Who were the Vestal Virgins?
The Vestal Virgins were comprised of six priestesses, at a time, who worshipped the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Their responsibility was to tend to Vesta’s flame, which was located in her temple, in the heart of Ancient Rome (Greenfield 2017). The sacred flame of Vesta was representative of the European attitude, they used fire as a symbol of their power and domination (Goudsblom 1998:180). If the flame was ever to go out it signified danger for the city of Rome, or that one of the priestesses had been unchaste (Undheim 2017:383).
A priestess’s behaviour is reflective of Vesta, therefore they had to be polite and set intent when performing rituals or follow the rules (Greenfield 2017). The Virgins had to serve the goddess for thirty years, with the first ten years of service being considered their training period (Beard 1980:16). They were highly respected within the community, and regular people were not allowed to touch them, as they were seen as forms of demi-gods (Vesilind 2002:93). Originally the Vestal Virgins were the young daughters of the early kings of Rome, since they were recruited at a young age, it was evident that they were virgins (Parker 2004:566). As time passed daughters of the aristocratic families were chosen to step into the roles of Virigins (Greenfield 2017).
However, being a Vestal Virgin came with its limitations and peril. At all times, the Vestal Virgins ran the risk of being accused of unchastity, whether it be true or not, they faced being put to death (Greenfield 2017). A priestess would be sacrificed due to the flame going out, because it meant that she had sexual intercourse, it was a way of protecting the city and ensuring that Rome remained safe and powerful (Greenfield 2017).
The legal status of the Vestal Virgins indicated that they were to be respected as they were integral to the worship of the entire city and therefore could not belong to anyone or any family (Parker 2004:572). The priestess would be taken out of her family’s care, physically and legally, and would not be placed with another one as she was to embody all of the people of Rome, which she could not do if she was attached to a family (Parker 2004:572). In Ancient Rome there was a law in which a woman was required to belong to a family, therefore the process of freeing the Vestal Virgins so that they did not belong to anyone was complicated (Parker 2004:573). The city first had to relinquish her from her father’s power, then they would pardon her from being placed with her closest male relative (Parker 2004:573). This process ensured that she was not viewed as an orphan and allowed her to keep her status, as well as her legal and religious rights (Parker 2004:573). This was done so that the Vestal Virgin was able to incarnate all men, if they were legally bound to a man, they could not represent all men (Parker 2004:573).
The significance of virginity and sacrifice to the Vestal Virgin
Virginity was clearly sacred among the Vestal Virgins and in Ancient Rome. A Vestal Virgin’s virginity was symbolic of her ritual purity as well as her modesty (Greenfield 2017). The flame of Vesta supposedly represents sterility and pureness, as well as man and reproduction, emphasis is placed on the former as the priestesses must remain pure and chaste in order to serve their goddess (Beard 1980:24). If one of the Virgins broke their religions rules, they were essentially buried alive by being placed in an underground cell, to never be seen again (Vesilind 2002:93). If a priestess engaged in sexual intercourse, they were putting the entire city at risk, as well as their own life.
However, it can be argued that the Vestal Virgins were in fact not virgins, they are chaste, but they do not intend to die as virgins (Beard 1980:14). Therefore, they cannot be referred to as virgins but rather as those who were practicing abstinence (Beard 1980:14). Once they served Vesta for thirty years they were free to participate in the act of sexual intercourse (Beard 1980:14). Virginity was not only sacred among the Vestal Virgins but also for other priestesses in antiquity (Beard 1980:23). Several writers on the Vestal Virgins believed them to be living versions of Vesta, the goddess they worship, others however do not, they found them to be more like servants of Vesta, who were on Earth to serve Vesta’s purpose (Beard 1980:24).
The method in which Ancient Romans used to sacrifice the priestesses was to put them in an underground cellar with only some bread and water, however, not enough to survive (Vesilind 2002:93). They had limited the environment to a dark cell with only enough the essentials to survive a few days. It is also argued that although the Roman’s did not directly kill the Vestal Virgins, they ensured that the priestess would die due to her surroundings and lack of necessities (Vesilind 2002:100). The priestesses would be used as a form of sacrifice and these killings became ritualistic for the Romans (Parker 2004:575). The idea of being charged with having sexual intercourse was so horrific that any guilty, and in other cases not guilty, priestesses would confess (Beard 1980:16). It was more shameful for the priestesses be the cause of turmoil in Rome, than to be seen as unchaste and sentenced to death.
