Ancient Rome’s maidens – who were the Vestal Virgins?

The Colosseum

For more than 1,000 years Rome’s Vestal Virgins, a group of six hand-picked women, held unparalleled positions of status as some of the city’s most senior religious leaders.

They had rank and a level of self-government denied to normal women and as priestesses of Vesta they were responsible for maintaining the soul of Rome.

But their power and status came at a cost.

Chosen from nobly born families at a young age, Vestal Virgins had to commit to maintaining their virginity for the duration of their posts – at least 30 years.

Keeping the sacred fire alight

Professor Corey Brennan, from the American Academy in Rome, says that the Vestals were more than just priestesses, but the embodiment of Roman society as a whole.

“They had no family; they were totally on their own. This was unique for women in Rome,” adding that “they were also constrained by their positions as guardians of the sacred fire”.

Vesta was a powerful goddess of fire. Romans believed that as long as Vesta’s sacred flame was kept burning then the city and its civilization would endure.

It was the duty of the six priestesses to tend this fire on a daily basis. If it faltered it was seen as a bad omen for Rome and its associated military campaigns.

Allowing the sacred fire to die out would lead to the Vestal responsible being taken to a darkened room by the Pontifex Maximus (chief priest) where she would be stripped and beaten.

Marriage to the city

When young girls, some as young as six, were sent by their families to become Vestals they became brides of the city itself. With Rome as their guardian, any sexual relationship with a citizen was considered an act of incest which amounted to treason, a crime punishable by death.

Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on acts of incest by the priestesses, or a failure to maintain Vesta’s fire.

The Roman historian Livy documents other cases in which Vestals were condemned to death. The Vestal Minucia was accused and found guilty of the crime of incest based on “an improper love of dress”, while others were killed based on the testimony of temple slaves.

But killing or harming a Vestal was forbidden, so cruel and unpleasant forms of execution were devised for those who failed in their duties. Condemned Vestals, such as Marcia (see side panel) were effectively buried alive.

Outside of times of military turmoil, Rome’s sacred maidens enjoyed a life of relative luxury. They had the best seats in the house when they attended events at the Coliseum and when they retired they were granted a significant pension.

Unlike other Roman women they were not the property of their fathers or their husbands.

Religion gave women a vital position in ancient society. 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.

Ultimately they were confined by their responsibilities to the sacred fire and their vows of chastity. They may have carried the fate of Rome in their hands, but their lives were still determined by men.