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p1189 Vestales

Article by William Ramsay, M.A., Professor of Humanity in the University of Glasgow
on pp1189‑1191 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

VESTA′LES, the virgin priestesses of Vesta who ministered in her temple and watched the eternal fire. Their existence at Alba Longa is connected with the earliest Roman traditions, for Silvia the mother of Romulus was a member of the sisterhood (Liv. I.20; Dionys. I.76); their establishment in the city, in common with almost all other matters connected with state religion, is generally ascribed to Numa (Dionys. II.65; Plut. Num. 10), who selected four (their names are given in Plutarch), two from the Titienses and two from the Ramnes (Dionys. II.67; Festus, s.v. Sex Vestae), and two more were subsequently added from the Luceres, by Tarquinius Priscus according to one authority (Plut. Num. l.c.), by Servius Tullius according to another (Dionys. III.67). This number of six remained unchanged at the time when Plutarch wrote, and the idea that it was afterwards increased to seven rests upon very unsatisfactory evidence (see Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscript. vol. IV p167; Ambros. Epist. V.31, c. Symmach. and the remarks of Lipsius).

They were originally chosen (capere is the technical word) by the king (Liv. I.3.20; Dionys. ll. cc.) and during the republic and empire by the Pontifex Maximus. It was necessary that the maiden should not be under six nor above ten years of age, perfect in all her limbs, in the full enjoyment of all her senses, patrima et matrima [Patrimi], the daughter of free and freeborn parents who had never been in slavery, who followed no dishonourable occupation, and whose home was in Italy (Gell. I.12). The lex Papia ordained that when a vacancy occurred the Pontifex Maximus should name at his discretion twenty qualified damsels, one of whom was publicly (in concione) fixed upon by lot, an exemption being granted in favour of such as had a sister already a vestal and of the daughters of certain priests of a high class (Gell. l.c.). The above law appears to have been enacted in consequence of the unwillingness of fathers to resign all control over a child, and this reluctance was manifested to strongly in later times that in the age of Augustus libertinae were declared eligible (Dion Cass. LV.22; Suet. Octav. 31). The casting of lots moreover does not seem to have been practised if any respectable person came forward voluntarily and offered a daughter who fulfilled the necessary conditions. As soon as the election was concluded the Pontifex Maximus took the girl by the hand and addressed her in a solemn form preserved by Aulus Gellius from Fabius Pictor. Sacerdotem · Vestalem · Quae · Sacra · Faciat · Quae · Ious · Siet · Sacerdotem · Vestalem · Facere · Pro · Populo · Romano · Quiritium · Utei · Quae · Optima · Lege · Fovit · Ita · Te · Amata · Capio where the title Amata seems simply to signify "beloved one," and not to refer as Gellius supposes to the name of one of the original Vestals, as no such name is to be found in the list of Plutarch alluded to above. After these words were pronounced she was led away to the atrium of Vesta, and lived thenceforward within the sacred precincts under the special superintendence and control of the pontifical college (Dionys. II.67; Liv. IV.44, VIII.15; Plin. Ep. IV.11; Suet. Octav. 31; Gell. I.12).

The period of service lasted for thirty years. During the first ten the priestess was engaged in learning her mysterious duties, being termed discipula (Val. Max. I.1 §7), during the next ten in performing them, during the last ten in giving instructions to the novices (Dionys. l.c.; Plut. l.c.; Senec. de vit. beat. 29), and so long as she was thus employed she was bound by a solemn vow of chastity. But after the time specified was completed she might, if she thought fit, throw off the emblems of her office (Dionys. l.c.), unconsecrate herself (exaugurare, Gell. VII.7),º return to the world and even enter into the marriage state (Plut. l.c.). Few however availed themselves of these privileges; those who did were said to have lived in sorrow and remorse (as might indeed have been expected from the habits they had formed); hence such a proceeding was considered ominous, and the priestesses for the most part died as they had lived in the service of the goddess (Tacit. Ann. II.86; Inscrip. quoted by Gronov. ad Tacit. Ann. III.64).

The senior sister was entitled Vestalis Maxima, or Virgo Maxima (Ovid. Fast. IV.639; Suet. Jul. 83, p1190 Domit. 8; Orell. Inscript. n2233, &c.; ἡ πρεσβεύουσα, Dion Cass. LIV.24;b ἡ ἀρχιερεία, LXXIX.9), and we find also the expressions Vestalium vetustissimam (Tacit. Ann. XI.32) and tres maximae (Serv. ad Virg. Ecl. VIII.82).

