THE VESTAL VIRGINS: WHO WERE THEY, AND WHY WERE THEY IMPORTANT?
The were a specially selected group of six women. Highly revered in Rome, they were the priestesses of one of its most important cults from ancient times until its abolishment in 394 CE: the cult of the goddess Vesta. Unlike most Roman deities, the goddess Vesta was not anthropomorphic (of humanistic appearance and quality); rather, she was represented as a burning flame in the temple of Vesta (see images 2 and 3). This flame represented the sanctity of Rome and its Empire. It was the Vestals’ job to never let the sacred flame die out, as the Romans believed that it would endanger Rome. The dying of the flame was also associated with the unchastity of a Vestal, as they were required to remain virgins from the time they were chosen (between the ages of six to ten years) to the end of their 30 years of service to Vesta. If Vesta’s flame were to burn out, the Vestals could face serious punishment, the worst resulting in the sentencing by the to be buried alive within the city walls.
The Vestal Virgins were important figures in Roman society, and they held a unique position unlike any other Roman women. A regular Roman woman’s life would be categorized into two stages: being a marriageable virgin, and then being a (who is either married or widowed). Because of their required chastity, however, the Vestal Virgins did not hold the expectation of raising children and taking care of a family like regular women. In fact, they had to remain chaste during the most fertile period of their lives: between the ages of ten to forty. Although there are many reasons explaining the requirement of chastity—including ritual purity—it is clear that by not having to devote energy to a family and to the specific cults that an individual family would worship, the Vestals could devote all their religious energy to the state cult. This in-between role as a matrona for Vesta’s cult while also remaining a virgin is reflected in their clothing; they would wear the matrona’s stola, yet wear their hair in sex crines (six braids in a cone shape at the top of the head ) in the style of a virgin bride (see the image below).
Vestals were also unique in that they had many rights not held by other women. To be inducted into the cult, the Vestals went through the rite of captio which freed them from the control of their . This legal status set them apart from other Romans, both male and female, as they did not have to go through the process of emancipation by to obtain this status. Again, this separation from her family meant that a Vestal could fully devote herself to the religious rituals of Rome, instead of to the rituals of a single family. In addition, this legal status also gave a Vestal special rights. Because she did not need a male guardian’s consent, a Vestal was free to buy and sell property, free slaves, write her own will, inherit property, and gain a substantial income from renting lands and buildings. As well, Vestals were the only Roman women allowed to testify orally in open court. This gave them a certain power that no other Roman woman had. This power can also be seen in their ability to sit in the front of the Roman arena with senators, as well as to be chaperoned by lictors.
We can therefore see that Vestal Virgins had a very important and unique role in Roman society. Their duties and legal status were unlike that of any other Roman women, and from it they could gain and hold significant power.
The following quotes can shed some more light on the lives of Vestals:
Rite of Captio
This first quote is by Aulus Gellius (1250-180 CE), describing the rite of captio. In this rite, a young girl is transferred from her father to the , thereby inducting her into the cult of Vesta. We can see that she is not only literally, but also symbolically taken from her father, as the rite removes her over her. This rite is what ultimately allows a Vestal the right to write her own will, and in addition as we know, the right to the legal and financial status similar to a male citizen. The reason why the Vestal women were separated from their families was so that they would not be tied to an individual family’s cultic life, but could instead devote themselves to the cultic life of all of Rome.
Moreover, a Vestal Virgin, as soon as she has been taken and led into the atrium of Vesta and handed over to the Pontifices, immediately at that moment she leaves her father’s potestas without emancipation and without the diminution of her rights and obtains the right of making a will.
Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12.9
In the following passage from Sextus Pompeius Festus (late 2nd Century CE), we can see the description of a Vestal’s hair style. As discussed earlier, her physical appearance symbolized her liminal state as a woman in Roman society. Her association with marriageable virgins is visibly seen in this passage, which describes how bride and Vestal are adorned with the same hairstyle of sex crines, in which six braids are at the top of her head in a cone shape. We can therefore see that this hair style is associated with virginity as well as sacristy, as it is an ancient style (see image 1).
Brides are adorned with six braids, because this was the most ancient style for them. Which indeed the Vestal Virgins also use, whose chastity for their own men -/- brides *** from others.
Festus., p. 454L
This passage by Plutarch (46-120 AD) describes how Vestals were able to testify orally in the open court. This is something a regular Roman woman would not have been able to do, as although women were allowed to appear in the court they would have to remain mute; their evidence would be written down earlier on and then read out loud in court by a man. As Vestals were not under any male tutelage, they had the ability to speak out in court and serve as witnesses. Other ancient authors, such as Aulus Gellius (125-180AD) (7.7.2) and Tacitus (56-120 AD) (Ann. 2.34), also make mentions of this ability.
Now Tarquinia was a sacred virgin, one of the Vestals, and received great honours for her act, among which was this, that of all women her testimony alone be accepted.
Plutarch, Publicola, 8.4
The following passage by Plutarch describes how, in 75 CE, the Vestal Virgin Licinia fell under the suspicion of having an affair with because he was spending a lot of time with her trying to purchase the property she owned. Such charges were very serious, as the consequence for a Vestal being un-chaste was death. She would be buried alive, and her seducer would be flogged to death in public. Crassus and Licinia were able to refute such charges by proving the meetings were centred around the purchase of Licinia’s property. Women in Rome were not able to own property as long as their pater familias—or, if they did not have one, a male tutor—were alive, as the men would control business affairs. However, as Vestals were free from male tutelage upon being inducted into the priestess-hood, they were free to do so.
