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Vestal Virgins: Crimen Incesti or Political Ploy?

Of all the priestesses and female cults which operated within ancient Rome, the

Vestal Virgins alone were viewed as an ultimately central entity, one whose chastity and

legality determined Rome’s very survival. Formed in 715 B.C. under King Numa, the

cult 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, and

that 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 Roman

interior state when times of war required them to attend to external matters.1 This

function continued through the imperial period, when Cicero himself proclaimed, “What

is done by the Vestal Virgins is done for the Roma people.”2 As part of their duties, the

Vestals 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 naked

whippings 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 found

guilty of crimen incesti, “a loss of virginity during a Vestal’s period of service…a crime

viewed 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 Vestal

existence. However, even in light of this fact, the noted somberness and silence
Livy, The History of Rome, Books 1-5, Transl. Valerie M. Warrior (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett
Publishing Company, 2006), p. 31.
Cicero, 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 Republic
and early Empire (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 51.
Cato Worsfold, The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome (London: Rider & Co., 1934), p. 60.

surrounding Vestal deaths remained very different from other gory, celebrated deaths like

gladiatorial games. The heavy silence which underscored the live interment of a Vestal

reflected a culture-wide unchallenging acceptance of the punishment. In fact, historians

have long noticed that the ancient Roman primary sources omit any substantive

discussion 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 were

suspected 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 selection

requirements, and public ritual participation, the Vestal Virgins served an essential

political function in addition to their religious role. Consequently, when the Roman state

suffered extreme political instability, the religious cult of Vesta often served as the

scapegoat for politicians and emperors who utilized live internment in order to reassure

the 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 virgins

occupied an immensely visible role in Roman politics. Nevertheless, while Roman

authorities 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 more

important than all the others.5 According to both Aristotle and the overall Graeco-Roman

tradition, the household and hearth were the basic building block of the city-state; “both

Ariadne Staples, From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion (London
and New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 132.
James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 85.

were part of the ‘natural’ structuring of human society.”6 Similarly, this cult which

worshipped the goddess of the hearth, Vesta, attained a level of state worship higher than

others. In addition to residing in the aedes Vestae in the Forum (the heart of the entire

Roman world) and publicly participating in at least nine annual state rites, the Vestal

Virgins dealt with other public exposure, including accusations, trials, and live

internments following crimen incesti convictions.7 Among the public servants, Vestals

alone faced immediate trial, public ignominy, and live internment.

Of all Roman officials, only a Vestal was suspended from her duties on
the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing, and only she faced a judicial
inquiry 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 so
little possibility of defending herself.8

While other crimes could be atoned, crimen incesti was seen as an ordinary and voluntary

affront to the life spring goddess Vesta herself in addition to threatening the Roman

state’s traditional security. Consequently, while there are numerous debates regarding

the actual meaning of the live internment of unchaste Vestals, the live burial is typically

thought to connote a physical atonement or offering to an offended Vesta, goddess of the

earth, underworld, and hearth.9 In addition to the goddess-worship aspect of the Vestal

live internment, there remained the Vestals’ more observable role as guardians of Rome’s

symbolic storehouse. According to Plutarch, these priestesses were the only Romans

allowed within the penus of the aedes Vestae, and therefore, they alone knew the exact

nature of those objects preserved within Rome’s central storeroom. “What was important

was not so much the precise contents of the penus as the fact that the Vestals alone had

Rives, p. 119.
Wildfang, p. 22.
Ibid., p. 56.
Ibid., p. 59.

responsibility for these contents and that these contents, whatever they were, were

integral to the continued existence of Rome.”10

When one combines the Vestals’ major role in the continuation of Rome’s

ultimate sustenance with the fact that in ancient Rome, “women are seen as primarily to

blame [for unfortunate state occurrences],” it quickly becomes clear that Vestals were

likely targets during periods of political tumult. Furthermore, any Vestal transgressions

of crimen incesti would practically necessitate a harsh punishment like live internment

since the Vestals’ failure to properly protect Rome’s central source of power would be

viewed as a horrific crime against both tradition and the security of the Roman state.11 In

ancient Rome, “[Women were] presented as particularly susceptible to religious frenzy.

