Who were the Vestal Virgins?

The Vestal Virgins were once the most powerful women in Ancient Rome. They were the priestesses of Vesta and had the duty of protecting her hearth. Considered pure and beautiful, these women were highly respected in society. But who were they? 

Vesta, the Roman goddess of the home, was one of the most important deities in ancient Rome. But it is her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins who have captured people’s fascination over time. These women were in charge of keeping the sacred fire alight that represented the hearth of Vesta. These women led extraordinary lives, freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children, instead taking a 30-year vow of chastity.

The Birth the Vestal

The start of the Vestal Virgins was said to be by the King Numa Pompilius of Rome in the 7th century. The King was informed that the region of Rome would be protected from any dangers by the Goddess Vesta; the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family. This Goddess Vesta bestowed a magical fire that was to burn forever to honour the Goddess’s protection. The task of this fire was left on a college of virgin women, later known as the Vestal Virgins. According to the Roman historian Livy, Numa introduced the Vestals and assigned them salaries from the public treasury. He also assigned the pontifex maximus – the high priest of the College of Pontiffs – to watch over the Vestals. The fact that women were receiving not only money but ultimate protection from the King shows how well-regarded they were in society, their job was not like that of any other, they had to please a goddess and ensure the safety of the city.

The Life of the Vestal Virgins

The vestal virgins were chosen from high born families at the age of only 6 or 7. As children, they would have had little understanding of the enormous commitment they were making, beginning a life of extreme dedication and huge responsibility. Each vestal virgin‘s time in the cult lasted thirty years, with every ten years changing in their duties. The first ten years were to learn the ways of the college, with the next ten years performing the rituals of the house and finally, their last ten years were to train the new virgins. They were an exceptionally exclusive cult, only welcoming six virgins at a time. After being chosen the girls would leave their father’s house and move into the House of Vestal. As they were committed to the priesthood, they would make a vow of celibacy until their thirty years were up. After which they were free to leave and marry. Unlike other women in society, however, the Vestals could own property, vote and write a will. They could attend public events, and would have some of the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners or slaves. Such freedom contrasted with the punishment they received in if they neglected their duties.

The Privileges and Punishments

They were by far the most influential women in Rome, having extremely higher rights compared to the common women. The only women able to vote and voice their political opinion on matters, own property and had freedom from their fathers/husbands. They were also able to attend events that were only for men, having VIP sections in all stadiums. They were seen as completely pure beings; considered truthful, blessed, and gentle souls. A testimony of a Vestal could be done without being under oath. They could also free a slave just by looking at them. And any individual that harmed Vestal women would be put to death, regardless of status. If they were to let the sacred fire burn out, however, then those responsible would be stripped and beaten by the chief priest as punishment. To let the fire burn out was to endanger Rome and disrespect the Gods. This was not the most extreme of punishments, as sexual transgression served a worse fate. As their title suggests, virginity was integral to being a Vestal Virgin. Whilst extramarital sex was frowned upon in Rome, those who indulged in it usually faced a fate no worse than the confiscation of property. For the Vestal Virgins the matter was much more serious. It was thought that they were tarnished and no longer fit to perform their duties. Their initial punishment for this was whipping or stoning to death until a crueller punishment was later devised by Tarquinius Priscus. As no blood was meant to be spilt from a Vestal Virgin, he decided they should be buried alive instead.

Although they had a larger amount of freedom in their society, the cult did follow very strict restrictions and punishments in place. If a virgin broke their celibacy vows, they would have disastrous repercussions, punishable by death by whipping or being buried alive in the underground chambers. This was also the case if they allowed the fire to go out.

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