Citations:

Text #9519

"Vestal Virgins", in Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vestal_Virg...

In ancient Rome, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Vestales, singular Vestalis) were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being was regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children, and took a vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off-limits to the male colleges of priests.

Livy, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius attribute the creation of the Vestals as a state-supported priestesshood to king Numa Pompilius, who reigned circa 717–673 BC. According to Livy, Numa introduced the Vestals and assigned them salaries from the public treasury. Livy also says that the priestesshood of Vesta had its origins at Alba Longa. The 2nd- century antiquarian Aulus Gellius writes that the first Vestal taken from her parents was led away in hand by Numa. Plutarch attributes the founding of the Temple of Vesta to Numa, who appointed at first two priestesses; Servius Tullius increased the number to four. Ambrose alludes to a seventh in late antiquity. Numa also appointed the pontifex maximus to watch over the Vestals. The first Vestals, according to Varro, were named Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia. In myth, Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, was portrayed as traitorous.

The Vestals became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, the Vestals interceded on Caesar’s behalf and gained him pardon. Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. They were held in awe, and attributed certain magical powers. Pliny the Elder, for example, in Book 28 of his “Natural History” discussing the efficacy of magic, chooses not to refute, but rather tacitly accept as truth:

At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.

The urban prefect Symmachus, who sought to maintain traditional Roman religion during the rise of Christianity, wrote:

The laws of our ancestors provided for the Vestal virgins and the ministers of the gods a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This gift was preserved inviolate till the time of the degenerate moneychangers, who diverted the maintenance of sacred chastity into a fund for the payment of base porters. A public famine ensued on this act, and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces… it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.

The College of the Vestals was disbanded and the sacred fire extinguished in 394, by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius I. Zosimus records how the Christian noblewoman Serena, niece of Theodosius, entered the temple and took from the statue of the goddess a necklace and placed it on her own neck. An old woman appeared, the last of the Vestals, who proceeded to rebuke Serena and called down upon her all just punishment for her act of impiety. According to Zosimus, Serena was then subject to dreadful dreams predicting her own untimely death. Augustine would be inspired to write The City of God in response to murmurings that the capture of Rome and the disintegration of its empire was due to the advent of the Christian era and its intolerance of the old gods who had defended the city for over a thousand years.

The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals”) oversaw the efforts of the Vestals, and was present in the College of Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia, who stepped down in 394 with the disbanding of the College of the Vestals.

The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome’s high priestesses. The Flaminica Dialis and the regina sacrorum each held unique responsibility for certain religious rites, but came into her office as part of a couple.

According to Plutarch, there were only two Vestal Virgins when Numa began the College of the Vestals. This number later increased to four, and then to six. It has been suggested by some authorities that a seventh was added later, but this is doubtful.

The Vestals were committed to the priestesshood before puberty (when 6–10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. These 30 years were divided in turn into decade-long periods during which Vestals were respectively students, servants, and teachers. Afterwards, they were retired and replaced by a new inductee. Once retired, a former Vestal was given a pension and allowed to marry. The Pontifex Maximus, acting as the father of the bride, would typically arrange a marriage with a suitable Roman nobleman. A marriage to a former Vestal was highly honoured, and – more importantly in ancient Rome – thought to bring good luck, as well as a comfortable pension.

To obtain entry into the order, a girl had to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and be a daughter of a free-born resident of Rome. From at least the mid-Republican era, the pontifex maximus chose Vestals between their sixth and tenth year, by lot from a group of twenty high-born candidates at a gathering of their families and other Roman citizens. Originally, the girl had to be of patrician birth, but membership was opened to plebeians as it became difficult to find patricians willing to commit their daughters to 30 years as a Vestal, and then ultimately even from the daughters of freedmen for the same reason.

The choosing ceremony was known as a captio (capture). Once a girl was chosen to be a Vestal, the pontifex pointed to her and led her away from her parents with the words, “I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal ‘on the best terms’” (thus, with all the entitlements of a Vestal). As soon as she entered the atrium of Vesta’s temple, she was under the goddess’s service and protection.

To replace a Vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief Vestal for the selection of the most virtuous. Unlike normal inductees, these candidates did not have to be prepubescents, nor even virgins (they could be young widows or even divorcees, though that was frowned upon and thought unlucky), though they were rarely older than the deceased Vestal they were replacing. Tacitus (Annals ii.86) recounts how Gaius Fonteius Agrippa and Domitius Pollio offered their daughters as Vestal candidates in AD 19 to fill such a vacant position. Equally matched, Pollio’s daughter was chosen only because Agrippa had been recently divorced. The pontifex maximus (Tiberius) “consoled” the failed candidate with a dowry of 1 million sesterces.

