Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Vestalia closes...

A last look at the Vestals of Ancient Rome since today is the 15th June and the end of the festival of Vestalis.  

Who became a Vestal?

The Vestalis Maximus, chief vestal priestess, gathered together a number of female candidates between the ages of six and ten. The girls needed to be free of physical and mental defects, had to be a daughter of a free born resident of Rome and both parents were required to be alive to give permission for the commitment of their child to the Vestal priestesshood.

File:August Pio-Clementino Inv259.jpg

Marble statue of Augustus Caesar as the Pontifex Maximus- Vatican Museums 

The new recruit was then chosen by the Pontifex Maximus, the highest male priest in the college of priests of Ancient Rome. After picking one girl from the selection presented to him he solemnly invested the new recruit, after which the girl’s hair was shorn. During the earliest times in Rome, during the Republic till just pre-Empire, the Pontifex Maximus lived in the Domus Publica which was next to the House of the Vestals, and he was in post till he died (somewhat like the Pope of the Roman catholic Religion today). He had other officiating duties for the priests of Rome as well as those for the Temple of Vesta.

It was also the duty of the Pontifex Maximus, as a surrogate father, to give an ex-vestal to her new husband if she married. Augustus, as the first Emperor of Rome, took on the role of the Pontifex Maximus and it became one of the duties of the Emperor, though I doubt they ever stayed in the Domus Publica and probably delegated some of the other official duties.

The pre-pubescent vestal virgins were sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years which followed a three-stage process. 1. The first 10 years were spent as students. 2) The middle 10 years were when they gave service to the Temple and the priestess-hood. 3) The last 10 years were spent as teachers of the newest recruits.  After the 30 year period, they were given a pension from the state and could marry but it was likely to be after their most fertile years. They would again, as an ordinary female of Rome, be required to be under the domination of a husband who might curtail the freedoms they had as Vestals. However, a marriage to a former Vestal was regarded as highly prestigious and favoured by higher echelons of Roman society- the pension might have been pretty important as well!

If a vestal died during office she was replaced by a most virtuous candidate who need not be a virgin. (Tacitus quotes the instance of Domitius Pollio’s daughter being chosen over that of Gaius Fonteius Agrippa)

As keepers of the sacred fire, the Vestals could dispense fire to anyone in Rome for household use. Since the temple fire was a collective fire for all of Rome, they were metaphorically dispensing the emperor's household fire. Vestals also maintained the safety of the wills and testaments of notable people during the republic and held safe important public documents, like treaties, since they were regarded as incorruptible. They were allowed to vote – unlike other Roman women- and could own property. Their word was taken without being under oath, their trust undeniable.

Another sacred object in their safekeeping was the Palladium, a revered cult image said to have been taken from Troy to Rome in antiquity, which was zealously guarded. Their word was sacrosanct and they could overturn the law in that if they touched a condemned prisoner, or a slave, the person was automatically pardoned. If a prisoner sentenced to death saw a Vestal on the way to execution then they were pardoned and freed. Though, if anyone harmed a Vestal, a death sentence would be their punishment.

Any breaking of the Vestal Rules was severely punished, a scourging administered if the sacred fire was allowed to die out. The loss of their chastity was a dire event. As daughters of the state, any loss of their virginity and any sexual relationships engaged in meant the health of the state was lost. Sexual congress with a vestal was considered incest and an act of treason. Death was the punishment for the vestal but she could not be killed, her blood could not be shed. She was therefore incarcerated underground in a vault near the outskirts of the city, at the Campus Scleratus, with food and water for a couple of days. In this way she could be put underground but not ‘buried’ in the city as burial of the dead within the city was forbidden under Roman law.  

It was rare that this loss of virginity happened to vestals over the many hundreds of years that the cult survived but the theory was that the vestal was stripped of her official vestal attire; she was scourged and dressed like a corpse; she was then placed on a covered litter and carried to the Campus Scleratus as though in a funeral procession, with weeping and wailing attendants.  

Vestals officiated at public ceremonies, They sat in a place of honour and were kept safe by their guards or protectors. When out and about in Rome they travelled in a covered two-wheeled carriage, a carpentum, and all other traffic gave way to them. This was made easier by the lictor, a special official attendant who walked in front of the carriage, and announced their arrival. He carried the fasces which was a bundle of rods with an axe at the centre- a threatening object indeed!

File:Chief Vestal.jpg

Vestals wore simple clothes of mainly white which symbolised their purity. As well as tight band around the chest (mamillare) they wore a simple undergarment (tunica) close to their skin. On top of that they wore a robe (stola)- a pleated dress which was a symbol of the respectability of marriage for the Roman woman. The stola was held in place with clasps (fibulae) at the shoulder and chords (stophium) were tied under the breasts and around the waist to tighten the dress and form multiple drapes.

When they ventured outside, a palla was worn. This was a simple mantle or cloak with a brooch (fibula) at the left shoulder to hold it in place. A simple band (vitta) kept the plaited hair of three or six braids (sex crines) in place on a daily basis but a special ceremonial band (infula) was worn around the head as a symbol of inviolability or religious consecration. During ceremonies this band might be both red and white or separate red and white ribbons hung under the short white veil (suffibulum) which possibly had a purple border and draped down to the shoulders.

Shoes worn by vestals were white and made from the skins of sacrificed animals. The styles could be of the simple Roman sandal (solea), a sandal with a loop into which the big toe was placed (mitten) or the Roman shoe (calceus).

This is my last post on the Vestal Virgins of Rome—unless I unearth more relevant information.


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