The disruption of Roman religion is inextricably associated with feminine sexual

immorality.”12 In addition to the proclivity to blame women for unfortunate set-backs,

the Roman people also tended to interpret events as signs that the gods were not pleased.

Another distinctive feature of the Roman tradition was a strong emphasis

on divination. The traditional Roman form of divination was augury, the
interpretation of the calls and flights of birds; magistrates were required to
employ augury before any public business in order to determine whether
or not the gods approved.13

Consequently, just as early priestesses were sometimes saved from charges of

unchastity by performing miracles with Vesta’s help, so too was there immediate

suspicion of Vestal chastity when serious state crises occurred later.14 There are

numerous recorded instances in which seemingly innocuous accidents were attributed to

Vestal unchastity, leading to a so-called witch hunt among the six priestesses.
Rives, p. 17.
Catherine Edwards, The Politics of immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.
Ibid., p. 44-45
Rives, p. 83.
M. Beard, “The sexual status of Vestal Virgins,” in Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 70, 1980, p. 16.

Accordingly, “every incestum accusation was preceded by a mysterious omen (e.g. the

extinguishing of the fire in the aedes Vestae).15 Livy describes how in 483 B.C., state-

wide disagreement over new agrarian legislation, related conflict with the tribunes, and a

new war with Veii (while the Volsci revolted) coalesced into a panic-ridden atmosphere.

To add to everyone’s apprehension, there were prodigies from the

heavens, signaling almost daily threats in both the city and the
countryside. Both publicly and privately, seers inspected entrails and
observed the flight of birds, declaring that the reason for the divine
displeasure was nothing less than that the sacred rites had not been
properly performed. These fears eventually resulted in the condemnation
of the Vestal Oppia for unchastity and her punishment.16

A similar case occurred when a Roman lady was thrown from her horse, and the cause

was likewise attributed to Vestal unchastity. Thus, in addition to the numerous ancient

sources which explicitly linked political turmoil with the occurrence of Vestal unchastity,

it is also worth noting that such turmoil was specifically linked to the important Vestal

cult and not other priestesses. For example, one may consider other female cults like the

Bona Dea, which was associated more with mysterious ritual like that on the eve of the

feast of all men, during which they sacrificed a young or pregnant sow and then drank

and made merry alongside the ritual participants, which included the women of Rome

and the Vestals.17 Unlike these cults, which were viewed as important aggregate groups,

the Vestal Virgins were repeatedly defined by ancient historians as central and vital to the

entire Roman state. Dionysius and Plutarch both supported the idea that “as Vesta, who

Wildfang, p. 56.
Livy 2.42.
H. H. J. Brouwer, Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J.
Brill, 1989) in Wildfang, p. 31
Edwards, p. 44. The story of Clodius’ infiltration of the rites of the Bona Dea resulted in worrisome ideas
about female impurity, but there is no known live internment for any of the female priestesses with which
he likely defiled in some manner. “Though the chastity of Vestals is of a rather different order from that of
the ordinary Roman matrona, rules governing their behaviour do suggest the threat female unchastity was
felt to pose to the religious well-being of the state” was immense.

herself typified the earth, was to be regarded as the centre of the universe, so fire, which

is sacred to her was placed in the centre of the City.”18 Similarly, in his poem Fasti,

which he wrote during the reign of Augustus, Ovid includes a section titled “April

Named After Venus,” in which he appeals to respected goddesses like Venus and Vesta,

both of whom he writes “well deserve to sway, the world entire; she owns a kingdom

second to that of no god; she gives laws to heaven and earth and to her native sea, and by

her inspiration she keeps every species in being.”19 With Vesta being such a central

goddess, it remains understandable that whenever there was turmoil threatening to

undermine the heart of the Roman state, the Vestal Virgins were treated as guilty political

scapegoats since their religious function was so intertwined with the hearth of the Roman

state as well.

