The Precarious Fates of Rome’s Vestal Virgins

The Precarious Fates of Rome’s Vestal Virgins

The Precarious Fates of Rome’s Vestal Virgins

The fate of Rome depended upon the chastity of the Vestal virgins and their transgressions could lead to live entombment.  In the first century BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest and most powerful Roman citizens, nearly lost his money, reputation and even his life when he was accused of being too intimate with a Vestal virgin named Licinia. It was only when Crassus was brought to trial that his true motives emerged. It appeared that Licinia, his cousin, was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to acquire for himself at a low price. It was for this reason that Crassus was courting Licinia. It was this very reason that saved both Crassus and Licinia, as he was promptly acquitted when it became clear that Crassus’ wooing of the Vestal was motivated, not by lust, but by greed. Licinia, who might not have been too impressed with Crassus’ motive, was saved from the fate of being entombed alive in the Campus Sceleratus (Field of Transgression), a Vestal’s punishment for violating her oath of celibacy.

The guardian of the Vesta flame by Louis Hector Leroux (1879) (Public Domain)

The Silent Virgins

The poet Horace (65 - 8 BC) declared that Rome would stand, “as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitoline beside the silent Virgin.” The ‘silent Virgin’ that Horace was referring to was a Vestal virgin, a priestess of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. As the primary role of the Vestal virgins was a public cult as well as an embodiment of the city and citizenry, the well-being of the College of the Vestals was regarded as fundamental to the well-being and security of Rome. Committed to the priestesshood before puberty and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years, the Vestals were also put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of the most powerful people in Rome such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Therefore, it was not surprising that the Vestals became a powerful force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, it was the Vestals who interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon. In a less practical sphere, the Vestals were even attributed certain magical powers. In book 28 of his Natural History, Pliny the Elder says that “… it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the city.”

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