Who were the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome?
The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. They held an important religious role in ancient Rome and were responsible for maintaining the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta.Who was the goddess Vesta, and why was she so important to the Romans? And how were girls chosen to become Vestal Virgins – priestesses of Vesta?
Here are some key points about the Vestal Virgins:
Entry requirements and service
Young girls, typically between the ages of six and ten, were chosen to serve as Vestal Virgins. They were selected based on certain criteria, including being free from physical and mental defects. They served for 30 years: the first decade as students, the second as performers of the rituals, and the third as teachers.
Vow of Chastity
Vestal Virgins took a vow of chastity, meaning they could not marry or have children during their 30 years of service. Breaking this vow was considered one of Rome’s gravest offenses.
Core Duties of the Vestal Virgins
Their primary duty was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. If the fire went out, it was considered a bad omen, and the Vestal responsible would be whipped. They also prepared ritual food, cared for sacred objects in the temple’s inner sanctuary, and participated in festivals like Vestalia.
What sorts of privileges did they enjoy?
Vestal Virgins enjoyed privileges that other Roman women did not. They could own property, vote, and were free from the control of a male guardian. If a condemned person met a Vestal Virgin, they were automatically pardoned.
In a city where burial within the city limits was forbidden, Vestals were one of the few exceptions. They could be buried inside Rome.
Vestal Virgins held a special “auctoritas” or moral authority. Their presence was often requested at various public events and ceremonies to bring legitimacy.
Their sacred status allowed them to intervene in political matters occasionally. For example, they interceded on behalf of Julius Caesar when he was a young man and secured his release from Sulla.
Punishments for neglecting their duties or breaking their vow
A Vestal’s chastity was integral to the safety and security of the state. If they broke their vow, they would be buried alive, as Roman law forbade spilling the blood of a Vestal Virgin. The man involved would be flogged to death.
After completing their 30 years of service, Vestal Virgins could leave the temple, marry, and live a normal life. However, many chose to remain in the temple due to the respect and privileges they received.
Symbolism in ancient Rome
The Vestal Virgins were symbolic of Rome’s domestic and political stability. Their perpetual virginity was seen as a safeguard against internal and external threats to the Roman state.
The Vestal Virgins were an essential part of Rome’s religious and civic life, representing purity, tradition, and the continuity of the Roman state. Their legacy lasted for over a millennium, from the founding of Rome to the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.
Vestal Virgins and the Roman Emperors
The Vestal Virgins held a unique and respected position in ancient Rome, and their relationship with Roman emperors was complex, multifaceted, and evolved over time.
The Vestals were seen as symbolic sisters and daughters of the Roman emperor. This made the emperor the symbolic paterfamilias, or head, of the Vestal “family”. This connection reinforced the emperor’s role as the protector of Rome and its religious traditions.
Just as the Vestals were expected to maintain the sacred fire and ensure the safety of Rome, they were also believed to offer spiritual protection to the emperor. In return, the emperor was expected to honor and protect the Vestals.
There were instances where Vestal Virgins were accused of breaking their vow of chastity. When this happened during an emperor’s rule, the emperor was often the one who oversaw the punishment. The violation was considered a dire omen for the state, and punishments were severe, sometimes including live burial or death.
The sanctity of the Vestals was sometimes used for political ends. Emperors could gain public support by showcasing their close ties with the Vestals, or by defending and upholding the Vestals’ purity and honor. Conversely, accusing a Vestal of impropriety could be a way to discredit an emperor’s enemies or rivals, as was seen in the case of Chief Vestal Cornelia under Emperor Domitian.
Augustus, the first Roman emperor, reformed the Vestal order and increased the number of priestesses from four to six. Nero, on the other hand, was accused of having an affair with a Vestal Virgin, though this might have been political slander.
Accusations and trials
Throughout history, there were instances when Vestal Virgins were accused of breaking their vows of chastity. When a Vestal was suspected of violating her vow, she was subjected to a trial. If found guilty, the punishment was severe. The most common punishment for a Vestal Virgin found guilty of breaking her vow was to be buried alive, a fate considered appropriate since it avoided the direct shedding of sacred blood. The man involved would be whipped to death.
