The Vestal Virgins

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most important gods in the Roman pantheon was the goddess Vesta. 

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and home, and her temple was one of the most important in ancient Rome.

It was attended by six women who were some of the most important in all of Roman society. They were given privileges that few in Rome were allowed, but it also came at a very steep price.

Learn more about the Vestal Virgins, the cult of Vesta, and its role in Roman society on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Roman religious practices were extremely complicated. They had a host of gods, major and minor, ranging from their primary deity, Jupiter, to individual household gods.

They had an elaborate calendar with all sorts of religious festivals scattered throughout the year and certain religious practices we would consider to be quite bizarre. 

However, there were common themes that were found throughout many of their practices. 

Their gods usually required some form of sacrifice as the primary method of worship. A sacrifice could be anything from killing a bull to offering up bread and salt. 

Most of the gods also had some form of human personification in the form of statues. In the temple of Jupiter, for example, there would be a giant statue of Jupiter. 

However, there was one god in the Roman pantheon that didn’t have a human personification: Vesta. 

Vesta was the goddess of hearth, home, and family. She held a central role in the Roman religious system as a member of the Dii Consentes. The Dii Consentes was a collection of the twelve major deities in the Roman pantheon. It consisted of six gods and six goddesses. 

In the family tree of Roman gods, Vesta was the daughter of Saturn and Opis and sister of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, and Ceres.

Instead of a statue, Vesta was personified by fire, which symbolized the hearth that was found in every Roman home. Vesta also didn’t have stories about her that other gods and goddesses in the pantheon had. 

The worship of Vesta in Rome centered around the Temple of Vesta, which was located in the Roman Forum. The centerpiece of the Temple of Vesta was Vesta’s sacred fire. The fire was a symbol of the city’s life and was believed to ensure its security and prosperity. As long as the fire burned, Rome was protected from harm.

The fire and the temple were attended to by a group of six priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins held a special role in Roman society. 

The legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were supposedly the children of a Vestal Virgin named Rhea Silvia and the god Mars. 

The Temple of Vesta and the cult of Vesta were supposedly created by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. He established the Vesta priesthood as a pair of priestesses. This was later expanded to four by the sixth king Servius Tullius, and it was later then expanded to six. 

The primary mission of the Vestal Virgins was to keep Vesta’s sacred flame lit at all times. The flame could never go out. Twenty four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year, the flame had to burn. The Temple of Vesta was not very large, so anyone could tell if there was smoke coming out of the temple at any time. 

However, just keeping the fire lit was only a small part of what it meant to be a Vestal Virgin. 

The six Vestal Virgins were selected from upper-class patrician families. A list of potential candidates included young girls from the ages of six to ten. The candidates had to be free of physical and mental defects.  

During the republican period, the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome, would select who would serve as a Vestal by choosing a name at random from a list of twenty. 

Being selected as a Vestal Virgin was considered a great honor by some families and was something to be avoided by others. On the one hand, being a Vestal was very prestigious. However, the prestigious position came at a high cost. 

Being a Vestal Virgin was a thirty-year commitment. During that time, they had to take a vow of chastity because only pure women were allowed to tend the sacred fire of Vesta. That meant no possibility of marriage or children for any woman selected until at least the age of 36 to 40. 

This is why some families did not want their daughters to become Vestals. It all but eliminated the possibility of grandchildren and alliances with other families.

The thirty years was divided into three ten-year periods. During the first ten years, a Vestal was an apprentice, learning the rituals. During the second ten-years, you were expected to perform the duties you learned, and during the final ten years, you served as a mentor to the new Vestals. 

These two commitments, keeping the fire lit and remaining chaste, were taken very seriously. If one of the Vestals were to allow the fire to die, they were severely punished. The Romans believed that so long as the fire was out, the city was in danger. It had to be relit via a ceremonial process with pure materials.

If the fire were extinguished, it wasn’t always blamed on a Vestal. Sometimes, it was simply considered to be the will of the gods. But if it were found that a Vestal was responsible, they would be severely beaten. 

However, that was nothing compared to the penalty for breaking their vow of chastity. If it was found they broke their vow and had a relationship with a man, they would be entombed alive in an underground chamber, as it wasn’t permitted to spill their blood. They would have limited food, water, and a lamp, and after being entombed, would eventually die from hunger, thirst, or suffocation. 

