Who were the Vestal Virgins?

Vestal Virgin sculpture (Rome) - courtesy ConspiracyofHappiness - CC-BY

Vestal Virgin sculpture (Rome) - courtesy ConspiracyofHappiness - CC-BY

The Vestal Virgins were the only female priests within the Roman religious system. The head of the college of Vesta was called the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, and she was under the direct authority of the Pontifex Maximus.

Their main function was to keep the sacred fire of Vesta and never allow it to go out. The duty brought great honor and greater privileges to women who served in that role.  In public, they always wore the distinctive dress and the hairstyle of a Roman bride.

The college of Vesta had 18 members but only 6 were considered actual Vestal Virgins at any given time.  Six were in training, six functioned as Vestal virgins, and six older members were the teachers of the newest six. They were initially chosen from distinguished patrician families at an age from three to ten, later from any freeborn family.  That choice was a top honor for any family to receive. They each served thirty years.  At the end of the thirty years of service, they retired into private life.

While they had more privilege than other women in Rome, they were under a strict discipline during their thirty years of service.

For some offenses, a Vestal might be whipped, but if the sacred fire went out, it proved a Vestal was impure. That threatened the safety of Rome. The punishment for such a Vestal was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus.  She was brought to steps leading down to a room with food, a bed, and a lamp. After her descent, the room was sealed and she was left to die.

The last known Chief Vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380 A.D. The cult ended under Christian pressure in 394.

For more information about ancient Rome

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