Ephesus in antiquity was noted for the temple of Diana; more so when the Romans overran the former colonies of Greece and made their virtues the most sought after and to be cultivated throughout their empire. Naturally the cult of Diana became so popular and a pilgrimage to the above said Temple became very popular. Year after year matrons from the mainland made their way to the Temple of Diana, to worship and wonder at the grand edifice and they brought back news for their folks at home. Gradually there arose the news of a certain matron, much young in years to her husband and they all said, such was this women who defied time and morals of her species. Thus the fame of Ephesus became synonymous with the temple and the living paragon of virtue who lived under its shadows. This matron was much gawked upon and her virtues bruited about among the visitors and locals alike. The matron however remained chaste, serving here role as homemaker and untouched by curiosity of her acquaintances.
And thus, when death claimed her husband she interred him quietly in the family crypt in the Greek fashion, to the amazement of her companions. She desisted from a spectacle the matrons in her time made, by loud wailing and baring the bosom and beating their chests, and in their disheveled state protest the swift hand of fate of leaving them to a living death. No, no such antics she displayed but she welcomed death by keeping vigil by the dead. Her close companions remonstrated with her to consider her age that was as good as a rose in bloom and was meant to warm another bed after the period of mourning was over. So did her parents concerned that she was still young and her natural constitution would need some sustenance in her present state. No she was implacable in her resolve to stand guard over it and to weep over it, night and day. In the end, even the town magistrates were driven away and so departed, and the matron merely acceded to her parents wishes to have her slave, long in service to be a companion in her distraught state. Thus she passed five days without much of refreshment other than moist her lips occasionally from a jug of water her slave poured to her in between her groans and monologue of her bereavement.
Clever as she was the slave made herself useful serving as a sounding board and trimming the lamp that had been placed in the tomb whenever required.
And thus in the whole city-state there was a single topic of conversation: people of all ranks praised the chastity of the matron and such eulogy did not ebb while some robbers were caught whose target was the treasury of the Temple. The governor of the province ordered robbers to be fixed to crosses in the vicinity of that dwelling in which the matron was literally immured with the dead body.
Thus, on the following night, when a band of soldiers were posted to guard the dead corpses of the robbers they caught up with the local gossip. Naturally they heard the foolhardy intent of a woman whose chastity was as lustrous as of Diana herself. One soldier who was guarding the crosses to ensure that no one might drag a corpse off for burial was intrigued. He took a chance when the night seemed so quiet and unlikely to require his presence. He made his way to the crypt guided by the light from within.
And so he went down into the tomb and, upon seeing a most beautiful woman, he was in a fluster. The woman that kept vigil was so beautiful and very young. He noted the bier before which she sat disconsolate.
Judging the situation he decided it was imperative that she did partake some food, which he had by him. His ration he would give her and directly he made her feel his presence.
But the matron, stunned by a stranger attempting to console her, reacted violently but the sincerity of the soldier who spoke sense struck her. There he was offering her food with genuine concern and she accepted his presence as nothing extraordinary. She just waved him away not to insist any more. Meanwhile the slave who came into the room understood the matter needed a little help from her. So she coaxed her to accept the little supper that he in all friendliness held out.
The matron weakened by this attack from two fronts merely agreed to take a morsel and nothing more. But the odour of wine however cheap is a powerful panacea to one whose youthful constitution is rebelling against forced starvation. Thus it was with her. The slave girl coaxed her to take another mosel of food and wash it down with wine. The soldier asked her matter-of- factly, ‘What good will this do you, if you die by starvation?’ While the matron dug in for another bite he asked, ‘ Do you believe the dead shall appreciate your sacrifice?’
Refreshed by some solid fare she had foresworn for a while she felt giddy and then a feeling of euphoria. She also realized she was eating the supper of a stranger, who was standing before her and she as natural with good breeding motioned him to sit while she made room for him.
On the other side was the slave girl and she poured out more wine to her mistress saying, in a whisper, ‘He is hunk of a man with a warm heart, no mistaking, Lady!’
Before the matron could respond in irritation she withdrew quitly to the ante-room. When her head was cleared and she felt the glow of life rekindled in her with food and wine, looked at the stranger as though he were an apparition. ‘What brings you here?’ she asked disconcerted by sudden realization she was not alone. He assured that he was merely a soldier and took her hand to feel his heaving heart. She could understand it was he who shared his rations with her and what is more he was a kindred spirit, and young with a pleasing countenance to top it all. He stayed on while she kept her vigil. Much later she opened her distraught mind to him and when overcome with her pent up emotions she fell forward he supported her. One thing led to another and they laid together as one that night while the wily slave quietly removed the lamp away.
Their tryst was in utmost secrecy and the soldier could go back to his watch as though normal. Next night hewas welcomed with open arms by the matron who insisted to break her fast only from his hand. In the nights in succession she did not even think she was in a crypt but in bliss and at the end she safely sent him back with a prayer for safety.
And so it was that the relatives of one of the crucified men, when they had seen that the watch had been relaxed, drew down at night the man who was hanging there and gave him over to his final obsequies.
But the soldier, one night realized disaster had overtaken him. He saw one cross minus the body of the malefactor and he ran back to the crypt saying death was more welcome than ignominy. The matron insisted on him to tell what was the matter. He drew his sword to kill himself before he would be hauled off before a judge, and he swore in vexation the death by crucifixion he could not bear. The matron with flashing eyes, took the sword out of his hands said, ‘Death on a cross for a living man is totally uncalled for.’
‘But I am only a step from such a death, for I am found out by all, my Lady!’ he moaned.
Oh no, replied the matron. He blubbered in utmost despair, ‘I was asked to watch over the dead but without a body I am sure to take his place. That is the law!’
She was unfazed and said ‘The dead shall feel no pain or shame’. She told her plan to save him. She called her slave girl and ordered to give a hand to the soldier who was alacrity himself. Thus in the cover of the night she replaced her late husband’s corpse, and thereby saved her lover.
The next day all the townspeople marveled at how the dead man had gone onto the cross.
(This is a free adaptation of Petronius- The Satyricon 110.6-113.4)