Time has come for another story about women in ancient Rome, this time it will be about a very special group of priestesses: the Vestal Virgins.
Vestal virgins were part of the only female priesthood in Rome and for this reason could be considered a privileged category of women…but you’ll see soon that the balance of duties and privileges was not so fair
Who were the Vestal Virgins?
Easy to say, they were the priestesses of the goddess Vesta, one of the most archaic and important divinities of the Roman pantheon. In few word we can say that she was the protector goddess of Rome, goddess of the hearth. Hence she was considered both protector of the Roman families and of the State (the State itself was considered as a great family).
Her temple was in the very heart of the Roman Forum, a small round temple (like the shape of an ancient hut) with a conical roof with a hole in the center: in fact the goddess’s presence inside the temple was symbolized not by a statue but by an always burning fire (and the hole was for the smoke!).
The origin is quite easy to understand: at very beginning of the Roman history, when Rome was still no more than a small group of huts, people understood that was easier preserve a constant fire instead of re-light it each night (specially in the wet months) and, as time went by, this became the hearth of the State. No need to say that the extinction of the fire was considered by the Romans as the worst omen ever that could means the end of Rome itself. Hence to preserve the fire was the main duty of the Vestal Virgins.
The priestesses, in number of six, were drawn from their families between the age of six and ten years old. After this moment they must remain in the priesthood for thirty years: ten years learning, ten years performing and ten years teaching to the novices.
And here comes the hardest part: for those thirty years the main duty, with the preservation of the fire, was preserve the virginity. They were in fact considered so sacred that no one can neither touch them…are you starting to understand how hard was their life…and that’s nothing, you’ll see.
The rule not to be touched was really unyielding: it means DON’T TOUCH at all, with a lot of consequences. First, sex: hard to have with no touch, so, no sex. The punishment for those who broke the rule was pretty clear: death. And that’s not the worst part: because they were untouchable, they could neither be wounded and their blood could not to be spilled. So, how to kill someone without spilling her blood or even touch her? Easy: bury her alive! Yes, you got it.
The guilty vestal was dressed with funeral clothes, put on a closed litter, like a dead body, and brought in a subterranean room placed just inside the city walls (nearby the present central Termini train station) called the campus sceleratus, the Evil Field. Once there, they were buried alive in the room with just one oil lamp and a small supply of water, bread, milk and oil.
A kind of the famous scene of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman is buried alive…but unfortunately Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as ninjas!
And what happened to the man? (Because there must be a man) Well he had the same punishment of the slaves: he was simply flogged to death in the Roman Forum.
Ok, you could say, the rule is clear: no sex at all. This could be enough to avoid this horrible death, right? Not exactly.
Of course this was the punishment also in case of the extinction of the fire and that’s not enough. Because in life shit happens: if something bad happened to Rome the Vestal Virgins were often considered guilty and used as a scapegoat to please the gods. By reading ancient chronicles seems that, until the end of the Republic, the punishment of the Vestal Virgins was a kind of disguised human sacrifice to please the gods: a plague, a famine, a war defeat could be considered caused by the wrong behavior of a Vestal Virgin and in this case one girl was condemned. This happened to Oppia, Orbilia, Minucia, Tuccia…
Anyway: big duty but also big privileges for these women. Vestal Virgins in some way could be considered the only independent women in Rome. They were not subjected to the patria potestas and, unlike the rest of Roman women, were allowed to make a will, testify in a lawsuit, own properties, be brought in a wagon within the city walls, have reserved seats for the games and, after their death, they could be buried in a special cemetery inside the city walls. And more, if a person sentenced to death had the good luck to see a Vestal Virgin on the day of the execution, he was automatically pardoned.
Among the duties of the Vestal Virgin was also the preparation of the mola salsa: this was a mixture of emmer flour and salt that was used in every official sacrifice. It was sprinkled on the head of the animals before they were sacrificed and on holy fires too. Mola salsa, sacrificed animals…does it remind something: the verb to immolate comes exactly from this!
Tweetable quote: “Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas” – Tweet this!
- Reconstruction of the temple of Vesta – from “Trattato di archeologia” by I. Gentile, 1901
- Ruins of the Temple of Vesta – CC BY 2.0 - HarshLight
- “Dedication of a New Vestal Virgin” – by A. Marchesini, 1710
- “Vestale d’aprés Peytavin” – by C. Normand (1765-1840)
- “Invocation” – by Frederic Leighton, (1830–1896)