Women of Fire: The Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome

The Vestal Virgins were women of fire in every sense.

Not only was a Vestal a priestess of the goddess of the hearth fire, Vesta, she was protectress of Rome, political powerhouse, A-list woman of the city, untouchable, more independent than any other Roman woman, and had the strength of character to withstand a lifetime of strict chastity with the constant threat of punishment by death.

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, among other things, and the Temple of Vesta housed a perpetual fire that was the symbolic sacred hearth fire of Rome. To the Romans the health of the fire represented the health of Rome. Their lives and future depended on it.

The temple and its fire operated continually for around 1000 years from 600BC or earlier to around 450AD, enduring waves of dramatic change as Rome moved from early kingship to republic then empire, and the religious landscape became ever more fluid with introductions of new cults from the reaches of the Roman realm, and finally Christianity.

The remains of the Temple of Vesta can still be seen in the Roman Forum today: a modest, round temple modeled, or indeed morphed from, a hut that would have protected the early tribes’ essential camp fire.

The Vestals were unique among Rome’s priests and women.

Six priestesses were in service at any given time, each selected into the temple as a child and forced to serve for 30 years, remaining a virgin (by punishment of death). Only at the age of around 35-40 did they have the choice to leave the order, which by ancient Roman life expectancy effectively robbed them of motherhood, and often marriage too.

The celebrity A-list

These were women of the city; A-list celebrities, beloved and closely watched by the populace. In a man’s world of housebound wives, the Vestals had premium seats at all the games, and invitations to the top events. In the times of the flamboyant emperors, they sat with the emperor and were granted greater and greater privilege and prestige.

To top it off, as physical perfection was a rule of entry to the order, we can imagine many of the priestesses to have been quite beautiful.

Living in the Roman Forum they were visible smack in the main street of Roman political and social life; a bustling hub of people from all walks of life (and their animals!), and through-fare to the senate house, where the populace could celebrity-watch and the rulers could keep check.

Power and wealth

The Vestals were wealthy, too. Though they couldn’t show it in dress (one could not be seen to revel in one’s attractiveness) but they owned various properties and were the only Roman women who could write their own wills.

Until a law change in the mid fourth century the Vestals were chosen only from aristocratic families, and many Vestals continued to come from aristocratic families afterward.

Particularly in the years of the Republic, when Rome was ruled by a senate rather than an emperor, the city was ruled by a set of ‘old families’ who traced their ancestry to the original tribes and were by now the wealthy elite.

The Aemilia of Fire and Sacrifice is of the aristocratic Aemilii clan, who funded the Basillica Aemilia which can still be seen in the Roman Forum today, the Republican Emporium or large warehouse area where sea trade flourished, the Aemilian Bridge, roads and more that remain in modern Rome’s geography and vocabulary.

In a city where political and religious powers were inextricably entwined, an aristocratic priestess held a powerful position. As a celebrity with top level connections potentially gave her sway over issues should she choose to voice herself, which they increasingly did into the years of the empire.

The downside is that this also made them convenient political skapegoats. Check out my next blog on that, and the list of Vestals condemned over time.

The Vestals were also the only Roman women released from the control of their fathers, who for others controlled everything from money to choice of husband.

Take the quiz to discover what kind of priestess of fire you might have been.

Untouchable, literally

Among priests, to my knowledge, the Vestals were the only all-female order and the only order that served their temple solely, full-time, including living in the Forum.

They were literally untouchable. Legend has it that the touch of a Vestal Virgin would free a condemned prisoner. Their bodies could not be defiled in any way and their blood not spilled, which would make for a very careful existence. What if you cut yourself and the people saw?

It’s why their punishment for breaking vows was to be buried alive. It was the only way to execute a Vestal without marking her body.

A high price paid

If she survived her 30 years of service, a Vestal had to find a way to live with the high price paid. Remember it was not a choice, usually, to join. The poor girl would have been only 6-10 years old. She was certainly robbed of the opportunity to bear children. For many they also missed out on marriage. The Vestals’ unique all-white ‘uniform’ with braided hair was symbolic of the traditional dress of Roman brides and therefore their marriage to the temple.

How as a woman do you reconcile this? Do you throw yourself into your ‘work’ in the temple? Do you convince yourself your role is worth it? Do you rally against it, and then what?

Legend has it that many priestesses chose to stay in the order even once their mandatory service ended, for want of other options or to avoid the prospect of marriage to men interested only in their virginal prestige and wealth.

The real women and the details of their lives remain a mystery in time; there’s a lot we don’t definitively know about them. There are tantalising pieces of information provided by various historians of the ancient world, from which we can piece together a picture; but we must remember that many were not writing about their own time, some seem to apply their own biases or agendas, and they are all men, who would not have had access to the intimate details of an all-female household and were not permitted to enter the Temple.

It’s fascinating to imagine the secret lives of a close-knit group of women who literally grew up together, lived together as a kind of family, and would have relied heavily on each other and their goddess to thrive in the unique world thrust upon them.