Ancient Rome’s Obesession with Purity: The Vestal Virgins

Origins of the Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins and the permanent placement of the religious institution, the College of Vesta, existed throughout Roman antiquity. They were a strictly female (Fantham et al. 1994, 225) religious cult devoted to the maiden goddess Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

501px-'Mars_and_the_Vestal_Virgin',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Jacques_Blanchard,_ca._1630,_Art_Gallery_of_New_South_Wales
Fig. 1: ‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting byy Jaques Blanchard, ca. 1630, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Vestal Virgins existed long before the creation of the Roman Empire, however it is unknown for how long. According to some primary sources, Romulus’s, the first king and founder of Rome, mother Rhea Silvia (see fig. 1) was made a Vestal who was eventually sentenced to death for unwillingly breaking her vow of chastity.

However, in Plutarch’s Numa Pompulis, the cult’s creation, specifically the creation of the College of Vesta, began with King Numa. King Numa was the second King of Rome (successor of Romulus) and was known for his creation of important religious and political institutions. Plutarch states in the Numa Pompulis that perhaps King Numa’s reasoning behind why virgins must be the ones to tend to Vesta and therefore Rome’s hearth is that “the charge of pure and uncorrupted flames would be fitly intrusted to chaste and unpolluted persons, or that fire, which consumes, but produces nothing, bears an analogy to the virgin estate.” (Plutarch, (75 A.C.E) para. 20)

According to James and Dillon (2015), two Vestal’s were chosen to tend to the hearth while attending to their primary role of purification (including keeping the grain supply purified) along with other religious rites and duties. (p. 209)  The first two Vestals consecrated by King Numa were Gegania and Verenia. Eventually their numbers grew to four virgins and then finally to six to perform the rites and duties which needed to be carried out by the priestesses of Vesta for Rome. The number of six Vestals stayed the same since then up until the cult’s end. This number is significant because it refers to three tribes that came together to create Rome. Meaning that, according to Koptev, the six Vestals represented equal representation for each of the three tribes that came together to create Rome; (two women for each tribe, like a presidential role and a vice presidential role.) (p. 382-423)

Virginal Requirements

A pledge of chastity was required to become a Vestal Virgin. This pledge was based around the idea of literally protecting and tending to the hearth of Rome. Romans believed that the Vestal Virgins were the , “embodiment of the city and citizenry of Rome.” (Parker, 2004, 567)   The priestesses of Vesta represented and protected the unity and strength of Rome. Therefore, the protection and prosperity of Rome was perceived to be literally tied with a Vestal’s chastity, making them easy scapegoats during times of war.  Parker (2004) states that “just as she embodied the city of Rome, so her unpenetrated body was a metaphor for the unpenetrated walls of Rome.” (p. 568)

According to the Pappian Law Pontifex Maximus would choose girls to become Vestal Virgins according to Papian law. (Lefkowitz and Fant 2005, 290) They had to be girls of noble Roman families, between the ages of 6 to 10 who were without any kind of mental or physical disability.

Once they were chosen to become Vestals, they had to take a holy vow of chastity that would last for thirty years. In the first decade of service to the goddess and to Rome, Vestals would learn, their roles as Vestal Virgins, the practicalities thereof, what this meant, and how to perform their sacred duties. In the second decade, those duties would be carried out.  In the third decade, older Vestals would teach those sacred duties to the next generation of Vestal Virgins. Besides the Vestals vows of chastity and tending to the hearth of Rome, several times a year Vestals would prepare a mixture called the mola salsa, which was made from salt and grain it was used in state sacrifices to sprinkle over its victims. Some of these state events included the Vestalia and the Lupercalia festival.

Are the Benefits Truly Beneficial?

