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definitions - Vestal_virgin

vestal virgin (n.)

1.(Roman mythology) one of the virgin priestesses consecrated to the Roman goddess Vesta and to maintaining the sacred fire in her temple

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Vestal Virgin

                   
  Roman depiction of the Virgo Vestalis Maxima

In ancient Roman religion, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Vestales, singular Vestalis), were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being was regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. Hence the cultivation of the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children, and took a vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off-limits to the male colleges of priests.[1]

Contents

  History

Livy, Plutarch and Aulus Gellius attribute the creation of the Vestals as a state-supported priesthood to king Numa Pompilius, who reigned circa 717–673 BC. According to Livy, Numa introduced the Vestals and assigned them salaries from the public treasury. Livy also says that the priesthood of Vesta had its origins at Alba Longa.[2] The 2nd- century antiquarian Aulus Gellius writes that the first Vestal taken from her parents was led away in hand by Numa. Plutarch attributes the founding of the Temple of Vesta to Numa, who appointed at first two priestesses; Servius Tullius increased the number to four.[3] Ambrose alludes to a seventh in late antiquity.[4] Numa also appointed the pontifex maximus to watch over the Vestals. The first Vestals, according to Varro, were named Gegania,[5] Veneneia,[6] Canuleia,[7] and Tarpeia.[8] In myth, Tarpeia, daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, was portrayed as traitorous.

The Vestals became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, the Vestals interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon.[9] Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. The urban prefect Symmachus, who sought to maintain traditional Roman religion during the rise of Christianity, wrote:

The laws of our ancestors provided for the Vestal virgins and the ministers of the gods a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This gift was preserved inviolate till the time of the degenerate moneychangers, who diverted the maintenance of sacred chastity into a fund for the payment of base porters. A public famine ensued on this act, and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces... it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.[10]

The College of the Vestals was disbanded and the sacred fire extinguished in 394, by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius I. Zosimus records[11] how the Christian noblewoman Serena, niece of Theodosius, entered the temple and took from the statue of the goddess a necklace and placed it on her own neck. An old woman appeared, the last of the Vestals, who proceeded to rebuke Serena and called down upon her all just punishment for her act of impiety.[12] According to Zosimus, Serena was then subject to dreadful dreams predicting her own untimely death. Augustine would be inspired to write The City of God in response to murmurings that the capture of Rome and the disintegration of its empire was due to the advent of the Christian era and its intolerance of the old gods who had defended the city for over a thousand years.

The discovery of a "House of the Vestals" in Pompeii made the Vestals a popular subject in the 18th century and the 19th century.

  Vestalis Maxima

The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, "greatest of the Vestals") oversaw the efforts of the Vestals, and was present in the College of Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia in 380.

The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome's high priestesses. The Flaminica Dialis and the regina sacrorum each held unique responsibility for certain religious rites, but came into her office as part of a couple.

  Number of Vestals

At its foundation, the College of Vestals had only 4 members, and was enlarged to 6 sometime in its very early history. At its peak the College of Vestals consisted of 18 girls and women, though only the senior-most 6 were termed Vestals and were full priestesses; the junior 12 were child-novices and maiden acolytes. During the Republic and Empire, 3 new novices would be chosen every five years upon the retirement of the 3 senior Vestals; these novices were almost always prepubescent girls. Also, a new member of the college would be chosen whenever one of the other members died, and would serve out the deceased's term of service.

  Terms of service

The Vestals were committed to the priesthood before puberty (when 6–10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. These 30 years were divided in turn into decade-long periods during which Vestals were respectively students, servants, and teachers. Afterwards, they were retired and replaced by a new inductee. Once retired, a former Vestal was given a pension and allowed to marry.[13] The Pontifex Maximus, acting as the father of the bride, would typically arrange a marriage with a suitable Roman nobleman. A marriage to a former Vestal was highly honored, and – more importantly in ancient Rome – thought to bring good luck, as well as a comfortable pension.

