(6th Century B.C. - end of 4th Century A.D.)
Vestal virgins were women priestesses to the goddess of Hearth, Vesta, in Ancient Rome. The main duty they must perform was to guard the fire of Vesta. With this they would be endowed with many honors and rights that a normal female would not have at that time. These women were very powerful in the sense that people would respect them because of the mission they were chosen to take in life. Their vow of chastity and their vow of sustaining the fire, made them vital individuals in that ancient time in history.
The selection of a vestal virgin was a great honor because only six were chosen to sustain the flame at a time. Women that were chosen for this role were of wealth and when they are picked, they are a children. The high priest would choose out of a group of girls between the ages of six and ten. He once he chose the girls, they would leave their father’s house and be ruled by only the high priest and the Vesta, the goddess they devoted their life to. Once the young girls were committed to the priesthood, they would make a vow of celibacy. If they broke this vow they were punished by death. They were buried alive in a chamber with only a little bit of food and water to keep them alive for few days longer. There have been a few known vestals that have broken the vow; one would be Tiber, who gave birth to Romulus and Remus. The other reason of punishment is if they allowed for the fire to go out; this was a punishment by death as well, often by whipping. Even though they had restriction, these women were free of subservient restrictions to men. They lived and dined in nice surroundings and they had VIP admittances into public places like the theatre. They were required to serve thirty years if their life to the goddess of Vesta. The first ten years they were students, then the following they were in their service to the fire, and the last ten years they were the teachers. Once they completed their term, they were free to marry anyone they liked. The end to the Vestal Virgin happened when Emperor Theodosius came into power in A.D. 391. He let the fire out, and forbade any pagan worship.
The vestal virgins did serve a very important propose for Ancient Rome. They allowed families including the royal have the use of fire. They also set out a different life than the women of Rome at that time. They had more freedom of rights and they were worshipped themselves by the vows that they committed to. Even though they did have to take a vow of chastity, it offered them a life of freedom when they were done with their service. These women are a unique part of history that makes them an important role in the history of women.
Abbott, Elizabeth. History of Celibacy. Cambridge , MA : Da Capa Press, 2001.
Elizabeth Abbott is a Dean of Women at Trinity College in Toronto and she an experienced journalist with a doctrine degree in History. She has written this book that is dedicated to individuals that practice celibacy through out history. She covers information from Roman history about Vestal Virgins to today’s celibate athletes. When Abbott discusses the lives of Vestal Virgins she gives a good history of their profession and their promise of chastity. She also includes virgins that were caught not being celibate and their punishment by death. This book is a good source for young students who are interested in celebrant life throughout history and anyone who is interested in the celibate life of Vestal Virgins.
Baird, Rod. “Vestal Virgins.” Ancient Routes. (2001-2004) <http://www.ancientroute.com/religion/Relig-Subj/vestals.htm>
(18 December 2005).
This website dedicated to discovering the ancient Mediterranean history and this site looks at this history from the beginning of writing to 400 B.C. which includes the fall of Roman, Christianity, and the beginning of the Islam Religion. To explore this site, Baird creates an “ancient trade route” to help the visit each page in chronological order of history. The page which is dedicated to the history vestals gives much information including the Goddess Vesta, the roles, rules, punishments, freedoms of a virgin vestal. This site is really good for a student to get information and photos on ancient roman history. There is not much historical analysis, but just facts of specific events and people in history.
Dashu, Max. “Roman Persecution: The Vestals.” The Suppressed Histories Archives Women in Global
Perspectives. (2000) <http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secret_history/roman_persecution.html>
(18 December 2005).
Max Dashu creates this website for the purpose to make her many historical Presentations that she gives all around the world, for everyone to see. She focuses on International history of Women. Going into depth about roles of reality, enslavement, politics, and society. When she discusses the history of Vestal Virgins, she explains the role of the vestal, but also different persecutions of individual virgins that took place in ancient Rome . This website is good for students that are in search to learn about the history of women in history. It provides information backed up by sources, photos, and links to other websites.
Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Frant Maureen B. “Vestal Virgins.” Women’s
Life in Greece and Rome. (1992) <http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-religion408.shtml#ag>
(18 December 2005).
This online source gives an outline of the events in the book Women’s Life in Greece and Rome . The events on this page are specifically pertained to the life of vestal virgins. The source explains why they have been picked and the duties that they need to perform daily throughout their service. They also inform the reader the process of their death punishment if they are caught in an act that is forbidden for them to do. This pages is a good source but is really only informational to the book. This may help a person who is looking for main points that pertain to Women’s Life in Greece and Rome.
Seindal, Rene. “Vestals: The Only Female Priesthood in Rome .” Roman Religion and Mythology Short Articles on Divinities, Myths and Religious
Matters. (1999-2005) <http://sights.seindal.dk/sight/318_Vestals.html>
(18 December 2005).
Rene Seindal who has studied and mastered in history, Italian, and computer science at the University of Copenhagen , has created this website as a hobby to share with anyone. This website is mainly dedicated to the different photos that have been taken in an assortment of places in Italy and Denmark . It also gives broad information of different Roman places, objects, and people that lived in the Mythology eras. This site would be great for anyone who wants to learn and view by pictures about the Roman mythology, including the life of Vestals.
Scheid, John. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University press, 2003.
A respected author for Roman Religions, John Scheid is a professor at the College de France. An Introduction to Roman Religion gives an insight to Scheid idea of what the vital aspects of the Roman Religion. He has formed a variety of critical research of detailed ceremonies and customs of the many religions throughout the Roman History including the religious roles of vestal virgins. The translation, in which Janet Lloyd has been ably aided by Mary Beard, is beautifully clear. Janet Lloyd translates this great piece of useful source very comprehensible. This source can be great in any university and can also be used as a teaching tool because it covers the different custom and rituals that were performed in Roman history.
Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman
Religion. London : Routledge, 1998.
Ariadne Staples observes in From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins how females in Roman history were recognized by them alone and by men they interact with. Women played vital roles by participating in roman religious rituals publicly. From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins contends that the religious ceremonial and the responsibility acted out by the roman females were imperative in centralizing them sexually. He goes into further detail that these sexual categories mesh into other Roman culture that includes politics and culture. Staples gives a great analysis of Roman society and the women that stand independent through its history.
Worsfold, T. Cato. History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome. Kessinger Publishing, 1942.
This book, History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, by Cato Worsfold gives a great length of detail about the history of the Roman Vestal Virgins. He includes how they were formed and their importance in the Roman society. He goes into further detail about their rules and regulation and what would happen if they are broken; he mentions the symbol of their dress code and their life style. Lastly he explains the end of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman history. This is a great book for a student who is interested in learning an in depth biography of these specific women in history.
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Original written by Elena DiGrado, 2005
Last Revision: 18 December 2005
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