Text #9632

Halicarnassus. "Roman Antiquities"
[Bk. 8 ]

…Those elected consuls for the ensuing year were Marcus Fabius, son of Caeso, the younger brother of the consul who conducted the election, and Lucius Valerius, the son of Marcus, the man who had accused Cassius, who had been thrice consul, of aiming at tyranny and caused him to be put to death.

These men, having taken office, asked for the levying of fresh troops to replace those who had perished in the war against the Antiates, in order that the gaps in the various centuries might be filled; and having obtained a decree of the senate, they appointed a day on which all who were of military age must appear. Thereupon there was a great tumult throughout the city and seditious speeches were made by the poorest citizens, who refused either to comply with the decrees of the senate or to obey the authority of the consuls, since they had violated the promises made to them concerning the allotment of land. And going in great numbers to the tribunes, they charged them with treachery, and with loud outcries demanded their assistance.

Most of the tribunes did not regard it as a suitable time, when a foreign war had arisen, to fan domestic hatreds into flame again; but one of them, named Gaius Maenius, declared that he would not betray the plebeians or permit the consuls to levy an army unless they should first appoint commissioners for fixing the boundaries of the public land, draw up the decree of the senate for its allotment, and lay it before the people. When the consuls opposed this and made the war they had on their hands an excuse he says not granting anything he desired, the tribune replied that he would pay no heed to them, but would hinder the levy with all his power. And this he attempted to do; nevertheless, he could not prevail to the end. For the consuls, going outside the city, ordered their generals’ chairs to be placed in the near-by field; and there they not only enrolled the troops, but also fined those who refused obedience to the laws, since it was not in their power to seize their persons. If the disobedient owned estates, they laid them waste and demolished their country −houses; and if they were farmers who tilled fields belonging to others, they stripped them of the yokes of oxen, the cattle, and the beasts of burden that were on hand for the work, and all kinds of implements with which the land is tilled and the crops gathered.

And the tribune who opposed the levy was no longer able to do anything. For those who are invested with the tribuneship possess no authority over anything outside the city, since their jurisdiction is limited by the city walls, and it is not lawful for them even to pass a night away from the city, save on a single occasion, when all the magistrates of the commonwealth ascended the Alban Mount and offer up a common sacrifice to Jupiter in behalf of the Latin nation. This custom by which the tribunes possess no authority over anything outside the city continues to our times. And indeed the motivating cause, among many others, of the civil war among the Romans which occurred in my day and was greater than any war before it, the cause which seemed more important and sufficient to divide the commonwealth, was this − that some of the tribunes, complaining that they had been forcibly driven out of the city by the general who was then in control of affairs in Italy, in order to deprive them henceforth of any power, fled to the general who commanded the armies in Gaul, as having no place to turn to. And the latter, availing himself of this excuse and pretending to come with right and justice to the aid of the sacrosanct magistracy of the people which had been deprived of its authority contrary to the oaths of the forefathers, entered the city himself in arms and restored the men to their office.


But on the occasion of which we are now speaking the plebeians, receiving no assistance from the tribunician power, moderated their boldness, and coming to the persons appointed to raise the levies, took the sacred oath and enlisted under their standards. When the gaps in the several centuries had been filled, the consuls drew lots for the command of the legions; as a result, Fabius took over the army which had been sent to the assistance of the allies, while Valerius received the one which lay encamped in the country of the Volscians, and took with him the new levies. When the enemy were informed of his arrival, they resolved to send for another army and to encamp in a place of greater strength, and no longer out of contempt for the Romans to expose themselves to reckless danger, as before. These resolutions were quickly carried out; and the commanders of the two armies both came to the same decision regarding the war, namely, to defend their own entrenchments if they were attacked, but to make no attempt upon those of the enemy in the expectation of carrying them by assault. And meanwhile not a little time was wasted, because of their fear of making any attack upon each other.

Nevertheless, they were not able to abide by their resolutions to the end. For whenever any detachments were sent out to bring in provisions or anything else that was necessary to the two armies, there were encounters and blows were exchanged, and the victory did not always rest with the same side; and since they frequently clashed, not a few men were killed and more wounded. For the Romans the wastage of their army was made good by no replacements from any quarter; but the army of the Volscians was greatly increased by the arrival of one effort after another, and their generals, elated at this, led out the army from the camp ready for battle.

Roman antiquities 8.89

When the Romans also came out and drew up their forces, a sharp engagement ensued, not only of the horse, but of the foot and the light −armed troops as well, all showing equal ardour and experience and every man placing his hopes of victory in himself alone. At last, however, the bodies of the dead on both sides lay in great numbers where they had fallen at the posts assigned to them, and the men who were barely alive were even more numerous than the dead, while those who still continued the fight and faced its dangers were but few, and even these were unable to perform the tasks of war; for their shields, because of the multitude of spears that had stuck in them, weighed down their left arms and would not permit them to sustain the enemy’s onsets, and their daggers had their edges blunted or in some cases were entirely shattered and no longer of any use, and the great weariness of the men, who had fought the whole day, slackened their sinews and weakened their blows, and sweat, thirst, and want of breath afflicted both armies, as is wont to happen when men fight long in the stifling heat of summer. Thus the battle came to an end that was anything but remarkable; but both sides, as soon as their generals ordered a retreat to be sounded, gladly returned to their camps.

After that neither army any longer ventured out for battle, but lying over against one another, they kept watch on each other’s movements when any detachments went out for supplies. It was believed, however, according to the report common in Rome, that the tendency, though it was then in their power to conquer, deliberately refused to perform any brilliant action because of hatred for the consul and the resentment they felt against the patricians for having played a tricking of them in the matter of the allotment of land. Indeed, the soldiers themselves, in letters they sent to their friends, accused the consul of being unfit to command.

While these things were happening in the camp, in Rome itself many prodigies in the way of unusual voices and sights occurred as indications of divine wrath. And they all pointed to this conclusion, as the augurs and the interpreters of religious matters declared, after pooling their experiences, that some of the gods were angered because they were not receiving their customary honours, as their rites were not being performed in a pure and holy manner. Thereupon strict inquiry was made by everyone, and at last information was given to the pontiffs that one of the virgins who guarded the sacred fire, Opimia by name, had lost her virginity and was polluting the holy rites. The pontiffs, having by tortures and other proofs found that the information was true, took from her head the fillets, and solemnly conducting her through the Forum, buried her alive inside the city walls. As for the two men who were convicted of violating her, they ordered them to be scourged in public and then put to death at once. Thereupon the sacrifices and the auguries became favourable, as if the gods had given up their anger against them.

Text #9615

"Vestal Virgins", in Wikipedia.

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

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