Ancient History & Civilisation

Vestal Virgins:
Scapegoats in dire straits

During its thousand-year run, ancient Rome had more than a few imperfect rulers, to say nothing of deranged, despotic, and deeply disturbed ones. The city also suffered ghastly defeats in war. But over that millennium, the city was kept from harm spiritually by the offices of the six vestal virgins and their devotion to Vesta, the patron of the city—or so most Romans ardently believed. There were a few tragic incidents, however.

One occurred in 216 B.C., when the huge Roman army was badly defeated at Cannae by Carthaginian general Hannibal. Rome’s citizenry was in a state of panic, and its leaders resorted to scapegoating. Who better to blame for Rome’s ills than girls whose chastity must have been compromised? Vestals Opimia and Floronia were accused of licentious behavior and buried alive, while Floronia’s accused lover was clubbed to death. Were they innocent or guilty? Historian Livy claimed they’d been unchaste, but he lived two centuries after they did.

Another instance of scapegoating and human sacrifice happened just two years later, when Rome suffered another agonizing defeat. This time, because of testimony from a slave, three vestals were put on trial for illicit behavior. All three lost their lives.

At least a few vestal virgins seemed to have been framed for political reasons. The reign of Emperor Domitian, whose iron-fisted rule and bizarre personal behavior was the stuff of legend, provided several infamous examples. In A.D. 83, three vestals were charged with incestum, which in Latin specifically meant “an act that violated religious purity.” Instead of being buried alive, the usual punishment, the trio were forced to commit suicide, while their supposed lovers merely got sent into exile.

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Although Rome’s vestals protected the city for a millennium through their chastity, accidents did happen. A few vestals broke their vows; others were scapegoated or molested by unscrupulous emperors.

The years A.D. 213 through 220 were again dire for the current crop of vestal virgins, largely due to two rotten emperors: Caracalla and Elagabalus. Caracalla wreaked havoc on Roman peace of mind by accusing four young vestals of sexual misconduct—a charge no one dared to challenge, given the emperor’s vicious temper. The accused vociferously protested but got nowhere. Convicted vestals Aurelia Severa, Clodia Laeta, and Pomponia Rufina were buried alive, while Cannutia Crescentina managed to commit suicide before that happened by leaping from the roof of her family’s house. A few years later, to general rejoicing, Emperor Caracalla was dispatched by his mistresses and a gladiator.

Rome got a brief respite until a flamboyant, cross-dressing young teen named Elagabalus became Rome’s new emperor. In A.D. 219 he chose a vestal by the name of Julia Aquilia Severa to be his new bride, so that, as he boasted, “Godlike children could be produced from the two of us.” The longsuffering Aquilia put up with Elagabalus for several years, during which time the polysexual teenage emperor carried on various affairs with men and women.

She wasn’t the only vestal virgin to be molested by a Roman emperor, sad to say. About two centuries later, among his many infamies, Nero brutally assaulted a vestal named Rubria, a crime hastily covered up by imperial family members.

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