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The Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of Ancient Rome
The Vestal Virgins
The Vestal Virgins were a college of priestesses in Ancient Rome who served at the altar of Vesta, (Greek Hestia) Goddess of the Hearth. The sacred fire that burned in their temple was essentially the Hearth and centre of Rome. If the sacred flame ever went out on the altar or if there were any irregularities in worship, the wellbeing of Rome herself could be threatened. For this reason, the Vestal Virgins both occupied a position of great honour, respect and power while at the same time being under great restriction. Their status although anomalous, can in some ways be seen as representative of Greco-Roman attitudes to women.
How Were Vestal Virgins Chosen?
While priesthoods in the Greco-Roman world were often sought after eagerly by both men and women, conveying as they did both honour and privilege, the office of Vestal Virgin was somewhat different. Girls between seven and ten years of age were chosen by lot from aristocratic families in Rome and were then dedicated to thirty years of service in the Temple, during which time they must remain virgin.
Despite the high status of the position, we are told by the Roman historian Suetonius that many aristocratic families tried to keep their daughters’ names off the list of those to be selected. In later years in the Roman Empire, lower class girls and even the daughters of former slaves could be considered for the position of Vestal Virgin, once reserved for aristocrats.
For ancient Roman nobility, marriage and motherhood were seen as the primary purpose and fulfillment of a woman's life. Marriage alliances among aristocratic families had an important role in politics and the exchange of wealth and power, while the high infant mortality and maternal death rate meant that the loss of a healthy girl’s reproductive capacity was a significant one to the family. Outside the special case of the Vestal Virgins, it was extremely unusual for a well-born girl to remain unmarried. Vestal Virgins would therefore have experienced their single status as something that made them highly exceptional and set them apart from other women they knew.
The Tasks and Function of the Vestal Virgins
The tasks of the Vestal Virgins centred around the maintenance of the Sacred Flame which burned on the altar of Vesta. It was believed that if the flame were ever to go out, it would presage disaster for Rome. The priestesses thus took turns, day and night to guard the flame. If the flame did go out the priestess responsible would be ritually beaten by the Pontifex Maximus or chief priest.
Other duties of the Vestal Virgins included making regular offerings to the Goddess, sprinkling the shrine with water gathered from a clear spring and not from a piped source and taking part in festivals such as the famous women's festival of the Bona Dea.
Although these duties sound simple, they evidently had some complexity to them; out of the thirty years of service, each Vestal would spend the first ten as a novice learning the tasks, the second decade performing the tasks and the final ten years teaching the novices.
After the Vestal’s term of service was over, she was free to leave and even get married but this rarely happened, the priestess usually preferred to remain in office.
That the priestesses remain virgin throughout their term of office was considered vital for the stability of Rome. If a Vestal Virgin was convicted of compromising her chastity, she was to be buried alive in a horrifying and solemn ceremony. This actually happened on a number of historically testified occasions. It seems that Vestal Virgins could serve as convenient scapegoats in times of political embarrassment.
The Unique Status of the Vestal Virgins
Despite the restrictions on their life and the threats of retribution hanging over them for any dereliction of their dutes, the Vestals were among the most powerful and influential individuals in Rome.
Unlike ordinary women, Vestals were in their own potestas; in other words, they could act as independent legal entities, without a male guardian, drawing up wills and owning property.
Wills of statesmen and emperors, as well as other important legal documents were deposited with the Vestals for safe keeping. The priestesses were entitled to front row seats at the Games. When the Emperor Augustus decreed that women should sit separately at the back of the Circus, as part of his legislation to reform popular morality, the Vestal Virgins were exempt and retained their places of honour.
The intercession of a Vestal could have powerful political clout; Julius Caesar earlier in his political career was under threat of execution by the dictator Sulla but was saved through the intervention of the Vestals after his mother pleaded with them on his behalf.
The highest magistrates and public officials were required to make way for the Vestal Virgins in the street and it was a capital offence to lay hands upon one.
Thus, while the Vestals had power and prestige far exceeding that of any ordinary woman, it was at the high price of enforced celibacy and seclusion, public scrutiny and the threat of horrific punishment, should their conduct be judged to be below standard. The paradoxical status of the Vestal Virgins made them the exceptions that proved the rule.