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple’s sanctuary. By maintaining Vesta’s sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as “surrogate housekeepers”, in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor’s household fire.

The Vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony. In addition, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

The dignities accorded to the Vestals were significant.

  • in an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the College of Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies and wherever they went, they were transported in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way;
  • at public games and performances they had a reserved place of honour;
  • unlike most Roman women, they were not subject to the patria potestas and so were free to own property, make a will, and vote;
  • they gave evidence without the customary oath, their word being trusted without question;
  • they were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties;
  • their person was sacrosanct: death was the penalty for injuring their person and they had escorts to protect them from assault;
  • they could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them – if a person who was sentenced to death saw a Vestal on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.
  • they participated in throwing the ritual straw figures called Argei into the Tiber on May 15.

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offence and was punishable by scourging.

The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium, they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestum and an act of treason. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or “Evil Field” (an underground chamber near the Colline Gate) with a few days of food and water. Ancient tradition required that an unchaste Vestal be buried alive within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law that no person might be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the Vestal would not technically be buried in the city, but instead descend into a “habitable room”. Moreover, she would die willingly. The actual manner of the procession to Campus Scleretatus has been described like this:

When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged, was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter, and borne through the forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus. just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate. There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and a table with a little food. The pontifex maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed

Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. In 483 BC, following a series of portents, and advice from the soothsayers that the religious ceremonies were not being duly attended to, the vestal virgin Oppia was found guilty of a breach of chastity and punished. The Vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

O Vesta, if I have always brought pure hands to your secret services, make it so now that with this sieve I shall be able to draw water from the Tiber and bring it to Your temple.

Because a Vestal’s virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the Vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the Pontifex Maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body. While the Order of the Vestals was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity and these trials all took place at times of political crisis for the Roman state. It has been suggested that Vestals were used as scapegoats in times of great crisis.

Pliny the Younger was convinced that Cornelia, who as Virgo Maxima was buried alive at the orders of emperor Domitian, was innocent of the charges of unchastity, and he describes how she sought to keep her dignity intact when she descended into the chamber:

…when she was let down into the subterraneous chamber, and her robe had caught in descending, she turned round and gathered it up. And when the executioner offered her his hand, she shrunk from it, and turned away with disgust; spurning the foul contact from her person, chaste, pure, and holy: and with all the deportment of modest grace, she scrupulously endeavoured to perish with propriety and decorum

Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims that the earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and “put to death” for breaking their vows of celibacy, and that their offspring were to be thrown into the river. According to Livy, Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin, and when she gave birth to the twins, it is stated that she was merely loaded down with chains and cast into prison, her babies put into the river. Dionysius also relates the belief that live burial was instituted by the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus, and inflicted this punishment on the priestess Pinaria. The 11th century Byzantine historian George Kedrenos is the only extant source for the claim that prior to Priscus, the Roman King Numa Pompilius had instituted death by stoning for unchaste Vestal Virgins, and that it was Priscus who changed the punishment into that of live burial. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration as was done to Urbinia in 471 BC.

Suspicions first arose against Minucia through an improper love of dress and the evidence of a slave. She was found guilty of unchastity and buried alive. Similarly Postumia, who though innocent according to Livy was tried for unchastity with suspicions being aroused through her immodest attire and less than maidenly manner. Postumia was sternly warned “to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits.” Aemilia, Licinia, and Martia were executed after being denounced by the servant of a barbarian horseman. A few Vestals were acquitted. Some cleared themselves through ordeals. The paramour of a guilty Vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.

The House of the Vestals was the residence of the vestal priestesses in Rome. Behind the Temple of Vesta (which housed the sacred fire), the Atrium Vestiae was a three-story building at the foot of the Palatine Hill.

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses the Vestals entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the Vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

The main articles of their clothing consisted of an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a fillet, which was worn by priests and other religious figures in Rome. A vestal’s infula was white and made from wool. The suffibulum was the white woolen veil which was worn during rituals and sacrifices. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons, symbolizing the Vestal’s commitment to keeping the fire of Vesta and to her vow of purity, respectively. The palla was the long, simple shawl, a typical article of clothing for Roman women. The palla, and its pin, were draped over the left shoulder.

Vestals also had an elaborate hairstyle consisting of six or seven braids, which Roman brides also wore. In 2013 Janet Stephens became the first to recreate the hairstyle of the vestals on a modern person.

