Vesta - Pontifex Maximus
The Romans aped Greek art, Greek ideas, Greek gods. Aphrodite became famous. Zeus, Jupiter. Rome did everything Greece did
to the power of X. Mighty Rome also permitted the influence of women in the religious sphere and one story in particular reveals
an intriguing insight into how Rome viewed its women.
The Roman Forum was once the political and religious centre of the Eternal City. Here, right in the heart of ancient Rome, there
was a religious institution that the Romans believed pre-dated even Romulus and Remus. Its initiates were thought to be responsible
for the security of the city itself. And each and every one of them was a woman. Their cult was said to have lasted for over 1000
years. They were six priestesses, known as the Vestal Virgins.
Statues of the Vestal Virgins
The criteria for becoming a Vestal was very strict. Only prime specimens would pass the test. The highest-ranking priest in
Rome, the Pontifex Maximus, selected the girls between the ages of six and ten. They had to be of noble birth, both their parents
had to be alive and they had to be free of any kind of mental or physical deformity. But the key condition that they had to agree
to for at least the next 30 years was to remain virgins.
Every day of their service, each of the girls was to wear a wedding dress. Free from any male guardianship, they became the
brides of Rome itself.
To find out about their extraordinary lives, I've come to the remains of am extremely grand villa where the Vestals once
lived, to meet Corey Brennan from the American Academy in Rome.
Corey "In a weird way, the individual Vestals were the embodiment of the Roman state and it had no family. They were
totally on their own. This was unique for women. No-one owned them. But, on the other hand, all eyes were on them, as well."
And how far would these lives bear any relation to the lives of ordinary women in Rome?
Corey "For ordinary woman, there could not be more of a gulf. If you're going to a gladiatorial game at the Coliseum, where
you see the Vestal Virgins in the front rows. Where the other women would be at the top tier, in the nosebleed section with the
slaves. So there is an enormous, enormous gap between the Vestal Virgins and ordinary women."
Right next to the house of the Vestals was the Temple of the goddess they served. Her name was Vesta and she was the deity
in charge of the hearth and of fire. And the single most important duty of the vestals was to keep her sacred fire alive. The
Romans believed that if the sacred fire kept burning, then Rome would survive. And the fire of Rome holds the key to why the
vestals had to be Virgins.
Why was this virginity so important? I mean, for the people of Rome, what did their virginity represent?
Corey "The virginity goes part and parcel with a larger idea of perfection. Their purity resembled or mirrored, the purity
of the flame itself. They have to remain virgins, anyway, because they really had to keep the fire going at all times. Any
distraction whatsoever from this very important work was too great to risk. So the whole idea of having sexual liaisons or
really any sort of non-prescribed activity, all of this was a danger to the flame that represented the continuity and safety
of the Roman state."
The vestals virginity, their capacity to create life, stored and held back, was the potent force which fuelled the vestal's
flame. The vestals, arguably, had the most important job in Rome. But that status came at a price. They lived on a knife-edge.
For the crime of allowing the fire to go out, vestals would be taken to a dark room by Pontifex Maximus, where she'd be
stripped and beaten. But there is another crime that carried an even greater punishment. If the vestals lost their virginity,
then they were no longer able to protect Rome, and that deserved more than just a beating.
Ancient historians Cicero and Asconius tell us that then 114 BC not one, but three vestals were accused of the crime of
incestum - losing their precious virginity. Their names were Marcia, Aemelia and Licinia. A slave who worked for the vestals
let slip that the three were no longer Virgins. Marcia he said, had taken just one lover. But the other two had slept with
many men, including one another's brothers. There are even rumours of group sex.
But it was only Marcia who was found guilty and condemned to death. And the way she was killed is the stuff of nightmares.
To harm a Vestal was to threaten the very existence of Rome... ..And so an elaborate, chilling method of disposal was devised
to free the city and its occupants from blame. Marcia was dressed in her funerary clothes and her hands and feet were bound. She
was put into a sedan chair and carried through the streets of Rome with family and priests either side, as if they were going to
But, of course, at this point, Marcia was still alive. After being paraded before the citizens of Rome, the funeral procession
arrived at the entrance to an underground tomb. With her hands still tied, the Pontifex Maximus himself led her in. When she
reached the ladder at the entrance to the tomb, all the priest present turned there back in her. Once she reached the bottom,
the ladder was taken away and the entrance to the tomb was sealed.
In ancient Rome, religion gave a select group of women a key role as priestesses… At the price of their freedom.