The Temple of Vesta, named after the goddess of the hearth, was once home to the Vestal Virgins. Who was these women? And what did they do?
Nestled in the bustling city of Rome sits the ancient world of the Roman Forum. A labyrinth of ruins, the overgrown grassland is scattered with crumbling buildings, half destroyed statues, and the foundations of once massive temples. One of the well-preserved temples is known as the Temple of Vesta, home to the ancient cult of the Vestal Virgins.
How were the Vestal Virgins created?
The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses to the Roman goddess Vesta. Who was the goddess of the hearth, the home, and domestic life? She was one of the main deities to the Romans and was said to protect the city from any harm. However, to thank and honour Vesta for protecting the city, a magical fire was lit and given to the King in 700 B.C. The fire was to be kept lit until the end of time, or else the region would be vulnerable to fall. Therefore, a group was formed to be responsible for this vital job, forever to be known as the Vestal Virgins. Its entire duration lasted 1,000 years, only ending due to the Christian snuffing out the flames.
Who are the Vestal Virgins?
They became one of the most exclusive cult groups in all of Rome. Being entirely made up of women, who lived on top of the Palatine Hill in the ancient Temple and House of Vestal. Women were only accepted into the cult if they were completely pure beings, i.e. the virgin status. They have seen a magical being to Romans, is the most powerful women in the entire Roman empire.
The Lifespan of a Vestal
All up, a vestal virgin’s life within the Temples lasted 30 years. Each virgin was chosen from a young age, averaging ages six to ten years old. They were selected from noble born families only, as it was seen as a great honour if a child was chosen. The first ten years were to learn the ways of the college, with the senior virgins passing on the traditional ways and beliefs. Their last ten years were to perform the rituals and to maintain the everlasting fire. The last ten years were to teach the new recruits. This cult was so exclusive, there were only three virgins in each step, with a total of six members at all times.
The Privileges they had
Vestal Virgins were by far the most influential women in Ancient Rome. Back then, women were citizens but had a lot of restrictions and rules that limited them from power. In comparison, the women of Vestal were seen as pure and powerful beings. They were very important to the Romans, with their power protecting everyone in the city from harm. They were considered completely truthful and gentle souls, with even the power to turn a slave to a free man with just a simple touch. If anyone was to harm a member, they were immediately put to death.
For this reason, they had certain privilege, being able to vote, own property, and join in on particular public events which were forbidden for regular women. They were free of any man’s control, with no husband or fathers to regulate them.
The Punishments they endured
Although compared to regular women, they have extreme power in the city, their liberty was limited in other ways. They vestals were kept under strict rules and traditions, with any rebellion to be meet by severe punishments. If a member allowed the fire to go out, snuck out of the temple after curfew, or broke their celibacy vows, they would have disastrous consequences. With whipping or death sentences being the most documented punishments. As it was a sin to shed vestal blood, they would kill the member by burying her alive in the underground chambers of the House of Vestal.
The most famous Vestal Virgins to exist
She was the mythical mother of the famous twins Remus and Romulus, who were the creators of Rome. She was the niece to the King Amulius of Alba Longa, who later banished her baby sons into the Tiber River which sparked the beginning of Rome.
The Vestal virgin named Aemilia was put to death in 114 BCE for breaking her celibacy vows. What made this such an extreme and documented case was due to Aemilia performing incest on several occasions. She also convinced two other vestal members in performing the same act, which caused all three women to be punished and sentenced to death.
Licinia went down in history due to her connection to Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was renowned for being a greedy man, and due to the property and power of Licinica, went to woe her. Hoping to take her property for a cheap price if he won her heart. However, Licinia was not yet retired, and still a vestal virgin at the time. Leading to both being put on trial for their rebellion. However, both were pardoned as the judge saw Crassus was too stupidly greedy and ‘mistakenly’ deflowered the virgin.
Their Lives after being a Vestal
As promised, all members who followed the strict actions of being a vestal without rebellion were freed after thirty years. The retired vestals were, although not pure beings no more, we’re still extremely respected, with expanded rights and generous pensions. Because of this, marrying a former vestal virgin was all the rage for eligible bachelors. Making the remainder of their lives sound pretty worthwhile in ancient Roman times.
Related article: How Many Fountains are there in Rome?
Explore Our Rome Tours
Rome Day Tour with Vatican & Colosseum
Spend the day exploring the highlights of Rome with local guide including Skip the Line tickets.
Historical Rome Walking Tour
Explore Rome with local guide to discover the history & stories behind the most iconic attractions.
Morning Ancient Rome & Colosseum Tour
Explore the Colosseum & Roman Forum with local guide including Skip the Line Tickets.
Colosseum & Rome City Tour
Walking tour exploring the highlights of Rome with local guide and Skip the Line Colosseum tickets.