  Selection

To obtain entry into the order, a girl had to be free of physical and mental defects, have two living parents and be a daughter of a free-born resident of Rome. From at least the mid-Republican era, the pontifex maximus chose Vestals between their sixth and tenth year, by lot from a group of twenty high-born candidates at a gathering of their families and other Roman citizens. Originally, the girl had to be of patrician birth, but membership was opened to plebeians as it became difficult to find patricians willing to commit their daughters to 30 years as a Vestal, and then ultimately even to the daughters of freedmen for the same reason. [14][15]

The choosing ceremony was known as a captio (capture). Once a girl was chosen to be a Vestal, the pontifex pointed to her and led her away from her parents with the words, "I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal 'on the best terms'" (thus, with all the entitlements of a Vestal). As soon as she entered the atrium of Vesta's temple, she was under the goddess's service and protection.[16]

To replace a Vestal who had died, candidates would be presented in the quarters of the chief Vestal for the selection of the most virtuous. Unlike normal inductees, these candidates did not have to be prepubescents, nor even virgins (they could be young widows or even divorcees, though that was frowned upon and thought unlucky), though they were rarely older than the deceased Vestal they were replacing. Tacitus (Annals ii.30,86) recounts how Gaius Fonteius Agrippa and Domitius Pollio offered their daughters as Vestal candidates in AD 19 to fill such a vacant position. Equally matched, Pollio's daughter was chosen only because Agrippa had been recently divorced. The pontifex maximus (Tiberius) "consoled" the failed candidate with a dowry of 1 million sesterces.

  Tasks

  House of the Vestals and Temple of Vesta from the Palatine

Their tasks included the maintenance of the fire sacred to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home, collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple's sanctuary.[17] By maintaining Vesta's sacred fire, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned as "surrogate housekeepers", in a religious sense, for all of Rome. Their sacred fire was treated, in Imperial times, as the emperor's household fire.

The Vestals were put in charge of keeping safe the wills and testaments of various people such as Caesar and Mark Antony. In addition, the Vestals also guarded some sacred objects, including the Palladium, and made a special kind of flour called mola salsa which was sprinkled on all public offerings to a god.

  Privileges

The dignities accorded to the Vestals were significant.

  • in an era when religion was rich in pageantry, the presence of the College of Vestal Virgins was required in numerous public ceremonies and wherever they went, they were transported in a carpentum, a covered two-wheeled carriage, preceded by a lictor, and had the right-of-way;
  • at public games and performances they had a reserved place of honor;
  • unlike most Roman women, they were not subject to the patria potestas and so were free to own property, make a will, and vote;
  • they gave evidence without the customary oath, their word being trusted without question;
  • they were, on account of their incorruptible character, entrusted with important wills and state documents, like public treaties;
  • their person was sacrosanct: death was the penalty for injuring their person and their escorts protected anyone from assault;
  • they could free condemned prisoners and slaves by touching them – if a person who was sentenced to death saw a Vestal on his way to the execution, he was automatically pardoned.
  • they participated in throwing the ritual straw figures called Argei into the Tiber on May 15.[18][19]

  Punishments

  Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini

Allowing the sacred fire of Vesta to die out, suggesting that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, was a serious offence and was punishable by scourging.[20] The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium, they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incest and an act of treason.[21] The punishment for violating the oath of celibacy was to be buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus or "Evil Field" (an underground chamber near the Colline Gate) with a few days of food and water.

Ancient tradition required that an unchaste Vestal be buried alive within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law that no person might be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans buried the offending priestess with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions, not to prolong her punishment, but so that the Vestal would not technically die in the city, but instead descend into a "habitable room". Moreover, she would die willingly.[citation needed] Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare.[22] The Vestal Tuccia was accused of fornication, but she carried water in a sieve to prove her chastity.

O Vesta, if I have always brought pure hands to your secret services, make it so now that with this sieve I shall be able to draw water from the Tiber and bring it to Your temple.[23]

Because a Vestal's virginity was thought to be directly correlated to the sacred burning of the fire, if the fire were extinguished it might be assumed that either the Vestal had acted wrongly or that the vestal had simply neglected her duties. The final decision was the responsibility of the Pontifex Maximus, or the head of the pontifical college, as opposed to a judicial body. While the Order of the Vestals was in existence for over one thousand years there are only ten recorded convictions for unchastity and these trials all took place at times of political crisis for the Roman state. It has been suggested[21] that Vestals were used as scapegoats[24] in times of great crisis.