It’s worth noting, however, that accusations against the Vestals sometimes had political motivations. Vestals held a significant amount of power and influence, and charges of impropriety could be levied against them as a means of political maneuvering.
For example, Pliny the Younger – the Roman author who penned the accounts of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD – claimed that Emperor Domitian falsely accused Cornelia, a Virgo Maxima, resulting in her being buried alive.
Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Vestal Virgins are believed to have faithfully kept their vows during their tenure.
Emperor Elagabalus and the Vesta Virgin Aqilia Severa
Severa was one of these Vestal Virgins. Her marriage to the Roman Emperor Elagabalus (reign: 218 – 222 AD) in 220 AD was a significant scandal. Not only did this union break the sacred vow of celibacy taken by Severa, but it also went against Roman traditions and societal norms.
Regarded as one of the most despicable emperors of Rome, Elagabalus was an unconventional emperor in many ways, particularly in his religious beliefs. He was a devotee of the eastern sun god El-Gabal.
By marrying Severa, Elagabalus wasn’t just making a political or personal statement. He was also enacting a religious ritual in which he symbolically married his preferred deity, El-Gabal, to the Roman goddess Vesta.
This symbolic union was intended to merge and harmonize the two religious traditions. However, this was a controversial move, as it was seen by many Romans as a desecration of their traditions and religious beliefs.
Severa, a Vestal Virgin, is thought to have stayed alongside the Roman Emperor Elagabalus until his untimely death in 222 AD, when he was assassinated. Despite their union, there is no historical evidence to suggest that they produced any offspring during their time together.
Severa’s personal feelings regarding her relationship with Elagabalus remain largely undocumented. While some historical sources suggest she was coerced into the marriage, and some even allege more severe violations, the reliability of these accounts is debated, as many tales about Elagabalus might have been inflated by his adversaries. The true nature of their relationship, whether genuine affection or purely symbolic, remains uncertain.
The end of the era of the Vestal Virgins
The cult of Vesta and the Vestal Virgins declined as Christianity rose to prominence. The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in the late 4th century AD.
Emperor Theodosius I, who made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, disbanded the Vestals and extinguished the sacred fire in 394 AD. About a decade prior to that Emperor Gratian is believed to have seized the public revenue of the Vestal order in Rome.
The goddess Vesta – a symbol of purity
Vesta was one of the oldest and most revered deities in the Roman pantheon. As the goddess of the hearth, home, and family, she held a unique place in Roman religious and civic life. Vesta represented the heart of Rome and its civilization.
The goddess Vesta (Hestia in Greek mythology) was considered the purest of the deities, untouched and free from any earthly desires. As a result, she was often depicted as a virgin goddess, along with deities two others – Diana (Artemis in Greek mythology) and Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology).
Basically, chastity was integral to Vesta’s character, representing the undisturbed and serene nature of the hearth flame.
The above explains why Vesta’s attendants and priestesses were required to remain celibate for 30 years during their tenure. This chastity was not just a sign of personal purity but was believed to protect and ensure the continuity of the Roman state.
Questions & Answers
When did the Vestal Order begin?
Many historians maintain that the Vestal Virgins and their practice of tending the state cult of Vesta goes all the way back to the 7th century BC.
In Roman history, as recorded by the historian Livy, the story of the Vestal Virgins can be traced back to Alba Longa, a city predating Rome. Rhea Silvia, a royal virgin daughter, was forced to be a Vestal by her power-grabbing uncle. While under house-arrest, Rhea miraculously conceived twins, Romulus and Remus, with Mars, the Roman god of war, as their father.
Despite the uncle’s efforts to eliminate the twins by leaving them to die from exposure or attempting to drown them, they survived. Romulus, one of the twins, would later establish the city of Rome. This legend intertwines the origin of the Vestal Virgins with the founding of Rome itself.
How were the Vestal Virgins selected?
To be selected as a Vestal Virgin was a high honor, and those chosen had to meet a strict set of requirements.
