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In ancient Rome, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Latin: Vestālēs, singular Vestālis [wɛsˈtaːlɪs]) were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being were regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children and took a 30 year vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were forbidden to the colleges of male priests.
Flamen (250–260 CE)
Pontifices · Augures · Septemviri epulonum
Quindecimviri sacris faciundis
Fetiales · Fratres Arvales · Salii
Titii · Luperci · Sodales Augustales
Pontifex Maximus · Rex Sacrorum
Flamen Dialis · Flamen Martialis
Rex Nemorensis · Curio maximus
Virgo Vestalis Maxima
Livy, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius attribute the creation of the Vestals as a state-supported priestesshood to king Numa Pompilius, who reigned circa 717–673 BCE. According to Livy, Numa introduced the Vestals and assigned them salaries from the public treasury. Livy also says that the priestesshood of Vesta had its origins at Alba Longa. The 2nd century antiquarian Aulus Gellius writes that the first Vestal taken from her parents was led away in hand by Numa. Plutarch attributes the founding of the Temple of Vesta to Numa, who appointed at first two priestesses; Servius Tullius increased the number to four. Ambrose alludes to a seventh in late antiquity. Numa also appointed the pontifex maximus to watch over the Vestals.
The Vestals became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, the Vestals interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon. Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. They were held in awe, and attributed certain magical powers. Pliny the Elder, for example, in Book 28 of his Natural History discussing the efficacy of magic, chooses not to refute, but rather tacitly accept as truth:
At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.
The laws of our ancestors provided for the Vestal virgins and the ministers of the gods a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This gift was preserved inviolate till the time of the degenerate moneychangers, who diverted the maintenance of sacred chastity into a fund for the payment of base porters. A public famine ensued on this act, and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces ... it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.
The College of the Vestals was disbanded and the sacred fire extinguished in 394 CE, by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius. Zosimus records how the Christian noblewoman Serena, a niece of Theodosius, entered the temple and took from the statue of the goddess a necklace and placed it on her own neck. An old woman appeared, the last of the Vestals, who proceeded to rebuke Serena and called down upon her all just punishment for her act of impiety. According to Zosimus, Serena was then subject to dreadful dreams predicting her own untimely death. Augustine would be inspired to write The City of God in response to murmurings that the capture of Rome and the disintegration of its empire was due to the advent of the Christian era, and its intolerance of the old gods who had defended the city for over a thousand years.
The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, "greatest of the Vestals") oversaw the efforts of the Vestals, and was present in the College of Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia, who stepped down in 394 CE with the disbanding of the College of the Vestals.
The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome's high priestesses. Although the Flaminica Dialis and the regina sacrorum each held unique responsibility for certain religious rites, each came into her office as the spouse of another appointed priest, whereas the vestals all held office independently.
According to Plutarch, there were only two Vestal Virgins when Numa began the College of the Vestals. This number later increased to four, and then to six. It has been suggested by some authorities that a seventh was added later, but this is doubtful.
The Vestals were committed to the priestesshood before puberty (when 6–10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. These 30 years were divided in turn into decade-long periods during which Vestals were respectively students, servants, and teachers.
After her 30 year term of service, each Vestal retired and was replaced by a new inductee. Once retired, a former Vestal was given a pension and allowed to marry. The Pontifex Maximus, acting as the father of the bride, would typically arrange a marriage with a suitable Roman nobleman. A marriage to a former Vestal was highly honoured, and – more importantly in ancient Rome – thought to bring good luck, as well as a comfortable pension.
To obtain entry into the order, a girl had to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and be a daughter of a free-born resident of Rome. From at least the mid-Republican era, the pontifex maximus chose Vestals between their sixth and tenth year, by lot from a group of twenty high-born candidates at a gathering of their families and other Roman citizens. Originally, the girl had to be of patrician birth, but membership was opened to plebeians as it became difficult to find patricians willing to commit their daughters to 30 years as a Vestal, and then ultimately even from the daughters of freedmen for the same reason.
