long, with several side galleries and cisterns.
At the entrance there are cisterns, cut into the rock, and filled with water, where visitors could cleanse themselves before approaching the more sacred areas of the cave.
There are also seats cut into the rock, where visitors could sit while they discussed matters with the priests
While many groups and individuals visited the oracle, no one of note, (apart from Gracchus, now), had questioned the Sibyl since the visit by the Enperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (usually referred to as Claudius).
Undoubtedly, the one person who would have benefited from a consultation with the wise Sibyl would have been the wayward Nero - and perhaps, if he had listened to the advice of the oracle, he might have avoided the appalling fate that awaited him.
But that was all in the future - the future that Gracchus was so eager to know.
So ... while Gracchus was in deep conversation with two of the priests of the oracle, and Terentius was organising a sacrifice on behalf of Gracchus, in the temple above, Markos wandered around the dark and dank cave - wondering, nervously, if he might 'bump into' the Sibyl - and if he did - what he should do - there were, after all, many questions that he would like to put to her.
The most disturbing aspect of the Sibylline cave was the echo.
The slightest sound would reverberate, and then seem to return from everywhere, distorted and unreal.
And this was, apparently, one way in which the oracle made its presence felt.
After what seemed to Markos an endless conversation, the priests left Gracchus sitting on one of the stone benches.
They then went off into the bowels of the cave, presumably to give Gracchus' request to the Sibyl.
Markos stood uneasily, and watched his master, who sat patiently, while far above the sacrificial victims were being bled on the altar of Apollo on Gracchus' behalf.
In what, seemed like the distance, dogs barked, although the echo meant that they must be in the cave - somewhere.
Markos also thought of the three boys, sacrificed at the Munera ad Augustum, and wondered if their blood, seeping through the earth to satiate the infernal spirits, would have also assisted Gracchus in his search for answers.
The silence deepened, and seemingly also the darkness.
Then Markos could hear a voice - a woman's voice - muttering and moaning, as if troubled by long forgotten dreams.
The voice echoed strangely, and Markos was unable to distinguish any words, in either Greek or Latin.
This, in fact, was the answer to Gracchus' question, but it would need the priests to interpret it.
The Sibyl, it was said, wrote her prophecies on leaves which, when blown about in the draughty caves, could mean almost anything - until deciphered by the priests.
The prophecy would then be written out on vellum, and given to Gracchus, but only after the priests had discussed the contents of the oracular pronouncement with Gracchus.
At this point Terentius returned from the temple.
And as Terentius arrived, Markos saw the leading priest return to where Gracchus was sitting.
There then followed another one of those long discussions, and finally the priest was given a scroll by a slave, which he then handed, rather ceremoniously, to Gracchus.
Hesitantly, Gracchus unrolled it - and read, while the priest backed away - obviously trying to avoid any further questions.
The Latin of the Sibyl was weird and ungrammatical, having been translated from Oscan - the original ancient language of the Samnites.
And this is what it said (in English):
'Four shall seek to follow the path of the 'Comet Star',
and three - one fat and two bald - shall fall.
Then from the east shall come a saviour - and peace.
But you - Gracchus - shall be an end in the new beginning -
but not forever, and by your own hand -
for the 'golden boy from the sea', shall bring your name to life once more -
and all your works shall prosper.'

at the top of the scroll were the words 'novum initium et finis' 
and at the bottom of the scroll were the words 'aurea puer ad mare'

meaning 'an end and a new beginning', and 'the golden boy from the sea'.

