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The Roman people had suffered enough from the war against the Carthaginian Hannibal and looked for a way to victory. Following the advice of the divinely prophetic Sibylline Books, they arranged for a sacred stone image of Cybele, the Anatolian great mother goddess of mountains and fertility, to be brought to Rome. The sea voyage from Pessinus, in what is now Turkey, was trouble free. But on 6 April 204 BC, when the ship reached Ostia, Rome’s port at the mouth of the River Tiber, it ran aground on a muddy bank.

A huge crowd had turned out to welcome the goddess. Laborers and aristocrats alike put their hands to the ropes, but the water level was low following month upon month of drought and the ship refused to budge. Believing that such an occurrence could only portend disaster, the people were quaking with fear. Standing nearby was Claudia Quinta, a beautiful Vestal Virgin who, because of her stylish dress and her ready tongue in arguments with men, had been accused of breaking her solemn vow.

Vestal Virgins were the priestesses who served Vesta, goddess of the hearth. They were responsible for keeping the sacred flame burning in her round temple. This was no mean feat, as the temple was a small building with a solitary vent in its roof, and occasionally the worst happened. Vestals were sworn to chastity, and if they were found to have broken the oath, their punishment was to be buried alive. Such was the penalty hanging over Claudia Quinta.

The Roman poet Ovid tells us that Claudia sprinkled herself with river water, lifted her palms to heaven and prayed on bended knee to the goddess Cybele for a sign that would prove her innocence. The gathered crowd thought that she was mad, but when Claudia stood and laid her hand on the rope, the heavily laden ship slowly came free of the mud. Both goddess and Vesta were brought into Rome with wild celebrations.

 


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