Rome’s Vestal Virgins: Rome’s Most Powerful Priestesses by E. Biggi
The privileged position of the Vestal Virgins in Roman society survived for more than a thousand years—but the cult did not survive Christianity
Chosen as young girls, the priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, swore a 30-year vow of chastity and in turn were granted rights, privileges, and power unavailable to other women in Rome.
…One of the most remarkable elements of this story is the fact that Licinia owned a villa in the first place. Unlike other women, Licinia could own property precisely because she was a Vestal Virgin.
The story of her trial also reveals how that privilege came with a price: A Vestal Virgin had to abstain from sex, a sacred obligation to one of Rome’s most ancient customs that would continue until Christianity ended the cult in A.D. 394.
According to Roman authors, the cult was founded by Numa Pompilius, a semi-mythical Roman king who ruled around 715 to 673 B.C. Unlike most Roman religious cults, worship of Vesta was run by women.
The hearth was sacred to this goddess, one of Rome’s three major virgin goddesses (the other two being Minerva and Diana). The rites surrounding the Vestals remained relatively fixed from the time of the Roman Republic through the fourth century A.D.
Six virgin priestesses were dedicated to Vesta as full-time officiates who lived in their own residence, the Atrium Vestae in the Roman Forum. The Vestals’ long tradition gave Romans a reassuring thread of continuity and may explain the Temple of Vesta’s traditional circular form, a style associated with rustic huts in the city’s deep past.
….To become a Vestal was the luck of the draw. Captio, the process whereby the girls were selected to leave their families and become priestesses, is also the Latin word for “capture”—a telling turn of phrase that evokes the kidnapping of women for brides that took place in archaic Rome.
Records from 65 B.C. show that a list of potential Vestals was drawn up by the Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s supreme religious authority. Candidates had to be girls between the ages of six and 10, born to patrician parents, and free from mental and physical defects. Final candidates were then publicly selected by lot. Once initiated, they were sworn to Vesta’s service for 30 years.
….Unlike other Roman women, Vestals enjoyed certain privileges: In addition to being able to own property and enjoying certain tax exemptions, Vestals were emancipated from their family’s patria potestas, patriarchal power.
They could make their own wills and give evidence in a court of law without being obliged to swear an oath.
Thirty Years of Chastity
These rights came at a high price: 30 years of enforced chastity. Many historians believe that the health of the state was tied to the virtue of its women; because the Vestals’ purity was both highly visible and holy, penalties for a Vestal breaking her vow of chastity were draconian.
As it was forbidden to shed a Vestal Virgin’s blood, the method of execution was immuration: being bricked up in a chamber and left to starve to death. Punishment for her sexual partner was just as brutal: death by whipping. Throughout Roman history, instances are cited of these grim sentences being passed.
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