- Required Age: Girls were chosen between the ages of six and ten.
- Freeborn of Freeborn: The selected girl had to be freeborn, meaning she was not born into slavery. Additionally, her parents also had to be freeborn.
- Respectable Parents: The parents of the girl had to be respectable, living without scandal. This was to ensure that the sanctity and purity associated with the Vestal Virgins were maintained.
- Both Parents Alive: It was a requirement that both of the girl’s parents be alive at the time of her selection. This was believed to be an auspicious sign, signifying the protection and favor of the gods.
- Physical and Mental Health: The chosen girl had to be free from any physical and mental defects. This was because the Vestal Virgins were not just responsible for maintaining the sacred fire, but also played key roles in various religious rituals and ceremonies. They needed to be physically and mentally fit to perform their duties.
These strict requirements ensured that the Vestal Virgins were seen as the epitome of Roman virtue and purity. Their chastity and service were seen as vital to the wellbeing and security of Rome itself.
Why did they take a vow of chastity?
The Vestal Virgins took a vow of chastity and were expected to remain virgins for the duration of their service, which was typically 30 years. The Romans believed that the purity of the Vestal Virgins was directly linked to the well-being and security of the city; hence, their chastity was a matter of great importance.
What happened if a Vestal Virgin broke her vow?
To ensure their complete devotion to their duties and the goddess, the Vestals were required to remain chaste for the duration of their service, which typically lasted 30 years. Breaking this vow of chastity was not just a personal violation but was seen as endangering the Roman state itself. Hence, such transgressions were met with severe punishments, often including being buried alive.
What was the attire of a Vestal Virgin and what did it symbolize?
The attire of the Vestal Virgins was distinctive and laden with symbolic meaning, designed to reflect their sacred role, their purity, and their separation from the usual roles of Roman women.
Why were the Vestal Virgins tasked with maintaining the sacred fire at the Temple of Vesta?
As dedicated priestesses to the goddess Vesta, the primary duty of the Vestal Virgins was to maintain a continuously burning sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta.
This fire symbolized the life, continuity, and eternal stability of the Roman state. Letting it extinguish was considered an ominous sign.
Where did the Vestal Virgins reside?
The House of the Vestal Virgins, known as the “Atrium Vestae,” was the residence of the Vestal Virgins, situated on the Roman Forum. This residence was not just a place of living but also symbolized the Vestal Virgins’ unique status in Roman society.
The residence was built around a central courtyard, with a pool in the middle. Surrounding the courtyard were statues of chief Vestals, commemorating their service. The actual living quarters, where the Vestals resided, were behind these statues.
Its proximity to the main public space of ancient Rome, the Forum, indicated the high status of the Vestal Virgins. They were not secluded or hidden but lived in a central, prominent location, reflecting their significance to the city’s religious and civic life.
Beyond being a residence, the house was also a center of certain religious activities. The Vestals prepared ritual food in their home and also made the mola salsa, a salted flour mixture, which was used in numerous Roman sacrifices.
While much of ancient Rome has been lost to time, the remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins can still be seen today. The statues’ bases, the remnants of the pool, and parts of the living quarters are visible and serve as a testament to the Vestals’ importance in Roman society.
What happened to the Vestals that retired?
It was rare but not unheard of for a former Vestal to marry after her service. However, such unions were often viewed with some suspicion. Given that the Vestal was believed to have been married to the city and its gods, a subsequent human marriage was seen as potentially problematic.
Often, a retired Vestal was provided with a significant dowry to facilitate her marriage, if she chose to marry.
Even after retirement, former Vestals continued to be revered and were given special seats at public events and ceremonies. Their past service as priestesses afforded them a level of respect for the rest of their lives.
In some cases, retired Vestals returned to their families. However, having been taken into the service of Vesta at a young age, and given their unique status and experiences, their reintegration into typical Roman familial life could be complex.
If a Vestal chose not to retire after 30 years, she could continue her service, but it was no longer obligatory. Whatever choice she made after retirement, the Vestal carried with her the prestige and reverence associated with her past service to the goddess Vesta and the Roman state.