Who were the Vestal Virgins and why do we still use the term to define “pure” women or those who are beyond reproach?
Priestesses of Vesta, Goddess of hearth, home and family, the College of Vestal Virgins were Rome’s only full-time priesthood. They numbered only six and were selected from noble Roman families at an early age, between six and 10 years old. They would tend the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta and remain virgins for the duration of their tenure, which would stretch long into womanhood, lasting at least 30 years.
The Vestals cared for the Temple and lived behind it in a three-story house called the Atrium Vestiae, located at the foot of the Palatine Hill.
The responsibilities and risks of the College of Vestal Virgins
The Virgins occupied a special place in the official religion of Ancient Rome. Their principal task was to tend to the sacred fire of Vesta and keep it burning. It was believed that the fire protected Rome. They were also responsible for many rituals denied to male priests.
If a Vestal allowed the fire to die out, she was scourged (behind a curtain for modesty). If she violated her vow of celibacy it would be considered incest, as she was a daughter of the state.
The price for violating the vow of celibacy was death. However, since it was forbidden to spill the blood of a Vestal Virgin or to bury anyone in Rome, the offending priestess would be buried alive in a chamber outside the city along with a few days of food and water. This gave the execution the semblance of a voluntary death.
The most powerful women in Rome?
Women in Rome, even those of high social rank and significant wealth, enjoyed few rights. Though Roman society was home to some very powerful individual women, they exercised their power through creative ways generally not enshrined by law, for example by influencing powerful men, through seditious conduct or by using extreme wit, intelligence and social skills.
The Vestal Virgins were the exception. They enjoyed a level of privilege, power and independence that was unique among Roman women — and arguably Roman men. These were all based on religious superstitions and the sacred position afforded them by the state.
The rights, privileges and powers enjoyed by the Vestal Virgins
If a condemned prisoner happened to see a Vestal Virgin en route to execution, they were immediately pardoned. A Vestal could furthermore free a slave just by touch.
A Vestal’s word was beyond reproach. Her testimony was accepted without the requirement of being under oath.
Vestals were given seats of honour at public events, such as games or performances, at which their sacred presence was often required. They were transported to these events in covered carriages accompanied by guards, always given the right of way.
The Roman state entrusted them with important documents, such as public treaties and the wills of powerful citizens.
The priesthood could own property and make wills, only possible among emancipated women, i.e. those not subject to the power of a man. They were also the only women who could vote.
The Vestal Virgins were protected by personal escorts and the law. Physically harming one was penalised by death.
Why do we still use the term “Vestal Virgin”?
The College of the Vestal Virgins existed in the time of both the Republic and Empire, lasting around 1,000 years in total.
The image of the chaste Vestal Virgin has survived long after the fall of Rome, often used as an allegory for chastity and virtue. Famous women have been depicted as Vestals in order to give tribute to or promote an idea of purity, for example, Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”.
Later representations of Vestals adopted an erotic tone in the vein of the “forbidden fruit”. This theme may in fact go back to the founding myth of Rome, in which the god Mars impregnates a Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia. She then gives birth to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of the city. Roman authors also found titillation in writing stories about the supposed sexual transgressions of Vestal Virgins.
This article uses material from the book Women in Ancient Rome by Paul Chrystal from Amberley Publishing.