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Richard's Writings > The Birth of Rome > Chapter 11: Three Against Three

Synopsis of Chapter 11: Three Against Three

Lucumo and Tanaquil visit the cave of the oracle and receive a strange prophecy. Lucumo invites the best minds in Roma to help interpret the books he bought from the Sibyl of Cumae. The Etruscan League orders Roma to take and destroy the Latin city of Alba Longa. Champions are chosen to decide the fate of both cities, but the day ends with tragedy.

Excerpt from Chapter 11: Three Against Three

Hand in hand, Lucumo and Tanaquil entered the cave and walked down a stone surface worn smooth with use, along a passage that was surprisingly long, more than a hundred meters of dark, narrow, closeness. It had been hewn out of the volcanic tufa in ancient days, no one knew just when. Lucumo carried a torch in his free hand, but they saw light glimmering from a turn in the passage far ahead. They came at last to the source of the light, a fire burning briskly on a raised hearth in the middle of a natural cavity. Lucumo stuck his torch into one of the holes carved into the surface of the hearth, and looked up. There were stalactites dripping mineralized water from the top, forming stalagmites underneath, and an unseen source of fresh air streaming across their faces. But despite the fresh air, the cave had an oppressive, close feel to it. Tanaquil pressed up close against Lucumo, leaching his warmth from his body. She was afraid, and cold, and he was always so warm. She almost spoke in the tone she normally used in the Forum, but hesitated - one just naturally wanted to whisper in such surroundings.

"The Sibyl was once the beloved of Apollo," whispered Tanaquil, "and to prove his love he told her he would grant her dearest wish. She told him she wanted to live forever. He said only the gods were immortal. But the Sibyl was very quick, and very persistent. She said her wish instead was to live for as many years as grains in a heap of dust. She thought she was being very clever, you see. Apollo granted her wish. But as the years went by she began to age, and she realized she had forgotten one very important detail. So she asked Apollo to give her eternal youth, and this he agreed to do, provided that she give him her virginity in return. She refused, for only a virgin is pure enough to own the gift of true prophecy. So now she lives on and on, but gets older with every year. The Sibyl of Cumae is said to be the original oracle, and quite ancient."

"I have often wondered why the gods can be so cruel," Lucumo whispered back. "They seem to take such delight in the sufferings of mortal man. On the other hand, we must admit, they give us so much that is good, as well. Calm seas, gentle rain, bountiful harvest, docile herds. No matter how long the night, it is Apollo who brings us the sun each day on the back of his chariot. So we cannot feel too hard against him, can we?"

"No dear husband, it is Helios who drives the flaming chariot across the sky, on behalf of Apollo. Apollo is too busy playing his lyre, and seducing young virgins. There must be something repelling about a god who is just a little too bright. Poor Clytia refused him and was turned into a sunflower, forced to turn her face to him all day, poor dear. Daphne turned herself into a laurel to escape his unwanted advances. And you know about Cassandra, of course."

"The daughter of Priam, King of Troy?"

"The same. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but when she wouldn't return his love he cursed her: no one would ever believe her prophecies. Imagine seeing the fate of Troy and desperately trying to warn the city of its danger, but no one will listen to you, not even your own father and brothers. They just thought she was mad. How lonely, how terrible!"

"But you believed in me, and married me, and when the eagle set my hat back upon my head you knew I would be king, and I will always believe you, my Quill, and any prophecies that the gods send you."

"If only I had remained a virgin!" Tanaquil teased. "Do you think I should call on Apollo to help me?"

Whatever reply Lucumo had in mind was cut short when a young woman entered the chamber. She was dressed in a simple white robe and looked quite virginal.

"Two white rams and two white oxen will the Sibyl accept from mortal man," the woman said in Greek, "but from Tarchna Cneve the Sibyl has been promised what he values most, and nothing more is required. Enter through that portal; the Sibyl awaits you in the chamber beyond."


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