Unlike the majority of women in the Roman world, Vestal Virgins were privy to a unique

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Fig. 2: ‘Vestals Banqueting’ Marble Relief- 14-37 C.E

legal status. According to Janet Lutwyche (2012), they attended events in the Colosseum, handled their own affairs, were given significant religious and political status, and ended their thirty year service to the state and to the goddess with a healthy pension.(para. 13)  They were held with such religious prestige that they were frequently given seats of honor at public events like banquets and games. This can be seen a marble relief found of the Vestals banqueting dating to 14-37 C.E. (Fantham et al. 1994, 235-6)

 

However, one of the most interesting parts of their unique legal status was that while the majority of women in the ancient world (if not all) required a male guardian to be part of public society, the Vestals did not. Some say that a guardian was not required because Rome itself was seen as these women’s guardian. As Jayne Lutwyche (2012) states “they became brides of the city itself. With Rome as their guardian, any sexual relationship with a citizen was considered an act of incest which amounted to treason, a crime punishable by death.” (para. 9)

However, it is not unreasonable to believe that that perception of the Vestal’s role in Roman society is one with a bias based around how most women in antiquity as well as today exist or are expected to exist only in terms of patrilineal linkage (i.e mother, daughter, wife, etc.)

One example of this event is the story of the Vestal Virgin Marcia. She was accused of breaking her chastity vow and therefore putting Rome at risk. She was condemned to death for this act. However, because it is unforgivable/ bad luck to hurt or kill a Vestal, she was buried alive in a tomb given milk, water, food, and an oil lamp to last only a few days where she would then starve to death. According to James and Dillon (2015), this happened twice during the Principate under the rule of Emperor Domitian. (see link 1 for more) (p. 104) However, this typically only happened in times of military crisis in Rome, so it is a reasonable assumption that these executions had less to do with actual ideas of purity and impurity.

Primary Sources 

The Vestal Virgins were very important to Rome so evidence for their existence/identities/activities survives in both written and archeological forms. There is more information available in written sources including those from Plutarch, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, and Livy. Some other sources include the Twelve Tables of Rome dating 450 B.C.E, the Declamations of Seneca the Elder: the Controversiae Books 1-6, specifically 1.3 and 6.8. Archeological sources include stone reliefs, busts, and statues depicting Vestal Virgins.

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Fig. 3: Statue of Vestal Virgin the Atrium Vestae. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Photographed by Marcus Cyron

Table V of the Twelve Tables describes laws on inheritance and guardianship in Rome at the time. Part one of Table V describes how guardianship laws affected the women chosen to be Vestal Virgins. (451-450 BCE, The Twelve Tables of Rome) It describes the guardianship laws surrounding women of the time in Rome. It states that all women, even if they are adult/elderly women must have a male guardian based on the belief that women are really just children because they are deformed men. Women, in the legal sense, existed only in relation to a man: wife, daughter, mother, etc. Both of these sources show the unique legal status that the Vestal Virgins were privy to, whereas they had no legal connections to any men.

 

In other primary sources, Livy and Dionysus of Halicarnassus describe the story of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, the mother of the founder of Rome, Romulus, and his twin brother Remus. In both the the History of Rome Books 1-5 and Book 1 of Dionysus of Halicarnassus, tell the story of how Romulus and Remus were born and then of course the trials, customs, and rules placed upon Vestals and the harsh consequences that come with breaking those rules willingly or not. Another primary source that mentions the Vestal Virgins is the Numa Pompulis written by Plutarch describes the creation of the institution of the Vestals as a main religious power in Rome and the importance of the virginity of the Vestals as well as the constriction of the first two, as Plutarch tells it, Vestal Virgins of Rome.

Representations of the Roman State?

The Vestal Virgins represent interesting exceptions to the laws, expectations, and norms that women were required to follow and live by in ancient Rome. Many of the laws and norms that women were expected to follow were based on a Roman understanding of physiology and biological sex. Guardianship laws were justified based on an understanding that women were underdeveloped men and therefore could only have the mental capacity of a child. Vestal Virgins, unlike the majority of women in Rome, were deemed to not need a guardian and were not segregated in important public banquets or events that were typically segregated.  They were able to handle their own affairs including financial ones, and were allowed to watch gladiators and other events inside the Coliseum.

