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.
Thisfunction continued through the imperial period, when Cicero himself proclaimed, “Whatis done by the Vestal Virgins is done for the Roma people.”
As part of their duties, theVestals were bound to 30 years of service—virginity, tending to the central
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
“a loss of virginity during a Vestal’s period of service…a crimeviewed as a particularly dire threat to the Roman state.”
Resulting in live internment for the Vestal,
was recorded in only 22 cases during the 1000+ years of Vestalexistence. However, even in light of this fact, the noted somberness and silence
The History of Rome, Books 1-5,
Transl. Valerie M. Warrior (Indianapolis/Cambridge: HackettPublishing Company, 2006), p. 31.
De Haruspicum Responso
17.37 in Wildfang, “Rome’s Vestal Virgins,” p.31.
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.