Written by Fiona MacRae
Dating back to the days before the Republic, the Vestal Virgins held one of the oldest positions in Rome. They were six women, all sworn to virginity, who tended to the flame in the Temple of Vesta to ensure it would not be extinguished. The rules and rituals they had to follow set them apart insofar as being exempt from certain laws and obligations that bound the rest of Roman society.
In order to become a Vestal, a girl was required to meet several criteria: she had to be between six and ten years old when she was selected, and freeborn with both parents still alive. Her father, in turn, had to be in patria potestas – legally able to inherit from his father. This meant that her paternal grandfather had to be alive too. However, upon becoming a Vestal, the girl would leave her father’s protection and live in the Atrium Vestae, the quarters of the Vestal Virgins, and gain the legal right to make her own will. Usually, a woman would not exit patria potestas unless she married or was emancipated. In this way, the status of a Vestal was unique, since she was not under the legal care of a man.
Legal autonomy was the first of several unusual rights afforded to the Vestals that other women did not have. As a priestess, a Vestal was accompanied by a lictor, a magisterial attendant bearing the fasces – a long bundle of rods with a single bronze axe head that symbolised power and authority. This symbol was permitted to be used by magistrates, with the number proportional to his rank. The Vestals were the only women allowed its use. Furthermore, Vestals were permitted to sit in the senatorial ranks at games, and received a yearly stipend for their duties, a very unusual privilege for women. Thus, the Vestals’ rights and powers crossed into the male sphere.
The lines of distinction were also blurred when it came to their status as women. As I have previously discussed, a woman was expected to be either a daughter or a wife, but a Vestal was legally neither. In fact, in many ways her manner of dress indicated that she was somewhere in between. The Vestals wore a distinctive hairstyle, called the sex crines, which symbolised chastity – very suitable for her sworn virginity. This hairstyle was also traditionally worn by a Roman bride on her wedding day. In contrast, the gowns worn by the Vestals are thought to be stolae, the dress of married women. The markers of both bride and wife seem counterintuitive, given that virginity is central to the role of Vestal. The hairstyle, however, as previously mentioned, symbolises chastity, and the stola indicates respectability.
Perhaps the most renowned difference between a Vestal and other Roman citizens was the punishment for the loss of her virginity. If portents from the gods showed that a Vestal was unchaste, she would be sentenced to death. Plutarch vividly describes the procession and execution in Numa 10. The offending Vestal is transported, heavily veiled, in a litter to a bank near the Colline Gate, within the city of Rome. Here, she descends into a dug-out chamber as the priests turn away. The chamber is covered over, and she is left there to die.
Throughout the process, Plutarch describes a deathly silence and utilises themes of hiding. The Vestal is closely veiled as she is escorted into the litter, so she is hard to see. The litter itself is then covered over and the covers tied down ‘so that not even a cry could be heard from within.’ Plutarch also describes the silence of the crowd twice in one sentence, painting a haunting picture for the reader. The final act of the execution was for the Vestal to walk down into her grave. For this moment, the priests would turn their backs, after a last prayer was read, so that they did not witness the descent.
The whole ceremony was run with undertones of pretence and concealment like they could pretend they were not killing her at all. Staples (1998) calls this the ‘fiction of not killing.’ The lack of witnesses for the Vestal’s final descent allowed for the idea that she walked into her grave willingly, or simply vanished from the spot. She was also left with a small amount of food and water, enough for a day. This takes the onus away from those who condemned her, as they have given her something to live on. The final element of the illusion was the location of her burial. Executed Vestals were buried inside the walls of Rome, in a bank near the Colline Gate. The dead were not permitted to be buried within the walls of Rome, making a paradox – the Vestal was like Schrödinger’s Cat: simultaneously alive and dead upon her burial. Burial within the walls of Rome was unique to the Vestals who had been unchaste, therefore all who were buried there were alive at the time of burial and provisioned with some means of sustaining life for a short period, thereby circumnavigating the rule against burying the dead there.
Thus, the unique position of Vestal Virgins in Roman society was not only defined by their additional rights and elevated rank, but also by the looming prospect of a fatal punishment not given to any other member of Roman society.
Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion. Routledge: London. 1998.
Featured image credit: Vierges antiques (1727). Jean Raoux. Oil on canvas. Public domain. Image accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lille_PdBA_raoux_vierges_antiques.JPG.