This is important because they were given much more political and religious power than other women during the time. However even with this power and the protections and benefits that came with their position they were still considered as lesser beings. I would even propose that they were not considered people, but objects in which to project ideals of virtue and the state. This objectification of perceived lesser beings can also explain why men would not join or be allowed to join the cult of Vesta although in many cases it can be seen that men have joined traditionally female-centric cults, for example the cult of Demeter in Greece (the Eleusinian Mysteries). The projection of idealized values of virtue and the state can also explain the harsh punishments that awaited Vestals who were deemed to have broken rules such as letting the sacred fire go out to when they were accused of breaking their vows of chastity.

Vesta-Roma
Fig. 4: Vesta-Roma, Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Published by Guillaume Rouille.

 

The Vestal Virgins and the expectations and roles they performed were important, they as a group of influential and politized women affected not only the modern perception of what the roles of women were in Rome but affected the roles of women living in ancient Rome as well. As mentioned above their purity and piety was considered to be embodiments of the state, if that were to change the Vestals would be punished. This is an important as well as interesting topic to explore, namely the Roman obsession with the virginity and purity of women. This can be seen through historical examples such as the reasons given by Roman authors as to why the rape of the Sabine women occurred;

Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women
Fig. 5: The Rape of the Sabine Women. Source: Wikimedia Commons

because Roman women were not ‘respectable’ enough for ‘proper’ Roman men. Just as female purity is often used as a sign of the ‘so called moral health’ of the state today, the same was true in ancient times. As Parker (2004) states the importance of this ideal of female virtue comes from a “world-view deeply rooted in sympathetic magic, where women in their strictly limited societal roles embodied the state, and the inviolability and control of women was objectified as the inviolability and control of the community.” (p. 564 ) This critique is important because it shows, in both antiquity and modern day, the worry over and importance placed on female virginity and virtue don’t truly lie in only possible health or simply marital values, it is truly about control over women and their bodies in patriarchal societies.

 

Another interesting and important aspect of the Vestal Virgins is that they are an example of some the only women to have ever lived in classical antiquity that are not legally defined by patrilineal linkage. The Vestals were therefore not defined by their roles as mothers, daughters, wives, etc, and not even as wards of the state, an inherently patriarchal linkage. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they escaped control over their bodies by men. In reality, they were controlled under an even more watchful eye. Much more was expected of them in terms of purity of their temple as well as their bodies, which came with more speculation and even greater consequences. The common saying that “your body is your temple” is even truer for the Vestals and their lives, however with an unfortunate slight change; “your body is our temple”.

Entertainment and the Vestals?

Modern depictions of the Vestal Virgins and this report focus heavily on and critique this virginal ideal and the lack of bodily autonomy in the past. This is likely due to the fact that both have biases in views of gender equality and sexual freedom. This of course is due to what current Western society values and doesn’t value. An example of this depiction can be seen in Season 9 Episode 8: (Rock and a Hard Place) of the popular TV series Supernatural. This episode contains both inaccurate and skewed ideas of who the Vestal Virgins were and what their role was. However it does touch on many truths as well. In this episode that discus topics concerning virginity, including how virginity is considered now and what it means today. They also discussed issues surrounding sexual freedom using the Vestal Virgins and their connection to Vesta as an example.

Conclusion

The Vestal Virgins represented Roman values and fears as well as patriarchal systems that can still be seen today. They also represent a role change of a select few women from the private to the public through this public cult. The Vestals themselves and their role in Roman society truly represented a double-edged sword for women in antiquity. The cults history, mythology, and origin stories all lead up to their role in society not as women, but as objects in which to embody Roman civilization and an inherent meaning of perfection. Besides virginal purity, Vestals had to be pure in all other ways as well. Thy had to be Roman citizens, they had to be of a noble upper class Roman family, they had to have no physical or mental disabilities nor obvious physical imperfections. Therefore, not only were the Vestals meant to embody the state as being impenetrable but also as associating the Roman state with perfection or aspects of divinity. As mentioned earlier, the saying that “your body is your temple” is even truer for the Vestals and their lives, however with an unfortunate slight change; your body is our temple.

