Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Vestal Virgins: Sexual Status

The Vestal Virgins: Sexual Status and Sacred Status. This article is by Sylvia Yuen. It appeared in the BROWN CLASSICAL JOURNAL, Volume 2, 1985.

From the site:

The Vestal Virgins led rigorous but privileged lives of religious service and personal purity. As long as they performed their religious and civic duties and maintained their vows of chastity, they had a special, influential, status unlike that of any other Roman women. But those who were found to have broken their vow of virginity were punished most severely. Why was it necessary that the Vestals remain virgins and that those who broke their vow suffer such a drastic punishment as death? More importantly, how was the sexual status of the Vestal Virgins, in terms of the roles and stages in a woman’s life (such as virginity and motherhood), related to their privileged and sacred status? We shall see that the apparently contradictory position of the Vestal Virgin as both mother and daughter was a crucial element in her sacredness.

The duties of the Vestal Virgins were both religious and civic in nature. Their primary religious duty was to “guard the eternal fire on the public hearth of the city” (Cicero, Laws, II.8). The extinction of the fire was a token of the downfall of Rome; the Vestal in charge could receive a severe flogging from the Pontifex Maximus if this happened. The fire could go out only at the end of the religious year on the last day of February, to be rekindled on the following day. The offering of mola salsa, a sacrificial cake of barley and salt, to Vesta and the Penates, regular daily prayers for the state and the people, special prayers and sacrifices, and attendance at religious festivals throughout the year, were the regular religious duties of the Vestals. In addition to these duties, the Vestals were often entrusted with will, treaties, and other important documents.

The deep respect that the Romans felt for the Vestals is indicated by their privileges. Whenever a Vestal was in public, for example, she was accompanied by a lictor who bore the fasces and cleared the way before her. She also had the privilege of driving through the city in a two-wheeled wagon, the carpentum. The opinions and recommendations of Vestal Virgins were held in high regard, and testimony could be given by them without the oath. Finally, Servius mentions that “they alone of all the priests and priestesses have a right to burial inside the city” (Servius’ commentary on the Aeneid, XI.206).

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