Tag Archives: women


Portunus and Saint Mary of Egypt. Stories of Harbors and Prostitutes

As you may recall, my latest post was about Hercules and his temple in Piazza Bocca della Verità. Anyway in this place there is so much history than we need much more than just a post to discover all the marvelous stories! So today I want to tell you about another corner of this square, nearer to the banks of the river Tiber where, still nowadays, there is a Roman temple perfectly preserved, the Temple of Portunus.

The Temple of Portunus and the Ancient Harbour of Rome



Portunus, as the name says was the Roman god of harbors and doors (portus and porta in Latin): this was indeed the place of the first river port of the city. To be honest the very reason for the existence of Rome itself has to be search in this place: here is the Tiber Island, the most suitable spot to cross the river and natural confluence point of all the most ancient and important roads connecting the mountain region of central Italy with the coast.

The temple was built for the first time at the end of the fourth century B.C. but during the centuries was rebuilt many times…as you can imagine flooding were quite frequent here :)

As all the pagan temple it was abandoned when the Roman empire became Christian.  Anyway in 872 pope John VIII transformed the temple in a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Egypt. Why a female Saint in a port? Well, you’ll see soon that the story of this woman is connected in many different ways to ports and sea…

Why Saint Mary of Egypt?

According to tradition she was born in Alexandria in 344 – that is a port city, by the way; when she was twelve years old, she ran away from her parents house and began  a completely dissolute life, earning by begging or whoring.


After 17 years of this lively life she met a group of pilgrims who were going to ship for Jerusalem and thought: “Jerusalem, why not?…Oh no! I’ve no money to pay the trip… Oh yes, I’m a prostitute so …!”. Ok, maybe not exactly with this words and this thoughts but fonts much more religious than me say that she seduced the men.

Anyway when she arrived in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre she couldn’t enter, stopped by an unseen force. And here begins her conversion: she prayed and finally decided to abandon the dissolute life and live as penitent. Well you should have already understood at this point that she was a girl of extreme decisions: not a simple conversion, may be not a life of prayers, no, she started a walk of penitence in the desert, and not for a month, no, FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE, eating only grass. 47 years – and many kilos lost – later she met Zosimo, a monk of a Palestinian monastery, who described her as a thin (really?) woman and almost naked, covered only by her long white, woolly hair. What did she ask to Zosimo? Food? No way! She asked his cloak to cover her nudity so that she could tell him the whole story. A year later Zosimo came back to the desert and found her death and still cover with  his cloak. According to tradition, a lion dug her tomb with its claws.


The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt

This is the story of Saint Mary and maybe now you are more aware about why the church, near the river and  in a place frequented mostly by sailors and foreign people (do you remember the presence of Greeks?) was dedicated to a former prostitute.

This was much more than just a symbolic dedication. Here was probably the most important brothel of Rome, whose origins seems to begin in the ancient Rome. There are no certain proofs about it, anyway the presence of the port is a significant indication. But there is more: nearby is also set the myth of Acca Larentia.

Acca Larentia

We already met Acca Larentia as the wife of the shepherd Faustulus who found and raised the twins Romulus and Remus. In another version of the myth, she was a prostitute in Rome who (was she tired of her old job? Who knows) went to temple of Hercules and spent there the night praying the god to help her. The next morning when she came out of the temple met the man who later became her husband, an Etruscan rich man named Tarrutius … much more better than The Dating Game!


When the husband died she inherited all his properties that left to the people of Rome at the end of her life. To thank her, Ancus, the third king of Rome, allowed her to be buried in the Velabrum and instituted the annual feast of the Accalia or Larentaria in her honor. Well, the Velabrum was exactly here, the valley between the Palatine hill and the river.

Prostitutes all-over the centuries

If the tradition about Larentia as a prostitute is true, looks like this tradition dates back to the Roman time, up to the Middle Age and, as shown by the presence of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt, until the modern era.

In fact since at least the 15th century, in the intent to restore the morality of the city of the Pope, the prostitutes of Rome were all relegated in a kind of ghetto, known as the “burdelletto“, the small brothel. Guess what? The chosen place was exactly this one, with the hope that the example of Saint Mary would help the lost women in their redemption!


Once again we have seen as things don’t change so much during the centuries :)

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Pictures Credits:

  • Temple of Portunus – CC BY 2.0 – Anthony Majanlahti
  • Icon of Saint Mary of Egypt – Russia, late 19th cent.
  • Detail of a miniature of Mary of Egypt – France, 15th cent.
  • Acca Larentia by Jacopo della Quercia (Santa Maria della Scala Hospital, Siena)- CC BY-SA 3.0 – Combusken
  • The Church of Saint Mary of Egypt – Giuseppe Vasi, 18th cent.




Tempio di Vesta

Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas

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!).

Temple of Vesta

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…

…And rights

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!

If you liked the story of the Vestal Virgins browse for other Tales of Rome and don’t forget to follow my updates on Twitter and Facebook! And share this story!

