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The Vestal Virgins of Rome

The Vestal Virgins of Rome
15 December 2016 0 Comment

Rome borrowed Gods from the Greeks and the Etruscans to mix with its own collection of largely rustic home grown divinities; creating a religion that was more like a business affair. In which the worshipper promised X to a god in return for Y.

Religion has been the “coat-hanger” upon which mankind, across the planet, of every culture and of time immemorial has hung his fears, his lust for power, the subjugation of his people and to transcend the inevitable; death. Roman power was inevitably linked to an aristocratic elite wrapped around religious beliefs that reinforced their superiority and power among ordinary people. That all changed of course when in 60 BC three extremely powerful Roman aristocrat’s, Pompey, Crassus and Julius Cesar formed the autocratic “First Triumvirate”, bringing about the end of the Republic; but that is another story.

In the Beginning

According to legend Numa Pompilius was the second king of Rome. Whether he lived or not, the religious institutions ascribed to him persisted until the triumph of Christianity under Constantine in 324 AD (later to be kidnapped in the 5th century and used ever since by a religious and political elite in Europe to maintain power).

Numa was the guardian of the Vestal Virgins an institution attributed to Numa himself; created by him to guard the sacred flame of Rome. The charge of the pure, uncorrupted flame might, as Numa thought, be entrusted to chaste and unpolluted persons, or that fire which consumes, but produces nothing, bears an analogy to the virgin estate.

The Terms of Service of a Vestal

Most were selected as young girls (from twelve to fourteen years of age) from good, if not noble families; where upon they took vows of virginity for the space of thirty years; the first ten of which they were to spend in learning their duties, the second ten in performing them and the remaining ten in teaching and instructing new virgins. Upon completion of this service it was acceptable a Vestal could leave, marry and perhaps bare children. The greater number however, from religious fears and scruples, forbore, and continued to old age and death in the strict observance of a single life; having known only the company of women in every sense.

The Benefits of being a Vestal Virgin

A Vestal was considered like a Roman “good-luck-charm” and was shown many privileges including their own box at the Colosseum to the left of Cesare. She was allowed the administration of her own affairs without guardian or tutors and lived in regal comfort if not splendor. A Vestal never walked and was always carried in a chair by slaves. Anyone who pressed on the chair that was carrying a Vestal Virgin was put to death immediately.

Death to those that Break Their Vow of Virginity

Rome was meticulous in archiving much of its history and there have been recorded more than a dozen executions of a Vestal Virgin who had broken the vow of Virginity.

Plutarch the Greek biographer who later in life became a Roman citizen wrote if a Vestal had broken her vow of chastity she was buried alive near the Collina Gate where a mound of dirt had been created for this sole purpose. The execution of a Vestal Virgin was not taken lightly as she was considered a “demi-god” as such no human had could inflict upon her a fatal blow of any kind.

A small room, more a cell, was created at the bottom of the mound of earth which was reached by a narrow series of wooden steps. A small bed was prepared inside this dark space, next to which on a plate was left bread, water and a pail of milk and some oil; so that the body which had been consecrated and devoted to the most sacred service of religion might not be said to perish by such a death as famine. The culprit is carried in a litter with her hands and body tied securely to it and her entire body covered from view as she is carried through the forum. Silence falls across the forum as all movement stops as the littler is carried forth; Plutarch describes the gloom and sadness that fills all as they watch the sad procession.

Upon reaching the Collina Gate the high-priest lifting his hands to heaven pronounces prayers to himself while the Vestal still covered is brought before him standing. The high-priest places her at the top of the wooden steps that lead down to the cell, and turns his face away as do all the other priests. The Vestal must carefully walk blindfolded down the stairs into pitch darkness when the stairs are quickly drawn up. Just as quickly slaves fill the entrance with as much earth as required to prevent the entrance from being distinguished from the rest of the mound. The priests disperse and a 24 hour a day guard is place around the mound for two long weeks before they are removed.

The body was never retrieved.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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