The choosing ceremony was known as a captio (capture). Once a girl was chosen to be a Vestal, the pontifex pointed to her and led her away from her parents with the words, "I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal 'on the best terms' " (thus, with all the entitlements of a Vestal). As soon as she entered the atrium of Vesta's temple, she was under the goddess's service and protection.
To replace a Vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief Vestal for the selection of the most virtuous. Unlike normal inductees, these candidates did not have to be prepubescents, nor even virgins (they could be young widows or even divorcees, though that was frowned upon and thought unlucky), though they were rarely older than the deceased Vestal they were replacing. Tacitus (Annals ii.86) recounts how Gaius Fonteius Agrippa and Domitius Pollio offered their daughters as Vestal candidates in 19 CE to fill such a vacant position. Equally matched, Pollio's daughter was chosen only because Agrippa had been recently divorced. The pontifex maximus (Tiberius) "consoled" the failed candidate with a dowry of 1 million sesterces.
Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary. By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. 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. The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus ("Evil Field") in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate supplied with a few days of food and water. 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 Scleretatus 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.
Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare. In 483 BCE, following a series of portents, and advice from the soothsayers that the religious ceremonies were not being duly attended to, the vestal virgin Oppia was found guilty of a breach of chastity and punished. The Vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.
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 that Vestals were used as scapegoats 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:
... when she was let down into the subterranean chamber, and her robe had caught in descending, she turned round and gathered it up. And when the executioner offered her his hand, she shrunk 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. According to Livy, Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, had been forced to become a Vestal Virgin, and when she gave birth to the twins, it is stated that she was merely loaded down with chains and cast into prison, her babies put into the river. Dionysius also relates the belief that live burial was instituted by the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus, and inflicted this punishment on the priestess Pinaria. The 11th century Byzantine historian George Kedrenos is the only extant source for the claim that prior to Priscus, the Roman King Numa Pompilius had instituted death by stoning for unchaste Vestal Virgins, and that it was Priscus who changed the punishment into that of live burial. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration as was done to Urbinia in 471 BCE.
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. Similarly Postumia, who though innocent according to Livy was tried for unchastity with suspicions being aroused through her immodest attire and less than maidenly manner. 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 paramour of a guilty Vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.
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-story building at the foot of the Palatine Hill.
The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses the Vestals entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. 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. Throughout time, the image of the Vestal Virgin has been a woman draped in white priestly garments denoting the essence of purity and divinity through such attire.
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. The vittae that the Vestals wore was a cloth ribbon worn in the Vestals’ hair. It is closely associated with status of Roman matron. Vittae were worn by a wider range of woman 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.
However, the Vestals did not share all elements of the bride’s attire, specifically they did not wear the flammeum that brides did, but instead wore the suffibulum. 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 stola is a long gown that covers the body, and this covering of the body by way of the gown “signals the prohibitions that governed [the Vestals] sexuality.” Stola literally communicates the message of “hands off” and further communicates their virginity.
The connection between Vestals and Roman brides suggest that the Vestals have the connotation of being ambivalent. 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. In 2013 Janet Stephens became the first to recreate the hairstyle of the vestals on a modern person.
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.
Inscriptions record the existence of Vestals in other locations than the centre of Rome.
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. Tuccia herself had been a subject for artists such as Jacopo del Sellaio (d. 1493) and Joannes Stradanus, and women who were arts patrons started having themselves painted as Vestals. In the libertine environment of 18th century France, portraits of women as Vestals seem intended as fantasies of virtue infused with ironic eroticism. Later vestals became an image of republican virtue, as in Jacques-Louis David's The Vestal Virgin. The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the Vestals a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.
Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1583) by Quentin Metsys the Younger
Vestal Virgin (1677–1730) by Jean Raoux
Madame Henriette de France as a Vestal Virgin (1749) by Jean-Marc Nattier
Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin (1770s) by Angelica Kauffman
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