The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were said to have been whipped to death for having sex.[citation needed] The Roman king Tarquinius Priscus instituted the punishment of live burial, which he inflicted on the priestess Pinaria. But whipping with rods sometimes preceded the immuration as was done to Urbinia in 471 BC.[citation needed]

Suspicions first arose against Minucia through an improper love of dress and the evidence of a slave. She was found guilty of unchastity and buried alive.[25] Similarly Postumia, who though innocent according to Livy[26] was tried for unchastity with suspicions being aroused through her immodest attire and less than maidenly manner. Postumia was sternly warned "to leave her sports, taunts and merry conceits." Aemilia, Licinia, and Martia were executed after being denounced by the servant of a barbarian horseman. A few Vestals were acquitted. Some cleared themselves through ordeals.[27] The paramour of a guilty Vestal was whipped to death in the Forum Boarium or on the Comitium.[28]

  House of the Vestals

  A reconstruction of the House of the Vestals by Christian Huelsen (1905)

The House of the Vestals was the residence of the vestal priestesses in Rome. Behind the Temple of Vesta (which housed the sacred fire), the Atrium Vestiae was a three-story building at the foot of the Palatine Hill.

  Vestal festivals

The chief festivals of Vesta were the Vestalia celebrated June 7 until June 15. On June 7 only, her sanctuary (which normally no one except her priestesses the Vestals entered) was accessible to mothers of families who brought plates of food. The simple ceremonies were officiated by the Vestals and they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the festival. This was the only time when they themselves made the mola salsa, for this was the holiest time for Vesta, and it had to be made perfectly and correctly, as it was used in all public sacrifices.

  Clothing

The main articles of their clothing consisted of an infula, a suffibulum and a palla. The infula was a fillet, which was worn by priests and other religious figures in Rome. A vestal's infula was white and made from wool. The suffibulum was the white woolen veil which was worn during rituals and sacrifices. Usually found underneath were red and white woolen ribbons, symbolizing the Vestal's commitment to keeping the fire of Vesta and to her vow of purity, respectively. The palla was the long, simple shawl, a typical article of clothing for Roman women. The palla, and its pin, were draped over the left shoulder.

  List of Vestals

  Legendary Vestals

  • Rhea Silvia, the mythical mother of Rome's founders, Romulus and Remus.
  • Aemilia, who, when the sacred fire was extinguished on one occasion, prayed to Vesta for assistance, and miraculously rekindled it by throwing a piece of her garment upon the extinct embers.[29]

  Vestals in the Republic

  • Aemilia (d. 114 BC), Marcia (d. 114 BC), and Licinia (d. 114 - 113 BC), accused of multiple acts of incestum (violations of their vows of chastity). Aemilia, who had supposedly led the two others to follow her example, was condemned outright. Marcia, who was accused of only one offence, and Licinia, who was accused of many, were at first acquitted by the pontifices, but were retried by the praetor and jurist Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla (consul 127 BC), and condemned to death.[30] The prosecution offered two Sibylline prophecies in support of the final verdicts. The charges were almost certainly trumped up, and may have been politically motivated.[31]
  • Fonteia, served ca. 91–69 BC, recorded as a Vestal during the trial of her brother in 69 BC, but she would have begun her service before her father's death in 91.[32]
  • Fabia, chief Vestal (b ca 98–97 BC; fl. 50 BC), admitted to the order in 80 BC, half-sister of Terentia (Cicero's first wife), and a wife of Dolabella who later married her niece Tullia; she was probably mother of the later consul of that name.[33] In 73BC she was acquitted of incestum with Lucius Sergius Catilina.[34]
  • Licinia (flourished 1st century BC), who was supposedly courted by her kinsman, the so-called "triumvir" Marcus Licinius Crassus, who in fact wanted her property. This relationship gave rise to rumors. Plutarch says: "And yet when he was further on in years, he was accused of criminal intimacy with Licinia, one of the Vestal virgins and Licinia was formally prosecuted by a certain Plotius. Now Licinia was the owner of a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her, until he fell under the abominable suspicion. And in a way it was his avarice that absolved him from the charge of corrupting the Vestal, and he was acquitted by the judges. But he did not let Licinia go until he had acquired her property."[35] Licinia became a Vestal in 85 BC and remained a Vestal until 61 BC.

