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House of the Vestals

The Atrium Vestae was begun by Domitian and completed by Trajan about AD 113. The statues pictured above all were found in a pile, and their original arrangement or even whether they have been placed on the correct pedestal is not known.

There were six Vestals, who were between six and ten years of age when they were appointed by the emperor, in his role as chief priest (Pontifex Maximus), to serve for thirty years, learning, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the sacred rites during the first ten years, performing them during the second ten, and teaching them during the last ten. During this time, the Vestals were to remain chaste, tend the eternal flame, safeguard the sacred objects within the Temple of Vesta, and prepare the grain mixed with salt for sacrifice. In return, they enjoyed privileges denied other women. At the end of service, they were released from their vows and free to marry, although few did so. They could own property, and injury to them was punishable by death. When they went out to participate in sacrifices and ceremonies, they were transported in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way. A condemned man, if met on the way, could be pardoned.

A Vestal who lost her virginity was thought to jeopardize Rome, itself, and a priestess who did not remain chaste was buried alive, as happened to Cornelia, a Chief Vestal condemned to death for incest by Domitian in AD 90. Pliny the Younger relates that the pitiable woman, being let down into the underground chamber, actually freed her own robe, which had been caught by something, rejecting the proffered hand of the executioner and accepting her unjust fate with equanimity (Letters, IV.11). Indeed, Domitian prided himself on the fact that he did not bury Vestals alive, as was customary, but ordered them to put to death in other ways (Dio, Roman History, LXVII.3). Suetonius, too, relates that the punishments were diverse, "at first by capital punishment, and afterwards in the ancient fashion." Three Vestals had been allowed to choose the manner of their own deaths in AD 83. But Cornelia, who already had been acquitted once before, was to be buried alive and her lovers beaten to death (Life, VIII.3-4; also Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, VII.6).

Even imprudent behavior was subject to scrutiny, as had been the case with Postumia, who had been put on trial in 420 BC. "The fact that she dressed well and talked rather more freely and wittily than a young girl should, up to a point justified the suspicion against her. She was remanded, and afterwards acquitted, with a warning from the Pontifex Maximus, in the name of the college of priests, to stop making jokes and to dress in future with more regard to sanctity and less to elegance" (Livy, History of Rome, IV.44).


References: Pliny the Younger: Complete Letters (2006) translated by P. G. Walsh (Oxford World's Classics); Livy: The Early History of Rome (1971) translated by Aubrey de SÚlincourt (Penguin Classics); Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius (1912) translated by F. C. Conybeare (Loeb Classical Library).

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