 

References:

About Education. (2017, February). Who Were the Vestal Virgins? Obligations and rewards of the thirty year commitment the Vestal Virgins made. Received from http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/rome/a/aa1114001.htm.

Ancient Origins. (2015, April). Vestal Virgins: The Pious Maidens of Ancient Rome. Retrieved from http://www.ancient-origins.net/history/vestal-virgins-pious-maidens-ancient-rome-002867.

Fantham, E., Foley, H.P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., and Shapiro, H.A. (1994). Women in the Classical World. USA: Oxford University Press.

James, S.L., and Dillon, S. (2015). A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. Wiley Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Koptev, A. (2005). Three Brothers’ at the Head of Archaic Rome: The King and His ‘Consuls. Vol. 54, No. 4 pp. 382-423.

Lefkowitz, M.R., and Fant, M.B. (2005). Women’s Life in Greece and Rome. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lutwyche, J. (2012, September). Ancient Rome’s maidens – who were the Vestal Virgins?. BBC Religion and Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/18490233.

Parker, H. N. (2004). Why were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State. The American Journal of Philology. 125.4 (2004): 563-601. ProQuest. http://search.proquest.com/docview/223131231/E6037970458F4335PQ/1?accountid=12599.

Ramsay, William. Vestales. Received from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/secondary/smigra*/vestales.html

Wells, Olivia. (2013, February).  The Vestal Virgins: A Symbol of Rome (Blog post). Retrieved from https://womeninantiquityblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/the-vestal-virgins-a-symbol-of-rome/.

Primary Sources:

Dionysus of Halicarnassus. Book 1.Section 76-79. Pages 253-267. Received from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/1D*.html#76.3.

Livy. Translated by Warrior V.M. (2006). The History of Rome Books 1-5. Hackett Publishing Company.

Plutarch. Translated by John Dryden. Numa Pompilius. Received from http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/numa_pom.html.

(451-450 BCE). The Twelve Tables of Rome. Retrieved from https://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/12tables.html.

Other Important Sources:

Link 1: http://www.roman-empire.net/emperors/domitian-index.html.

Photographic Sources:

Featured Image: ‘Dedication of a New Vestal Virgin’, Alessandro Marchesini, 1710’s, Painting. Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Dedication+of+a+New+Vestal+Virgin&title=Special:Search&go=Go&uselang=en&searchToken=2vsx1m8upxbu6q4d79n535zhf#/media/File:Alessandro_Marchesini_-_Dedication_of_a_New_Vestal_Virgin_-_WGA14054.jpg.

Figure 1: ‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting byy Jaques Blanchard, ca. 1630, Art Gallery of New South Wales. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27Mars_and_the_Vestal_Virgin%27,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Jacques_Blanchard,_ca._1630,_Art_Gallery_of_New_South_Wales.jpg.

More info on fig. 1 can be found here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dionysius_of_Halicarnassus/1D*.html#76.3.

Figure 2: ‘Vestals Banqueting’ Marble Relief- 14-37 C.E. Fantham, E., Foley, H.P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., and Shapiro, H.A. (1994). Women in the Classical World. USA: Oxford University Press.

Figure 3: Statue of Vestal Virgin the Atrium Vestae. Wikimedia Commons, Photographed by Marcus Cyron. pic- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:House_of_the_Vestal_Virgins_(Atrium_Vestae),_Upper_Via_Sacra,_Rome_(9114111065).jpg.

Figure 4: Vesta-Roma, Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Published by Guillaume Rouille, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Vesta#/media/File:Vesta-Roma.jpg.

Figure 5: The Rape of the Sabine Women. Source: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=the+rape+of+the+sabine+women&title=Special:Search&profile=default&fulltext=1&uselang=en&searchToken=djpyo48lt7c6sfugmn39gorz3#/media/File:Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women.jpg.

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