Text #9615"Vestal Virgins", in .
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.
- 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.
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