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The Vestal Virgins: Priestesses, Celebrities, and Enigmas of Ancient Rome

In the male-dominated world of ancient Rome, the Vestal Virgins stood out as a remarkable exception. These priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, were the only women to hold full-time religious office in the city. Chosen from noble families as young girls and bound to 30 years of chaste service, the Vestals enjoyed privileges and powers denied to other women – and an almost unparalleled degree of legal and sexual autonomy. Their aura of purity and their proximity to the heart of Roman religion made them some of the most influential and honored figures in Roman society.

The College of Vesta: An Ancient Institution

At any given time, there were six Vestal Virgins in office, ranging in age from around ten to forty years old. Whenever a vacancy occurred due to retirement or death, a new girl between six and ten would be chosen through a complex system that combined nomination by parents, approval by priests and the Senate, and a random lottery.[^1] Once selected, a Vestal was ritually separated from her family, invested with her duties, and moved into the Atrium Vestae, a luxurious six-bedroom house adjacent to Vesta‘s temple in the Roman Forum.[^2]

The origins of the priesthood are obscure, but by the time of the early Republic (5th century BC), it was firmly entrenched in Rome‘s religious and political landscape. According to Roman legend, the city‘s founder Romulus established the Vestals based on the religious colleges of the nearby town of Alba Longa.[^3] Archaeological remains of the Vestals‘ house and temple date back to at least the 3rd century BC.[^4] The College would endure as an institution for over a thousand years until it was finally dissolved in the religious reforms following Christianity‘s rise in the late 4th century AD.

Duties and Dangers: The Vestals‘ Unique Obligations

The Vestals‘ primary task was tending the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta, making sure it never went out. This fire was believed to be linked to the fortunes and safety of Rome itself. Letting the flame die was a grave offense, punished by a scourging at the hands of the Pontifex Maximus, Rome‘s chief priest.[^5]

But the Vestals‘ responsibilities extended far beyond mere fire-keeping. They prepared sacred foods such as the mola salsa (salted flour) used in all public sacrifices, maintained a kind of public archive of important legal documents, and guarded sacred objects including the mysterious Palladium statue.[^6] They participated in more than a dozen festivals throughout the year, and only they could conduct certain arcane rituals.

Most importantly, the Vestals were bound by a sacred vow of chastity for their 30 years in office. Losing one‘s virginity was regarded as a form of incest and an act of treason that threatened Rome itself. The punishment was to be buried alive in an underground chamber on the Campus Sceleratus ("Evil Field"), though in practice, this was a rare occurrence, only attested a handful of times over the centuries.[^7]

Privileges and Powers: The Perks of Being a Vestal

In exchange for these weighty responsibilities, the Vestals enjoyed an array of legal privileges and signs of prestige that set them far above other women and even many men in Roman society:

  • They could own property, make their own wills, and conduct business without a male guardian, rights usually restricted to women who had birthed multiple children.[^8]
  • They had the best seats in the house at public games, religious ceremonies, and theater performances.
  • They were entrusted with the wills of elite families and the public treasury.[^9]
  • Their person was sacrosanct – anyone who laid a hand on them could face execution. They were preceded by lictors and traveled by a special covered carriage.[^10]
  • They could free condemned prisoners and slaves with a mere touch. Their word was accepted without the need for an oath.[^11]
  • They were one of the few groups of Roman women allowed to vote, in certain cases.[^12]

In short, the legal and religious privileges of the Vestals gave them an independence that was simply unthinkable for most women in ancient Rome, who were usually under the authority of their father or husband. Vestals were not exactly equal to men, but they undoubtedly outranked women.

Influence and Intrigue: Famous Vestals in the Historical Record

While the Vestals were in theory removed from the hurly-burly of Roman politics, in practice their religious status often became entangled with the power struggles of the day. Accusations of sexual impropriety against Vestals were sometimes used to attack or discredit their male relatives in the Senate.[^13] The Vestals also made for exciting protagonists in ancient Roman tales of scandal. Historians like Livy and Suetonius tantalized their readers with stories of Vestals accused of secret affairs or mysterious pregnancies, while poets like Ovid played on the erotic frisson of an illicit encounter with a forbidden Vestal.[^14]

A few Vestals became famous (or infamous) in their own right:

  • Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia (2nd century BC): These three Vestals were put on trial for violating their vows in 114 BC, a case that shook the Republic. Aemilia was condemned to death, but Licinia and Marcia were acquitted after their influential families pressured the judges.[^15]

  • Cornelia (1st century BC): As Virgo Maxima (head priestess) during the tumultuous years of Julius Caesar and Augustus, Cornelia oversaw both the Vestals and a significant chunk of the Roman treasury. She was briefly exiled for alleged impropriety in 90 BC before being recalled due to popular demand. Cornelia was such a respected figure that the mob at Caesar‘s funeral placed his body in front of her house for a spontaneous cremation.[^16]

