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Vestal Virgins - Photo Archive

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Vestal Virgins

The only female priesthood in Rome

Lexicon / Roman Religion and Mythology

The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses of Vesta in charge of maintaining the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum. They were the only female priests within the roman religious system.

The vestal virgins were selected from distinguished patrician families at an age from three to ten. A vestal virgin served thirty years. The first ten years as novices, then ten years as vestal virgins proper, and at last ten years as supervisors. After the thirty years of duty they were free, also to marry. Marrying a former vestal virgin was highly prestigious.

The order of the vestal virgins were led by the senior member, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima. The vestal virgins were under the protection of the pontifex maximus.

The vestals vowed to live in chastity for the thirty years their tenure lasted. As compensation they had many privileges not given to ordinary Roman women. The vestals were not subject to the pater potestas of their father, they could handle their own property and write a legally binding testament, they had special seats in the front row at the games where women normally were relegated to the back seats and they were allowed to move around in the city in a carriage. Their persons were inviolable and sacred and their blood could not be spilt. If a person sentenced to death, met a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.

The punishment for breaking the vow of chastity was death by burial alive—the only way to kill a vestal without shedding her blood—in a place known as the “Evil Fields”, or Campus Sceleratus, just outside the Servian Wall. Their lover would be flogged to death on the Comitium. The execution of one or more vestal virgins were carried out several times, but very infrequently.

The vestal virgins lived in the House of the Vestal Virgins on the Forum Romanum, near the Temple of Vesta.

The order of the vestals was disbanded in 394 CE, when non-Christian cults were banned.

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Last updated on: 6 August 2003

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