Legendary Vestals

  • Rhea Silvia, the mythical mother of Rome’s founders, Romulus and Remus.
  • Aemilia, who, when the sacred fire was extinguished on one occasion, prayed to Vesta for assistance, and miraculously rekindled it by throwing a piece of her garment upon the extinct embers.

Vestals in the Republic

  • Aemilia (d. 114 BC), Marcia (d. 114 BC), and Licinia (d. 114 - 113 BC), accused of multiple acts of incestum (violations of their vows of chastity). Aemilia, who had supposedly led the two others to follow her example, was condemned outright. Marcia, who was accused of only one offence, and Licinia, who was accused of many, were at first acquitted by the pontifices, but were retried by the praetor and jurist Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla (consul 127 BC), and condemned to death. The prosecution offered two Sibylline prophecies in support of the final verdicts. The charges were almost certainly trumped up, and may have been politically motivated.
  • Oppia was a Vestal Virgin in the early republic. In 483 BC, following a series of portents, and advice from the soothsayers that the religious ceremonies were not being duly attended to, she was found guilty of a breach of chastity and punished.
  • Fonteia, served ca. 91–69 BC, recorded as a Vestal during the trial of her brother in 69 BC, but she would have begun her service before her father’s death in 91.
  • Fabia, chief Vestal (b ca 98–97 BC; fl. 50 BC), admitted to the order in 80 BC, half-sister of Terentia (Cicero’s first wife), and a wife of Dolabella who later married her niece Tullia; she was probably mother of the later consul of that name. In 73BC she was acquitted of incestum with Lucius Sergius Catilina.
  • Licinia (flourished 1st century BC), who was supposedly courted by her kinsman, the so-called “triumvir” Marcus Licinius Crassus, who in fact wanted her property. This relationship gave rise to rumors. Plutarch says: “And yet when he 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 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.” Licinia became a Vestal in 85 BC and remained a Vestal until 61 BC.

Imperial Vestals

  • Rubria, said by Suetonius to have been married to the Emperor Nero
  • Aquilia Severa, whom Emperor Elagabalus married amid considerable scandal.
  • Coelia Concordia, the last head of the order.

Outside Rome

Inscriptions record the existence of Vestals in other locations than the centre of Rome.

  • Manlia Severa, virgo Albana maxima, a chief Alban Vestal at Bovillae whose brother was probably the L. Manlius Severus named as a rex sacrorum in a funerary inscription. Mommsen thought he was rex sacrorum of Rome, view that is now not considered probable.
  • Flavia (or Valeria) Vera, a virgo vestalis maxima arcis Albanae, chief Vestal Virgin of the Alban arx (citadel).
  • Caecilia Philete, a senior virgin (virgo maior) of Laurentum-Lavinium, as commemorated by her father, Q. Caecilius Papion. The title maior means at Lavinium the Vestals were only two.
  • Saufeia Alexandria, virgo Vestalis Tiburtium.
  • Cossinia L(ucii) f(iliae), a Virgo Vestalis of Tibur (Tivoli).
  • Primigenia, Alban vestal of Bovillae, mentioned by Symmachus in two of his letters.

References

Beard, Mary, “The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 70, (1980), pp. 12–27.

Kroppenberg, Inge, “Law, Religion and Constitution of the Vestal Virgins,” Law and Literature, 22, 3, 2010, pp. 418 – 439.

Peck, Harry Thurston, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)

Parker, Holt N. “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State”, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 125, No. 4. (2004), pp. 563–601.

Samuel Ball Platner and Thomas Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome

Wildfang, Robin Lorsch. Rome’s Vestal Virgins. Oxford: Routledge, 2006

Text #9613

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

In Rome, the embodiment of the fire was Vesta, the symbol of moral order. Ovid says of her that she occupied the first place in the religious practices of men. The Vestal Virgins were very important in the Roman religious scheme of things. They were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, the personification of the communal hearth which symbolized the collective hearths of the citizens. The tradition told that the Vestals were instituted by King Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome. There were six of them, they were appointed while young children between the ages of six and ten years old, and had to be daughters of respectable citizens, born in wedlock, in Italy, preferably Rome. In practice, since the earliest “citizens” (those who had ancestors and a family altar) turned into the oligarchy, that meant only daughters of such families were usually selected. The position was one of great honor and certain advantages. After inauguration, a Vestal virgin passed from the control (tutela) of her father to that of the pontifex maximus. She served for a minimum of 30 years which meant she might retire as early as the age of 36, but she could stay on voluntarily for life. If she chose to retire, she could marry, (but 36 was a bit old for having children).

