Text #9519"Vestal Virgins", in .
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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