From the earliest inception of the Vestals, the cult served a historical function and

was consistently treated as much as a lasting, political unit as a religious cult. In fact, one

of the earliest Vestals described in ancient texts is Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus

(the founder of Rome), whom Amulius appointed a Vestal in order to secretly prevent her

from having children and providing Amulius’s brother, Numito, from making any

legitimate claim to the throne.20 In light of this political taint which the religious cult

maintained from its inception, one must also note that of the 22 cases of alleged Vestal

crimen incesti which occurred during the over 1000 years of Vestal existence, the

majority arose during periods of political instability.21 Of the 18 live internments which

Dionysius, II, 66.
Plutarch, Numa, XI.
Worsfold, p. 17.
Ovid, Fasti, Transl Sir James George Frazer, Vol. I (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited St. Martin’s
Street, 1929), p. 185.
Livy, I, 3, in Sir T. Cato Worsfold, p. 15.
Staples, p. 129.

resulted from these accusations, three of the ritualistic burials occurred in B.C. 114

alone.22 These three trials of the Vestals Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia took place in the

wake of destruction for the army of C. Porcius Cato at the hands of the Scordisci in

Thrace. Thus, the fact that 1/6 of all the Vestal live internments ever recorded for nearly

1100 years occurred within just one, tumultuous year supports the postulate contending

that political attacks on Vestals typically occurred during times of political unrest rather

than simply occurring whenever there existed genuine religious concern among the

populous.23 “Just as Scipio waged war on Rome’s enemies, hostile peoples who (in

theory at least) threatened the security of the res publica, so Cato fought the enemy

within..[while Romans] attacked their fellow citizens at the empire’s centre, in disputes

over the bounds of Romanitas (‘Romanness’) itself.”24 In addition to serving as a stalwart

ideal of ‘Romanness,’ the Vestal Virgins had a permanency which also reflected the

public’s hope for a permanent Roman state. Throughout the imperial period, the

“concern for [crimen incesti] omens continued … when many other forms of divination

seem to have faded away.”25 During the massive reorganization under Augustus and

even during the religiously transitional reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine,

around A.D. 313, the cult of Vesta continued to prosper. In fact, when Christian Emperor

Constantine’s sons, Constans and Constantius (A.D. 360) decreed that temples were to

immediately close and no more sacrifices could be made, the statesman Symmchus, “the

last of the Pagans,” (A.D. 410), says that Constantius “suffered the privileges of the

Vestal Virgins to remain inviolate … he never attempted to deprive the Empire of the

Ibid., p. 137.
Ibid., p. 136.
Edwards, p. 2.
Rives, p. 83.

sacred worship of antiquity.”26 Thus, despite periods of monstrous religious change,

whether it be Augustus’s reinstatement of ancient traditions and rituals like the

Lupercalia or Constantine’s transitioning of Rome’s state religion from polytheism to

Christianity, it remained pertinent in the minds of ancient people to actively support and

discuss the active Vestal power.27 As an institution, the cult of Vesta served to link both

the changing politics of the imperial age to the golden age of the republic and the glorious

mythical founding of Rome under Romulus on Palatine Hill. Thus, it made sense for

authors and emperors alike to discuss and preserve the cult of Vesta in order to ensure a

relatively calm control of the empire.

In addition to simply mentioning the Vestals in their literary works, ancient

historians and authors made it a point to clearly associate destructive kings, leaders, and

emperors with the defiling of the Vestal order; in turn, this negative connotation led some

of their contemporary Roman rulers to react strongly to the accusation of crimen incesti

in order to distance themselves and their era of rule from periods in which Roman

downfall seemed possible. Writers and rulers alike unconsciously understood that

“during the reigns of such abnormal Emperors as Nero, Commodus and Heliogabalus, the

Vestals and their charges, the holy relics, had unpleasant adventures.”28 After all,

venerable sources like Suetonius derided emperors like Nero for transgressing established

functions and boundaries of the Vestal order. In his Twelve Caesars, Suetonius writes:

Not satisfied with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero
raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria. He nearly contrived to marry the
freedwoman Acte, by persuading some friends of consular rank to swear
falsely that she came of royal stock. Having tried to turn the boy Sporus
into a girl by castration, he went through a wedding ceremony with him—
G. P. Baker, “Constantine the Great and the Christian Revolution,” Gibbon, chaps. XVI an XXV, in
Worsfold, p. 75.
Worsfold, p. 71.
Ibid., p. 70.

