previous next


VESTA´LES (Virgines Vestales), the virgin priestesses of Vesta, who ministered in her temple and watched the eternal fire. That they were recognised as a priesthood is clear from their official designation, “sacerdotes Vestales” (C. I. L.. 6.2128;--Gellius, 1.12, 14; 10.15, 31). They belonged to that oldest class of priesthoods [SACERDOS] whose duties were limited to the service of particular deities, and we have good reason to suppose that they were at least as ancient as any of these. Their existence at Alba Longa is connected with the earliest Roman traditions, for Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus, was, according to the legend, a Vestal (Liv. 1.20; Dionys. A. R. 1.76); and they are known to have survived at Alba down to the age of the later Empire. The institution is also found at Lavinium and Tibur (Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.336, reff.; Preuner, Hestin-Vesta, 340), and was without doubt originally common to all Latin communities. From Alba it was believed to have been brought to Rome; whether by Romulus or Numa, the Roman antiquaries were not agreed (cf. Schwegler, Röm. Gesch. 1.544, note 1). The original number of the Vestals was four (their names are given in Plut. Numa,, 10), two representing the Rhamnes, two the Tities (Dionys. A. R. 2.67, 3.67; Festus, 344b); to these two were added by Tarquinius Priscus or Servius Tullius, to represent the third tribe of the Luceres.

The true explanation of the origin and meaning of this singular priesthood has been recently placed beyond doubt by the researches of anthropologists. The germ of the cult of Vesta is to be found in the great difficulty experienced by primitive man in obtaining fire, and in the consequent veneration with which he regarded it when obtained. Convenience suggested that in one house in every settlement a fire should be kept perpetually burning, from which the members of the community could at any time procure the flame. This house was that of the king or chief, whose unmarried daughters were charged with the duty of keeping up the fire; their brothers also, as “kindlers” (flamines), had duties of the same kind, perhaps more especially sacrificial. (For the comparative evidence on which this explanation rests, see especially J. G. Frazer, in Journal of Philology, vol. xiv., No. 28, pp. 145 foll.: cf. Helbig, Die Italiker in der Poebene, p. 53; PRYTANEUM) From the first, probably, this duty of the chief's daughters was a religious one, and the flame was a sacred flame (Ovid, Ov. Fast. 6.291: “Nec tu aliud Vestam quam vivam intellige flammam” ); and thus, by a process of development which cannot be entered into here, the fire became a deity whose nature and origin were forgotten (ib. 6.267, “Vesta eadem quae terra;” Varro in August. Civ. Dei, 7.16 and 23), and the duties of the chief's daughters were transferred to an organised priesthood, retaining throughout their history the leading characteristic of maidenhood. What had been matter of mere utility becomes symbolic of the life, welfare, and unity of the state; and the sacred hearth continues to be guarded by virgins whose purity of life and antique simplicity of occupation recalled their humble origin even in the latest ages of Roman history. (Jordan, Tempel der Vesta, pp. 50 foll., regards the Vestal as in the position of the state representative of the materfamilias, and not as the daughter of the [p. 2.941]rex or pontifex maximus: an opinion which is incompatible with the comparative evidence alluded to above.)

The Vestals may be treated under the heads of (1) qualification, (2) mode of appointment, (3) duties, and (4) privileges.

1. Qualifications.--The maiden who was to be a Vestal must not be under six or over ten years of age (Labeo in Gellius, 1.12, 1); she must be perfect in all her limbs, and in full enjoyment of all her senses (Gell. l.c.; Marquardt, Staatsverw. 3.339); must be “patrima et matrima,” i. e. have both parents living; and these parents must be, if not patricians (Mommsen, Forschungen, 1.79), at least free and freeborn, persons who had never been in slavery or followed any dishonourable occupation, and who were in residence in Italy (Labeo in Gell. l.c.). These rules may have been to some extent relaxed as time went on; we know, for example, that Augustus allowed the daughters of libertini to be considered eligible (D. C. 55.22). But on the whole great care must have been at all times taken to maintain their reputation by attention to these qualifications; and thus the institution survived intact, and without loss of dignity, long after the establishment of Christianity as the state religion.

2. Mode of Appointment.--A Lex Papia, of uncertain date, ordained that when a vacancy occurred, the pontifex maximus should name at his discretion twenty damsels qualified as above, one of whom was publicly (in contione, i.e. in Comitia calata?) fixed on by lot, an exemption being granted in favour of those who had a sister already a Vestal, whose father was flamen, augur, XVvir, VIIvir, Salius, or Tubicen sacrorum; the betrothed of a pontifex was also excused, and, in the age of the Empire, the daughter of anyone who had the “jus trium liberorum.” It was possible also for a parent to offer his child voluntarily to the pontifex maximus to be made a Vestal; in which case, if she were duly qualified, the senate might grant absolution from the terms of the Lex Papia (Gel. 1.12, 10; an example of the last-mentioned procedure in Tac. Ann. 2.86, where two candidates are presented to the senate for selection: cf. D. C. 55.22).

When the girl was chosen, the ceremony of “captio” by the pontifex maximus took place. This was simply an application of the old legal procedure of “mancipatio per aes et libram,” by which personal property, e. g. slaves, passed into the possession of the buyer. The pontifex maximus took the girl by the hand and addressed her in a solemn form of words, preserved by Gellius from Fabius Pictor: “Sacerdotem Vestalem quae sacra faciat quae ius siet Sacerdotem Vestalem facere pro Populo Romano Quiritibus uti quae optima lege fuit ita te Amata capio;” where the title Amata seems to be simply an honorary one, suggesting perhaps the gentle character of everything in the worship of Vesta. By this ceremony the girl passed out of the potestas of her father, and into that of the pontifex maximus, who here represented in one sense the king, as father to the Vestal, in another the goddess to whose service she was dedicated. Thus she now entered a new and sacred familia, the centre of which was the hearth of Vesta, the members the Vestals with the Flamines and Flaminicae, and the paterfamilias the pontifex maximus. She suffered by the process no capitis deminutio, but on the contrary was henceforth qualified to hold property independently and to make a will (Gel. 1.12, 9; Marquardt, 3.314 and 337; Jordan, Tempel der Vesta, p. 82).

The ceremony seems to have been reckoned as legally equivalent to the inauguratio of other priests (Gaius, 1.130; Ulpian, Fragm. 10, 5). When it was over, she was conducted to the Atrium Vestae; her hair was cut off, and hung, apparently as a dedicatory offering, on a branch of the sacred lotus-tree (cf. Plin. Nat. 16.235; Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2.364), but was suffered to grow again, as the recently discovered statues of Vestals clearly prove (Middleton, Rome in 1885, p. 200; Marquardt, 3.338, note 4, with Wissowa's addition). She was then clothed in the white garments of a Vestal (to be described further on), and was sworn to abide in her office and to maintain her virginity for not less than thirty years (Gell. l.c., and 7.7, 4). If she chose then to resign her office--which seems rarely to have been the case--she became a private individual, and was entitled to marry.

3. Duties.--These would seem to have been more complicated than we might suppose: for the Vestal is said to have spent the first ten years of her service in learning them, the next ten years in practising them, and the third decade in teaching them to novices (Dionys. A. R. 2.67; Plut. Numa, 10. Jordan, op. cit. p. 60, argues that this division of duties could not have always held good; but it may be taken as roughly representing what was the natural and regular course). The chief duty, however, was the simple one of tending the sacred fire; which, as symbolic of the life and religion of the state, might never be suffered to go out. Its extinction was the most fearful of all prodigia. If such extinction was the fault of the Vestal on duty, she was stripped and scourged by the pontifex maximus in the dark, with a screen interposed, and he rekindled the flame by the friction of two pieces of wood from a felix arbor (Dionys. l.c.; Liv. 28.11; Festus, >s. v. Ignis). Their other daily duties, so far as we know them, were exactly such as the daughters of a primitive household might have performed. They had to bring fresh water on their heads from a sacred spring, e. g. that of Egeria; and, as the recent discovery of the house of the Vestals has shown, no water was ever supplied them in pipes (Jordan, op. cit. p. 63; and p. 215 of Dissertations in honour of E. Curtius). A marble tank in the peristyle of the house served as a receptacle for the water which they brought (Middleton, Rome in 1885, p. 195; Jordan thinks that under the Empire this service was performed by assistants): when used for sacrificial purposes, this was mixed with muries, i.e. salt pounded in a mortar, thrown into an earthen jar, and baked in an oven (Festus, 158 b; Serv. ad Ecl. 8.82). They also daily cleansed the temple with a kind of mop, and adorned it with laurel, which was renewed once a year (Marquardt, 3.343 and reff.). The same homely character of their service is seen in the antique simplicity of the utensils they used; which were all of the most ordinary ware, made of baked [p. 2.942]clay, and without ornament (Ovid, Fasti, 6.310; V. Max. 4.4, 11).

The Vestals also had certain public duties in connexion with fixed festivals of the calendar. All of these, it should be noticed, belonged to the oldest class of rites, and expressed the religious ideas and interests of the primitive Italian husbandman. Beginning the year on March 1 with the renewal of the sacred fire, they had a share in the FORDICIDIA and PARILIA in April, and on May 1 were present at the women's festival of the Bona Dea. From May 7 to 14, they were busy making their sacrificial cake (mola salsa) from the first ripe ears of corn, by pounding it after the fashion of an age when mills were not invented (Helbig, Die Italiker in der Poebene, 17 and 72. The mill lately found in the Vestals' house could hardly have been used for the sacred cake, as Middleton suggests, op. cit. p. 193: cf. Jordan, p. 64). On May 15 they were present at the primitive rite of the Argei, and their presence is evidence for a possible connexion of that ceremony with agricultural interests. From June 7 to 14 was their busiest time; on the 9th fell their own festival of the Vestalia, and on the 15th the penus or temple-storehouse of Vesta;, which was open during these days, was cleaned out and the refuse carefully removed to a particular spot,--an act probably symbolic of the preparation of barns and garners for the harvest then proceeding. At the true harvest festivals of Consus and Ops Consiva in August they were also present, and once again on the Ides of September at a ceremony possibly connected with the vintage. At the end of the religious year they appear once more, providing mola salsa for the LUPERCALIA the ancient feast of fructification. (For details and evidence, see Marquardt, 3.343 foll.; Preller, Röm. Myth. 2.164 foll.)

They had in their keeping the blood of the “October equus,” and the ashes of the unborn calves sacrificed at the Fordicidia. But of greater importance was the charge of the sacred relics which formed the fatale pignus imperii, the pledge granted by fate for the permanency of the Roman sway, deposited in the inmost adytum (penus Vestae; see Festus, s. v.), which no one was permitted to enter save the Virgins and the chief pontifex. What these objects were no one knew, and it may even be doubted whether the tradition of their existence was not wholly without foundation (so Jordan, op. cit. p. 67). Some supposed that they included the Palladium, others the Samothracian gods carried by Dardanus to Troy and transported from thence to Italy by Aeneas, but all agreed in believing that something of awful sanctity was here preserved, served, contained, it was said, in a small earthen jar closely sealed, while another exactly similar in form, but empty, stood by its side. (Dionys. A. R. 1.69, 2.66; Plut. Camill. 20; Lamprid. Elagab. 6; Ovid, Ov. Fast. 6.365; Lucan 9.994.)

We have seen above that supreme importance was attached to the purity of the Vestals, and a terrible punishment awaited her who violated the vow of chastity. According to the law of Numa, she was simply to be stoned to death (Cedrenus, Hist. Comp. p. 148, or p. 259, ed. Bekker), but a more cruel torture was devised by Tarquinius Priscus (Dionys. A. R. 3.67; Zonaras, 7.8) and inflicted from that time forward. When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged (Dionys. A. R. 9.40), was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter and borne through the forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus, just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate. There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containling a couch, a lamp, and a table with a little food. The pontifex maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and, placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed. In every case the paramour was publicly scourged to death in the forum. (Plut. Num. 10, Fab. Max. 18, Quaest. Rom. 96; Dionys. A. R. 2.67, 3.67, 8.89, 9.40; Liv. 4.44, 8.15, 22.57; Plin. Ep. 4.11; Suet. Dom. 8; D. C. 67.3, 77.16, and fragg. xci. xcii. Festus, s. v. Probrum et Sceleratus Campus.

4. Privileges.--But if the labours of the Vestals were unremitting and the rules of the order rigidly and pitilessly enforced, so the honours they enjoyed were such as in a great measure to compensate for their privation, They were maintained at the public cost and from sums of money and land bequeathed from time to time to the corporation (Suet. Aug. 31, Tib. 76; Sicul. Flacc. p. 162, ed. Lachmann), From the moment of their consecration, as we have seen, they became as it were the property of the goddess alone, and were completely released from all parental sway without going through the form of emancipatio or suffering any capitis deminutio (Gel. 1.12, 9). They had a right to make a will, and to give evidence in a court of justice without taking an oath (Gel. 10.15),--distinctions distinctions said to have been first conceded by an Horatian law to a certain Caia Tarratia or Fufetia, and afterwards communicated to all (Gel. 1.12; Gaius, 1.145; compare Plin. Nat. 34.11). Each was preceded by a lictor, like the Flamen Dialis, when she went abroad (Dio Cass, 47.19), consuls and praetors made way for her, and lowered their fasces (Senec. Controvers. 6.8; compare Plut. TG 15), even the tribunes of the plebs respected their holy character (Oros. 5.4; Suet. Tib. 2 compare Cic. pro Cael. 14, 34; V. Max. 5.4.6), and if any one passed under their litter he was put to death (Plut. Num. 10). Augustus granted to them the jus trium liberorum (D. C. 56.10; Plut. l.c.), and assigned them a conspicuous place in the theatre (Suet. Aug. 44; Tac. Ann. 4.16), a privilege which they had enjoyed before at the gladiatorial shows (Cic. pro Muren. 35, 73). Great weight was attached to their intercession on behalf of those in danger and difficulty, of which we have a remarkable example in the entreaties which they addressed to Sulla on behalf of Julius [p. 2.943]Caesar (Suet. Jul. 1; compare Cic. Font. 17; Suet. Vitell. 16; D. C. 65.18; Tac. Ann. 3.69, 11.32, Hist. 3.81), and if they chanced to meet a criminal as he was led to punishment they had a right to demand his release, provided it could be proved that the encounter was accidental. Their general dignity and influence are attested by the inscriptions on the pedestals of their statues, recently discovered in the Atrium Vestae (Middleton, Rome in 1885, p. 200 foll.). Wills, even those of the emperors, were committed to their charge (Suet. Jul. 83, Aug. 101; Tac. Ann. 1.8), for when in such keeping they were considered, inviolable (Plut. Ant. 58); and very solemn treaties, such as that of the triumvirs with Sextus Pompeius, were placed in their hands (Appian, App. BC 5.73; D. C. 48.37 and 46). Their own persons were inviolable (Plut. Numa, 10); and as in so many other points in their life they retained the privileges of the ancient royal household, so; after death they were an exception to the law of the Twelve Tables which forbade burial within the pomerium (Serv. ad Aen. 11.206). Their-burial-place is not as yet discovered (Marquardt, 3.309, 341; Lanciani, Ancient Rome, p. 142).

They were attired entirely in white (Suidas,

Statue of Virgo Vestalis Maxima, from the Atrium Vestae. (Jordan.)

