Ancient History & Civilisation

Vestal Virgins:
Cut to the chaste

The vestal virgins of Rome, aged six to ten when they took on the thirty-year obligation of the position, were always very much in the public eye. They led ritual cleansings of the city, opened solemn ceremonies, and graced official state banquets and religious festivals. They had secular tasks, too. Their lives were neatly divided into thirds: the first decade, learning to be a vestal; the second, doing duties as one; the last, teaching newly selected young vestals.

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The vestal virgins were Rome’s lucky rabbit’s foot, guarding the safety and moral stability of the city through their sacred duties and their own exemplary behavior.

Along with other secret sacred obligations, they had the crucial task of maintaining, night and day, the sacred fire of Vesta, the virginal patron goddess of Rome. Their priestess order might sound quaint to modern ears, but the morality and stability they represented were the lucky rabbit’s foot of Rome, a city of a million people. As a result, they were well loved. During the thousand years in which their institution held sway, almost all the vestals led exemplary lives and did much for the city.

In several ways, being a vestal was a rare opportunity for a female, once mature, to use her intellect and make important decisions free of male interference. The post was in essence the best job a woman could hold in Roman times. And hold it they did, for an entire millennium.

Occia, for example, began as a youngster in 38 B.C., and worked as a Vestal for fifty-seven years, though she was only required to serve thirty. She won a reputation for her dedication, even during the civil war decades in Italy.

Another standout was Junia Torquata, who later became head of the order, a post called Virgo Maximo— Maximum Virgin. The vestals had powers that extended to special pleadings to the Roman senate and emperor. They also had the power to intercede and extend mercy to any condemned person who happened to cross their path. During Junia’s tenure, she had ample opportunity to test her powers, since two of her brothers got into trouble with the law. One, accused of extortion and treason, got exiled to a crummy uninhabited island off Italy. After she pled his case to Emperor Tiberius, he wasn’t freed—but was upgraded to a nicer island. Her other brother had gotten himself into really hot water; his crime was adultery with Julia, the sexually voracious granddaughter of Emperor Octavian Augustus, no less. He quickly fled into voluntary exile, but it took fourteen years and all of Junia’s persuasive abilities with the emperor to get her brother back to Rome. She was an old woman by that time, having served the goddess Vesta for sixty-four years.

Not only did the vestal virgins have the respect of society, political influence, and independence from male guardians, they also gained financial independence when they retired. The parents of new vestals had to hand over dowries when they were accepted, just as though they were getting married. After thirty years of service, a vestal could retire with a generous pension. (Or she could, as many did, remain in vestal quarters, semiretired for the balance of her life.) The record shows that a vestal named Cornelia did extremely well in the investment department. When she took her post in A.D. 23, she received a dowry of two million sesterces. When she retired, still fairly young, it was as a very wealthy woman.

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