dowry, bridal veil and all—which the whole Court attended; then brought
him home, and treated him as a wife. He dressed Sporus in the fine
clothes normally worn by an Empress and took him in his own litter not
only to every Greek assize and fair, but actually through the street of
Rome, kissing him amorously now and then.29

By juxtaposing Nero’s rape of a Vestal virgin with public falsehoods and the disruption

of Roman social standards of marriage (whether due to social status differences or

perverting the institution of marriage), Suetonius essentially declared that those who

violated the ancient rites of the Vestal Virgins were similar to those who threatened

traditional and secure societal structures like the court of law and marriage. Heroian also

describes how Vestals were manipulated for political purposes by corrupt leaders like

Caracalla, who in A.D. 211-217, massacred president and procurators and “buried the

Vestal Virgins quicke, pretending they had lost their virginity,” all in order to attack or

weaken Rome’s upper social class.30 One of the worst violations of Vestal chastity

occurred under Heliogabalus (A.D. 218-222), who according to Lampridius declared

himself the true god and tried to impose his personal cult on the Roman world by

destroying the central cult of Vesta among others; in order to do so, Heliogabalus

committed incest with a Vestal Virgin, Julia Aquilia Severa, removed the secret relics of

the Vestals, profaned the worship of the Roman people, broke into the inner shrine

(penus) of the aedes Vestae, and defiled himself and the men who were with him.31 Thus,

Heliogabalus not only convinced a Vestal Virgin to commit crimen incesti as a means of

garnering more power himself, but he also served as the personal manifestation of

megalomaniac leadership which would have appeared negative to many contemporaries

and later leaders.32 Similarly, Emperor Domition accused the chief of the Vestal Virgins,
Suetonius, Twelve Caesars (London: The Folio Society, 1957), p. 224-225.
Herodian, IV, 6, 4, out of the Greek originall 6290, in Worsfold, p. 72.
Lampridius, as cited in Wolsford, p. 72-73.
Wolsford, p. 73.

Cornelia, of incest, and decided she should be condemned without proper trial defense

and buried alive, simply as a means to make his reign illustrious by such a strong

example.33 Just as the disorder of the final years of the Roman Republic was reflected by

Publius Clodius, a young an politically ambitious Roman aristocrat, who disguised

himself as a woman in B.C. 62 and infiltrated the rites of the all-female Bona Dea ritual,

so too did many view the progressively more public and heinous Vestal transgressions of

the imperial period as indicative of a weak Roman state.34

In addition to the negative moral and political associations with crimen incesti

creating an aura of imminent Roman downfall, the very selection and functions of the six

Vestal priestesses themselves left them in a liminal state whereby they were essentially

“married” to the Roman state. As soon as one of the six official Vestals either left the

order after 30 years (which many did not) or died, the official search for a replacement

commenced, during which a pristine, 6-10 year old girl would be selected to serve the

Roman state as a Vestal Virgin for a 30-year term; as soon as the pontifical college

selected the young girl, the Vestal introductory rite called captio occurred, whereby a

Vestal was removed “from the cult of her birth family but manifestly did not complete

the transfer of a girl to the cult of any new family. Instead, the new Vestal remained in a

liminal state, outside the realm of any one Roman family.”35 Further cementing this

unprotected, in-between Vestal status was the fact that the inducted Vestals continued to

wear their hair in the sex crines style of a bride on her wedding day. Unlike brides who

only wore this hairstyle one day in order to reflect their brief transitory period between

the time they left their birth family cults and the time they would become members of

Ibid., p. 71.
Edwards, p. 34.
Wildfang, p. 13.

their new husbands’ cults, Vestal Virgins retained this hairstyle throughout the 30 years

of service, possibly as a visible reminder of her peculiar undefined status and a need for

protection and safety.36 Similar to a matronae marriage rite in some ways yet differing in

specific important ones, captio reaffirmed the ancient Greek idea that sex was polluting,

and virginity was required for close contact with a deity.37 In Greece, the law had

forbidden common worshippers from entering a temple up to 2-3 days following

intercourse; similarly, the Vestals were thought to be in constant contact with a deity

