Burning Needs

Vestal Virgin, The Roman Forum

Vestal Virgin, The Roman Forum

The Vestal Virgins, tended to the eternal flame of Rome.  This sacred fire of Vesta was allegedly brought from Troy by Aeneas, son of Venus and distant forefather of Romulus, Rome’s founder.  Romulus and his twin brother Remus’ mother, Rhea Silvia, was a Vestal Virgin (more on this fascinating tale of treason, fratricide, and immaculate conception later!).

The sacred fire of Vesta bore an elemental connection to Rome’s allegorical origins.  The Vestal Virgins also safeguarded the Trojan Palladium, a wooden statue of Athena (Greek) or Minerva (Roman), which acted as a protective talisman for the city.

Temple of Vesta, the hearth of Roma

Temple of Vesta, the hearth of Roma

These priestesses were part of an exceedingly honored and rarefied cult.  There were no more than six Vestal Virgins at a time and they were committed to their positions early, between the ages of 6 and 10, devoting themselves to a lengthy 30 years of service.  The priestesses wore white, flowing robes, physical signifiers of their vows of chastity.

The betrayal of this solemn vow had ominous consequences.  A Vestal Virgin who veered from her vow of chastity risked extinguishing the sacred fire of Vesta and she suffered cruel punishment, being buried alive.  The details of this form of strategically public punishment are vividly described by Plutarch:

The Vestal convicted of incest [losing her virginity] is buried alive in the neighborhood of the Porta Collina, under the Agger of Servius Tullius. Here is a crypt, small in size, with an opening in the vault, through which the ladder is lowered; it is furnished with a bed, an oil lamp, and a few scanty provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. These provisions (in fact, a refinement of cruelty) are prepared because it would appear a sacrilege to condemn to starvation women formerly consecrated to the gods. The unfortunate culprit is brought here in a covered hearse, to which she is tied with leather straps, so that it is impossible that her sighs and lamentations should be heard by the attendant mourners. The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse; not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the while city is shaken with terror and sorrow. The hearse being brought to the edge of the opening, the executioner cuts the bands, and the high-priest mutters an inaudible prayer, and lifts up his arms towards the gods, before bidding the culprit good-bye. He follows and assists her to the top of the ladder, and turns back at the fatal instant of her disappearance. As soon as she reaches the bottom, the ladder is removed, opening is sealed, and a large mass of earth is heaped upon the stone that seals it, until the top of the embankment is reached, and every trace of the execution made to disappear.

Chastity is deeply embedded in Roman history and culture as a profoundly important female virtue.  The Vestal Virgins’ cult aligns chastity with the perpetuation and protection of the city of Roma itself.  The painting below illustrates this relationship.

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Cibele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother, was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in 204 BC, during the second Punic War as a divine aid to winning a critical battle against Hannibal.  The ship holding the Cibele statue got stuck off shore near Ostia Antica on the Tiber River.  Vestal Virgin, Claudia Quinta, was called upon to pull the ship bearing the statue to shore (scholars suggest that the statue was a black meteorite rather than figurative personification of the goddess!).  Claudia Quinta’s ability to summon the strength to do so was contingent upon being fortified by chastity, which some questioned.  The priestess prayed to Vesta and thanks to Claudia Quinta’s chastity, she was able to pull the ship to shore with ease, thereby granting Rome much needed protection.

This is just one of many stories that reflects and inculcates a historic Roman sense of chastity as a virtue of utmost importance, a virtue that determines life or death as well as victory or defeat.

More broadly, it is informative to examine how allegories, rituals, and forms of punishment affect, generate, and sustain societal values, gender norms, and cultural expectations.