#23: Vestal Virgins Info

Before we go into the Temple and House of the Vestals, here's just a little info on them. Vestal Virgins are part of the idea of Rome itself like a family group. If they lose their virginity it's considered incest and something very bad will befall Rome and it's a death sentence for the Vestal and the man involved.

Also if they ever let the 'sacred fire' go out that is also a bad omen for Rome. In Man's early history a hut in the center of a village is used to keep a fire always burning and tended to by old women. At the end of the day, just stop by the Hut and get a lighted twig to light the fire at your hut. Why waste time with everyone starting their own fires by the wood friction method or wasting wood by keeping multiple unneeded fires burning during the day?

Later it just becomes a Greek religious tradition to always having a sacred fire burning in every city to the Goddess Hestia and the later Romans adopt this custom and the Latin word for Hestia is Vesta. The Greeks used old women but the Romans used Virgin Priestesses to tend the sacred fire.

If a Vestal lets the Fire go out on her watch she is whipped by the Pontifex Maximus. A Vestal is pure and cannot be seen naked nor be injured where blood is drawn. So she is stripped naked and covered by a sheet and likely whipped by a rod that would bruise but not cut into the flesh.

If she loses her virginity or is accused of it she is bound and gagged and put into a covered litter. She is then paraded through the streets to just outside a City Gate where there is an underground tomb. She is given an oil lamp, bread, milk, water, a bed and then entombed. Man cannot kill a Sacred Vestal and he doesn't, that's why she is given bread and liquids after that's gone it's out of Man's hands now.

This is my take on the Vestal Virgins. You often hear about the "Six" Vestal Virgins but there were more that lived there (minimum of 18 at least plus retirees). I assume those "Six" were the senior ones in the last ten years of their 30 year commitment and the ones that went to official functions. They would be the six senior leaders of the Vestals in the highest honorable positions they could attain with the eldest as the Head Vestal.

Girls were between 6-10 years old when chosen and their family got a dowry for them. The first ten years they were students learning their duties, rituals, obligations along with reading, writing, etc. The second ten years they performed the actual duties like keeping the Sacred Fire burning 24/7/365. The third ten years they were the teachers of the young girls in training. After 30 years they were free to leave (rich) and even marry if they wanted (they were a highly prized older trophy wife) but the majority stayed, it was a good life for a single woman except the "Virgin" part was still required :-) .

Twenty 6-10 year old girls were selected but only six were chosen. The Pontifex Maximus would pick them out with the words "I seize you, beloved". Originally they had to be of noble birth but later in the Empire it was open to the lower ranks of Free Roman citizens. Both parents had to be living and scandal-free in their public and private life. And the young girls had to be physically perfect; eyesight, hearing, speech and not even a slight physical defect on their bodies.

The chosen girls were then brought to the 'Atrium Vestae' (the area to the left of the Temple when you will enter this site). Their hair was cut-off (later grown back) and used as a votive offering to a tree called the Lotus Capillata that in the first Century Pliny claimed was 500 years old. Then the girls are clothed in white and sworn-in as Vestals. And these new novices all take on the name Amata (The Beloved) for the time being.

Being a Vestal is being a very very powerful woman that is outside the Common Laws for women. A father has life and death over his children throughout their entire life (Patria Potestas), that ends when a girl becomes a Vestal. A woman can't make out a Will but a Vestal can and if she retires she can pretty much do business like a man. Vestals can be driven around in a horse drawn carriage which is a *very rare privilege* within the city. And everyone must get out of their way even if only walking and they have a Lictor leading them. Messing in any way with a Vestal even if it's a vulgar male 'cat call' (Yo Sweetie) would get you killed. Only Vestals can and are buried within the City Walls something that hasn't been allowed since the days of the ancient Kings. Their cemetery has never been discovered and only one Vestal funerary plaque has ever been found but that was just reused in a Renaissance building. If a Vestal by chance happened to cross paths with a person on their way to their execution, she could pardon that person on the spot. They have a box with reserved seats everywhere theatre, Colosseum, Circus, etc. Funny thing is they can watch Gladiators killing each other, people getting torn apart by wild beasts, executions, etc as long as there is no male nudity :-) . They are at civil, religious and political ceremonies as part of their duties. Wills of emperors and nobility, state secrets and documents are given to them for safe keeping. If called as a witness at a trial their testimony is not questioned and carries a lot of weight. They also get involved in political conflicts, like when the Dictator Sulla wanted to kill the young Julius Caesar they intervened and he was pardoned.

Chariots are not driven in Rome like in the movies but only in a military Triumphal Parade for the Emperor or a victorious General. One General kept getting voted down for his Parade, so he went out and got a Chariot and put his Vestal daughter next to him and drove the parade route right into the Forum and up to the Capitoline Hill. No one would dare stop him or say a word about it :-) .

They must always live a pure and somber lifestyle with no vanity or overt happiness even in private (spied on by other Vestals and the female slaves serving them).

I've read that a total 22 Vestals were condemned to death that we know about. 18 were entombed, two committed suicide and two unknown. Of the two unknowns, it's *claimed* that one was raped by Nero and that Emperor Heliogabalus married the other and later dumped her. Of those condemned that we know about it was actually more of a political motive because something bad just happened to Rome and they needed a scapegoat to blame something on or an Emperor wanted to take some heat off himself for something or other. In 216 BC at Cannae Hannibal defeated the Roman Army, two Vestals entombed. About 100 years later another Army defeat, two Vestals entombed. Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) likely for the historical fame convinces Celer a Roman Knight to claim he had sex with the Head Vestal and she is entombed. Bad news for the Knight is it's a capital crime for the man also and Celer as prescribed by Law is flogged to death in the Comitium and while he was being whipped screaming "What have I done? - I have done nothing.". Emperor Caracalla (211-217 AD) Has four Vestals condemned to death. Three are entombed and the other committed suicide by jumping off the Vestal House's roof beforehand.

Plutarch wrote:

"The Vestal convicted of incest is buried alive in the neighborhood of the Porta Collina, under the Agger of Servius Tullius. Here is a crypt, small in size, with an opening in the vault, through which the ladder is lowered. It is furnished with a bed, an oil lamp, and a few scanty provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. These provisions (in fact, a refinement of cruelty) are prepared because it would appear a sacrilege to condemn to starvation women formerly consecrated to the gods. The unfortunate culprit is brought here in a covered hearse, to which she is tied with leather straps, so that it is impossible that her sighs and lamentations should be heard by the attendant mourners. The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse. Not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the while city is shaken with terror and sorrow. The hearse being brought to the edge of the opening, the executioner cuts the bands, and the high-priest mutters an inaudible prayer, and lifts up his arms towards the gods, before bidding the culprit good bye. He follows and assists her to the top of the ladder, and turns back at the fatal instant of her disappearance. As soon as she reaches the bottom, the ladder is removed, opening is sealed, and a large mass of earth is heaped upon the stone that seals it, until the top of the embankment is reached, and every trace of the execution made to disappear."
Next: #24: Temple of Vesta
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