'Meanings' - So what did it all mean ?...
Gracchus shook his head, completely puzzled.
He handed the scroll to Terentius, who read it, at least twice, and then shrugged his shoulders.
Both men were completely baffled.
Now this is not surprising.
Oracular pronouncements from the Olympian Gods, (in this case the God Apollo), were notoriously opaque, and often contained information that could be easily misinterpreted - bringing tragic consequences in some cases.
Obviously, as Markos was just a slave, (and a Roman patrician never went anywhere without at least a slave and a freedman), he was not shown the scroll - after all, it had nothing to do with him....
Gracchus, Terentius and Markos then quickly made there way back to the temple of Apollo, where the carriage was waiting.
Immediately they set off.
The journey back to the villa was very different to the 'silent' outward journey, and Gracchus and Terentius were deep in conversation.
Markos tried to 'listened in', without making it too obvious.
It seemed that fortunately, Gracchus had a very old friend - a venerable person of Oscan origins, Novius, who had arrived late at the convivium the previous evening, and who was well known for his deep an wide knowledge of the auspices, oracles and Etruscan ritual.
He had helped Gracchus in organising the 'Munera', and would probably be willing to try to help decipher the Sibyl's pronouncements.
Apparently the only lead that Gracchus had was the phrase 'Comet Star' - but he needed to get back to his study and consult his scrolls to be sure of the exact meaning of the phrase.
It was evening when the carriage arrived back at the villa.
Young Glykon was at the doors to the villa to greet them.
"I hope you had a successful trip, Dominus !",Glykon asked cheerfully, obviously 'fishing' for information.
"Yes ! Very successful !", Gracchus replied, somewhat untruthfully, as he firmly grasped the baffling scroll.
Gracchus them thanked Markos very profusely for accompanying him, which thoroughly embarrassed Markos, particularly as Glykon was listening.
Markos then went off to his room, trying to avoid any awkward questions from Glykon, (there would be enough of those in the morning), while Gracchus instructed Terentius to send a messenger-boy to Novius, asking him to visit the next morning.
Markos, of course, couldn't sleep.
He hadn't been shown the scroll, and so he had little idea of what it contained.
Gracchus and Terentius, however, had been talking about a 'stella cometa' (comet star) on the journey back to the villa, so in the end, Markos got out of bed and starting searching through his scrolls for that elusive phrase.
And he found a reference - to a comet sighted after the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar - popularly known as 'Caesaris astrum'.
Caesaris Astrum

Of all the ancient writers on comets, the one to emerge with most credit is Lucius Seneca, a Roman of the first century AD. Seneca contested Aristotle’s view that comets were sudden fires, arguing instead that they were celestial bodies moving on orbits like planets and that they might reappear, given time. Prophetically he wrote: ‘Men will some day be able to demonstrate in what regions comets have their paths, why they move so far from the planets, what is their size and constitution’. Caesar's Comet was known at the time of our story as the 'Caesaris astrum' ("Star of Caesar"). Caesar's Comet was one of only five comets known to have had a negative absolute magnitude and may have been the brightest daylight comet in recorded history. It was not periodic and may have disintegrated.
Markos was puzzled.
If the comet appeared after the assassination of Julius Caesar, did the reference to a comet in the oracle mean that Nero was to be assassinated ?
What Markos didn't realize, of course that this was highly dangerous information, and perhaps having overheard the conversation, it would be best if he forgot it, and did not pursue the matter,
What Markos didn't realize, however, was that initially the comet that appeared  after Julius Caesar's death was popularly associated with the idea of the 'genius' of Gaius Julius Caesar, ascending to the Olympian heavens - thus confirming his divinity.
Subsequently, in January 42, the Senate pronounced Gaius Julius Caesar 'Divus Julius' (Divine Julius), thus officially confirming him as a god of the Roman people, and so the comet was no longer required as proof of his divinity.
There was, however, a new Caesar, and 'Caesaris astrum' then became the star of that new Caesar - Gaius Octavian - the 'Divine Augustus' celebrated at Gracchus' recent 'convivium' and 'munera'.
Cometes Stella Templo'
In the light of this development, the 'Cometes stella templo' (Temple of the Comet Star), or more correctly 'Aedes Divi Iuli' (Temple of the Divine Julius), was built by Octavian (Augustus). The young Octavian (he was only just out of his teens) loved to be considered the real subject of any kind of 'Messianic' prophecies and accounts ... so, during the public speech about the appearance of the comet, he specified that he, the new ruler of the world, was born (politically) at the very appearance of his 'father' (actually great uncle), Julius Caesar as a comet in the sky of Rome, and his (adoptive) 'father' was announcing his own (political) birth. So he was the one who had to be born under the comet, and whom the appearance of the comet was announcing. The temple therefore ended up representing both Julius Caesar, as a deified being, and Octavian himself, as the 'newborn' under the comet, and the 'comet-star' itself was an object of public worship
But what had all this to do with Gracchus ? - apart from the fact that he had recently held a 'convivium' and 'munera' in honour of Augustus (Octavian).
Confused and wondering, Markos returned to his bed, and to dreams of flaming comets in the skies.

