The institution of the vestal virgins is generally
Numa. The duty of the
vestal virgins was to keep the sacred fire that burned on
the altar of Vesta from being extinguished and to preserve a
certain sacred pledge on which the safety and the very
existence of Rome was supposed to depend. The Romans
believed that for how ever long the flame would burn then
Rome would endure.
The Role of the Vestal Virgins
The role of the Vestal
Virgins was steeped in ceremony and ancient traditions but
their main duty was to maintain the sacred fire of Vesta. In
addition to the care of the fire the Vestals had a part in
most of the festivals of the old calendar. The Vestals were
therefore involved in all ceremonies performed for the
common welfare of the city of Rome. Other duties were to
make the salt cake (mola salsa) to be used at the year's festivals
preserve it and other sacred objects, such as the ashes of
Fordicidia in the storehouse of Vesta.
Ceremonies involving the Vestal Virgins
As previously stated the
Vestal Virgins were involved in all ceremonies performed for
the common welfare of the city of Rome. The Fordicidia was a
festival in which a sacrifice of pregnant cows was made. The
calves they were bearing were then burnt by the chief Vestal
Virgin and the ashes preserved. These ashes were mixed with
the blood of a horse sacrificed in an October festival and
were later burnt in a public purification ceremony during
the festival called Palilia. The ashes and blood were burnt
in order to produce this purifying smoke. Palilia was a
Roman religious festival related to the foundation of Rome.
The Sacred Fire of Vesta
Maintaining the sacred fire
of Vesta was of major importance and this tradition dated
back to the importance of fire, and its maintenance, in
primitive communities. To light a fire then had been a time
consuming and difficult business of rubbing wood on wood.
The much quicker process of striking flint on steel to get
the precious spark was a later invention. However, the
modern invention of flint and steel was never used to
rekindle the sacred fire. Ritual demanded the use of
friction to rekindle the sacred fire.
The Position of the Vestal Virgins
Great honor and respect was
given to the Vestals together with great privileges. The magistrates were obliged to salute them as they passed
and the fasces of the consul were lowered to do them
reverence. Any person found to have caused insult were
subjected to dire punishment. Vestals were seen as sacred
and as as models of moral behavior. Their appearances in
public were surrounded with pomp and ceremony. The Vestals
travelled in magnificent chariots which was drawn by white
horses and followed by a large retinue of female slaves.
They were always accompanied by lictors (bodyguards). They
were allowed to enjoy the gladiatorial games at the Roman
Colosseum and were allocated their own prominent box
opposite to that of the Roman emperor. If they met a
prisoner going to punishment they had the power to remit
his sentence. Vestal Virgins also possessed the exclusive privilege of being buried
within the city of Rome an honour which was rarely extended.
The Rules that Governed
the Vestal Virgins
The number of the vestal virgins totalled 18 at any one time
- six were novices, six were practising priestesses and six
were tutors. Vestals were admitted as children between the years of six and ten.
These novices were selected from only the best Patrician
chief rules prescribed by their founder, were to vow the
strictest chastity for the space of thirty years. For the first
ten years they were only novices, being obliged to learn the
ceremonies and perfect themselves in the duties of their
religion. For the next ten years they discharged the duties of
the priestesses of the goddess Vesta. The remaining ten
years were spent in instructing
others. At the end of her service a Vestal might return to
private life or even marry - she was free from the dominance
of any male relatives.
The Penalty for Breaking
the Vow of Virginity
If a Vestal Virgin broke
her vow of virginity, she were buried alive
in a place outside the city walls which was allotted for that purpose.
The terror of such a terrible fate had the desired effect as
there were only eighteen instances of vestals breaking their
vow of chastity during the space of one thousand years.