(Vesta), and therefore, they had to refrain from sexual intercourse all the time.38 This

virginity, however, existed within a state that was neither wholly Virgine nor fully

Matronae since the Vestals were essentially married to and participants within the Roman

state without any traditional male social protection. Thus, the Vestal retained the

hairstyle of virgin bride, the dress of Roman matrons, and a possible spousal relationship

with the Pontifex Maximus.39 In this in-between category, the Vestals were viewed in

various manners. Some Roman citizens associated the Vestals primarily with the hearth,

ancient fertility cults, and the matronae. Accordingly, these citizens also viewed the

Vestals’ virginity as being reflective of “stored up, potential procreative power” for the

state. Antithetically, other Romans interpreted the Vestal virginity as primarily

contributing to their purificatory power, similar to a sterilizing flame.40 Some historians

like Ovid openly agreed with the latter category by comparing the Vestals to this sterile

flame in writings like his poem, Fasti. In that poem, Ovid describes Vesta as a sterile

Ibid., p. 13.
Beard, p. 12.
Ibid., p. 13.
During the captio selection ceremony, the Vestals were taken from their father by the high priest just like
virgin brides were taken from their mother by their betrothed.
Beard, p. 15.
Wildfang, p. 29.

flame who “is a virgin, giving and taking / no seed, and [who] loves companions in

virginity.”41 This interpretation of the Vestals’ primary function as purifying is further

supported by the historical fact that “four of the nine annual rites in which they [the

Vestals] participated, were mainly purificatory in nature.”42 Thus, despite the debate over

whether Vestal virginity indicated stored-up power or simply purity, the Roman public

agreed on one thing—the power of the Vestals were dependent upon their virginity.

“Whatever else these priestesses were and whatever else they did, they were virgins, and

their cult had as one of its central aspects the preservation of this virginity.”43 As a result,

any threats of unchastity or crimen incesti undermined the vital power of the already

liminal Vestal Virgins, which threatened Roman confidence especially during the

uncertain late Republic and the late empire. This powerful threat to the state obviously

required swift measures to “clean” the heart of the Roman cult itself, and the result was

violent live internment for guilty Vestals.

Another factor that made the Vestals vulnerable was their dual function as a religious

cult and a central political power in Rome; because of this, they could not be completely

secluded so as to protect themselves from threats to their virgin status and therefore often

became targets during tumultuous times. In fact, the Vestals socialized just like any

noble Roman woman would, by making merry, drinking wine, and being entertained by

flautists and other musicians at city parties.44 The Vestals participated quite publicly in

the state rites of the Parentatio, Lupercalia, Fornacalia, re-kindling of the sacred fire, visit

to the Sacra Argeorum, Fordicidia, Parilia, Bona Dea, mola salsa preparation, Festival of

Vesta (in which the penus vestae was opened to the matronae), Festival of Consus,
Ovid, Fasti 6.291-294, in Wildfang, p. 29.
Wildfang, p. 33.
Ibid., p. 51.
H. H. J. Brouwer, p. 31.

Festival of Ops Consiva, Festival of Jupiter, and a few others. In addition to being the

central actors in rituals like the Argei, which both Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Ovid

describe as having the Vestal Virgins and Pontifices (the most important priests) hurl

approximately 30 straw male effigies into the Tiber River in order to symbolize the

disposal of ghosts and spirits thought to be present during the Lemuria,45 ancient sources

note that the Vestals also “made public appearances sitting in special seats at the

gladiatorial games…[and] public theatrical performances and gladiatorial games in Rome

were as much religious rites meant to honour various divinities, as they were sources of

public entertainment.”46 Thus, the Vestals’ presence visually reinforced the public

awareness of their special status as a female state cult. Furthermore, Vestals attained

many rights not held by any other type of Roman female. For instance, a Vestal

possessed the right to give evidence in a Court of law without taking the oath, according

to Aul. Gell., VII, 7, 2.47 Similarly, Plutarch describes in Numa 10, how when the Vestals

went out, if they crossed paths with a person being led to execution, they could spare his

life.48 As one of only two groups (themselves and the matronae) able to wear a stola, the

