The Vestal Virgins of Rome

In ancient Rome, before adopting Christianity as the official religion, they practiced a pagan religion. The Romans worshipped their own gods and performed rituals in their honor. These rituals not only involved a matter of faith, but also had great state importance. The belief was that by performing them, the gods would favor both the worshippers and the empire. During that time, there were several priestly colleges known as collegia, each with specific functions. Most of them were composed exclusively of men, but among the most prominent was one composed solely of women: the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins

What was the function of the Vestal Virgins?

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and protector of Rome. The Vestal Virgins were the only college destined exclusively for a Roman deity. Depending on the time, there were between 4 and 6 priestesses. They were in charge of guarding the sacred fire in the sanctuary of Vesta. However, although many thought that they only fulfilled this task, their functions included other tasks.

They guarded the sacred objects in the sanctuary and its tabernacle, prepared the ritual food, and officiated at events for the public at the annual vestalias. On the days consecrated to Vesta, June 7-15, they performed the rites by preparing the herbs and spices used in the sacrifices. They kneaded bread for ritual offerings on feast days, such as New Year’s Day, which in Rome was March 1.

Surprising information about the vestal virgins.

Their main task was to guard the sacred fire of the temple. If it went out, it was a symbol of misfortune for the whole city. According to Roman historians, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, created the college of the Vestals. It was one of the first institutions dating back to the foundation of Rome. According to traditions, the first vestal priestess was Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus.

A priestess of Vesta had the responsibility of being present at the shrine and watching over the sacred flame. If the flame went out, they suffered severe punishment. However, the worst punishment was imposed for not maintaining chastity. The priestesses had to be virgins and remain so throughout their lives.

When a vestal pronounced her vows, she became a daughter of the state. If she had sexual relations with any citizen, it was considered incest and was punishable by death. They buried vestals alive in subway chambers, since, due to their sacredness as women, it was forbidden to shed their blood. In addition to them, they also executed and buried in the same place her lover.

Nevertheless, the vestals had many privileges, which other Roman women could not even dream of. They owed obedience to no man, had free disposal of their property and could make a will. They had a personal escort, wounding them was punishable by death and they had seats reserved for them in public spectacles. In addition, they had authority in trials and could pardon a condemned person in certain circumstances.

Even, according to some commentaries, the great Julius Caesar was saved by the vestals. They prevented him from ending up on the outlaw list of the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Therefore, Rome owes a great part of its history to the Vestals.

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