Vestal Virgins: Powerful Priestesses of Rome’s Sacred Flame
In the Res Gestae Divi Augustus (‘The Deeds of the Divine Augustus’), Augustus demonstrates his piety by stating that he was a member of all four major priesthoods in Rome – the Pontifices, Augures, Quindecemviri and Septemviri. There was, however, one Roman religious college that was off limits to men, even to the pious emperor himself. This was the College of the Vestals, popularly known as Vestal Virgins, which only had women amongst its ranks.
What Was the Role of the Vestal Virgins?
The College of the Vestals was an important institution that served to ensure the well-being and security of Rome. The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and one of their most important functions was the maintenance of the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum.
Sacrifice to the goddess Vesta by Sebastiano Ricci. ( Public Domain )
According to the Roman writer Plutarch, the College of the Vestals was established by the second legendary king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. During Numa’s reign, there were only two Vestal Virgins, and Plutarch names the first two Vestal Virgins as Gegania and Verenia, who were afterwards succeeded by Canuleia and Tarpeia. Plutarch provides a suggestion why Numa may have ordered the priestesses maintain their virginity while watching over the sacred flame, he writes that Numa might have “considered the nature of fire to be pure and uncorrupted and so entrusted it to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies.“
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During the kingship of Servius Tullius , the number of Vestal Virgins was increased to four. Sometime later, the number of Vestal Virgins increased again to six, and this number remained until the dissolution of the institution at the end of the 4th century AD.
Dedication of a New Vestal Virgin (1710) by Alessandro Marchesini. ( Public Domain )
What was it Like Living as a Vestal Virgin?
The Vestal Virgins were selected from patrician families at a young age, usually between six and 10 years old. For the first 10 years, the girls would serve as novices. After that, they would be fully recognized Vestal Virgins for the next 10 years.
During the last 10 years of their service, they would serve as supervisors responsible for the training of new novices. After 30 years of service, the Vestal Virgins would be released from their duties and allowed to live a private life.
They were allowed to marry, and it was considered a great privilege for a man to marry a former Vestal Virgin. Nevertheless, from the Vestal Virgin’s point of view, marriage was considered unlucky, as they had been consecrated to the goddess Vesta for most of their lives, and many chose to continue living single lives.
‘A Vestal Virgin Tending Fire’ by François Lemoyne. ( Public Domain )
Obligations and Privileges for a Priestess of Vesta
Whilst the tending of the sacred fire is the primary function of the Vestal Virgins, they had other functions as well. For instance, the Vestal Virgins were responsible for the preparation of the mola salsa (‘salted flour’), which is used in all state sacrifices.
In addition, the Vestal Virgins were keepers of wills and took part in numerous ceremonies. In June, the Vestalia festival would be celebrated and the inner sanctum of the circular shrine to Vesta in the Forum Romanum would be opened to ordinary women to bring offerings. This area was usually only accessible to the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus. At the end of the festival, the temple was ritually cleansed.
‘The Vestal Virgins’ (1693-1699) by Anthoni Schoonjans. ( Public Domain )
The ancient Romans believed that Vestal Virgins had a sort of magic about them. This belief was so strong that some said the priestesses could ‘stop a runaway slave in his tracks’ and that people condemned to death had to be freed if they serendipitously crossed the path of a vestal virgin when the condemned was being led to their death. Plutarch hints at their mystical nature when he wrote that “they were also keepers of other divine secrets, concealed from all but themselves.”
During peaceful times, the Vestal Virgins enjoyed a number of privileges. For instance, they were not subject to the pater potestas (‘power of the father’) of their fathers. They were also allowed to handle their own properties and engage in legal contracts. When traveling around the city, they were allowed to use carriages, and they had special front row seats at the various games .
The End of the College of Vestals
When Rome experienced misfortune, however, the Vestal Virgins were blamed, and some have seen them as scapegoats for the troubles Rome faced. For instance, when Rome faced military defeat, it could conveniently be blamed on a Vestal Virgin’s failure to maintain the sacred fire, or on her loss of virginity.
For such serious matters, a Vestal Virgin could be punished by death. As it was forbidden to kill or harm a Vestal Virgin, other cruel ways of execution were used instead. For instance, the Vestal Marcia, who was accused of taking a lover in, was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb in 114 BC.
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Cornelia, the Vestal Virgin, entombed alive surrounded by bones in the dungeon. Line engraving by G. Machetti after B. Pinelli. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )
The days of the Vestal Virgin ended with the coming of Christianity. The last known vestalis maxima (‘chief Vestal’) was Coelia Concordia, who lived during the reign of Theodosius I. In 394 AD, Theodosius, who was a Christian, disbanded the College of Vestals , thus bringing an end to this ancient Roman institution.
Top Image: The Vestal Virgins tending to the sacred fire. Source: Public Domain
Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus [Online]
[Bushnell, T., (trans.), 1998. Augustus’s The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.]
Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html
Gill, N. S., 2015. Six Vestal Virgins. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/rome/a/aa1114001.htm
Lutwyche, J., 2012. Ancient Rome's maidens – who were the Vestal Virgins?. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/18490233
Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Numa Pompilius [Online]
[Dryden, J. (trans.), 1683. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Numa Pompilius.]
Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/numa_pom.html