Their chief office was to watch by turns, night and day, the everlasting fire which blazed upon the altar of Vesta (Virginesque Vestales in urbe custodiunto ignem foci publici sempiternum, Cic. de Leg. II.8.12; Liv. XXVIII.11; Val. Max. I.1 §6; Senec. de Prov. 5), its extinction being considered as the most fearful of all prodigies, and emblemate of the extinction of the state (Dionys. II.67; Liv. XXVI.1). If such misfortune befell and was caused by the carefulness of the priestess on discovery, she was stripped and scourged by the Pontifex Maximus, in the dark and with a screen interposed, and he rekindled the flame by the friction of two pieces of wood from a felix arbor (Dionys., Plut., Val. Max. ll. cc.; Festus, s.v. Ignis). Their other ordinary duties consisted in presenting offerings to the goddess at stated times, and in sprinkling and purifying the shrine each morning with water, which according to the institution of Numa was to be drawn from the Egerian fount, although in later times it was considered lawful to employ any water from a living spring or running stream, but not such as had passed through pipes. When used for sacrificial purposes it was mixed with muries, that is, salt which had been pounded in a mortar, thrown into an earthen jar and baked in an oven (Ovid. Fast. III.11; Propert. IV.4.15; Plut. Num. 13; Festus, s.v. Muries). They assisted moreover at all great public holy rites, such as the festivals of the Bona Dea (Dion Cass. XXXVII.45) and the consecration of temples (Tac. Hist. IV.53), they were invited to priestly banquets (Macrob. III.13.11º; Dion Cass. XLVII.19), and we are told that they were present at the solemn appeal to the gods made by Cicero during the conspiracy of Catiline (Dion Cass. XXXVII.35). They also guarded the sacred relics which formed the fatale pignus imperii, the pledge granted by fate for the permanency of the Roman sway, deposited in the inmost adytum (penus Vestae, see Festus, s.v.) which no one was permitted to enter save the virgins and the chief pontifex. What this object was no one knew, some supposed that it was the Palladium, others the Samothracian gods carried by Dardanus to Troy and transported from thence to Italy by Aeneas, but all agreedc in believing that something of awful sanctity was here preserved, contained, it was said, in a small earthen jar closely sealed, while another exactly similar in form but empty, stood by its side (Dionys. I.69, II.66; Plut. Camill. 20; Liv. XXVI.27; Lamprid. Elagab. 6; Ovid. Fast. VI.365; Lucan, IX.994).

We have seen above that supreme importance was attached to the purity of the Vestals, and a terrible punishment waited her who violated the vow of chastity. According to the law of Numa she was simply to be stoned to death (Cedrenus, Hist. Comp. p148, or p259, ed. Bekker), but a more cruel torture was devised by Tarquinius Priscus (Dionys. III.67; Zonaras, VII.8) and inflicted from that time forward. When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged (Dionys. IX.40), was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter and borne through the forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus, just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate. There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and table with a little food. The Pontifex Maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed. In every case the paramour was publicly scourged to death in the forum (Plut. Num. 10,º Fab. Max. 18, Quaest. Rom. vol. VII p154, ed. Reiske; Dionys. II.67, III.67, VIII.89, IX.40; Liv. IV.44, VIII.15, XXII.57; Plin. Ep. IV.11; Suet. Dom. 8; Dion Cass. LXVII.3, LXXVII.16, and fragg. XCI, XCII; Festus, s.v. Probrum et Sceleratus Campus).d

But if the labours of the Vestals were unremitting and the rules of the order rigidly and pitilessly enforced, so the honours they enjoyed were such as in a great measure to compensate for their privation. They were maintained at the public cost and from sums of money and land bequeathed from time to time to the corporation (Suet. Octav. 31, Tib. 76; Sicul. Flacc. 23, ed. Goes). From the moment of their consecration they became as it were the property of the goddess alone, and were completely released from all parental sway without going through the form of emancipatio or suffering any capitis diminutio (Gell. I.12).º They had a right to make a will, and to give evidence in a court of justice without taking an oath (Gell. X.15), distinctions first conceded by an Horatian law to a certain Caia Tarratia or Fufetia, and afterwards communicated to all (Gell. I.12; Gaius, I.145; cf.  Plin. H. N. XXXIV.11). From the time of the triumviri each was preceded by a lictor when she went abroadº (Dion Cass. XLVII.19), consuls and praetors made way for them, and lowered their fasces (Senec. Controvers. VI.8; cf. Plut. Tib. Gracch. 15), even the tribunes of the plebs respected their holy character (Oros. V.4; Suet. Tib. 2; cf. Cic. pro Coel. 14; Val. Max. V.4 §6), and if any one passed under their litter he was put to death (Plut. Num. 10). Augustus granted to them all the rights of matrons who had borne three children (Dion Cass. LVI.10; Plut. l.c.), and assigned them a conspicuous place in the theatre (Cic. pro Muren. 35). Great weight was attached to their intercession on behalf of those in danger and difficulty, of which we have a remarkable example in the entreaties which they addressed to Sulla on behalf of Julius Caesar (Suet. Jul. 1; cf. Cic. pro Font. 17; Suet. Vitell. 16; Dion Cass. LXV.18; Tacit. Ann. III.69, XI.32, Hist. III.81), and if they chanced to meet a criminal as he was led to punishment they had a right to demand his release, provided it could be proved that the encounter was accidental. Wills, even those of the emperors, were committed to their charge (Suet. Jul. 83, Octav. 101; Tacit. Ann. I.8), for when in such p1191keeping they were considered inviolable (Plut. Anton. 58); and in like manner very solemn treaties, such as that of the triumvirs with Sextus Pompeius, were placed in their hands (Appian, B. C. V.73; Dion Cass. XLVIII.37 and 46; cf. XLVIII.12). That they might be honoured in death as in life, their ashes were interred within the pomoerium. (Serv. ad Virg. Aen. XI.206).