And yet when he [Crassus] was further on in years, he was accused of criminal intimacy with Licinia, one of the vestal virgins, and Licinia was formally prosecuted by a certain Plotius. Now Licinia was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs [of Rome] which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her, until he fell under the abominable suspicion. And in a way it was his avarice that absolved him from the charge of corrupting the Vestal, and he was acquitted by the judges. But he did not let Licinia go until he had acquired her property.
Plutarch, Crassus, 1.2
This passage from a letter written describes how the Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE; reigned tk) wanted to bury alive the chief Vestal Virgin Cornelia in a fit of rage and severity. Here, we can see the importance of Vestals remaining chaste, and the consequences that arose when found guilty. There is mention of the Pontiffs, the highest ranking priests of Rome, who would have been responsible for her prosecution instead of the regular court. Because the spilling of a Vestal’s blood was forbidden, her sentencing involved being buried alive. This was done within the city walls, a place where other Romans were not allowed to be buried; however, as her underground chamber would have been provided with symbolic quantities of bread, milk, water, and oil for sustenance, her burial ritual was not viewed as a literal killing. Evidence suggests that Vestal would be accused of unchastity more often during times of political turmoil, suggesting that they were often viewed as scapegoats in relation to Rome’s stability.
For when he [Domitian] desired to bury alive Cornelia the Senior Vestal. . . . He condemned her for incest absent and, unheard. . . . The Pontifices were immediately dispatched to see to her death and burial. She raising her hands now to Vesta, now to the other gods, cried out many things, but this especially: ‘Caesar thinks that I am impure, I who have performed so many rites, by which he conquered and triumphed!’. . . She repeated this until she was led away to punishment, whether she was innocent or not, I do not know, but she certainly acted innocent. For even when she was sent down into the underground chamber, and her stola caught as she descended, she turned and collected herself, and when the executioner would have given her a hand, she declined it and drew back, as though she put away from her with horror the idea of having her chaste and pure body defiled by his loathsome touch. Thus she preserved her sanctity to the last and displayed all the tokens of a chaste woman…”
Pliny, Epistles, 4.11
Image 2. A 3D Computer generated image of the Temple of Vesta by the model maker, Lasha Tskhondia. Note the sacred flame in the centre that represented the goddess Vesta.
Image 3. Reconstruction drawing of the temple of Vesta. Once again note the smoke coming from the sacred fire of Vesta which would be in the centre of the temple. Note as well its central location in the Roman forum. Taken from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trattato_generale_di_archeologia257.png
Full Bibliography :
Greenfield, Peta. “Who were the Vestal Virgins, and what was their job?” Youtube, uploaded by TED-Ed, May 30, 2017, https://youtu.be/ER0Cu0KQFqM
Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins. London: Routledge, 1997.
Takács, Sarolat A. Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.
The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2012.
The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford University Press, 2012.
Wildfang, Robin Lorsch. Rome’s Vestal Virgins. London: Routledge, 2006.
Image 1. Portrait sculpture of a chief Vestal Virgin from the 2nd Century AD. Note the sex crines hairstyle of six braids around her head and her stole, the clothing of a matron. Image taken from https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:VestalisMaxima.jpg
The Vestal Virgins were a specially selected group of six women who, once selected, served as priestesses of the cult of the goddess Vesta for thirty years. One of their main duties was the ensure that the sacred flame of Rome in the Temple of Vesta never died out.
College of Pontiffs, or Collegium Pontificum in Latin, was the most important college of priests in Rome. They had general oversight in matters of state religion involving religious law and procedure, but only in an advisory capacity: their rulings, of which they kept records, had to be put into effect by magistrates. They seem originally to have numbered three, but were successively increased in number until finally they reached sixteen. In the Republic they were elected to their positions from among the senators after having been nominated by a member of the college.
Plural: matronae. A matrona was was a dignified married woman in Rome. She could be old or young, but she had achieved the goal Roman women were told to seek out: marriage and children. She was responsible for overseeing the household maintenance, including instructing slaves. Although the word ‘matron’ comes from the Latin word mater meaning ‘mother’ and does not hold any direct connection to wealth, the term was often associated with financially comfortable households
Pater familias is a Latin term meaning 'father of the family'. It referred to the oldest male in a family, who had immense power over his children and sometimes his wife. Legally, he was entitled to sell his children and grandchildren into slavery and even kill them - at any age. He was also entitled to their money and, as you would expect, their respect. On his death his sons became independent and the pater familias of their own household; women usually remained in some form of guardianship.
Capitis deminutio is a term used in Roman law to describe the extinguishing, either in whole or in part, of a person's former status and legal capacity. There are three charges associated with this - maxima, media, and minima. These charges can involve loss of citizenship and freedom at the extreme end to loss of belonging to a particular family at the lesser end.
Patria potestas, which in English is 'Power of the Father'; a legally enforceable right that the eldest male in a Roman family had to kill his children or sell them into slavery.
Marcus Licinius Crassus (Dives) was a Roman aristocrat, general, and politician, perhaps best know for being at one time the richest man in Rome and the man who defeated Spartacus. His name was a synonym for wealth and arrogance, and a member of the First Triumvirate with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. He was wiped out along with his army by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE.
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, was the nephew and adopted son of Pliny the Elder. He published several books containing hundreds of letters of his to various individuals around Rome, including many members of the elite and the emperor.