The Famous Women Cult in Rome – The Vestal Virgins

What if I tell you about this cult of priestesses who were held in high regard throughout Rome but were always on the edge of being scourged to death or buried alive.

Jumping back to ancient times, Roman women, like in any other patriarchal society were once only identified with the perceived role of nurturing, bearing children and perform homely duties. In fact, early marriages were a common thing back then when Roman men used to abduct and marry girls at a tender age to subvert sexual history for the sake of her future husband’s honor.

But the era of Vestal Virgins painted a different picture altogether.  Unlike other Roman women, the Vestals or the Vestal virgins were freed from the social obligations, participated in civic affairs and had the command to pardon even the criminals. To state an episode, Julius Caesar was once targeted by his political rivals and his execution was pardoned by the Vestal Virgins.

Founder of the Vestal College – Numa Pompilius, the second Roman king, appointed the first two vestals which gradually increased to six. The Vestal Virgins dedicated not one or two, but 30 straight years adhering to their vows of chastity. They were given salary from public treasures, slaves who served them round-the-clock and a high-grade mansion to live in.

After 30 long years of maintaining the sacred oath, they have the liberty to choose a normal lifestyle like any other women in Rome. They rarely switch to normal living due to the commitment towards their duty and the position they enjoy.

Due to the expanded rights, generous pensions and the amount of influence they had on the Roman system, the former vestals were considered as the ideal spouse for male gold diggers in Rome. These men constantly persuaded them to marry, though the ones who agreed to lead a family life were few in number.


Vestal Norms:

The normal routine included a set of duties and rituals such as: Preparing ritual food, keeping the eternal flame of the Vesta burning, maintaining a holy spring, having a say in political and civic affairs, filing and maintaining wills and testaments for citizens, officiating holy services that could stretch out for a weeks, and so forth.

They were undoubtedly one of the most venerated cults in Rome as compared to other women.

Ancient Roman women neither had the right to vote nor amass any influence. They were controlled by their father, brother and eventually by their husbands, whoever is the head of the household, which was kind of oppressive.

But the Vestal priestesses were no ordinary women. They enjoyed privileges the ordinary women could only dream of.  They had the permission to supervise and roam around the city with lictors (guards) protecting them, have the benefit of unparallel dignity, rights to possess the property and right to vote. Best of all, they were highly respected and disgracing them can be the worst crime one can commit.

In courts, they are not technically under the oath when they gave testimony and in the Colosseum, they were given special seating in private boxes.

How were Vestal Virgins Chosen?

The priestesses enter the sect as young as six years belonging to aristocratic and family of freemen. This is because of the belief that the holy rites of Vesta should only be performed by someone innocent and pure.

The young girls are then trained for ten years learning how to be a Vestal Virgin. Important duty being keeping vigil over the flame of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and the Guardian of Rome.

The goddess did not have a human form and instead was represented by the flames burning day and night in the temple, the entry to which was restricted only to the priestesses. Guarding the Vestals and the temple of Vesta was of prime importance as their well-being was regarded as the fundamental for the security of Rome.

Over the years they are trained every day on shift, keeping a watch and tending to the flame, collect water for the rituals and cleanse the temple, conducting sacrifices.

After the initial 10 years of training, they use their expertise in conducting the rituals intently focusing on the tasks performed. The remaining 10 years is training the next batch of young girls and the cycle goes on.

Now if you think this would have been a great career option for Roman women, you need to hold your horses. It is not that easy as it seems to enter the College of vestals and if a person did get to become the Vestal Virgin, she has to make peace with the fact that her life is now in state’s hand.

Fact Time:

A tradition is followed in which eleven women representing Vestal Virgins light the flame on the occasion of Olympic games.

  • olympic-torch-lighting-ceremony-london-2012

How Worst Can it be for the Vestal Virgins if Found Guilty?

Firstly, all the kinds of relationship will be disrupted including the family bond as being a Vestal Virgin, the to-be-priestess is now the state’s property and will serve for its welfare.

Someday they can lose their lives in the hands of the state to protect itself from danger, get accused of incestum and be sacrificed any time irrespective of being innocent or guilty.

Worst of all, the Romans believed that if the flame goes off, the city is in sheer danger and can punish the Vestal virgins for any such failures. This is because the fire represents the continual virginity of the Vestals and any ill circumstances upon Rome meant violation of the law of chastity. So every new entrant is feed with the thought that the flame must never go out for the safety of Rome.

The punishments were ruthless irrespective of the accused being guilty or not. Failing to keep a watch on flames can end up with whipping or even sentence of death.

An easy solution for the Roman soldiers to blame for the defeat in a war is to make Vestals the scapegoats. Breaking the law of celibacy can either get the vestal whipped naked by the chief priest in a dark room with a screen in the middle or get them trapped inside a room with a meagre food supply.

If this wasn’t enough, earlier the accused was buried alive as it was believed that the Vestal blood should not be spilt. Roman culture also didn’t permit burial within the empire and so locking them up in a chamber and letting them die in seclusion was considered the most ingenious punishment.

Punishing Vestal virgin

Vestal virgins lasted for roughly one thousand years from around 700 BC until a Christian emperor named Theodosius wiped off this custom and disbanded it by putting off the holy fire in 394 AD. And, so was the end of another gruesome era!

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