What do we know about the Vestal Virgins? We know from the potentially biased primary and secondary sources of Cicero, Plutarch, Varro, and Cassius Dio that the Vestals were priestesses of the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. The priestesses were chosen from the ages of six to ten to participate in an almost life long religious commitment. Six virgins from ‘complete’, aristocratic families (displaying no deformities) were taken by the Pontifex Maximus to serve the goddess Vesta for thirty years; after which time they were allowed to live as they so choose. Most, understandably, remained in the cult. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome stipulates that upon removal from their families, the Virgins have “the right to make a will during their father’s lifetime and to conduct their business affairs without a guardian” (Lefowitz & Fant 2005). The Vestal Virgins were charged with protecting the sacred fire of the city, which was never allowed to go out. During the Vestalia, the Virgins would sweep out the ashes of the fire and use water to purify the temple. They were the only people to participate in the creation of the mola salsa – the ground meal sprinkled over sacrifices. The rights the Virgins gained upon indoctrination into the cult, including the only instance of female possession of lictors, was equally as unique as the severe consequences faced for their religious impiety. If a Virgin allowed the fire to go out, they would be whipped. If a Virgin was found to be unchaste, they were subject to a ritual of live internment. Ariadne Staples writes in her The Uses of Virginity: The Vestals and Rome, “In no other instance that we know of was the transgression of a ritual injunction ever punishable by death” (132). If a Virgin was unchaste she was ritually buried alive publicly in the city of Rome.
There were many anomalies surrounding the existence of the Vestal Virgins. First was the fact that they were (arguably) the only women to wield power in the city of Rome. In effect, they were the symbolic center of Rome. They were tasked with keeping the fire ‘alive’ – the life of Rome. As Staples writes, “a single lapse by a single priestess threatened the very existence of the state” (135). Why choose a woman and not a man to symbolically represent Rome? It’s quite possible that the position was not ideal for men. An aristocratic man taking on the responsibilities of a Vestal Virgin would be a downgrade from his position of power. It’s also likely that women were considered inherently more pure then men and therefore more of a ‘blank slate’. Women, without the guardianship of a man, did not enjoy a consequential status. When you project meaning onto something, it must not already have meaning. The Vestals were pure and unattached vessels. The Romans were able to imbue them with the symbolism of the state as a whole. The fact that they were the only people allowed to live in the Forum is a testament to their connection with the city. In addition, they were the only people buried inside the city. Their virginity was intertwined with their symbolic connection with Rome. Staples writes, “A Vestal’s virginity represented life, death, stability, and chaos for the Roman state” (135). In a sense, the Vestals retained an ambiguity outside the realm of Roman citizens. They became vessels onto which the ideals of Rome were placed. Their ambiguous nature allowed them to better represent the collective as a whole. A Vestal’s ideological virginity de-sexualized her.
I am skeptical of the circumstances surrounding the supposed internments of the Virgins. According to Staples, there are “only two recorded instances of Vestals being punished for unchastity during the period between the first Punic war and the end of the Republic” (134). Both of these noted burials took place during times of emotional upheaval and were subsequent reactions to the news of great losses to the Roman legions. Staples posits that “The religious measures taken to quell the panic were not merely extensive, they were extreme, even to the point of human sacrifice” (136). It is quite possible that the burials were a form of political propaganda. The city was in a state of unrest and the Virgins became a safeguard upon which to place the blame. Their ritualistic deaths could have placated the public and quite possibly had no real conjunction to the Vestals’ chastity. In addition, according to archaeological finds, we have no evidence of bodies being buried within the city. It’s also possible that the burials were purely symbolic and that none of the Virgins were interned.
Could the Vestals’ privileges be a product of their status outside the system in the same way that female festivals were marginalized in Roman society? It’s interesting to see that in both contexts, these events are exceptions to the rule only because of their marginalization.
I am also curious to see if there is a real connection between the Vestal Virgins and Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion centered on the worship of fire and the god Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians believed that water and fire were the agents of ritual purity. Once it was properly consecrated, a temple fire was never allowed to go out. The Avesta is a collection of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. There is an additional etymological similarity between Vesta and Avesta that is incredibly interesting.