Scandals and scapegoats: Vestals who touched the fire

Women who walk with the fire goddess are going to connect at times with her wild, passionate side, and my research has found at least 20 Vestals hauled before the courts for misbehaviour, most commonly taking lovers: a crime punishable by death.

The priestesses of Vesta, or the Vestal Virgins, took a vow of chastity enforced for 30 years of mandatory service from her age of entry at 6-10 years old, through adolescence and the height of her sexuality to the age of 36-40 when she had the first choice to leave.

At least eight priestesses were executed for ‘inchastity’ during the Republic, between 483BC and 73BC. As archaeology and historical record indicates occupation of the Temple of Vesta from as early as 600BC and as late as 385AD – almost 1000 years – it’s likely there were more. However it’s likely not all were guilty and that several were made scapegoats by those in power.

The story of the three women on whom Fire and Sacrifice is based, appears to be such a case.

The records are so ancient that there’s not enough information left to know for sure in any case.  It’s tantalising the think of the stories behind those who strayed for love, lust, rebellion, or some other secret, and the tragedies of those falsely accused.

vc-1-3Sacrifices

The Vestal’s unique position and harsh, pre-determined punishments made them convenient targets for quick retribution, especially at times when the populace was already nervous and looking to appease their gods to gain peace of mind.

Disease epidemics, drought, natural disasters, military defeat or invasion could all convince the superstitious Romans that the gods were displeased.

A sacrifice of a priestess could offer a quick fix that also shifted blame from the rulers of the day.

Scapegoats

Well before it was an empire, Rome was pushing into new territories, bent on expansion and dominance of trade routes at the very least.

Even before they had a professional military, they were good at what they did and on the whole they expected to win. Losses in battle rocked the populace.

It was a bad look for a military leader to lose. Worse still, the heads of the military were also the heads of state. In the Republic this was the two consuls. Later it was the emperor. Far better politically, and for one’s career, for the blame to lay with the gods’ choices rather than your own.

The blame was often therefore laid at the feet of those tasked with keeping the gods in favour: the priests and priestesses.

Domestic goddesses

The Vestals kept the sacred flame that represented the hearth fire of Rome. Just like the hearth provides the warmth, food and security for a camp or home, the hearth of Vesta embodied the security of the Roman realm.

When the realm’s protectors – its soldiers – were threatened or crushed, so too was the whole Roman sense of security, and eyes naturally turned to the Vestals and their goddess, among the religious powers.

Ruling classes

Being of the aristocratic families may also have worked against the priestesses at times.

Particularly in the years of the Republic, when Rome was ruled by a senate rather than an emperor, the senate was dominated by a set of ‘old families’ who traced their ancestry to the original tribes and were by now the wealthy elite. Vestals were of these aristocratic families by law in the early days, and were commonly so thereafter.

While becoming a Vestal removed a woman from her family and her father’s traditional rule, a Vestal in the family would have brought prestige and the girls may well have been considered the family’s pride and joy.

They may have been cases when an accusation against a Vestal conveniently discredited a ruling family’s name.

There are also cases, including that of Aemilia, Licinia and Marcia in Fire and Sacrifice where it’s thought by some that the girls were nominated by rival families in a bid to take them off the marriage circuit, thus robbing their own family of the opportunity to marry them into a profitable alliance.

Take the quiz to see what kind of priestess you might have been. How would you have coped?

The ultimate punishment

The ultimate punishment should a Vestal be condemned for her crime, was death by live burial.

Some were acquitted at trial. A small few were reportedly able to absolve themselves by invoking their goddess and performing a small miracle such as spontaneously reigniting the fire, raising a grounded ship, or carrying water in a sieve.

Several were killed.

The reasoning behind live burial is not confirmed but seems to solve the problem of killing a Vestal without marking or defiling her body, which was against the rules. It is also plausible that she was buried rather than, for example, sacrificed by being thrown in the Tiber River which was another Roman practice, because Vesta was considered a goddess of the earth, her hearth representative also of the warm core of the earth itself.

“It is the pontiffs who by law both inquire into and punish these offenses; those Vestals who are guilty of lesser misdemeanours they scourge with rods, but those who have suffered defilement they deliver up to the most shameful and the most miserable death. For while they are not yet alive they are carried upon a bier with all the formality of a funeral, with their friends and relations attending them with lamentations, and after being brought as far as the Colline Gate, they are placed in an underground cell prepared within the walls, clad in their funeral attire; but they are not given a monument or funeral rites or any other customary solemnities.”

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, Book II (c7BC) with an English translation by Ernest Cary, PhD of the basis of the version of Edward Spelman, London, 1937

The men accused of being their lovers are reported to also have been severely beaten or executed.

There was a need to appease the Roman gods, which were fickle, often brutal beings when displeased.

A tragic list

The following are just some of the mentions I found in my research of Vestals who ran into trouble.

  • Pinaria, convicted of incestum and put to death, date unknown, under the rule of early King Tarquinius Priscus
  • Oppia (or Opimia, Pompilia or Popillia) convicted of incestum and put to death, 483BC
  • Orbinia convicted of incestum, apparently because of a plague to which women were particularly vulnerable, 472BC
  • Postumia accused of incestum, under suspicion because of her “too elegant dress and a manner freer than was suitable for a virgin” (Livy), acquitted, 420BC
  • Minucia suspected because of her worldly appearance, convicted and buried alive, 337BC
  • Sextilia convicted of incestum, 274/273BC
  • Caparronia convicted of incestum but hanged herself before she could be buried alive, 266BC
  • Tuccia accused of incestum but proved her innocence by carrying water in a sieve from the Tiber to the Roman Forum, c.230BC
  • Aemilia accused of incestum but proved her innocence by laying her garment on the sacred hearth fire and miraculously re-igniting it from the dead ashes, early Republic, date unknown
  • Opimia and Florinia convicted of incestum (shortly after a military disaster at Cannae). One was buried alive at the Colline Gate, the other committed suicide, 216BC
  • Marcia, Licinia and Aemilia all accused of incestum. Aemilia condemned to death, Marcia and Licinia acquitted but retried and condemned early the following year, 114BC
  • Fabia accused of an affair, acquitted, 73BC
  • Licinia accused of an affair with her cousin M. Licinius Crassus (later consul), acquitted as Crassus proved he was only buying property from her, 73BC
  • Varronilla, Cornelia and two sisters, date unknown, under emporer Domitian. Cornelia was buried alive. The other three were allowed to choose their own punishment, which is unspecified in my reference.