  Imperial Vestals

  Vestals in Western art

  References

  1. ^ For an extensive modern consideration of the Vestals, see Ariadne Staples, From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion (Routledge, 1998).
  2. ^ Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1:20
  3. ^ "Life of Numa Pompilius" 9.5–10.
  4. ^ "Letter to Emperor Valentianus", Letter #18, Ambrose
  5. ^ Pronounced /ɨˈɡniə/ ji-GAY-nee-ə
  6. ^ /vɛnɨˈnə/ ven-i-NEE
  7. ^ /kænˈlə/ kan-ew-LEE
  8. ^ /tɑrˈpə/ tar-PEE
  9. ^ Suetonius, "Julius Caesar", 1.2
  10. ^ "The Letters of Ambrose", The Memorial of Symmachus
  11. ^ "The New History", 5:38, Zosimus
  12. ^ "The Curse of the Last Vestal", Melissa Barden Dowling, Biblical Archaeology Society, Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2001 4:01.
  13. ^ "Life of Numa Pompilius", Plutarch, 9.5–10, 2nd century A.D
  14. ^ "Vestal Virgins", Encyclopædia Britannica, Ultimate Reference DVD, 2003.
  15. ^ Kroppenberg, Inge, "Law, Religion and Constitution of the Vestal Virgins," Law and Literature, 22, 3, 2010, pp. 426 - 7. The earlier, stricter selection rules were determined by the Papian Law of the 3rd Century BC; they were waived as suitable high-born candidates became hard to find. [1]
  16. ^ "Vestal Virgins", Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12.STOA.org
  17. ^ "Vestal Virgins", Encyclopædia Britannica, Ultimate Reference Suite, 2003.
  18. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, i.19, 38. Penelope.uchicago.edu
  19. ^ William Smith, "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities", John Murray, London, 1875. Penelope.uchicago.edu
  20. ^ "Vesta", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 Edition
  21. ^ a b "Vestal Virgins – Chaste Keepers of the Flame", Melissa Barden Dowling, Biblical Archaeological Society, Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2001 4:01.
  22. ^ "Vesta", Encyclopædia Britannica 1911 Edition
  23. ^ Vestal Virgin Tuccia in Valerius Maximus 8.1.5 absol.
  24. ^ Since the health of city was perceived in some way to be linked to the purity and spiritual health of the vestals suspicions may have been fuelled in times of trouble. The allusions to a possible scapegoat could have been reinforced by the Vestals throwing Argei into the Tiber each year on May 15. cf. "Religion of Ancient Rome", C.C Martindale, Studies in Comparative Religion, CTS, Vol 2, 14:7
  25. ^ "History of Rome", Book 8.15, Livy
  26. ^ "History of Rome", Book 4.44, Livy
  27. ^ "Patria Potestas". www.suppressedhistories.net. http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secret_history/patriapotestas.html. Retrieved 2010-01-27. 
  28. ^ Howatson M. C.: Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-19-866121-5
  29. ^ Dionysus of Halicarnassus, book II, 68, 3: Loeb edition available at Thayer, chicago.edu: Valerius Maximus, I. 1. §7
  30. ^ Wildfang, Robin Lorsch, Rome's vestal virgins: a study of Rome's vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2007, p. 93ff [2]
  31. ^ Phyllis Cunham, in Harriet Flower (ed), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.155.googlebooks partial preview. The accusations against Licinia included fraternal incest. She was a contemporary and possible political ally of the Gracchi brothers. In 123 BC the Roman Senate had annulled her attempted rededication of Bona Dea's Aventine Temple as illegal and "against the will of the people". She may have fallen victim to the factional politics of the times.
  32. ^ Cicero, Pro Fonteio 46–49; Aulus Gellius 1.12.2; T.R.S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic (American Philological Association, 1952), vol. 2, pp. 24–25.
  33. ^ Wildfang, Robin Lorsch, Rome's vestal virgins: a study of Rome's vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2007, p. 96, preview via google books
  34. ^ Lewis, R. G., "Catalina and the Vestal", The Classical Quarterly, 51.1, pp. 141 - 9 (2001) link to JSTOR The case was prosecuted by Cicero.
  35. ^ Plutarch, Life of Crassus

  Further reading

  • Kroppenberg, Inge, "Law, Religion and Constitution of the Vestal Virgins," Law and Literature, 22, 3, 2010, pp. 418 – 439. [3]
  • Peck, Harry Thurston, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
  • Parker, Holt N. "Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State", American Journal of Philology, Vol. 125, No. 4. (2004), pp. 563–601.
  • Samuel Ball Platner and Thomas Ashby, A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome
  • Wildfang, Robin Lorsch. Rome's Vestal Virgins. Oxford: Routledge, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-415-39795-2; paperback, ISBN 0-415-39796-0).

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