Vestal Virgins: Purity, Punishment and Privilege

Amongst the ruins of the Roman forum sits the temple of the Vesta, goddess of home, family and hearth. Although easily missed the ruins of this temple, still the home of a few statues of the women themselves was one of the most influential institutions of ancient Rome from her earliest days until a relatively new religion from the east became too influential, Christianity. Even after Christianity was the dominant religion in the western and eastern Roman empires the Cult of Vesta was one of the longstanding pagan cults. One of the things that makes it so unique that it was run by the women, in the ancient world where society was so patriarchal and women had few rights the Vestal virgins were an exception to the rule in the ancient world. Despite this, they were subject to pleasure and punishment in equally exceptional quantities.

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Vestal priestesses tending to the sacred fire

The cult of Vesta at the Heart of Rone

The goddess Vesta and the vestal cult is woven into the history and fabric of Rome, it would have been as much a part of life as Christianity in medieval Europe an ever-present institution which provided assurance. The mother of Romulus and Remus was a priestess of Vesta (technically not a vestal virgin as that institution hadn’t been created yet, we’ll get there) and once she became pregnant she was imprisoned and the babies were condemned to death. So the founders of Rome were children of a vestal priestess, in Roman mythology the god of war Mars impregnated Rhea giving the notion that it was a divine intervention rather than a promiscuous breaking of vows (Plutarch is equally as sceptical of this in the 2nd century AD as you probably are now). Now I don’t want to be like Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci code but it almost reminds me of another tale of the birth a child who was condemned to death by a king from a woman who was supposed to be a virgin and said it was the work of the divine…and that’s all I’m going to say about that (If you’re reading this Grandma I’m sorry).

The 2nd king of Rome Numa Pompilius (753 BC – 672 BC) is widely credited with the creation of the Vestal cult as it was through the Roman Republic and Empire until it was disbanded by the banning of all pagan cults in 394 BC. Livy wrote that Numa was responsible for the creation of many of the Roman religious institutions, many of them based on Etruscan culture which dominated Italy long before Rome. Young girls were chosen to be future priestesses and were required to leave their families and live in the atrium Vestae in the forum with the other priestesses. This right of passage can be regarded as similar to the Spartiate agoge. Where children from patrician families were taken away from their family at a young age with the purpose to serve the state for a certain period of time until their service ends, both institutions bringing great pride and prestige to the family, the individual and the state.

The selection process ran by the Pontifex Maximus (the highest ranking religious office in ancient Rome) who would choose 20 candidates put forward by their families. The girls who became priestesses were chosen from a public lot, luck of the draw and six of the potential twenty became priestesses. It is telling that this process was called the Captio, which is also the Latin for capture and that the girls would have been put forward for this position regardless if they wanted to or not. So coupled with the fact that they were put forward and chosen by powerful male figures it’s obvious that they were not fully in control of their lives. So clearly although this was an institution lead by women there are certain undercurrents that suggest patriarchial domination. Once selected they were sworn into 30 years of service at the Atrium Vestae, where they lived and carried out all of their duties.

Life within the Atrium Vestae

Once chosen by lots the girls were initiated and taken to the Atrium Vestae in the forum, this served as a compound with everything they needed, although they were not confined to these premises it was there they spend the vast majority of their time. It’s three main areas where a large patio with statues of the Vestialis Maxima (chief priestess), the aedicula (small shrine to the goddess Vesta) and the temple of Vesta which was iconically round. It has been theorised that it retained a traditional circular structure throughout its existence in association with the rustic huts which the city was first made up of.

It was here that the vestal priestesses carried out their most important role, tending to the goddess’s sacred fire which they relit once a year and ensured it remained lit at all times. The smoke from this fire could be seen coming out of the temple and was of massive symbolic importance to ancient Rome. The sacred fire was believed to dictate the fortunes of ancient Rome and if it ever burned badly or went out it would bring disaster to Rome. A very poignant example of this is when Rome’s defeat at the battle of Cannae by Hannibal Barca in 216 BC was blamed on the behaviour of two vestal virgins and they were punished accordingly (We’ll get to this later).

