The Vestal Virgins: Rome’s Most Influential Priestesses 

Within the complex system of Roman religion and mythology, few figures were as significant as the Vestal Virgins. These were intertwined with the entire creation myth of Rome itself. 

The legendary founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were said to have been raised by a she-wolf on the banks of the River Tiber. Still, their mother was Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin who allegedly had been raped by Mars, the God of War. 

Thus, a Vestal Virgin was the mother of Rome itself, so to speak. As a result, the priestesshood obtained a suitably revered position within Roman society for centuries. Here we examine just who the Vestal Virgins were. 

In the Temple of Vesta by Constantin Hölscher, 1902
In the Temple of Vesta by Constantin Hölscher, 1902

Origins of the Vesta Virgins

The origin of the Vestal Virgins is shrouded in mystery. In Roman mythology, the order pre-dated the city itself in Italy. 

Roman historians who tried to develop a more empirical understanding of the order concluded that the priestesshood was founded during the reign of the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. He reigned in the late eighth and early seventh centuries. 

The early imperial Roman historian Livy tried to reconcile this with the creation myth by arguing that the Vestal Virgins had been established at the city of Alba Longa, which was also in the Latium region, prior to the foundation of Rome. 

They were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and were referred to as Vestal Virgins as they swore a vow of chastity. Rhea Silvia was one of these Vestal Virgins at Alba Longa. 

Then later, the order was removed from Alba Longa to Rome by Numa Pompilius, following which the priestesshood became a staple of the Eternal City. They would maintain their presence there for nearly a millennium. 

The Priestesshood

The number of Vestal Virgins seems to have changed over time. There were probably only two during the monarchical period, but by the Republican period, this expanded to four and then six. It is still debated if a seventh was added later. 

The Vestals were selected from amongst the women of Rome when they were still children. They entered service in their teens after some training and spent thirty years as priestesses. During this period, they followed a strict vow of chastity. 

Their primary duties were to attend to the fire of Vesta in her temple to ensure it never went out, as well as solemnize over many different ceremonies. 

The Temple of Vesta also acted as a place where leading Romans deposited their wills for safe keeping, and the priestesses were guardians of the same. 

Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini
Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini

The term as a priestess was strictly adhered to. Once their thirty years were over, the Vestals left the order and were replaced by a younger trainee. 

At that point, the former Vestals could marry and break their vow of chastity. Marrying a former Vestal Virgin was considered a great social honor in Rome. 

Throughout their years of service, the Virgins were notable wherever they went for their distinctive habits or robes, which covered their upper bodies and were worn as a shroud over their heads. 

The order also had a hierarchy and was headed by the chief Vestal or Virgo Vestalis Maxima. However, it appears that the chief Vestal was not bound by the same thirty-year limit that the other Vestals were, and there is a record of one such chief Vestal by the name of Occia filling the position for 57 years. 

The Temple of Vesta

The center of worship for the Vestal Virgins was the Temple of Vesta, which was constructed on the Roman Forum in the city’s center. 

Though largely destroyed today, this building seems to have been built in a circular shape with a large vent in the roof to allow smoke to release from Vesta’s holy fire, which was kept burning continuously in the center of the temple. 

Thus, the entire building was constructed to be centered on the hearth within Vesta was the patron. The temple was destroyed numerous times during Rome’s history but was repeatedly rebuilt. 

The Power of the Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were the most powerful priestesses in Rome. The chief Vestal or Virgo Vestalis Maxima, for instance, was allowed to attend the College of Pontiffs, the body of the highest-ranking priests of Rome’s temples. 

This effectively made the chief Vestal the most powerful priestess in the Roman Republic and Empire. Moreover, this influence could extend into politics.

 For instance, in 82 BC, the victor of the Roman Republic’s first civil war, Cornelius Sulla, was drawing up lists of his political enemies who were to be proscribed. 

The Vestal Virgins intervened on behalf of a certain Gaius Julius Caesar, who was still little more than a teenager. 

Had it not been for the Vestals who convinced Sulla to spare his life, the man who established himself as dictator of Rome over thirty years later would never have lived for us to know his name. 

How did the Vestal Virgins End?

Ultimately, the order of the Vestal Virgins ended in the same way that most other aspects of Roman religious life ended. The rise of Christianity destroyed it. 

The followers of Christ had become a significant element across the Roman Empire in the third century AD. Still, their ascendancy was guaranteed when Emperor Constantine proclaimed himself to be a Christian following a tremendous military victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 312 AD.

Once he established Christianity as the state religion, successive emperors began persecuting the adherents of the old religion, or Pagans as they were now derogatorily called. 

By the second half of the fourth century AD, gangs of marauding Christians were looting and destroying Pagan temples. Despite the reverence they had once been held, the Vestal Virgins fell prey to these roving bands.

 In 382 AD, Emperor Gratian closed the Temple of Vesta in Rome and confiscated the public funds used to support the priestesses in his government’s hands. The order which had been started over a millennium earlier and was said to have played a part in the very foundation of Rome was no more.

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