The Vestal virgins had a pretty easy job: they just kept the fire going in the temple, made daily sacrifices, kept the temple clean, and presided over a number of religious ceremonies throughout the year. The persons of the Vestal virgins were sacred and anyone who raised a hand against them was executed. This meant that their presence was a guarantee against violence and they could appeal on behalf of an accused person; a chance encounter with a Vestal could save a condemned man from execution. Finally, they were permitted to own property and could will it to whom they chose, a quite advantageous legal privilege. Obviously, it can be seen that their position was one which invited potential corruption.

These women had a pretty decent life but there was one thing they could not ever, ever do: lose their virginity. A non-virgin polluted the sacred rites and called down the anger of the goddess and probably other gods. If they had sexual intercourse with anyone, the crime was considered to be incest, not just adultery or wantonness. The penalty was death for both the Vestal and the paramour. The Vestal would be forced into a pit with a few days food and water, and the pit closed with stones or bricks and a mound of earth. The man would be flogged to death with rods. This punishment was actually carried out on at least 11 occasions up to 113 BC. Plutarch writes:

[The Pontifex Maximus] was also the overseer of the holy virgins who are called Vestals. For they ascribe to Numa also the dedication of the Vestal Virgins and generally the care and worship of the inextinguishable fire which they guard, either because he considered the nature of fire to be pure and uncorrupted and so entrusted it to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies or else because he compared its fruitlessness and sterility to virginity. In fact, in all of Greece wherever there is an inextinguishable fire, as at Delph and Athens, virgins do not have the care of it but women who are beyond the age of marriage. (Plutarch, Numa 9.5.)

Plutarch was obviously a bit nonplussed that in Rome, the tenders of the fire had to be virgins. We can note that the unique legal status of the Vestals freed them from usual family ties which made it possible for them to incarnate the collective spirit of the state. The virginity of the Vestals probably represented the purity of this collective; the absence of any evil spiritual influence. In ancient times, feminine virtue was the yardstick of the moral health of a society, and for the Romans, this was a historical reality. Throughout the history of Rome, there are numerous occasions where charges of sexual impurity in women (violation of their vows by the Vestals, or adultery in wives) were declared to be responsible for danger to the state.

This series of strange incidents, spanning a thousand years of Roman history, reveals a world-view deeply rooted in sympathetic magic, where women in their strictly limited societal roels emboedied the state, and the inviolability and control of women was objectified as the iviolability and control of the community. (Parker, Holt N. (2004) Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State; American Journal of Philology 125, 563-601, Johns Hopkins University Press.)

The virginity of the Vestals wasn’t just the symbol of the state’s safety, it was the guarantee; virginity symbolized the intact state of boundaries and the unity of all families within those collective boundaries. The Vestals, by preserving their virginity, were magically preserving the state. Her unique legal status was less a privilege than a magical function. She was taken away from her family, legal ties dissolved, but she did not become a member of any other family. She did not stop being a woman, but she ceased being like “other women.”

The exchange of women to seal interfamilial bonds and political ties was a marked feature of Roman society. Thus, if the Vestal Virgin was to represent the society as a whole, she must be exterior to all families. Since a basic principle of Roman law was that a woman always belonged to someone, the procedure to free the Vestals from ownership was both complex and comprehensive. … prevented her from being an orphan [which would have damaged her perfect nature] while still guaranteeing that legally and religiously she had no family. … Her masculine rights and privileges were side effects of the act of freeing her from all masculine ownership. … The Vestal was thus the totem of Rome… Her virginity is a type of binding spell familiar from ritual observances in many cultures. … Thus, as long as the Vestal remained intact, so did Rome. (Parker (2004))

