Trying to absorb as much information about this fascinating order of priestesses as I could whilst sat within the ruined walls of their actual home was an incredible thing to do. I wanted to see the House of the Vestal Virgins after the classicist Mary Beard had recommend it as one of the few places of evidence of Roman women, the other being Livia’s garden room in the Palazzo Massimo.
The main task for these priestesses was to guard the sacred hearth of the city, the flame in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. Romans believed that as long as this sacred flame was kept alight then their city and people would survive. Because their job was deemed to be so important the Vestas were given privileges and honours not given to women – such as the ability to free criminals and slaves, ability to handle their own property and freedom from their fathers’ rule (which usually only happened after marriage when the control was passed to the husband).
In return, alongside performing their priestess tasks, they vowed to remain a virgin for the thirty years they served. The penalty for breaking this vow was being buried alive, as their sacred blood could not be spilled, and the man was whipped to death.
For over 1,000 years the Vestas were amongst the most powerful women in ancient Rome – so revered that injuring one was punishable by death. A truly fascinating part of Roman history.
Whilst writing this I have mainly been listening to A whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum mainly because whilst researching this post I discovered it has the lyric – ‘one of sixteen vestal virgins’, that and because it’s a great tune.