Pictures Credits:

  • 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)

Ancient Rome: No country for Women. The story of Cecilia Metella

Women’s day is coming and so, this time, I would like to tell you the story of a Roman woman, Cecilia Metella.

Who was Cecilia?

She likely lived and died around the half of the 1st century BC and soon after her death her family built for her the amazing mausoleum still preserved on the via Appia.
The via Appia was the first road projected and built by the Romans in 312 BC, connecting Rome with Brindisi, the main harbor in South Italy to Greece. Because of its antiquity and importance this was known by the Romans as the Regina Viarum, the queen of the streets.


Cecilia’s mausoleum was built in the first highest and most prominent spot of the via Appia outside the ancient city walls: hence it was the most visible and majestic tomb of the first and most important Roman road.
Said this, a romantic soul could think that this could be considered a monument to Love, a kind of Roman Taj Mahal: a mausoleum built by an inconsolable husband for the loss of his only love. It would be nice, but, unfortunately, it’s not. Let’s see why.

Piranesi-cecilia metella

The tomb is decorated in the upper part with a low relief with wreaths and oxen skulls, both a reference to religious sacrifices (flowers and oxen were offered to the gods). But the most interesting part is the relief in the central part: here there is an helmet, shields and a prisoner…Quite strange for a woman’s tomb, isn’t it? But it’s not enough: on the front side there is a huge inscription:

Caeciliae Q. Cretici F(iliae) Maetellae Crassi
Cecilia Metella, Quintus Creticus’ daughter, Crassus’ wife”.

And that’s the point: we don’t know anything about her, nothing in the inscription, nothing in the Latin writers. She was two eminent men’s daughter and wife, and that’s all! Both men were famous Roman generals, but there’s not a word about the woman… neither a stupid and false adjective like loving, beloved … nothing at all! She was just men’s possession, and she is defined just by this.
And that’s not enough: the inscription give us also the opportunity to talk a little bit about the Roman naming system, that says a lot about women position in Roman society.

The Roman naming system

She was Cecilia Metella. Nowadays Cecilia is quite common female name in Italy, and we are tempted to think that this was her first name, while Metella was the surname. No way! Roman naming system was called system of the tria nomina, or three names. Cecilia’s father, for example, was Quintus Caecilius Metellus…are you starting to understand? His first name was Quintus, then Caecilius was the name of the gens, the clan, last name we could say, and finally Metellus was the cognomen, the name of the family line, a kind of second last name. And that’s the point: Cecilia Metella has no first name! No, not because she was a bad girl, unworthy of a personal name: this was the system for all Roman women. ALL the women of the family had the SAME name: in this case all were Cecilia Metella! Well, now imagine a mother who has to call all the daughters: quite easy :) Yes, convenient but confusing, hence usually they had a kind of nicknames, like First, Second, and so on, or Elder, Younger etc.
Are you starting to think that Romans were too lazy to name all the daughters? Sadly this was not only indolence, there was a clear idea behind this: for a Roman woman the glory consists in no one who pronounces her name! A Latin writer, Macrobius praises a woman saying that she was so prudish that no one knew her name. The message is clear: woman wasn’t and didn’t have to be a person, but only a passive and anonymous part of the family!

So, why this huge tomb?


Said all this, why build a so huge monument for a woman, if she wasn’t important? Because – sadly to say but that’s it! – her death was just a pretext to celebrate the greatness of the family, during an historical period when Rome was afflicted by the civil wars and there was need and will to show off the power of the most eminent families. Cecilia Metella’s tomb is simply a way to celebrate the glory of the family men, whose names are in the inscription.

Another woman’s story: Annia Regilla

This beautiful and pleasant place is connected also with another woman…sorry, not happier story, but I told you: no country for women!
In the 2nd century this place became part of Herodes Atticus‘s property.


He was a rich senator and a philosopher from a glorious and ancient Roman family. When he was 40 years old married the 14 (yes, 14!) years old Annia Regilla, from another rich and glorious family. Thanks to her dowry they bought the propriety on the via Appia.
It happened that while she was pregnant of her sixth son, was killed, kicked to death to her abdomen, by an Herodes’ freedman. The husband was immediately accused to be responsible for the murder.
He had a process and was acquitted. Anyway people didn’t believe to his innocence – corrupt judges was frequent and easy for rich people. The public opinion was so important for a Roman that he had to do something to change people’s opinion. Hence he started to show off is sorrow: painted his house in black and began to built monuments and temples dedicated to Annia. The property on the via Appia became a huge sanctuary sacred to Demeter and its boundaries were marked by two columns bearing this inscription:
To the memory of Annia Regilla, wife of Herodes, the light and soul of the house, to whom these lands once belonged”.
Well, she was luckier than Cecilia and had at least some adjectives…anyway not so great reward for having been murdered by her own husband!

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Pictures Credits:

  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella- All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – CC BY-SA 2.0 – Carole Raddato
  • The Mausoleum of  Cecilia Metella – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1756
  • Via Appia mit dem Grabmal der Caecilia Metella – Oswald Achenbach, 1886
  • Portrait of Herodes Atticus – CC BY 3.0 – Marie-Lan Nguyen