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408. Vestal Virgins. Rome, 7th cent. B.C. (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10, exc. 2nd cent. A.D. G)

The goddess of the hearth, Vesta, was served by six virgins, whose duty it was to keep the sacred fire which took the place of a cult statue. Vesta's temple was a round building in the Roman Forum. Its institution was attributed to Numa Pompilius, the pious second king of Rome (715-673 B.C.), who succeeded the warlike Romulus.[1]

(10.1) At first they say that Gegania and Verenia were made priestesses by Numa, and next Canuleia and Tarpeia. Later Servius added two more, to bring the number up to what has been since that time. The king set the term of service for the holy virgins at thirty years; in the first decade they learn their duties, in the middle decade they do what they have learned, and in the third they teach others. (10.2) After that a virgin is free to marry if she wishes to or to adopt another style of life, once her term of service has been completed. But few are said to have welcomed this opportunity, and that matters did not go well for those who did, but rather because they were afflicted by regret and depression for the rest of their lives they inspired pious reverence in the others, so that they remained constant in their virginity until old age and death.

(10.3) Numa gave them significant honours, one of which is the right to make a will during their father's lifetime and to conduct their other business affairs without a guardian, like the mothers of three children.[2]

When they go out they are preceded by lictors with the fasces, and if they accidentally happen to meet a criminal being led to execution, his life is spared. The virgin must swear that the meeting was involuntary and accidental and not planned. Anyone who goes underneath a Vestal's litter when she is being carried is put to death. (10.4)

The Virgins' minor offences are punished by beating, which is administered by the Pontifex, with the offender naked, and in a dark place with a curtain set up between them. A Virgin who is seduced is buried alive near what is known as the Colline gate. At this place in the city there is a little ridge of land that extends for some distance, which is called a 'mound' in the Latin language.[3]

(10.5) Here they prepare a small room, with an entrance from above. In it there is a bed with a cover, a lighted lamp, and some of the basic necessities of life, such as bread, water in a bucket, milk, oil, because they consider it impious to allow a body that is consecrated to the most holy rites to die of starvation.[4]

They put the woman who is being punished on a litter, which they cover over from outside and bind down with straps, so that not even her voice can be heard, and they take her through the Forum. Everyone there stands aside silently and follows the litter without a word, in serious dejection. There is no other sight so terrifying, (10.7) and the city finds no day more distasteful than that day. When the litter is borne to the special place, the attendants unfasten her chains and the chief priest says certain secret prayers and lifts his hands to the gods in prayer because of he is required to carry out the execution, and he leads the victim out veiled and settlers her on the ladder that carries her down to the room. Then he, along with the other priests, turns away. The ladder is removed from the entrance and a great pile of earth is placed over the room to hide it, so that the place is on a level with the rest of the mound. That is how those who abandon their sacred virginity are punished. Return to the top

409. Vestal Virgins. Rome (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12. L)

The Vestal Virgin, at what age and from what sort of family and by what ritual and ceremonies and rites and under what title, she is taken by the Pontifex Maximus, and what rights she has as soon as she is taken; and that, as Labeo [5] says, by law she cannot be heir of an intestate person nor can anyone be her heir if she dies intestate.

Those who have written about the taking of a virgin, of whom the most diligent was Labeo Antistius, say that it is unlawful to take a girl younger than six or older than ten, or to take a girl whose father and mother are not living, or who has a speech or hearing defect, or any other bodily imperfection. She must not have been freed from her father's power, even if her father is alive and she is in the power of her grandfather; likewise, neither of her parents must never have been slaves nor held lowly occupations. But they say that she is exempt if her sister was elected to the priesthood; likewise if her father is a flamen or auger or one of the Fifteen in charge of the Sibylline Books,[6] one of the Seven of the banquets, or a Salian priest (of Mars).[7] Also exempt are girls who are betrothed to a pontifex or daughters of priests of the tubilustrium. Moreover, Ateius Capito writes that the daughter of a man who does not have a residence in Italy cannot be chosen, and the daughter of a man who has three children is to be excused.

As soon as a Vestal Virgin is taken and brought to the atrium of Vesta[8] and handed over to the pontifices, from that moment she leaves her father's power without being emancipated and without diminution of her rights and gains the right to make a will.

As to the custom and ritual of taking a virgin we do not possess ancient writings, except that the first one was taken by Numa when he was king. But we find the Papian law, according to which under the direction of the Pontifex Maximus twenty girls are to be chosen from among the people and one of these chosen by lot in an assembly and the Pontifex Maximus takes the winner who now belongs to Vesta. But the lottery of the Papian law is usually not needed nowadays. For if a man of respectable birth goes to the Pontifex Maximus and offers his daughter for the priesthood, insofar as it can be done in keeping with the religious observations, he is given exemption from the Papian law by the senate.

The word "taken" is used, so it seems, because the Pontifex Maximus literally takes her by the hand and leads her away from the parent in whose power she is, as though she had been captured in war. In his first book, Fabius Pictor gives the words the Pontifex Maximus must say when he takes a virgin. They are: 'I take you, Amata, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal on the best terms.[9]

Many think that the term "taken" should apply only to Vestal Virgins, but also the Flamines Diales, and pontiff and augurs were said to be "taken". Lucius Sulla wrote in book two of his autobiography: 'Publius Cornelius, who was the first to receive the cognomen Sulla, was taken as flamen Dialis." Marcus Cato, writing on the Lusitanians, accused Servius Galba: 'Nevertheless they say he wanted to revolt. I now want to know pontifical law as well as possible; does that mean I am to be 'taken' as pontiff? If I want to know augury, should I be 'taken' for an augur?'

Moreover, in Labeo's Commentaries on the Twelve Tables, he wrote: 'A Vestal Virgin is neither heir to an intestate person nor is anyone her heir if she dies intestate, but her estate passes to the public treasury. It is not certain what the law meant.'

The Pontifex Maximus calls the girl 'Amata' when he takes her because that is the traditional name of the first Vestal Virgin to be taken.Return to the top


1. See Beard, 1980.

2. On the privilege of the ius triorum liberorum, cf. 154.

3. The Latin word is agger.

4. Creon orders similar arrangements to be made for Antigone in Sophocles' play, also in order not to incur pollution, 772-6.

5. A jurist.

6. The Sybilline books, which contained prophecies by the sibyl of Cumae, were guarded by a special ten-man priesthood and consulted in emergencies of state.

7. Other priesthoods.

8. The headquarters of the priesthood, in the Roman Forum.

9. I.e., 'with all a Vestal's entitlements'. See Leofranc p. 221 n. 38.