They were attired in a stola over which was an upper vestment made of linen (Val. Max. I.1 §7; Dionys. II.68; Plin. Ep. IV.11), and in addition to the Infula and white woollen Vitta they wore when sacrificing a peculiar head-dress called suffibulum, consisting of a piece of white cloth bordered with purple, oblong in shape, and secured by a clasp (Festus, s.v. Suffibulum). In dress and general deportment they were required to observe the utmost simplicity and decorum, any fanciful ornaments in the one or levity in the other being always regarded with disgust and suspicion (Liv. IV.44, VIII.15; Plin. Ep. IV.11; Ovid. Fast. IV.285). We infer from a passage in Pliny (Plin. H. N. XVI.85) that their hair was cut off, probably at the period of their consecration; whether this was repeated from time to time does not appear, but they are never represented with flowing locks.

The first of the following cuts, copied from a gem (Montfaucon, Ant. Exp. I. pl. XXVIII, Supplem. I. pl. XXIII), represents the Vestal Tuccia who when wrongfully accused appealed to the goddess to vindicate her honour, and had power given her to carry a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the temple (Val. Max. VIII.1 §5; Plin. H. N. XXVIII.2). The form of the upper garment is here well seen.


[image ALT: A woodcut of a woman in a long robe carrying what appears to be a large bowl. It is a representation of the ancient Roman Vestal Tuccia carrying a sieve miraculously full of water.]

The second is from a denarius of the Gens Clodia, representing upon the reverse a female priestess with a simpulumº in her hand, and bearing the legend VESTALIS; on the obverse is a head of Flora with the words C. CLODIVS C. F. Two Vestals belonging to this gens were celebrated in the Roman Annals (see Ovid. Fast. IV.279; Suet. Tib. 2; Augustin. de Civ. Dei, X.16; Herodian. I.11). [Triumphus, p1165A.] The coin seems to have been struck to commemorate the splendour of the Floralia as exhibited during the famous aedileship of C. Clodius Pulcher B.C. 99 (Cic. de Off. II.16, c. Verr. IV.2; Plin. H. N. XXXV.4).º


[image ALT: A woodcut of a coin, obverse on the left, reverse on the right: The obverse shows the head of a woman with a semi-readable inscription around it; the reverse shows a draped woman seated on a sort of throne, with the legend VESTALIS. It is an ancient Roman Republican coin of the Gens Clodia.]

(Lipsius, de Vesta et Vestalis Syntagma, and Noehden, "On the worship of Vesta, &c. Classical Journal, vol. XV.123, vol. XVI.321," have collected most of the authorities on this subject; Göttling, Geschichte der Römisch. Staatsverfassung, p189).


Thayer's Notes:

The Vestal Virgins had several other functions not mentioned in this article. They were involved, for example, in the more formal marriage ceremonies and in the very ancient rites of the Lemuralia. Nor must you get the idea that we know everything they did. Among the sacra entrusted to them, for instance, a mysterious fascinus mentioned by Pliny (NH XXVIII.7), about which our dictionary gives us one theory, s.v. Fascinum.

The Vestal Virgins also had several other privileges not mentioned in this article, the most important of which was that, unlike other women even in the earliest times, they could own property. This is actually implicit in something that our author does mention, viz. that "they were completely released from all parental sway without going through the form of emancipatio or suffering any capitis diminutio", but if you're not familiar with Roman law you might have missed that.

Not only could the Vestals make a will, the Lex Voconia stipulated, by way of exception, that they could bequeath their property to other women: at certain periods of the Republic, not even men could bequeath property to a woman.

Finally, as you might expect, they were granted luxury transportation by the state (see the article Pilentum).

b The Greek word, in addition to not being official, of course, may merely mean the oldest Vestal, especially in the context of this particular passage of Dio: which would not necessarily make her the first in rank.

c Actually, no, there was no such agreement in Antiquity, as the Plutarch reference given shows quite clearly.

d For a much more vivid account of the punishment of a Vestal, see once more Lanciani's chapter.


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Page updated: 23 Aug 12