Vestals publicly declared that their civic rights and purity were just as powerful as the

upper class matronae. In fact, the stola (long dress) was likely a visible sign of purity

since in addition to freedwomen and prostitutes, divorced women were also prohibited

from wearing it.49 And the political sway of the Vestals might have even equaled that of

male political leaders. If one is to believe a new archaeological find in Athens. at the

Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.38.3
Ovid, Fasti. 5.621-622. “Today also the Virgin hurls the straw dummies / of earlier men from the oaken
Wildfang, p. 28.
Ibid., p. 33.
Worsfold, p. 51
Plutarch, Numa, 10, in Worsfold, p. 48.
Wildfang, p. 13.

Theatre of Dionysus, in which three seats are inscribed to “Hestia on the Acroppolis,

Livia, and Julia” respectively, it is likely that Rome’s Vestals were actually worshipped

in Greece by 2 B.C., just as male emperors and political leaders were honored within the

far corners of the Roman-influenced world.50 Furthermore, there are a number of

inscriptions on the Acropolis which prove that the Athenian people honored the Roman

Vestals with statues.51

Since there’s no proof that the worship of Hestia was ever institutionalized
in the Greek world as a priesthood or cult, in addition to the fact that the
Vesta was associated with the Roman Livia, and that the inscription
distinguishes the Vesta cult on the Acropolis from the other Ahenian
hesiai, means that the goddess in question was likely the Roman version
of Hestia, aka, the Vesta of the Roman forum.52

If one agrees with this interpretation of the Athenian homage to the Roman Vestals, it

simply aggrandizes the amount of political power which the religious cult of Vesta

definitely possessed. Consequently, since the cult of Vesta straddled the line of both

public, state cult and ritualized, religious cult, it makes rational sense that the punishment

for a transgression (crimen incesti) of both those cults be dealt with in a publicly

ritualized manner—live internment.

Because the function of the Vestals as a purifying agent necessitated their

virginity above all other tasks and virtues, because Roman self-assuredness fluctuated

between megalomania and low self esteem thereby exciting those left behind into a

frenzy, and because of the fact that these Vestal Virgins served a political function as

well as a religious one, leaders and other ranking Romans utilized the accusation of

crimen incesti as a political weapon. In keeping with this political fervor, it follows that

M. Kajava, “Vesta and Athens,” in O. Salomies (ed.), The Greek East
in the Roman context (2001), p. 72-76.
Ibid., p. 72.
Ibid., p. 76.

“the loss of the Vestal’s virginity invalidated the rituals she had performed, thus incurring

the gods’ anger. The punishment was burial alive, outside the Colline Gate [i.e. still

within the city walls].”53 Apart from its obviously virginal status and goddess worship,

the state cult of Vesta had inner rites which remained relatively unknown to the public.

Nobody knew what was inside the aedes Vestae temple except the Vestals. By placing

such an ambiguous shrine and cult at its heart, Rome itself developed an equivocal

identity, and this state left Rome susceptible to war from the outside and threats to

‘Romanness’ from the inside.54 As a cult which overlapped both the exterior public and

interior religious realms, the Vestal Virgins were viewed as particularly vital to

maintaining the Roman identity. When this already indefinite identity was threatened by

political instability, it follows that the heart of Rome’s state hearth (the cult of Vesta)

would be seen as infected. In order to remedy this simultaneously public and religious

infection within the Vestals, ritualized live internment for the offending Vestal appeared

the obvious option.


Beard, M. and J. North and S.Price (eds.), Religions of Rome.

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Beard, M., “Re-reading (Vestal) virginity,” in R. Hawley and B. Levick

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Kajava, M., '”Vesta and Athens,” in O. Salomies (ed.), The Greek East
in the Roman Context (2001), 71-94

Livy 2.42.
M. Beard, p. 174.

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Millar, Fergus. The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of
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Rives, James B. Religion in the Roman Empire. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing,

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Suetonius, Gaius and Tranquillus. The Twelve Caesars. Tr. Robert Graves. London:
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