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Vestal Virgins Paper Draft

Vestal Virgins Paper Draft

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Published by: kathleen on Jan 21, 2010
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11/24/2012

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Vestal Virgins:
Crimen Incesti 
or Political Ploy?
Of all the priestesses and female cults which operated within ancient Rome, theVestal Virgins alone were viewed as an ultimately central entity, one whose chastity andlegality determined Rome’s very survival. Formed in 715 B.C. under King Numa, thecult of Vesta managed to withstand over 1000 years, three types of rule (kingship,republic, empire), and two official religions (polytheism and Christianity). Realizing“that in a warlike nation there would be more kings like Romulus than like himself, andthat they would go off to war,” King Numa established the Vestal Virgins as a home front protection mechanism which would ensure the security and survival of the Romaninterior state when times of war required them to attend to external matters.
1
Thisfunction continued through the imperial period, when Cicero himself proclaimed, “Whatis done by the Vestal Virgins is done for the Roma people.”
2
As part of their duties, theVestals were bound to 30 years of service—virginity, tending to the central
 penus
of the
aedes Vestae,
 performing public rituals, etc.—and if they failed to accomplish any of their duties, the consequences were severe. In addition to punishments like nakedwhippings at the hands of the Pontifex Maximus which the Vestals received for smaller offenses, the Vestals were also subjected to a dramatic death ritual if they were foundguilty of 
crimen incesti,
“a loss of virginity during a Vestal’s period of service…a crimeviewed as a particularly dire threat to the Roman state.”
3
Resulting in live internment for the Vestal,
crimen incesti
was recorded in only 22 cases during the 1000+ years of Vestalexistence. However, even in light of this fact, the noted somberness and silence
1
Livy,
The History of Rome, Books 1-5,
Transl. Valerie M. Warrior (Indianapolis/Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company, 2006), p. 31.
2
Cicero,
 De Haruspicum Responso
17.37 in Wildfang, “Rome’s Vestal Virgins,” p.31.
3
 
Robin Lorsch Wildfang,
 Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in The late Republicand early Empire
(London: Routledge, 2006), p. 51.Cato Worsfold,
The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome
(London: Rider & Co., 1934), p. 60.
1
 
surrounding Vestal deaths remained
very
different from other gory, celebrated deaths likegladiatorial games. The heavy silence which underscored the live interment of a Vestalreflected a culture-wide unchallenging acceptance of the punishment. In fact, historianshave long noticed that the ancient Roman primary sources omit any substantivediscussion of the validity of the ruthless Vestal punishment. “Nobody asked why it was just these six women and no others who were so cruelly put to death if they weresuspected of losing their virginity. Nobody asked, because everybody knew the answer:the Vestals were different.”
4
Why were they different and why did the punishment for Vestal
crimen incesti
remain appropriate despite (or even because of) its severity?Considering their fecund patron goddess, historical purpose, detailed selectionrequirements, and public ritual participation, the Vestal Virgins served an essential political function in addition to their religious role. Consequently, when the Roman statesuffered
extreme
political instability, the religious cult of Vesta often served as thescapegoat for politicians and emperors who utilized live internment
 
in order to reassurethe public that Rome’s religious traditions and political heart would always be protected.As part of a public cult, the six women selected to serve as Vestal virginsoccupied an immensely visible role in Roman politics. Nevertheless, while Romanauthorities
were
“concerned with the organization of public cult and religious authority because these things were intimately bound up with the fundamental power structures of society,” it was other, more symbolic factors which really made the cult of Vesta moreimportant than all the others.
5
According to both Aristotle and the overall Graeco-Romantradition, the household and hearth were the basic building block of the city-state; “both
4
Ariadne Staples,
 From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion
(Londonand New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 132.
5
James B. Rives,
 Religion in the Roman Empire
(Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 85.
2
 
were part of the ‘natural’ structuring of human society.”
6
Similarly, this cult whichworshipped the goddess of the hearth, Vesta, attained a level of state worship higher thanothers. In addition to residing in the
aedes Vestae
in the Forum (the heart of the entireRoman world) and publicly participating in at least nine annual state rites, the VestalVirgins dealt with other public exposure, including accusations, trials, and liveinternments following
crimen incesti
convictions
.
7
Among the public servants, Vestalsalone faced immediate trial, public ignominy, and live internment.Of all Roman officials, only a Vestal was suspended from her duties onthe slightest suspicion of wrongdoing, and only she faced a judicialinquiry by the full Pontifical College. Of all Roman women accused of sexual misdeeds, only a Vestal faced such a court or such public proceedings. Of all Romans, only a Vestal seemingly faced a trial with solittle possibility of defending herself.
8
 While other crimes could be atoned,
crimen incesti
was seen as an ordinary and voluntaryaffront to the life spring goddess Vesta herself in addition to threatening the Romanstate’s traditional security. Consequently, while there are numerous debates regardingthe actual meaning of the live internment of unchaste Vestals, the live burial is typicallythought to connote a physical atonement or offering to an offended Vesta, goddess of theearth, underworld, and hearth.
9
In addition to the goddess-worship aspect of the Vestallive internment, there remained the Vestals’ more observable role as guardians of Rome’ssymbolic storehouse. According to Plutarch, these priestesses were the only Romansallowed within the
 penus
of the
aedes Vestae,
and therefore, they alone knew the exactnature of those objects preserved within Rome’s central storeroom. “What was importantwas not so much the precise contents of the
 penus
as the fact that the Vestals alone had
6
Rives, p. 119.
7
Wildfang, p. 22.
8
Ibid., p. 56.
9
Ibid., p. 59.
3

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Live internment--how gruesome and barbaric, even more so than stoning women to death in the public square for adultery...except that THAT one's still practiced today in certain parts of the world. Oh, the totemic value of feminine purity.
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