Vestal Virgins

Vestal Virgin by Morin 1791 Terracotta by mharrsch via Flickr

The Vestal Virgins were a priesthood of virgin women in ancient Rome, probably of patrician class.

The Vestals apparently were instituted by the Roman King Numa and were thought to be the symbolic or perhaps spiritual daughters of the earliest Roman Kings. Wikipedia nicely sums up their crucial role to the well-being of ancient Rome.

In ancient Roman religion, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Vestales, singular Vestalis), were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being was 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 vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off-limits to the male colleges of priests.¹

Statues in the House of the Vestal Virgins, Fo...
Statues in the House of the Vestal Virgins, Forum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Vestals served for a minimum of 30 years, with a maximum of lifetime service. They answered to the head priest (pontifex maximus) and lived in a building near the Forum called the Atrium Vestae.

Ancient Rome had no separation of church and state, so the Vestals were maintained at public expense. They were pretty and pure looking, in keeping with ancient Roman aesthetic and moral ideals. Chosen by lots among eligible girls aged 6-10 years, the Vestals guarded the sacred flame at the temple of Vesta, near the Forum.

Constantin Hölscher Im Tempel der Vesta
Constantin Hölscher Im Tempel der Vesta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their ongoing purity was essential. If found unchaste, a priestess could be buried alive as punishment. In 83 CE, for instance, Domitian executed three Vestal Virgins on charges of immorality. In 90 CE the chief Vestal, Cornelia, was buried alive.

It’s hard to know if these charges had any truth to them, or whether they were simply trumped up by the PTB, for whatever warped reasons.

The concept of the Vestal Virgin has inspired artists through the ages.


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