When morning came, it was back to the main entrance of the villa for Markos.
Young Glykon, of course, was bubbling over with questions.
Markos, however, felt that he had to be careful with his answers.
He knew only too well that there were many rumours floating around the villa, and while he felt that he could trust Glykon, it was more than likely that the boy might let slip information that could cause problems.
Markos explained that they had gone to Cumae, to the temple of Apollo, to visit the priests, who were Gracchus' 'clients', and to discuss arrangements for the new cult statue of Apollo that Gracchus was having made.
That seemed to be enough for Glykon, and Markos carefully made no mention of the Sibyl's cave, or the oracle.
Early on, an old man turned up at the doors of the Villa, and introduced himself to Glykon as Novius, saying that Gracchus was expecting him.
It seems that earlier Terentius had advised Glykon that this visitor would be arriving, and so Glykon asked Markos to escort Novius to the main atrium, and then inform Gracchus that his guest had arrived.
As usual, Markos was nervous as he walked down the corridor to the huge doors leading to Gracchus' study.
The tall, muscular slave-boys who guarded the door, recognizing Markos, immediately opened the doors for him.
Gracchus was there, and as usual he was sitting at his desk surrounded by numerous scrolls.
"Good morning Dominus !", Markos said, quietly.
"Your visitor Novius is here to see you, as you requested."
"Excellent, Markos ! Show him in straight away !".
Considering how perturbed Gracchus had seemed the previous evening, Markos was surprised to find him so bright and cheerful.
So then Markos returned to the Atrium, where Novius was waiting patiently.
"My master will see you now !", Markos said politely to the old, grey-haired gentleman.
The two of them then proceeded to Gracchus' study, where the doors were opened.
Gracchus instantly rose from his desk.
"Novius, my friend ! Welcome !"
"Gnaeus Octavian! You look so well ! It is so good to see you after all this time !"
Markos was surprised to hear someone address Gracchus by his first name - and it was obvious that the two men were old friends.
Gracchus turned to Markos.
"Thank you Markos ! You may leave us !"
And so, at least at that point, Markos was not to hear anything further about the oracle.
"Nice looking boy !", Novius said, once Markos had left the room.
"Is he new !", Novius asked, trying to be casual.
"Yes - and he's a bit of a puzzle. But nothing like the puzzle that I've got for you this morning."
Gracchus looked intently at Novius.
"Now I don't want you to be offended. We've known each-other a long time - and I trust you - but you must promise not to say a word about the matter I wish to discuss with you to anyone !"
"Of course, Gnaeus !" Novius replied, intrigued by the secrecy.
"I want your advice about this !", Gracchus said dramatically, as he passed the scroll of the oracle to Novius.
Novius read the scroll carefully, at least twice.
"So this is from the Sibyl - yes ?"
"How did you guess !", Gracchus asked, surprised.
"Well, the Latin is so strange - obviously the oracle was originally given in Oscan."
Oscan is an ancient Indo-European language of southern Italy. The language is also the namesake of the language group to which it belonged. As a member of the Italic languages, Oscan is therefore a sister language to Latin and Umbrian. Oscan was spoken by a number of tribes, including the Samnites, the Aurunci (Ausones), and the Sidicini. The latter two tribes were often grouped under the name "Osci". The language was spoken from approximately 500 BC to AD 100. Oscan had much in common with Latin, though there are also many striking differences, and many common word-groups in Latin were absent or represented by entirely different forms. 
"So - you are right, but what does it mean ?", Gracchus asked, leaning forward, and then speaking more quietly.
"Terentius and I have been puzzling over it all night, and all we can recognize in it is the 'comet-star', which we take to be 'Caesaris astrum' - and that could make the document dangerous, because the 'comet star' was associated with an assassination - and we don't want any involvement with any plots regarding assassinations - particularly if they involve the Domus imperialis (the Imperial House)."
