Fun Facts about Roman Vestal Virgins
Who were the Vestal Virgins?
The vestal virgins of ancient Rome were entrusted with maintaining the temples of Vesta, the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family. They were responsible for performing the rites of the goddess and attending to the sacred fire that burned at her temples. The fire that was said to have been carried from the city of Troy must not have been put out.
Privileges of Vestal Virgins
Vestal virgins had several privileges that no other woman, or person for that matter, could enjoy in Rome:
- They were held in luxury at public expense.
- They were free from paternal authority.
- They kept wills and treaties safe and secure. They also could make a will for themselves.
- They were allowed to do business in their own name.
- They could provide evidence in court without having to take an oath.
- They could ride through Rome in wheeled carriages.
- They were given way by even the highest magistrates in the city.
- Criminals they met on their way to execution were spared.
What happened if a Vestal committed sexual misconduct?
It didn't happen very often, but when a vestal virgin was convicted of sexual misconduct, it was a momentous event. Such cases occurred more frequently at times of public unrest or military crisis, and the vestal virgin in question was punished as part of a ritualistic cleansing of the state.
Because vestal virgins were regarded as sacred and inviolable, they could not be executed. But the punishment was no less severs, as they would be entombed in an underground vault with just a bed, a lamp, and some food and drink, and left to die. Their male accomplices were brutally ﬂogged to death in public.
Pliny, in his Natural History, writes about a vestal virgin named Tuccia who was accused of sexual misconduct but cleared her name by carrying water in a sieve to the temple of Vesta from the River Tiber.
More Fun Facts about Vestal Virgins
Vestal virgins were granted additional legal privileges by Augustus usually reserved for women who had give birth to three children. Caligula, on the other hand, made all 3 of his already-married sisters honorary vestal virgins.
Elagabalus (218–222 AD) married the vestal virgin Aquilia Severa, then divorced her, and then married her again. This sequence of events fueled a public uprising in which Elagabalus himself was assassinated.
Privileged seats were maintained for Vestals at public events. They would sit there in restrained abstinence watching the rabid fanaticism of spectators at chariot races or gladiatorial fights. The poet Prudentius reports that at gladiator shows, having observed as the winner thrust his gladius in the neck of his opponent, one vestal would jump to her feet and demand the sprawling man's immediate execution for fear that there was still life in him.