The trials and burdens of Rome's holy women.
The Vestal Virgins were an order of Priestesses that were at the centre of Rome’s religious community for over a thousand years. They worshipped the Goddess Vesta and, amongst other things, were tasked to keeping the holy fire burning in The Temple of Vesta in Rome. Their story includes betrayal, lust, intrigue and being buried alive.
Their story extends back before the beginnings of Rome, and there are views that when the adults and young boys of Alba Longa, an area near where Rome now stands, went out to hunt they usually left the young girls to look after the fires of the village, a task essential in the day to day life of such people. Over time, it evolved into a ritual and as by their very nature, the young girls were virgins, eventually this trait became part of the role in keeping the fires alive.
The kings of Alba Longa introduced the ritual to Rome and as the city developed, the links were reinforced and the Role of the Vestal Virgin became inherent in the spiritual and political life of the city.
To become a vestal virgin, a child would be offered by a prominent family, or drawn by lots from a pre-determined list. Each potential recruit had to be between six and ten years old and be in possession of all their limbs and faculties. In addition, the family would have to be freeborn Roman and of good character.
The successful candidate would sign up for a term of thirty years, during which they swore to remain chaste, and were seen as being married to Rome. The first ten years were as a trainee, the next ten years as an actual priestess and the last ten years as a teacher. After this time, they were allowed to leave the order and marry, if they so wished but due to the riches and independence afforded to them by the post, few actually did.
Their roles were many but the main ones included, keeping the sacred fire alight at all times, storing the wills of dead emperors and officials, various religious ceremonies and often liaison with Rome’s enemies in times of conflict. In addition, they were the keepers of Rome’s sacred relics and though information is scarce, these included the Palladium, otherwise known as the statue of Pallas Athena, around which Troy was built centuries earlier.
The remains of the Temple of Vesta in the Forum in Rome
Vestal Virgins became powerful and very rich. They could intercede on behalf of a condemned man and if convict caught the eye of a Vestal Virgin on the way to execution, he could be pardoned.
However, with the role came a serious commitment and if one was found to have lost her virginity, or on occasion, even be accused of being intimate with a man, they would be condemned to death. Originally this would be as simple as whipping, but as their role increased in importance it was felt that no man had the power to kill a priestess of Vesta. Therefore they devised a cruel and shocking punishment.
First of all, the accused would be whipped and tied to a cart to be led through the streets of Rome before the populace of the city. They would remain silent throughout the whole procedure. At a certain point, the priestess would be untied and would descend a ladder to a chamber containing a bed, a candle, some food and something to drink. The tomb would then be sealed, the soil replaced and life go on as normal in the city above, leaving the priestess entombed forever. The thinking seems to have been that the last time anyone seen her, she was alive and had the necessities for life. The rest was up to Vesta.
One of the most famous Vestal Virgins was Rubria who was apparently raped by Nero. History fails to tell us what happened to her after this as her name falls out of the history books.Though the Vestal Virgins were disbanded in 394 AD a similar order soon emerged albeit this time in the service of the Catholic church, Nuns.
A fascinating story covering one possible fate of Rubria, the famous Vestal Virgin raped by Emperor Nero in 64 AD can be found in my book The Dead Virgins