Vestal Virgins – 3/3: Ups & Downs

Though they were above other women in many ways, and even above men in some, Vestal Virgins had some major restrictions. All the fawning and worshipping cannot have been easy on them either. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of being a Vestal Virgin.

Advantages

These women had some special privileges in the form of being able to own property, not being beholden to any man in their lives, and they were legal entities in law. They received a ‘salary’ from the public funds and made holy and revered.

It was widely believed that they were able to do magic, and in one of his texts, Pliny tells us that the Vestals had such control over the city that they could even stop a fleeing slave provided he was still within the city. Their virginity was part of their strength and was believed to increase the potency of their spells.

They were worshipped as Mother Vesta, the Goddess of Fruitfulness, and were revered as it was believed they enhanced fertility in both women and cattle (I feel weird putting both in one sentence!). It is very curious since it is an anomaly for women unable to mate or produce children to be associated with fertility.

Unlike other Roman women, they were allowed to own property and make wills, and if they died intestate, then her property went to the State. She was on par with any Roman man in the rights given to her, and in some respects her rights even surpassed those of men, wherein she was not bound to obedience to any male family member. Lack of sex seems to be a minor price to pay for such independence.

Disadvantages

There were also a few disadvantages to this post. One of them was the fact that they had to remain virgins all their lives, and were not allowed to love. Any Vestal indulging in carnal pleasures was condemned to death by being burnt alive or thrown off a rock because it was seen as endangering the sanctity and safety of the Empire. Quite indicative of old times, she was guilty until proven innocent, if she was accused of being unchaste.

The death and ceremonies attached to the punishment of a Vestal Virgin who violated her vows of chastity is described by Plutarch.

The one who had soiled the vow of chastity is buried alive bear what is called the Colline Gate. Here, inside the city wall, projects a little earthen ridge for some distance … there a chamber, not a big one, is constructed with an incline from above. In this are placed a covered couch, a burning lamp, and some very small portions of life’s necessities, such as bread, a bowl of water, milk and oil, as if they acquitted themselves of the charge of destroying by hunger a life, which had been dedicated to the highest ritual services. Then the one to be punished is placed in a sedan chair. They cover it from the outside and fasten with ropes, so that not even a sound is heard, and they escort the sedan chair through public spaces. Everybody moves aside in silence, and they attend without any noise and with dire gloom. There is no spectacle more awful nor does the city experience a more abhorred day than this. When the sedan chair reaches the site, the servants untie the bindings, then, before the punishment, the high priest makes some secret prayers and stretches his hands toward the gods, he brings forth the all-together veiled one and places her on the ladder, which leads down to the chamber. Afterwards together with all the other priests, he turns away. Then, when she has descended, the ladder is pulled up and the chamber covered with earth so that the place is level with the rest of the ground.

For smaller offences, corporal punishments were often used. If the Virgins allowed the fire of Rome to be extinguished, Festus describes their punishment:

If the fire of Vesta was ever extinguished, the virtins were beaten with whips by the pontifex. It was the custom for them to drill a board of favourable wood for a very long time, a virgin then bore the fire taken from this into the ades in a bronze sieve.

It is important to remember that being a virgin was not a choice one made. It was decided by the family, the State and the priesthood when the girl was young. The burden of responsibility cannot have been easy, but it may certainly have been offset by all the benefits the system brought to them.

Learn more @:

Rome’s Vestal Virgins by Robin Lorsch Wildfang
History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome by Cato Worsfold
Vestal Virgins, Sybils and Matrons by Sarolta Takacs
From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins by Ariadne Staples
Pagan Pages

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. typicalindiangirl
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 07:57:12

    really informative and thought-provoking, I would be persistent visitor now!

  2. Indian Homemaker
    Jun 19, 2012 @ 08:46:44

    So it had to be either this or life of an ordinary second class citizen (if at all a citizen) as a woman – but no right to live a normal life 😦

  3. Geanine Teramani
    Jun 20, 2012 @ 04:07:10

    Wonderful! This is the first I’ve ever read of these girls . Thank you .

  4. Aditya Kane
    Jun 20, 2012 @ 09:21:52

    Been trying to find the words to leave a comment on various parts of this series but finally ended up writing a terribly long comment here. Sorry about that in advance …

    Vestals virgins were probably the only Roman citizens who really had it good. They literally had life of luxury and safety. Even the very rich class of women who lived in luxury also lived with the prospect of having a enormous brood of children which was a big health risk in those times.

    I think suggesting that women in ancient Rome were 2nd class citizens is slightly incorrect. They had many rights which were the same for men except maybe voting rights and property rights (let me clarify a very large percentage of male citizens also did not own property). Voting rights were really included only for land owners – usually during a plebeian council (elections) which happened in Rome, most land owners were never were in urban Rome to actually vote anyways. So despite a semblance of democracy it actually had none. It was mainly a republic – which is what they called themselves.

    Unfortunately a lot of their lack of life choices for women are interpreted based on today’s times.

    Back in those days, no male or female really had a choice on what they would do as a career. Even emperors did not really have a choice – it was made for them in most cases. No one asked a 10 year old boy if he wanted to become a librarian or a soldier. Most healthy men who did not have land actually had to serve in the military for years. People did not one fine day decide they would become artists or architects or become farmers.

    Yes women were uneducated but then so was 95% of the population regardless of gender.

    In the higher classes many women knew how to read and write – especially if they had husbands who were in the military – they often had to run estates, shops, carry on business as usually most Roman men did not allow agents to manage their property but preferred their wives to do it – sometimes even if they had sons who were old enough.

    Ancient world (atleast Roman) was not just unfair to women per se – it was simply unfair in ways we cannot even comprehend. Interesting the idea of piety of a virgin was floated from the vestals – as it continued with references to the the virgin mother of Christ when the Roman Empire was on decline. Later on women like Pulcheria actually ruled a significant part of Eastern Roman Empire by declaring her celibacy. More on that some other time.

    • Fem
      Jun 21, 2012 @ 17:20:51

      Thanks for the insights, Aditya. I must admit I am not very informed about life in ancient Rome. However, the texts of rape and victim blaming, as well as comparison to women and cattle are worthy of mention on a blog like this. Of course, it was the norm, but then that’s what this blog is about. They were all norms in those days, that hardly makes them practices that must not be criticised or spoken about. That said, I agree with much of what you have written.

  5. Sarah
    Mar 13, 2013 @ 19:36:45

    “Any Vestal indulging in carnal pleasures was condemned to death by being burnt alive or thrown off a rock because it was seen as endangering the sanctity and safety of the Empire.”

    They weren’t burnt alive or thrown from a rock. They were “buried” alive.

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