"Well I don't think that you need necessarily connect the 'Caesaris astrum' with an assassination -" , Novius interjected.
"The text refers to 'the path of the comet star', which I would interpret as the path that the 'Divine Augustus' took - the path to Imperium - so it may suggest that there will be four individuals who will seek to be Emperor - probably around the same time.", Novius explained, cautiously.
"Yes ! And that implies the possibility of civil war ! ", Gracchus murmured.
"It seems so - and obviously only one will succeed."
"So what about this saviour from the East ?", Gracchus asked.
"That's difficult.
Perhaps a general from the eastern provinces, who brings an end to the civil war, but it's not clear if he will be one of the four.", Novious opined.
"Well - if three have fallen, and one remains - then it seems likely that he is the 'saviour from the east'.", Gracchus stated, feeling that he had neatly settled the matter.
"Probably !", Novius agreed.
"So what of the next section, which mentions me ?", Gracchus then asked.
"That's difficult.", Novius said, now looking very serious.
"I'm afraid to say that it may - just may - refer to your demise - but only after the upheavals mentioned at the beginning of the text."
"I see.", Gracchus said thoughtfully.
"I think that is the meaning of the words 'novum initium et finis'." Novius added.
"Yes - you may be right,", Gracchus agreed.
"And what's all this business about a 'golden boy from the sea'.", Gracchus asked tetchily.
"Well - you have many slave-boys.
So - to be obvious -  do any of them come from the sea !", Novius asked, smiling.
"Well no ! Not that I know of.", Gracchus answered, puzzled.
"Well, as a suggestion, the gold may refer to fair hair, or maybe skin colour, or maybe the amount paid for the boy - in gold.
They're just suggestions.
As for the 'sea' - I don't know." Novius continued.
Gracchus, however, was feeling very uneasy, and troubled.
"I really don't like this.", he muttered.
"The fair haired slave-boy who brought you here.....
He was bought in Crete for much 'gold,' and he was brought to the slave market by pirates, who captured him at 'sea' !". Gracchus said, weakly.
"Well, it looks like you have found your 'aurea puer ad mare' !", Novius said, with a glint in his eye.
"But the Sibyl ! How would she know about a young slave-boy? Emperors and generals perhaps. - Even Gracchus ! But a mere slave-boy!", Gracchus groaned, becoming quite overwrought.
"My dear Gnaeus ! Calm yourself ! The great Apollo knows all things, and through his oracle at Cumae he will make known those things which men need to know.
This 'mere' slave boy, I feel, may be much more, and of great importance to you.
As the oracle says, 'he shall bring your name to life once more - and all your works shall prosper.' - and that shall be 'by your own hand'.
So take this boy 'in hand', while you still have time - for he may be your salvation - in a way that none now can even imagine."
Gracchus sat stunned.
It was almost as if Apollo himself had spoken through his dear old friend Novius.
There was silence in the room for a moment.
Novius then rose from his seat.
"I must go now, Gnaeus.
I fear I have maybe said too much.
But we should meet again - soon - for I think that momentous events shall soon transpire."
And with that he quietly left Gracchus' study.

and the story continues -
after the day at Cumae, the message from the Sibyl and Novius' alarming explanation of the scroll, Gracchus finds himself in a position where he has to plan for an uncertain, and difficult future - that will have profound implications for young Markos.
(A New Dawn)

Please note that this chapter contains sexually explicit and violent images and text. If you strongly object to any of these images please contact the blog author at and the offending material can be removed. Equally please do not view this chapter if such material may offend.

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