Vestal Virgins

MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT

In a world of strict patriarchy, very few women had the chance to be independent or have their voices heard within Roman society. The only way a woman received equal treatment and respect was as a Vestal Virgin, a priestess of the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Their primary task was to attend to the sacred fire of Rome. Anyone needing household fire could use this flame, and in a religious sense, they were the surrogate housekeepers for all of Rome. It was paramount to ensure it would never die out.

These priestesses could property, make a will, and vote. Due to their holy position in Roman society, they had reserved seats at public games and a person received death if they injured a Vestal. Guards accompanied them wherever they went. They also had the power to free slaves and condemned prisoners by touching them.

Livy, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellitus attribute creating the Vestals to the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (who supposedly reigned between 717 – 673 BC). This is strange considering in the Rome foundation myth, the mother of Romulus and Remus, Rhea Silvia, was a Vestal. It’s also suggested the Temple of Vesta had its origins at Alba Longa, where Rhea Silvia was from. The first Vestals, according to Varro, were Canuleia; Gegania; Tarpeia and Veneneia. Tarpeia appears again in Roman myth, she betrayed Rome to the Sabines during the rape and capture of their women. As a result, they crushed her to death and threw her body off a cliff.

A commitment to the college of Vestals lasted 30 years, the girls chosen before puberty between the ages of 6-10, and free of mental and physical problems. Although it was open to only patrician girls, the lack of applicants (many families did not want to commit their daughters to the 30 years), resulted in applications open to plebeians and the daughters of freed slaves. The Vestals divided their 30 years of service into three sections lasting 10 years each; first they were students, then servants, and finally teachers. While tending Rome’s sacred hearth, the Vestals collected sacred water, prepared food used in rituals and cared for sacred objects. Due to the incorruptible nature of the Vestals, Rome trusted them with safekeeping the wills of prominent Romans such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. After their 30 years were up, they retired, replaced by a new inductee. A Vestal retirement was a comfortable one as they received a pension by the state and could now marry. The Pontifex Maximus (head of the Roman Priestly colleges) would often arrange her marriage with a Roman nobleman, who received honor from her former role, and benefited from her pension.

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Despite their important and fundamental position in Roman society, history records few named Vestals, but notes quite a few for violating their vows (whom the temple punished accordingly). It names several others due to advantageous marriages. It’s said a formal vestal named Rubria married to Emperor Nero, and another was Aquilia Severa who married Emperor Elagabalus. The marriage caused a major scandal because Aquilia was still in active service when she married. Even after Elagabalus divorced her and married a far more suitable bride, he still kept in contact with Aquilia. It’s interesting that the vast majority of recorded Vestals are due to the violations of their faith.

The power of the Vestals waned during the 4th Century. Constantine I (272 – 337 AD) converted and repelled bans against Christianity, which increased the spread and power of this new religion. It took until the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395 AD), who made Christianity the official state religion of Rome, for the order to cease. The last known head of the Vestals was Coelia Concordia, who stepped down from her post in 394 AD and converted to Christianity later in life.

Since many believed the Vestals protected Rome, contemporary writers pondered whether the disbandment of the Vestals led to Rome’s demise. Zosimus (490s – 510s) recounts a story about a niece of Emperor Theodosius I, Serena. As Theodosius shut down the temple, Serena took a necklace from a statue. A Vestal chastised her and called punishment upon her. Horrific dreams predicting her death tormented Serena. Recounts of stories like this and other murmurings were so numerous that St. Augustine had to write The City of God in response.

It shows that even after abandoning the old Roman pagan pantheon, the citizens of Rome still regarded the influence of the Vestals as high, proving how important their position was in not only faith but in the strength of Roman society.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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