The institution of the vestal virgins is generally attributed to 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 and to preserve it and other sacred objects, such as the ashes of the 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 families. The 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.