Evidence that their ideals of chastity influenced modern virginity
It is believed that the concept of chastity in Christianity originates from the Vestal Virgins (Undheim 2017:384). One writer describes virginity becoming prominent in the Christian church around the fourth century, thus in later antiquity (Undheim 2017:384). Christianity eventually took over and aimed to eliminate other religions, although other religions may share the same values, such as the Virgins (Undheim 2017:385).
The Vestal Virgins were important figures in Rome, not only in religion but within the community, up until the end of the fourth century (Undheim 2017:385). However, their values on virginity and chastity were still upheld after Christianity took over (Undheim 2017:385). This writer discusses the contrast between the Vestal Virgins views on chastity versus Christian ideals, arguing that the Virgins thought that virginity should be valued as a sacred thing (Undheim 2017:387). On the other hand, she argues that the Christians shame people into being chaste, rather than focusing on virginity as a positive thing, they emphasize how sex is a bad thing (Undheim 2017:387). There is an ongiong debate about forced versus voluntary virginity, about how the Vestal Virgins are forced into being chaste rather than choosing to be, like the Christians (Undheim 2017:409). It is also suggested that Christians view themselves to be better than the priestesses because of their lifelong commitment to virginity, whereas the Vestal Virgins service is temporary (Undheim 2017:409). This same writer argues that Christianity and the Vestal Virgins virginity is intertwined in its values, although they do contrast (Undheim 2017:409). She argues that there would be no modern sense of virginity in the Christian religion without the influence of the Vestal Virgins.
Another writer discusses how Vesta’s flame is significant and that fire is a powerful natural tool that should be celebrated and has shaped our planet into what it is today, arguing that the Vestal Virgins learned to work alongside the force that is fire and manipulate its power (Goudsblom 1998:180). This notion can be used to argue that human’s manipulation and connection to fire can be partially attributed to the work of the Vestal Virgins. Since their virginity was one of the more prominent aspects of what supposedly kept the flame burning. Their chastity can also be attributed to the human connection with fire, as according to the Ancient Romans, by a priestess having sexual intercourse the flame would burn out.
Upon researching the Vestal Virgins and their contributions in antiquity, it is clear that they are best known for their strict rule of abstinence. However, that concept of virginity and religion can be related back to modern day Christianity as I have discussed. Virginity was used to ensure a close connection between the priestesses and their goddess, Vesta, through the maintenance of her flame. When Christianity became the main religion during the end of the fourth century, they incorporated the Virgins sacred vow of chastity into their own religion. While the reasoning behind chastity has evolved, the principles still remain the same. Modern Christians, and various other religions, now vow to remain abstinent until marriage or in other cases such as priests, they take a life-long vow of celibacy to devote themselves to their religion. Although modern Christian’s do not sacrifice individuals for being unchaste, they do view them as lesser than and promote the notion that the person will go to Hell and be punished for eternity, rather than gaining access to Heaven.
Overall, it can be debated as to what extent the religious views of both the Vestal Virgins and Christians are reasonable. In modern day it is blatantly unacceptable to kill a person for having sexual intercourse, however, that is not to say that it does not happen in certain countries. In Ancient Rome they rationalized that if a flame went out the city had to be in some form of danger and that it was due to one of the priestesses being unchaste. During that time, this explanation was perfectly accepatble and appropriate. Providing context to the actions of the Vestal Virgins gives us more knowledge into how religion was in antiquity, as well as how it has shaped and formed contemporary religions today. Through understanding the priestesses and their religious beliefs, we are able to draw a correlation between their ideals and those that modern Christian’s still observe to this day.
Beard, Mary. 1980. “The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins”. The Journal of Roman Studies 70:12-27
Goudsblom, Johan. 1998. “History in Flames”. Science’s Compass: Books and New Media 281:180
Greenfield, Peta. 2017. “Who were the Vestal Virgins, and what was their job?”. TedEd. (https://ed.ted.com/lessons/who-were-the-vestal-virgins-and-what-was-their-job-peta-greenfield#watch)
Parker, Holt N. 2004. “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State”. American Journal of Philology 125(4):563-601
Undheim, Sissel. 2017. “The Wise and the Foolish Virgins: Representations of Vestal Virginity and Pagan Chastity by Christian Writers in Late Antiquity”. Journal of Early Christian Studies 25(3):383-409
Vesilind, P. Aarne. 2002. “Vestal Virgins and Engineering Ethics”. Ethics and Environment 7(1):92-101
The Vestal Virgins with the flame of Vesta:
A Virgin being sacrificed:
The Vestal Virgins in the Temple of Vesta:
Modern day image of the Temple of Vesta: