Monday, January 23, 2012

Numa Pompilius and the Vestal Virgins

My last history post, way back in November, was about Rome's second king, Numa Pompilius and his calendar reform. Now, for those of you stifling a yawn, I'll have you know that little post has become one of this blog's top all-time most read posts, and number one by far in 2011. Who knew people were so interested in King Numa? As I mentioned in an earlier post, Numa was the most religious of Rome's seven kings, so it's no surprise that he was responsible for the institution of the cult of Vesta and the order of the Vestal Virgins.

Vesta was the goddess of the home, family and the hearth, and inside her cylindrical temple in the Roman Forum, a fire perpetually burned. This ritual fire was an vital aspect to Roman life, and it was believed that while the fire burned, Rome would be protected. This sacred fire symbolized the fire that burned in the king’s own home, and the six priestesses who tended the fire represented the king’s daughters. These priestesses were called Vestal Virgins and were subject to strict rules and restrictions, but also enjoyed a high social status and privileges unknown to any other Roman women.

Vestal Virgins making a sacrifice

Vestals were chosen at between six and ten years of age and were exclusively female, with no physical or mental defects. Both of the girls’ parents had to be living, and her father had to be a freeborn Roman citizen. The more prominent the family, the more likely the girl was to get picked. (Another example of how things haven’t changed in Italy after nearly 3000 years!) In Numa’s time there were only two vestal virgins at any given time, but eventually the number increased to six. Their period of duty was 30 years, and during that time they were obliged to take a vow of chastity. After their service was finished they were permitted to marry if they wished.

Dedication of a new Vestal Virgin, Alessandro Marchesini, early 1700s

A vestal’s major duty was to keep the fire within the temple burning at all times. If the fire went out, the city would be vulnerable to attack. In addition to this they were expected to prepare offerings and sacrifices, and observe any other rituals that were not permitted to be performed by the male priests. They lived in a large and luxurious home in the heart of the Roman Forum, adjacent to the Temple of Vesta, some of which is still visitable today, that had large courtyard decorated with statues of Vestal Virgins, and each one had her own bedroom.

Vestal Virgins, Jean Raoux, 1727

As for myself, had I been unlucky enough to have been born in ancient Rome, becoming a Vestal Virgin would have been the only way I could have survived it. No other women in Rome, including the emperor’s own wife and daughters, were afforded the privileges and freedoms of a Vestal. They had their own reserved box at all games and events, including the Colosseum, directly across from the emperor's own box. They had the power to free any slave or condemned criminal simply by touching him, and if a criminal on his way to his execution was lucky enough to see a Vestal, he would be automatically pardoned. They could testify without taking an oath and anyone who injured them physically would be put to death. Perhaps most exceptional of all, they were permitted to own property, make a will and vote, the only women in Italian society with these rights.

Vestal Virgin, Sir Frederic Leighton, 1880
The only problem came when a Vestal Virgin was discovered to have broken her vow of chastity. It should be understood that it wasn't just prudishness that made the act of sex with a Vestal a crime punishable by death: the idea was that by contaminating a high priestess (whose job it was to safeguard the flame that ensured the safety of the city) with sex, you would be risking the very survival of Rome itself.  Therefore the offending gentleman would be whipped to death, but the priestess herself endured an even harsher death. Since it was a sin to spill a Vestal's blood, she would be buried alive outside the city walls with enough food and water to keep her alive for a few days.

Vestal Virgin condemned to death, Pietro Saja, ca. 1800
Now I'm guessing that my astutest little bloglings are scratching their heads right now, saying to themselves, "But if Numa Pompilius invented the Vestal Virgins, how could it be that Rhea Silvia, the mother of Numa's predecessor Romulus, was also a Vestal Virgin!?" Oh, you are so good.

I myself have often wondered at this, but the explanation is simple. King Numa did not invent the cult of the goddess Vesta or the tradition of the Vestal Virgins. This cult was already practiced in other parts of Latium. In fact, Titus Livy writes that the Vesta priesthood had its origins in Alba Longa, Rhea Silvia's hometown, coincidentally (or not). Rather, King Numa simply introduced this cult into Roman religious culture.

What have we covered so far?

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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