If, and when, a Vestal strayed from the path, she was ritually sacrificed as mentioned above. This was basic scape-goating: deflecting onto the victim the danger of violence. In the historical record, there is a total lack of any protest – even from the Vestals themselves – against the sacrifice of a Vestal Virgin. The Vestal Aemilia, when the sacred fire had been allowed to go out, prayed to Vesta “If anything unholy has been done by me, let the pollution of the city be expiated by my punishment.” In the time of Domitian, Pliny witnessed the execution of the Vestal, Cornelia who was reported to have said on her way to be buried alive: Does Caesar think that I have been unchaste, when he has conquered and triumphed while I have been performing the rites?” Pliny hated Domitian and suspected him of ulterior motives in this case and wrote “I don’t know whether she was innocent, but she certainly acted as if she were innocent. (Pliny 4.11.7-8.) The murder of the Vestal was clearly a form of human sacrifice that was intended to unite the society in a unanimous act of violence that would not result in reciprocal vengeance. And, interestingly, anthropological studies indicate that such a victim should be fundamentally innocent for the sacrifice to be efficacious. However, ritual measures had to be taken to overlay an aura of guilt on the victim in order to engage the unanimity of the society toward the sacrifice. The victim would be charged with grave crimes – generally the more hideous the better – which actually amounted to unloading the collective crimes of the society onto the innocent victim. In short, Rome maintained at all times, in the institution of the Vestal Virgins, both perfect priestesses who, if needed, were at-the-ready perfect victims for the ultimate sacrifice. An example from Livy writing about ancient Rome in 483 BC:

War with the Veii then broke out and the Volsci resumed hostilities. Roman resources were almost more than sufficient for war against an external enemy, but they were squandered by the Romans fighting amon themselves. Adding to everyon’e mental anxiety were heavenly prodigies, occurring in Rome and the countryside, which showed the anger of the gods almost daily. The prophets, after consulting first the entrails and then the birds about both the public and the private omens, announced that there was no other reason for the gods being so moved, except that the sacred rites were not being performed correctly. These terrors finally resulted in the Vestal Virgin Oppia being condemned for incestum and executed. (Livy 2.42.9-11.)

The Vestal accused of incestum was not just a sinner, but a criminal also. (No matter who might be accused with her, the charge was incest because all Romans were considered to be “brothers” of the Vestal Virgins.) A trial guaranteed the guilt of the surrogate victim and increased the sacrificially necessary guilt. She was made responsible for all the evils that occurred in a time of crisis. However, the death must be left to a natural force so that the polluting presence will be removed without committing a polluting act.: thus, being buried alive. No one is personally responsible for the death and thus, no one else is tainted. The Vestals were buried alive with a few days supply of food which Plutarch explicitly says was done so that the death of a sacred person could not be attributed to anyone but herself. Paradoxically, after her death, the executed Vestal Virgin was thought to guard the city she had betrayed. This is further evidence of the practice being a kind of holy sacrifice following strict ritual norms. The Vestal Virgin was devoted, sacrificed, on behalf of the people, to expiate the anger of the gods.

The Vestals were not the only women in Roman society who were sacrificed. Controlling women and their sexuality was equivalent to controlling the state. Dangers made manifest toward the state, either outside or inside, could only be dealt with by the punishment of women. In 331, there was a plague and 20 patrician wives were charged with a poisoning conspiracy. They were forced to drink drugs – a trial by ordeal – and died. A further 170 married women were executed after an investigation. (Munzer (1923); Gage (1963); Monaco (1984); Cantarella (1987); Pomeroy (1975), cited by Parker.)

In 296, the cult of Plebeian Chastity was founded and the following year an unknown number of Roman matrons were found guilty of adultery and fined. In 215, following the disaster at Cannae, the Oppian law was passed and the Vestal Virgins Floronia and Opimia were executed together with additional human sacrifices. In 213, an unspecified number of citizens wives were exiled for adultery. In 204, there was a trial by ordeal of Claudia Quinta who was charged with adultery. In 186, the Bacchanalia scandal erupted when thousands of women were executed by their family courts or the state itself. In 184, further trials of those accused of poisonings (men and women). In 180, Hostilia Quarta was condemned for poisoning her husband and three thousand other people were found guilty of poisoning. In 154, Publilia and Licinia were strangled after being tried in family tribunals after being accused of poisoning their husbands. In 113, there was the above mentioned trial and execution (buried alive) of Vestal Virgins.

These eruptions of rage against women reveal a profound fear at the core of Roman society. …the very interchangeability and exchangeability on which Rome was based necessitated that a woman still be attached to, and be a member of, her father’s family for her to have value as an exchange. As a result, she was still a stranger in her marriage family and feared as a stranger… a potential traitoress… This fear, though best known to folklore as centering on the figure of the step-mother, was not confined to her. Rather, since for Rome the children were the husband’s both legally and biologically, all mothers were stepmothers, fostering another’s children. … According to Plutarch the laws of Romulus specified that a husband may divorce his wwife only for poisoning his children, counterfeiting his keys, or adultery. This very marginality of women makes them the perfect victims. In times of panic, the society can easily be restored to health by the sacrifice, exile, or punishment of wives, who are central to the family yet not fully members of it; who are necessary to produce children yet expendable… the charge of adultery was the betrayal of all her male relatives, both by birth and by marriage. … We hear not of individual women put on trial but masses. We are told not of monstrous women acting alone but in consort… they formed an anti-society… a witch-world wose values were distorted parodies of the values of patriarchal society… The unpenetrated virgin and the well-regulated wife both embodied the city in the symbolic universes of sympathetic magic. (ee Parker, op. cit., for specific citations.)

Obviously, something happened during the formation of the Roman state, and throughout its existence, that made what they were doing entirely rational. My suggestions as to the conditions suffered by peoples around the world in the ancient, formative, Dark Ages are, of course, described in some detail in my previous book, “COMET AND THE HORNS OF MOSES” so I won’t go into that in any detail here. However, I can note here that the cosmic threats were responded to by various peoples according to either their inherent natures or instructions given them by someone.

It was claimed that the Roman religious institutions were established by the legendary king Numa. Plutarch thought he detected a Laconian influence, attributing the connection to the Sabine culture of Numa, for “Numa was descended of the Sabines, who declare themselves to be a colony of the Lacedaemonians.” Dionysius of Halicarnassus devotes a much longer space to Numa’s religious reforms. In his account the institution of eight priesthoods is attributed to him: curiones, flamines, celeres, augurs, vestals, salii, fetials, pontiffs. Minute prescriptions about the ceremonies and sacrifices were certainly written down in order to perform them correctly and Plutarch records some of these. Plutarch, in like manner, tells of the early religion of the Romans, that it was imageless and spiritual. He says Numa “forbade the Romans to represent the deity in the form either of man or of beast. Nor was there among them formerly any image or statue of the Divine Being; during the first one hundred and seventy years they built temples, indeed, and other sacred domes, but placed in them no figure of any kind; persuaded that it is impious to represent things Divine by what is perishable, and that we can have no conception of God but by the understanding”. This last bit seems rather Pythagorean, but the suggested link with the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) made me think of Traveling Salvation Shows, i.e. Shamans.

If you think that itinerant revival preachers, tent evangelists, or faith-healing meetings are a Christian phenomenon, think again: such activities have their roots in the ancient Orientalizing influences on Greece. They were, it seems, a very special kind of traveling skilled artisans whose importance and influence suggests to us the seriousness of the environment in which such could develop and prosper. Seers and doctors were mentioned by Homer as “migrant craftsmen”, individuals which communities were anxious to attract and keep, as the two activities appear to have been closely connected. The fact that these individuals were seen as specialists of a particular craft – partly hereditary, partly acquired by learning and intitiation, reveals the important place that religious therapies for individuals, groups, cities and nations held.

The Derveni papyrus, written in about 340 BC by the circle of philosophers that included the ill-fated Anaxagoras, describes individuals who specialize in initiations as “He who make the sacred his craft”. Strabo, too, refers to the “Dionsiac and Orphic crafts”. Even Hippocrates, who was at pains to differentiate between medicine as a science, and psychological catharsis, admitted that migrant seers and healers presented themselves as bearers of special knowledge.

It seems that in those times, as today, charismatic technicians of other-worldly interactions could become widely sought-after personalities. In fact, it appears that they represented the intellectual elite of that time. We get a hint of this in the regard that even Heraclitus had for Pythagoras who was certainly just such a technician. Their special status gave them the ability to freely cross borders and thereby transfer cultural knowledge from one place to another. In the Amarna correspondence from the time of Akhenaten, the kings of Ugarit and Hatti request physicians and seers from the Egyptians. Obviously, they were not yet aware of the fact that Egypt, itself, was falling into dire straits and none of its psychic specialists seem to have been able to counter the deleterious effects of the regime of the last members of the 18th dynasty.

In 670 BC, it is said that Thaletas of Gortyn (Crete), a charismatic musician, delivered Sparta from a plague. Apparently, the presence of an epidemic (epidemia: temporary sojourn), could attract migrant seers as well as physicians. Before him, there was the legendary Karmanor, the priest who purified Apollo after the god had slain the Delphic dragon. Karmanor himself was later killed by Zeus with a thunderbolt. Walter Burkert notes that the name does not appear to be Greek. Crete is the ancient center of Minoan culture and we will shortly encounter a connection of the Minoans to the Mycenaeans and Hittites. The Apollonian celebrations of the day of the new moon and the seventh day of the month were later adopted by the Semites of Palestine, probably from Cretan survivals.

Please view our Legal Notice before you make use of this Database.

See also our Credits page for info on data we are building upon.