A vestal Virgin, engraving by Sir Frederick Leighton
1890: Leighton's artistic sense has won over his passion for historical accuracy in showing the veil over the Vestal's head at sacrifices, the suffibulum,
as translucent, instead of fine white wool.
In Ancient Rome, the Vestal Virgins (sacerdotes vestales), were the virgin holy priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Their primary task was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. The Vestal duty brought great honor and afforded greater privileges to women who served in that role.
The infamous Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius , was a traitorous Vestal Virgin. Rhea Sylvia, who was raped by Mars and conceived Romulus and Remus , and Tuccia, whose chastity was questioned, was sometimes accounted a prototype of vestal virgins.
The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the Vestal Virgins a popular subject in the 1700s and 1800s.
The objects of the cult were essentially the hearth fire and pure water drawn into a clay vase.
There were six Vestal virgins. The high priest (Pontifex Maximus) chose, by lot, young girls between their sixth and tenth year with impeccable bodies, and two living parents to serve in the order. This high priest picked out the Vestal virgins from groups of twenty aristocratic girls, pointing to his choices with the words, “I seize you, beloved.” They left the house of their father, were inducted by the Pontifex Maximus and their hair was shorn. Now they were under the protection of the Goddess. Later, as it got harder to recruit Vestals, plebian girls were admitted, then daughters of freedmen (Young, Worsfold, 21-3.).
The Vestal virgins were committed to the priesthood at a young age (before puberty) and were sworn to celibacy. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus (an underground chamber near the Colline gate) with a few days of food and water to prolong the punishment. Records show that during the course of 11 centuries, at least 22 vestals were accused of breaking the chastity vow. Rhea Sylvia was thrown into the Tiber by orders from her uncle Amulius after she gave birth to Romulus and Remus, another account indicates that she was whipped to death. The Vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.
In his History of Rome, Livy writes of Postumia, a Vestal Virgin who was put on trial for a sexual offense. Even though she was innocent,
- the fact that she dressed well and talked rather more freely and wittily than a young girl should, up to a point justified the suspicion against her. She was remanded, and afterwards acquitted, with a warning from the Pontifex Maximus, in the name of the college of priests, to stop making jokes and to dress in future with more regard to sanctity and less to elegance.
The accomplice of a guilty Vestal was whipped to death in the Boarium Forum.
Obligations and Rewards
They served for thirty years, ten as students, ten in service, and ten as teachers, after which they could marry if they chose. Yet the long years had pleasing moments too, in the form of privileged seats at the theatre and frequent dinner parties where the menu featured such delacacies as pates, boiled ostrich, doormice stuffed with nuts, and fricassee of roses in pastry shells . Few took the opportunity to leave their respected role in luxurious surroundings to submit themselves to the authority of a man, with all the restrictions placed on women by Roman law.
Their task was to maintain the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. Letting the fire die out was a serious offence, and punished by execution. The fire was rekindled in this case by "the rays of the sun". The exact method is unclear. By maintaining Hestia's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive it 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. It burned until AD 391, when the Emperor Theodosius I's decreees forbade public pagan worship, had the fire extinguished, closed the Temple of Vesta and disbanded the Vestal Virgins.
the Vestals are later on put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony among others. In additon, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola 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 pagentry, the awesome 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 they had a reserved place of honor;
- unlike most Roman women, they were free to dispose of their property, to vote, and to free condemned prisoners;
- they gave evidence without the customary oath;
- they were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and public treaties;
- their person was sacrosanct: death was the penalty for injuring their person, their escort protected anyone from assault, and even to meet them by chance saved a criminal who was being led away to punishment.
- they alone were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei , into the Tiber on May 15.
- they guarded important state documents; and in national crises the advisory power of the Senior Vestal, (Virgo Vestalis Maxima), was undisputed.
The priestly office of the College of Vestal Virgins was created by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (Plutarch, Life). The second century Roman antiquarian Aulus Gellius writes that the first vestal virgin taken from her parents was led away in hand by Numa Pompilius . Originally, there were two, then four (in Plutarch's time), and then six Vestal Virgins. Numa also appointed the Pontifex Maximus to preside over rites, prescribe rules for public ceremony, and watch over the Vestals.
The first Vestals, according to Varro, were Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia. [Grimm, 275]. The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were said to have been whipped to death for having sex. This was the fate of Rhea Sylvia, the ancestral mother of Rome, even though her virginity was taken through rape. The Roman king Tarquinius Priscus instituted the punishment of live burial, which he inflicted on the priestess Pinaria. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration, as was done to Urbinia in 471 BCE. [Worsfold, 62].
Spurious accusations were leveled at Vestals for a variety of reasons. Minucia fell under suspicion for her rich dress, and so did Postumia, who also got in trouble “for her wit” unbefitting a maiden, according to Livy. Postumia was sternly warned “to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits,” but Minucia was buried alive. [Worsfold, 62, 66; Goodrich 283] 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 .
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 (Vestal Virgin Tuccia in Valerius Maximus 8.1.5 absol).
The Chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima) oversees the efforts of the Vestals, and is present in the Collegium Pontificum. Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief Vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380 AD. The College of Vestal Virgins ended in 391, when the fire was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins disbanded by order of Theodosius I.
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 Vestal Virgins, 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.
House of the Vestals
The Vestals lived in the Atrium Vestae just behind the circular Temple of Vesta at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum, between the Regia and the Palatine Hill. The domus publicae where the Pontifex Maximus dwelled, was located near the Atrium until that role was taken up by the emperors.
The Atrium Vestae was an 84-room palace in the ancient Roman Forum built around an elegant court with a double pool. Today, remains of the statues of the Vestals can be seen in the Atrium Vestae.
The complex lay at the foot of the Palatine Hill, where a sacred grove that was slowly encroached upon lingered into Imperial times, when all was swept away by the Fire of Rome in 64 CE. The House of the Vestals was rebuilt several times in the course of the Empire.
- Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
- Samuel Ball Platner and Thomas Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome