For thousands of years in ancient Rome, young women were chosen to devote their entire lives to make sure a fire in the Temple of Vesta never went out. These were the Vestal Virgins, chosen for their purity at a young age to keep the gods happy in order to bring prosperity to Roman civilization. Vesta was the goddess of fire, and they believed that a sacred fire in the temple needed to burn 24/7 in order to make her happy. If the fire continued to burn, the city of Rome would continue to prosper during battle, but if it ever went out, civilization would fall into turmoil. This is why there needed to be someone tending to the fire at all hours of the day and night.
These girls spent all of their youth bound by their duty. They could not fall in love or get married, and many of them stayed in the religious order their entire lives. Despite being bound by the cult of Vesta, these women enjoyed a life of fame, fortune, and political freedom that other women in Rome were not allowed to have at that time.
Choosing the Vestals
Since the vestal virgins were such an important part of Roman society, all of the girls who tried out for the privilege came from aristocratic families. Girls were chosen at various ages, ranging from 6 to 10 years old. At any given time, there would only be 18 vestal virgins in the city of Rome. Every ten years, six new recruits were chosen to become the youngest virgins to leave their families to devote their lives to the god Vesta. Girls were chosen to begin their duties when they were still young and innocent, before their bodies had begun to go through puberty. Becoming a vestal virgin was an incredible honor, so the competition was fierce. Even girls of royal blood became vestal virgins. As the years went on, however, there were fewer aristocratic families who wanted their daughter to live as a vestal virgin, and the candidacy was opened up to the lower classes.
When the six girls were initiated into the temple, they were considered to be spiritually “married” to the god Vesta and the city of Rome. Instead of having a duty to their husbands, their duty was to society as a whole. Since they were being tasked with such a huge responsibility, the group of six girls were put through ten years of education and job training before they were expected to work. The teenage girls were in charge of training the youngest recruits, while the women in their 20’s and 30’s were the six ladies in charge of actually maintaining the fire of Vesta.
In ancient Rome, women had no control over their own lives. Everything was chosen for them by their fathers, including who they should marry. When they got married, their husbands were in charge of everything. They were not allowed to vote, could not own property, and they could not sign contracts without a man’s permission. Vestal virgins, on the other hand, were so respected in the city, that they were given rights equal to men. If a parent wanted their daughter to become a vestal virgin, it was actually very likely that they wanted their daughter to grow up to make her own choices and have a life of independence.
Even though they had a duty to their job, they were given a respected position in the community. Everywhere they went, they were given the VIP treatment. When they went to see events in the Colosseum, they were given some of the best seats that were usually reserved for royalty. They lived a short distance away from the Roman Forum, and they were allowed to vote on political issues just like aristocratic men. They also had the ability to pardon someone of their crimes.
Attacking a vestal virgin was one of the worst crimes anyone could ever commit, because they were seen as a direct connection to the gods. They were protected wherever they went, and anyone who dared to hurt them would be punished in the worst ways. Unlike most other women in Rome, the vestal virgins were able to live their lives without fear.
All of the vestal virgins lived in the House of Vestals, and whenever a new woman was appointed into the college, there was a marble statue created in her honor. Since the public could walk past these statues, and only 18 women were given the position at any given time, they were all known by name. When they went out in public, they were treated like superheroes protecting the sacred fire.
The Atrium Vestae
The vestal virgins lived in The House of the Vestals, or the “Atrium Vestae”, which was a mansion that was beyond extravagant. The building was three stories tall with 50 large rooms, as well as a manicured interior courtyard with two large pools. They were steps away from the Roman Forum and the Temple of Vesta, which were both in the center of the city. Basically, they lived in real estate that is beyond even the richest citizen’s wildest dream.
Since the Vestal Virgins job of tending the fire was so important, these women did not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. The West Wing of the Atrium contained a public hall where meetings were held, the kitchen, and food storage. The Vestal Virgins lived on the opposite end of the building, and they were given total privacy in their own small apartments with a bedroom and bathroom. There was a large banquet hall where members of the aristocracy and the families of the women would have been invited for parties.
Perhaps the best part about this luxurious living arrangement was the fact that these women were not forced to live in the Atrium Vestae. Once they reached the legal age of adulthood, they were free to buy houses outside of the Atrium if they wanted to. For the women who planned on getting married after her 30 years were over, they would make it a priority to find a home in the city and establish a life outside of the Atrium beforehand. However, there were plenty of women who were perfectly happy living in one of the most luxurious places in Rome, and continue with a life of being treated like royalty.
Celibacy and Fertility
In ancient Rome, all women had to remain celibate before marriage. Their fathers typically arranged their marriage when they were very young, and they were never given the option to date or fall in love. If a man was caught having sex out of wedlock, it was fine, but for a woman, it would be a death sentence. The age of consent was 12 for girls and 14 for boys, but many parents waited for their daughters to have an education before getting married, even if they had been promised to a man for years. They typically got married in their late teens to early 20’s.
The vestal virgins had to be celibate for the entire time they held their position in the priesthood. The mandatory length of their post was 30 years. At that point, they could decide if they wanted to continue on living the holy chaste life of a vestal virgin, or if they wanted to leave and begin their own lives as a normal woman out in society. They could get married, have children, travel, or do whatever they wanted in their retirement.
Since girls were chosen to join the priesthood when they were children, they did not get to retire from their duties until they were in their mid-to-late 30’s or early 40’s. At that point, most women’s fertility began to decline, and they were taught to suppress their sexuality during their youth. While it was not impossible for them to start their own family, the likelihood that they could have children was much lower. They were also totally inexperienced with sexuality or having a relationship with a man, so it was awkward, to say the least. Even though this fate was chosen for them by their parents, many women actually decided to continue to be vestal virgins for the rest of their lives, and continue a life of chastity.
The Vestal Virgin Style
Just like modern-day nuns and priests, vestal virgins wore a uniform every day. Their hairstyle was called called the “Vesti Crines”, and it was supposed to symbolized chastity and purity. It was traditionally worn by Roman women on their wedding day. Since vestal virgins were supposed to be “married” to Vesta and performing their duty as the god’s bride, it was part of their duty to look beautiful every time they performed the rituals and tended to the fire.
An archeological hairdresser named Janet Stephens studied the various Roman busts of vestal virgins in order to reverse-engineer the hairstyle using only the tools that would have been available at that time. She posted a step-by-step tutorial on YouTube, using a model to demonstrate the process. The hairstyle was incredibly time-consuming, and it required both the model and the hairdresser to hold braids in place, but the result truly is beautiful.
In order to achieve the look, the women’s hair was divided into seven braids, and each one was wrapped several times in a knot in the back of the head, and then wrapped around to the front, like a crown. The hair in the front of the face was braided with ribbons, or “vittae”. Then, it was tucked into a head dress or veil.
There were three layers to the intricate headdress. The “suffibulum” was a cloth used as a veil that was secured with a brooch. Underneath that was a turban head wrap called “infula”, made of wool that was knotted and tied around like ropes, and hang over the woman’s shoulders that look almost like dreadlocks. Since this outfit was so difficult to pull off, each vestal virgin had her own hairdresser that would help her get ready. Just like brides, the vestal virgins always wore white robes that were accented by colors. Their style of headdress would change as well, depending on their rank.
Long before the era of celebrity stylists, a woman who had maids devoted to helping her appear beautiful on a daily basis must have felt like becoming a princess. While it may seem tedious, it was considered to be a great honor, and vestal virgins walked through the city with confidence, as other women looked on with envy.
Breaking the Rules Was Dangerous
Even though the vestal virgins were powerful, independent single ladies, they still needed to follow the rules. If the fire of Vesta ever went out, the girl who was responsible was taken into the Pontifex Maximus, or high priest’s dungeon, where she was forced to strip naked. Then, the priest would whip her, leaving scars to remind her of that mistake for the rest of her life. To make matters worse, if anything bad happened immediately after the fire went out, they would assume that the gods were angry, and all of the blame rested on that girl’s shoulders.
The fear of corporal punishment combined with the peer pressure from six other women who lived with them on a daily basis was enough to keep them in line. While they must have formed close friendships with one another, nobody wanted to have the blame for making the gods angry, and they were not going to take the fall for one another. In fact, the women kept the fire going so well that it was far more likely for the temple to catch fire than it was for it to go out.
Among the leftover artifacts of Ancient Rome, there is a statue of a Chief Vestal woman whose head was removed from her statue. The inscriptions below the statue says that she violated her duty. Her name is scratched out, which was a practice the Romans did when they were punishing someone so harshly, they wanted to erase the memory of this person from history, as if they never existed. The inscription never mentioned what this woman did, but it insinuated that breaking almost any of the rules would have resulted in the same fate of being forgotten.
If a vestal was suspected of breaking her vow of chastity, the head priest superstitiously believed that the soul of Rome was weakened because of it, or that society was losing their connection with the gods. The punishment for having sex was death. Since no one was allowed to be buried within the confines of Rome, and no one was allowed to harm a vestal virgin, they got around this rule by building an underground tomb. They carried down a comfortable chaise lounge to sleep on, and a day’s worth of food and water. The woman was forced to climb into the dark tomb, and they would close her inside. She became trapped in total darkness, where she could feel her way to the chaise, eat, and wait to die. After a few days of being underground with very little air and food, she would eventually die from starvation. While these incidents were very rare, In 114 B.C., a vestal named Marcia was caught having a lover, and she was sentenced to underground burial.
Even thinking about sex was against the rules. They believed that having a “psychological virginity” was incredibly powerful. Obviously, these women would have been too afraid to speak up about their sexual feelings during puberty, so the priests would search for signs. One Vestal Virgin named Minucia was sentenced to death for her “improper love of dress”, or dressing in a sexually revealing way. Normally, the vestal’s robes covered up the shape of their bodies, and the veils covered up most of their face. So this may have been referring to wearing a form-fitting robe.
Unfortunately, these women became a scapegoat for all of city’s problems. Even if the vestal virgins followed all of the rules perfectly, that did not spare them from the possibility of being accused of indecent behavior. If the Roman army lost a battle, they decided that it must be because the fire went out, or one of the virgins had sex. The servants who worked in the temple would sometimes accuse one of the women of a crime, simply because they did not like them. Because of this, it was in a vestal virgins’ best interest to be sweet to their servants and follow the status quo.
If a vestal virgin chose to retire, she was still allowed to keep her rights of owning property, voting, and managing her own finances, even if she got married. They were the only women who did not have to give their rights up to their husbands. For a man who wanted absolute control over his wife, this was not a great match, but for a man who appreciated celebrity status and wanted a well-educated woman, they were extremely sought-after as brides.
After 30 years of service, almost every former vestal had saved up a good amount of money to make her financially comfortable, and she also received a monthly pension for the rest of her life. The Romans allowed divorce, so it was not uncommon for people to get married many times throughout their lives, as well. In some cases, men wanted to marry vestal virgins so badly, they were willing to leave their wife in order to be with one.
Unfortunately, just like in today’s society, there were men who went after these women in order to take advantage of them. There is one recorded incident of a man named Crassus who began to pursue a vestal virgin named Licinia while she was still part of the priesthood. She owned property, and Crassus believed that if he tricked the naive young woman into falling for him, he could convince her to sell him her house for a cheap price.
After all this flirting, courting, and sweet-talking, both Crassus and Licinia were caught having a conversation, and Crassus was forced to stand trial to explain himself. Crassus was already married and had children with his brother’s widow. He pleaded with the judge, explaining that he was not trying to take Licinia’s virginity. He just wanted to trick her into selling her property. He was eventually let go. Since he was known for being a shrewd businessman who was gobbling up local real estate, it was not out of character for him to do something like this. It is very possible that many other men saw marrying a vestal virgin as an opportunity to be part of a rare power couple in ancient Rome.
Emperor Elagabalus and Aquilia Severa
The 15th Emperor of Rome, Elagabalus, was only 14 years old when he came into power. When he was very young, he was one of the priests serving the Sun god, Elagabalus. All of this money and power at such a young age went to his head, and he lived his life as if he was truly invincible. During his time on the throne, he married five different women, and two men. He is remembered for being completely eccentric and trying to bend the rules of society in order to have as much fun as humanly possible.
A vestal virgin named Aquilia Severa was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Rome. She was also remembered for being interesting, intelligent, and had a bubbly personality that only made her more lovable and attractive. The fact that she was a Vestal Virgin with her own independence and financial freedom made her the object of every man’s desire.
When Elagabalus met Aquilia, he was so intrigued, that he divorced his first wife Cornelia Paula so that he could propose to marry her. Her 30 years of service as a vestal virgin had not been completed, so this was against the rules. Normally, a vestal virgin was supposed to reject male affection if he tried to court them too soon. Perhaps, since this was the Emperor, she felt that she did not have a choice to turn him down, or she believed his power trumped that of the Vesta cult.
Elagabalus believed that marrying Aquilia was justified, because he thought that since he had been the priest of the sun god when he was younger, and Aquila was a priestess of the fire goddess, it was a match made in Heaven. He believed that if they had children together, they would be like immortal demigods. However, after marrying her and taking her virginity, he grew bored of her, so he asked for a divorce. Aquilia was left with a tarnished reputation, and she was banished from returning to her post as a vestal virgin.
The sex-crazed teen emperor went on to marry and divorce two other women. He also married two men, who were athletes with chiseled abs. Homosexual marriage wasn’t exactly legal, but since he was the emperor, he made his own rules. In less than a year, he cycled through all of his lovers, and went back to Aquila Severa, demanding that they get married a second time. Apparently, he still wanted to go through with having their demigod babies, but he just wanted to have sex with whoever he wanted. At this point, it is not likely that Aquila married him willingly. Historians seem to agree that while the first marriage may have been exciting, she was most likely forced into the second marriage.
Of course, this caused a huge controversy. As the empress, Aquilia Severa’s face was placed on Roman coins, but her new royal appointment did not save her from public hatred. In the historic records, they called her a “fickle wretch” who succumbed to Elagabalus. They also mentioned that her indiscretions did not just hurt herself, but it also ruined her father’s reputation.
Roman citizens thought that Elagabalus was out of control, and far too immature to be the leader of the empire. The straw the broke the camel’s back was when he forced Aquila to marry him a second time. Even though she was removed from her duties, this still qualified as mistreatment of a vestal virgin, which is why they finally decided that he deserved to die. He was stabbed and decapitated, and his body was thrown in the Tiber river.
The Legend of Romulus and Remus
In the legend of Romulus and Remus, their mother, Rhea Silvia, was once the princess of Rome. Her uncle Amulius was known as being evil, and he brought down his own brother from the throne. He did not want his niece to ever have children that may grow up to compete with him for the throne, so he made sure Rhea became a vestal virgin. This way, the odds of her ever having children would be incredibly slim. After spending a few years living with the rest of the vestals, she got pregnant as a teenager. This should have been punishable by death. However, she managed to get out of it by claiming that the god Mars visited her while she was on duty, and a ghostly figure impregnated her.
In modern times, it would be clear that their mother was not actually impregnated by a god, and that she was just trying to spare herself from a death sentence. At that time, though, people truly believed vestal virgins had a connection to the gods. So it was not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Mars could have chosen her. Whenever vestal virgins did eventually have children after retiring from their duties, they were usually destined for greatness.
Instead of being sentenced to death, Amulius decided that Rhea’s punishment was that her children would not be allowed to survive. Her twin boys, Romulus and Remus, were left out to die of exposure. As the legend goes, they were nursed by a female wolf, until a shepherd discovered them and raised them with his wife. When they grew up, the boys learned of their true identities, and they overthrew their evil great-uncle Amulius. For centuries, Mars was still credited for being their father, and they were remembered as being demigods.
The Rise of Christianity
When Christianity first began to arise in the ancient Roman Empire, anyone who was caught practicing the new religion was killed and crucified, including Jesus Christ himself. Those struggles are forever re-told in The New Testament of the Bible. However, over time, this new religion slowly began to take over the pagan beliefs. Constantine was the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and he made it mandatory that all of his subjects also needed to convert. Once Christians were appointed in political positions of power, they decided to do away with the tradition of vestal virgins, and stop the practice of maintaining the fire in the temple.
When the Catholic Church became the primary religion in Rome, people stopped praising the pagan gods, and began to praise the one God written about in the Bible. However, the traditions of vestal virgins inspired the Christian traditions, and the evidence can still be seen to this day.
Catholic Nuns are traditionally virgins who live a life of chastity for as long as they hold their positions, because they are “married” to God. They wear veils over their head, which look remarkably similar to the headdresses once worn by the vestal virgins. They even live in convents together, similar to the set up with the Atrium Vestae. While nuns may not have the same level of celebrity in society as a whole, they are given a powerful appointment within the confines of the Church. They can also choose to leave the life of a nun and get married if they choose to, but they are not forced to serve for any specific length of time.
The ideals of a woman saving her virginity for marriage was also passed down to the Christian traditions, and brides continue to wear white dresses to symbolize purity to this very day. Christians still call Jesus’ mother as “The Virgin Mary”. The story of Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit has obvious parallels to the story of Rhea becoming pregnant with Romulus and Remus after being visited by the spirit of the god Mars. In both stories, the everlasting virginity and purity of these women is never doubted, and it continues to be a symbol of being close to God. Even though the pagan religion of ancient Rome has been long forgotten by most people in modern-day society, it is easy to see that its influence has never truly gone away.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion. Ariadne Staples. 2013
Portraits of the Vestal Virgins, Priestesses of Ancient Rome. Molly Lindner. 2015
Ancient Rome’s maidens – who were the Vestal Virgins? Jayne Lutwyche. BBC. 2012.
Atrium Vestae. Ann R. Raia. The College of New Rochelle. 2015.
The Life of Crassus. The Parallel Lives Vol III. Plutarch. 1916.
Descriptive catalogue of a cabinet of Roman imperial large-brass medals. William Henry Smyth. 1834
Vestal Hairdressing: recreating the “Seni Crines”. YouTube. Janet Stephens. 2013.