The Vestal Virgins of Rome

I would possibly like to write a novel that included the famed Vestal Virgins of Rome. They are very interesting. At first, Rome had four Vestal Virgins. This was later increased to six. Their main duty was to be the guardians of the sacred fire.

The Pontifex Maximus (the High Priest) of Rome chose the Vestal Virgins when they were about seven years of age. He was in charge of the cult of the goddess Vesta. The cult was founded by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. The Pontifex Maximus himself had no ceremonial duties. These were all carried out by the Vestal Virgins. When they were chosen, their induction by the Pontifex Maximus was like a proposal of marriage. He said “Tu, amata, capio” (“You, my loved one, I take”).

The status of a Vestal Virgin was the same as that of an empress. They stood high above other women, being emancipated. The girls had ten years of education, and they took a vow of chastity. Initially, they served only five years, but this was increased to 30 years. Their duties were to keep the sacred fire burning, to make sure there was fresh water for the goddess daily. Once a year they had an annual cleaning of the temple. The sacred fire was put out, except they were to keep sparks to start the new fire. The women were permitted to marry after their obligation was over, but most did not…it was considered bad luck.

If a Vestal Virgin violated her chastity during her term of service, she was to be buried alive. The Emperor Domitian had three Vestal Virgins executed in AD 83 because of supposed lechery. In AD 90 Domitian buried the Chief Vestal Virgin Cornelia alive. The Virgins wore the same hairstyle as Roman brides, and they wore a white, purple-bordered veil called a suffibulum. The Virgins were very influential. Their advice was eagerly sought after in even political matters. Their office was highly respected, and their family gained great influence during their lives. Any family they visited or socialized with gained influence.

The goddess Vesta was the goddess of the hearth (cf. to the Greek Hestia). The temple of Vestia was technically a “house”. The people worshiped Vestia in their homes, but there was a public holiday called the “Vestalia”. The flame of the hearth signified the presence of the goddess. Those chosen as Virgins had to be patricians, ages 6-10, and a certified virgin. No man except the Pontifex Maximus could enter into the home of the Virgins. The oldest Virgin became the Chief Vestal Virgin. The house was located near the Forum and was called the Atrium Vestae (it was connected to the Temple). The cost and the upkeep of the Vestal Virgins was paid out of the public treasury.

After 30 years of service, the Vestal Virgins could retire with a nice dowry. They could remain a priestess, which most chose to do. No Senator could lightly ignore their requests to help someone out.