  • Coelia Concordia (4th century AD): The last known head of the Vestals, Coelia was a powerful woman in an era when the power of the priesthood was in decline. She‘s known from an inscription hailing her as an exemplar of "chastity and dutiful service."[^17] According to a possibly apocryphal story, when the emperor Theodosius ordered her to disband the Vestals and extinguish the sacred flame, Coelia defiantly proclaimed that she would only take orders from a Sibylline prophecy or a vote of the Senate.[^18]

The Afterlife of the Vestals: Ruins, Relics, and Representations

Even after the College of Vestals was dissolved by Christian emperors at the end of the 4th century, the potent image of an immaculate virgin priestess has lived on in Western art and culture:

  • The ruins of the Temple of Vesta and the Atrium Vestae remain iconic (if often misidentified) landmarks in the Roman Forum, attracting millions of visitors a year. Several realistic marble portraits of Vestals that once adorned the Atrium are now prized possessions in Roman museums.[^19]

  • Medieval and Renaissance Christians reinterpreted the Vestals as virtuous pagan predecessors of nuns, and church tradition holds that some former Vestals became Christian martyrs.[^20] A young woman in the costume of a Vestal is a common allegorical figure in European art from the 15th-19th centuries, often representing chastity, piety, or faith.[^21]

  • The sexual frisson of "Vestals breaking their vows" has featured in works of art and literature from ancient times to the present, from Ovid to graphic novels.[^22] Sigmund Freud famously compared the Vestals to nuns with repressed sexual desires.[^23]

  • The image of a solemn girl in white robes solemnly tending a fire has become an archetype of ancient Roman religion in popular culture, cropping up in everything from Hollywood epics to video games.[^24]

Conclusion: The Enduring Fascination of the Vestals

The Vestal Virgins are compelling figures for modern readers and researchers because they represent so many paradoxes. As elite women in a patriarchal society, they were both set apart and central to the Roman world. As inviolable virgins, they possessed an erotic mystique while being officially off-limits. As priestesses without priests, they operated in a space largely reserved for men while also being barred from male roles like politics or war. Undoubtedly, the Vestals‘ legal privileges and ritual powers gave them an autonomy and authority almost unheard of for women in classical antiquity.

But this freedom was fragile and conditional, always at risk of being snatched away by an accusation of sexual transgression. The Vestals thus embody the complex, often contradictory attitudes that ancient Romans held about women, sexuality, religion, and power. They are striking reminders that even a society as rigidly patriarchal as Rome could carve out unique spaces where a few select women might – at least temporarily – transcend some of the limitations placed on their gender. Tracing their history over a millennium, from a small gathering of girls guarding Vesta‘s fire to a renowned institution at the heart of Roman religion to a relic of a bygone era swept away by a new faith, offers us a fascinating thread to follow through the broader tapestry of Roman civilization.

[^1]: Beard, M. (1980). "The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins." Journal of Roman Studies, 70, p. 12-27. [^2]: Wildfang, R.L. (2006). Rome‘s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome‘s Vestal Priestesses in the Late Republic and Early Empire. Routledge. [^3]: Plutarch, Life of Romulus 22.1. [^4]: Downey, S.B. (1995). "The Palace of the Vestal Virgins in the Forum Romanum." American Journal of Archaeology, 99(1), p. 119-132. [^5]: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.67.3. [^6]: Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12. [^7]: Livy, History of Rome Summaries 14, 20, 63. [^8]: Gaius, Institutes 1.130. [^9]: Tacitus, Annals 1.8, 2.34, 11.32. [^10]: Plutarch, Life of Numa 10. [^11]: Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.3.12, Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.15. [^12]: Orosius, History Against the Pagans 4.2. [^13]: Wildfang 2006, p. 93-97. [^14]: Staples, A. (1998). From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion. Routledge, p. 129-151. [^15]: Plutarch, Roman Questions 83. [^16]: Suetonius, Life of Caesar 83. [^17]: Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum VI 2131. [^18]: Prudentius, Peristephanon 2.525-528. [^19]: Lindner, M.M. (2015). Portraits of the Vestal Virgins, Priestesses of Ancient Rome. University of Michigan Press. [^20]: St. Ambrose, On Virgins 1.4.15. [^21]: Galt, C.M. (1931). "Veiled Ladies." American Journal of Archaeology, 35(4), p. 373-393. [^22]: Strong, A. (2016). "Vestal Virgins and Their Families." Classical Antiquity, 35(2), p. 179-207. [^23]: Freud, S. (1910). "The Psycho-Sexual History of an Infantile Reminiscence." Collected Papers, vol. 2. [^24]: Ziolkowski, T. (2008). Minos and the Moderns: Cretan Myth in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art. Oxford University Press, p. 87-114.