Romes Vestal Virgins


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There was, however, one Roman religious college that was off-limits to men, even to the pious emperor himself. This was the College of the Vestals, which only had women amongst its ranks. The College of the Vestals was an important institution that served to ensure the well-being and security of Rome. The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of the Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and one of their most important functions was the maintenance of the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum.

According to the Roman writer Plutarch, the College of the Vestals was established by the second legendary king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. During the kingship of Servius Tullius, the number of Vestal Virgins was increased to four. The Vestal Virgins were selected from patrician families at a young age, usually between six and ten. For the first ten years, the girls would serve as novices.

After that, they would be fully recognized Vestal Virgins for the next ten years. During the last ten years of their service, they would serve as supervisors responsible for the training of new novices. After 30 years of service, the Vestal Virgins would be released from their duties and allowed to live a private life. They were allowed to marry, and it was considered a great privilege for a man to marry a former Vestal Virgin. Whilst the tending of the sacred fire is the primary function of the Vestal Virgins, they had other functions as well.

In addition, the Vestal Virgins were keepers of wills and took part in numerous ceremonies. In June, the Vestalia festival would be celebrated, and the inner sanctum of the circular shrine to Vesta in the Forum Romanum would be opened to ordinary women to bring offerings. This area was usually only accessible to the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus.

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At the end of the festival, the temple was ritually cleansed. Featured Videos. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire. The Vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony.

In addition, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium , and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god. The dignities accorded to the Vestals were significant. Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out was a serious dereliction of duty. It suggested that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city. Vestals guilty of this offence were punished by a scourging or beating, which was carried out "in the dark and through a curtain to preserve their modesty".

The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium , they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state.

Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestum and an act of treason. Ancient tradition required that an unchaste Vestal be buried alive within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law that no person might be buried within the city.

To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the Vestal would not technically be buried in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". The actual manner of the procession to Campus Sceleratus has been described like this:.

When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged, was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter, and borne through the forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate.

There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and a table with a little food. The pontifex maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed.

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Vestal Virgins of Rome: Privileged Keepers of Rome's Home Fires

Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. O Vesta, if I have always brought pure hands to your secret services, make it so now that with this sieve I shall be able to draw water from the Tiber and bring it to Your temple. Because a Vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the Vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the Pontifex Maximus , or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body.

While the Order of the Vestals was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity and these trials all took place at times of political crisis for the Roman state. It has been suggested [26] that Vestals were used as scapegoats [31] in times of great crisis. Pliny the Younger was convinced that Cornelia, who as Virgo Maxima was buried alive at the orders of emperor Domitian , was innocent of the charges of unchastity, and he describes how she sought to keep her dignity intact when she descended into the chamber: [32].

And when the executioner offered her his hand, she shrank from it, and turned away with disgust; spurning the foul contact from her person, chaste, pure, and holy: And with all the deportment of modest grace, she scrupulously endeavoured to perish with propriety and decorum. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims that the earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and "put to death" for breaking their vows of celibacy, and that their offspring were to be thrown into the river.


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Suspicions first arose against Minucia through an improper love of dress and the evidence of a slave. She was found guilty of unchastity and buried alive.

Postumia was sternly warned "to leave her sports, taunts, and merry conceits". Aemilia, Licinia, and Martia were executed after being denounced by the servant of a barbarian horseman. A few Vestals were acquitted. Some cleared themselves through ordeals. The House of the Vestals was the residence of the vestal priestesses in Rome. Behind the Temple of Vesta which housed the sacred fire , the Atrium Vestiae was a three-storey building at the foot of the Palatine Hill. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the Vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa , for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

Romans used clothes to express important aspects of their culture, specifically gender and sexuality. The implications of the attire of the Vestal Virgins emphasize the Roman principle of sexual propriety.

The responsibilities and risks of the College of Vestal Virgins

The important elements of the Vestal costume include the stola and the vittae. It is important to note that these two items are closely related to the traditional attire of Roman brides and the Roman matron, and therefore are not unique to the Vestals. It is closely associated with status of Roman matron. Vittae were worn by a wider range of women at different stages of life and therefore cannot be accepted as unique to just one stage. Unmarried girls, matrons, as well as the Vestal virgins all wore them. The vestals also wore a stola , which is associated with Roman matrons, not with Roman brides.

Furthermore, the manner in which the Vestals styled their hair was the way that Roman brides wore their hair on their wedding day. This juxtaposition between the attire and style worn by Vestal Virgins and brides or matrons is particularly intriguing and studied by scholars in numerous instances. The gowns worn by the Vestals and Roman brides were also similar in the way that they were tied.

The distinction, though is that the Vestals wore the stola , which is associated more with matrons, while brides were associated with the tunica recta. The connection between Vestals and Roman brides suggest that the Vestals have the connotation of being ambivalent.

Vestal Virgin - Wikipedia

They are perceived as eternally stuck at the moment between virginal status and marital status. The main articles of their clothing consisted of an infula , a suffibulum , and a palla. The infula was a fillet, which was worn by priests and other religious figures in Rome. A vestal's infula was white and made from wool. The suffibulum was the white woolen veil which was worn during rituals and sacrifices.

Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons, symbolizing the Vestal's commitment to keeping the fire of Vesta and to her vow of purity, respectively. The palla was the long, simple shawl, a typical article of clothing for Roman women. The palla, and its pin, were draped over the left shoulder.

Vestals also had an elaborate hairstyle consisting of six or seven braids, which Roman brides also wore. From the institution of the Vestal priesthood to its abolition, an unknown number of Vestals held office. Several are named in Roman myth and history. The Vestals were used as models of female virtue in allegorizing portraiture of the later West. Elizabeth I of England was portrayed holding a sieve to evoke Tuccia , the Vestal who proved her virtue by carrying water in a sieve.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the Vestals a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century. Media related to Portraits as vestal at Wikimedia Commons. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Occupation in Ancient Rome, Priestesses of goddess Vesta. For other uses, see Vestal disambiguation.

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Romes Vestal Virgins Romes Vestal Virgins
Romes Vestal Virgins Romes Vestal Virgins
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