Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of the Light of Rome
Vesta was the virgin goddess of the hearth, the home, and domestic tranquility in the Roman religion. She was the protectress of Rome in that she cared for and maintained the homes of each of its citizens. The hearth fire in the home of the ancient Romans was not only essential for cooking food and heating water, but also served as the gathering place for the family and, in time, became associated with the spirit of that particular family gathered around that particular hearth. Vesta is depicted as a fully-clothed woman holding a kettle (a symbol of the hearth) and cut flowers (symbolizing domesticity). She may also be accompanied by a donkey, which was used to turn the large millstone to grind the wheat used to bake bread in the hearth. Of all the Roman deities, only Vesta was accorded the honor of full time clergy devoted solely to her rites, the Vestal Virgins.
The first Vestal Virgin was Rhea Silvia. The story is that she was the daughter of the Alban King Numitor. After her father died, her uncle forced her to become a Vestal to ensure that she would have no sons to threaten his position of power. However, she was miraculously impregnated by the god Mars and gave birth to Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. This myth suggests that the cult of the Vestals was in existence before Rome. A Vestal is mother to the founders of Rome; therefore she could be seen as the Mother of Rome.
Chosen between the ages of 6 and 10 by the pontifex maximus, or chief priest, Vestals served for 30 years, during which time they had to remain virgins. The first 10 years they were students; the next 10 years they performed as priestesses; and the final 10 years they taught the next generation. Those chosen as Vestals had to be of the required age, be freeborn of freeborn and respectable parents, have both parents alive, and be free from physical and mental defects.
They lived in the House of the Vestal Virgins on the Roman Forum, near the Temple of Vesta. Their duties included tending the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta, keeping their vow of chastity, fetching water from a sacred spring, preparing ritual food, caring for objects in the temple’s inner sanctuary, and officiating at the Vestalia (June 7–15), the period of public worship of Vesta. Failure to attend to their duties was punished by a beating; violation of the vow of chastity was punished by being buried alive, because the blood of a Vestal could not be spilled.
Despite the harsh punishments, Vestals also enjoyed many honors and privileges not open to married or single women of equivalent social status, including emancipation from their fathers’ rule and the ability to handle their own property. In Ancient Rome, a woman existed legally only in relation to a man, and her legal status was based entirely on this fact. The act of freeing a Vestal from any man removed her from all conventional classifications: she was unmarried and so not a wife; a virgin and so not a mother; she was outside patria potestas and so not a daughter; she underwent no emancipation or coemptio and so not a ward. Denied a meaningful role in everyday life, the Vestals acted as handmaids to the goddess, giving them power and status as well as religious and political influence, avenues blocked to most secular women.
The Vestals were disbanded in 394 CE by the Christian emperor Theodosius I who also prohibited the worship of Vesta along with the other gods of the pagans and closed the schools and temples. After almost one thousand years of observance in Rome, the sacred fire of Vesta was extinguished and the new Christian faith instituted their own rituals.