That punishment rarely happened because the threat of it was always hanging over the heads of the Vestals. 

Lest you think that the men involved with a Vestal got off scot-free, their punishment was to be beaten to death at the hands of the Pontifex Maximus. 

While these punishments seem severe, and they were, there were also significant benefits bestowed upon the Vestals. 

For starters, Vestals were completely emancipated from their fathers, aka the paterfamilias. They were given the status of personae sui iuris, or they were sovereign over themselves. In other words, they were emancipated women. 

They answered to no one but the senior Vestal, the Vestilis Maxima, and the Pontifex Maximus. 

Because of this status, they were given privileges that no other women in Rome had. They could own property and give it to other women, which was otherwise forbidden. 

The person of a Vestal was considered sacrosanct. No one could touch them, and they had the same privileges in this respect as a consul. When they traveled in Rome, they were attended by a bodyguard known as a lictor who had carried with them a bundle of sticks known as a fasces. 

They were also allowed to ride in a two-wheeled chariot, which was similar to how generals would ride in a triumph. 

When women attended games at the Colosseum, they usually had to sit in the most distant seats near the top of the stands. The Vestals, however, had the best seats in the house and would sit in the very first row.

If someone condemned to death were to see a Vestal on their way to execution, they would be pardoned. 

All the Vestals lived together in the House of the Vestals, which was not far from the Temple of Vesta. 

Their daily activities centered around the temple, usually tending the fire in shifts and performing ritual cleaning. They also prepared a substance known mola salsa, which was a grain mixed with salt. Mola salsa was used in all Roman temples for sacrifices. 

There was another important function that Vestals conducted. They served as a type of safe deposit vault and a notary public. They were given custody of the wills of Roman citizens and other important state documents. This included the Sibylline Books, the prophetic books which I covered in a previous episode. 

Their function as the keeper of wills played an important part in the civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony. Ocativan managed to get ahold of Marc Antony’s will, which was filed with the Temple of Vesta. 

In addition to important documents, they also had possession of some of Rome’s most important artifacts. The most important artifact was the statue of Pallas Athene, which was believed to have come from the city of Troy.

The Vestals were also responsible for conducting religious festivities, including Vestalia, which took place in June, and the festival of Lupercalia in February. 

There were many cases throughout history that involved Vestals being involved in controversy. 

One of the most famous involved Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the members of the first triumvirate and the wealthiest man in Rome.

He was accused of having a relationship with a Vestal by the name of Licinia. However, after an investigation, it was found that the attention he gave to Licinia wasn’t due to lust but rather greed. She owned a villa outside of Rome that he wanted to purchase, so he hounded her to get her to sell it. 

The eighteen-year-old emperor Elagabalus married a sitting Vestal Virgin named Aquilia Severa, which caused such outrage that it probably led to his assassination. 

At the end of a Vestal’s thirty-year term, they were free to leave the temple and get married. Many of them did, as it was considered a great honor to be married to a Vestal. 

However, many Vestals also stayed on when their time was up. Most famous was a Vestal by the name of Occia, who served for 57 years between the years 38 BC and 19. After spending almost their entire life at the Temple of Vesta, many found it hard to leave and start a new life.

As with all the temples of the Roman religion, they were eventually replaced by Christianity. As the empire became more Christian, successive Emperors closed all the Roman temples. The Temple of Vesta, however, was one of the very last temples dedicated to the Roman gods to survive. 

The Temple of Vesta was finally closed in the year 394 by the Christian emperor Theodosius. The very last Vestal Virgin was named Coelia Concordia. By all accounts, when the temple was closed and the fire permanently extinguished, Coelia Concordia was an old woman and was the only Vestal left. 

The actual Temple of Vesta survived intact well into the Renaissance, so we know more about it than many other ancient buildings in Rome. There were many drawings of the structure that were made, which allowed us to understand how the building looked.  It wasn’t until the 16th century that temp was torn down to be used as building materials for various churches in Rome. 

The Vestal virgins and the Temple of Vesta were among the most important institutions in ancient Rome. To become a Vestal was a great honor that came with many privileges, but it also came at a great cost. It required giving up at least 30 years of your life, as well as the risk possible death if you violated your vows. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener MJ91E6 from Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Possibly the greatest podcast

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Thanks, MJ! I don’t know if it is the greatest podcast, but I do appreciate the review. 

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