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Reconstruction of the Atrium Vestae, the temple of Vesta with the sacred fire in the bottom right

The time of service was 30 years and this was split into three distinct 10-year stages each of which associated with different roles and responsibilities. The first 10-years were for training in all of their duties always being supervised. The next 10 were spent as fully practising priestesses and the last 10 years they trained the new priestesses. The cult was maintained by public donations and tax exemption. Proof that this institution was held close to the heart of the Roman people and the ruling class in a society where religion and matters of state were not separate as they are today.

The cult of Vesta and its priestesses were seen as mothers of the state, maintaining the fire for the good of Rome. For doing this they enjoyed certain priveledges that other women in the ancient world could only dream of. For example, they were able to own property, tax exemption, emancipation from their families patriarchal power and could create their own wills. Compare this to the women of Athens, living in a society widely considered to have been at the forefront of education, science, philosophy and democracy but their women were not considered citizens and had no rights. It’s clear that the Vestal priestesses were some of the most privileged women in the ancient world, but it came at a high price because even with all their privileges they were anything but free.

Purity and Punishment

It is believed that the welfare of the state was very closely tied to the purity and virtue of the Vestal priestesses. As a result, it was paramount that the priestesses as a highly visible representation of the state maintained their holiness. They were so revered by the people of Rome that if a convicted convict saw one on their way to execution they were pardoned (unless it could be proved that the meeting was manufactured). The penalties of breaking their 30 years vow of chastity or anything that even came close to being deemed as immoral behaviour were extremely severe.

The fact that it was technically, against the law to either kill or spill the blood of a virgin the punishments created were even more horrifying and draconian. Since Rome had laws about spilling the blood of vestal virgins their method of execution was immurement, being buried alive. However, since this was effectively and execution it was against the law. A loophole was found, the vestal virgins were given some bread and water in the ‘room’, and once they were sealed within the ‘room’ they were left to die a natural death. This way it was not considered an execution although it was of the cruellest methods of doing so.

Because of this method of punishment, it was very common for accused virgins to commit suicide before this could be carried out. The sexual partners of the priestesses were whipped to death, a quicker but non less excruciating death. So although these women were given outstanding privileges but held to rigorous behavioural standards and if deemed to have broken any of them horrific punishment.

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Because of their positions, any accusation based on jealousy or malice had the potential to take root and end with the virgins being punished. So life as a Vestal priestess must have been like walking a tightrope, ever present and careful of doing something that would be seen as immoral in fear of the repercussions.

Life after service

Once leaving the temple after their 30 years of service on the face of it they were free and able to live their life however they wanted to have their own property and not having a farther or husband to effectively, rule over them. However ask yourself this, how would you cope after nearly 40 years of infrastructure guiding your everyday life and it is suddenly removed overnight. I’d imagine its similar to Brooks in the film The Shawshank Redemption. After being in jail for so long he didn’t know how to integrate back into normal society. It must have been a daunting task for women to be thrust into a patriarchal society without any protection and as a result, they were often targets of mercenaries and other men seeking after their wealth.

A particularly notable example of this is when Marcus Crassus courted a vestal virgin called Licinia with the ultimate aim of obtaining her wealth. This should have been a huge scandal but in the days of the corrupt late republic. Then as now money talks, and as Plutarch writes that Crassus was able to acquire her property.

Summary

It is without a doubt that the Vestal cult was one of Romes most cherished institutions and served as a source of inspiration and comfort for the people of the eternal city for almost 1,000 years. It also was also one of the few institutions in the ancient world that allowed women at least an element of freedom for the patriarchal society that was so prevalent and dominated the ancient world. Despite this, there was no getting away from the fact that they were still not free if anything their lives were merely a facade of privilege and freedom as opposed to them actually being so. Regardless the women of this institution enjoyed unparalleled privileges for women in the ancient world and were revered above all others but were held to even high standards as a result. As Uncle Ben said in Spiderman, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. 

Oliver J. Hallett


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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