1010 B). Festus in a doubtful passage (p. 4, 1) describes their dress as a toga, and this may have been originally so, and would be in keeping with the antique character of the rest of their life and ritual. But the portrait statues of Vestals lately discovered, covered, dating from the 2nd century A.D., show that in that day at least they wore a stola or long gown, confined by a girdle at the waist, and usually sleeveless; and over this a pallium or loose robe, as is seen in the accompanying cuts. On their head was an infula, or diadem-like band (Serv. ad Aen. 10.538), from which on each side depended vittae; and when sacrificing they wore also the suffibulum, which was their especial characteristic. This was a white woollen hood with a purple border, folded over the head and fastened below with a brooch (fibula); it is represented only in the statue of the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, of which a cut is given, and corresponds with the description of Festus (p. 349: cf. Varro, L. L.. 6.21). The second cut, copied from a gem, represents the Vestal Tuccia, who when wrongfully accused appealed to the goddess to vindicate her honour, and had power given her to carry a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the temple--a convenient legend for checking hasty accusations (Montfaucon, Ant. Exp. i. pl. xiv:, Supplem. i. pl. vi.; V. Max. 8.1, 35; Plin. Nat. 28.2).

The Vestal Tuccia, from an ancient gem.

Of the organisation and interior life of the Vestals, we still know very little. It has been mentioned that they were supposed to spend the first ten years of their service in learning, the second in practising, and the third in teaching, their duties. Thus they seem to have risen gradually in dignity by seniority; and the oldest, under the title of Virgo Vestalis Maxima, acted as a kind of president or lady superior (Marquardt, 3.340 and reff.: cf. the inscribed pedestals in Middleton, p. 200 foll., especially Nos. 5 and 6, whence it appears that the head of the sisterhood had passed through “omnes gradus sacerdotii” ). The Vestalis Maxima had also the title of antistes (C. I. L. 6.2139, 2143; cf. Liv. 1.20, 3). All were equally under the supervision of the pontifex maximus, whose duty it was to keep a vigilant eye on the sisterhood: cf. Liv. 4.44, where a Vestal is denounced to him as guilty of a desire for personal adornment, and ordered to behave more discreetly in future. They all resided together in a house adjoining the Regia and the round temple of Vesta, at the south-eastern corner of the Forum Romanum, and immediately under the north-western end of the Palatine Hill. This house was probably several times burnt and rebuilt; the important remains of it which were excavated in 1883-4, are of Hadrian's time. For a detailed description of it, the student is referred to Middleton's work already quoted, ch. vi.; and for its history and relation to the Regia and the Aedes Vestae, see also Jordan, Röm. Topographie, i. pt. 2, pp. 298 foll., 423 foll.; and the same author's Tempel der Vesta, passim.

The ample size and accommodation of the house seem to show that after the 1st century A.D. the Vestals were no longer content with their former simplicity of life; it may perhaps have been necessary to their reputation and dignity in a luxurious age, that they should live in comfort if not in splendour. It was partly rebuilt after the great fire of 191 A.D., and continued to be occupied by the Vestals for two centuries after that date, in spite of the public recognition of Christianity (Preuner, Hestia-Vesta, p. 442 and notes). The inscriptions show that the sisterhood continued to maintain its prestige and to discharge its duties until towards the end of this period; but in the latter half of the 4th century some members seem to have become come Christians, and it is possibly for this reason (as Middleton suggests, op. cit. p. 206; [p. 2.944]but cf. Lanciani, p. 171) that in the latest inscription in date the name of the Vestal has been erased. This was in A.D. 364; in A.D. 394, after the defeat of Eugenius by Theodosius, and the entry of the latter into Rome, the Vestals were dispersed and their order abolished, (See Zosimus, 5.38; and the story there related of the last of the Vestals.) But the modern Italian nunnery, with its organisation and vows, still recalls the Atrium Vestae and the life of the Vestals, which thus form a connecting link between the most primitive civilisation of Italy and the ideas and practice of modern Christianity.

[W.R] [W.W.F]

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: