Who were the Vestal Virgins, and what was their job? – Peta Greenfield


A lone priestess walks towards
an underground chamber. People line the streets to watch
as she proclaims her innocence. It doesn’t matter. She’s already been judged
and found guilty. The sentence? Live burial. The underground chamber contains
a portion of bread, water, milk, and oil. She will have a lamp, a bed,
and a blanket, but she won’t emerge alive. At the threshold, the priestess pauses, claims her innocence one last time, then enters the chamber never
to be seen again by the Roman people. The priestess is one
of Rome’s six Vestal Virgins, each carefully selected as children
from Rome’s most aristocratic families. But now with her death,
there are only five, and a new priestess must be chosen. The six-year-old Licinia witnessed
the spectacle, never suspecting that a few days later,
she’d be chosen as the next Vestal Virgin. Her age, her patrician family lineage, and her apparent good health makes her the best candidate to serve the
goddess Vesta in the eyes of the Romans. Her parents are proud that their
daughter’s been chosen. Licinia is afraid,
but she has no choice in the matter. She must serve the goddess
for at least the next 30 years. For the first ten years
of Licinia’s service, she’s considered in training,
learning how to be a Vestal Virgin. Her most important duty is keeping vigil
over the flame of Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth. Vesta doesn’t have a statue
like other Roman gods and goddesses. Instead, she’s represented by the flame
which burns day and night in her temple located next to the Forum in the center
of the city. Like all Vestal priestesses, Licinia
spends part of each day on shift, watching and tending to the flame. The flame represents two things. The first is the continuation of Rome
as a power in the world. The Romans believed that if the flame
goes out, the city’s in danger. The flame also symbolizes the continuing
virginity of Vesta’s priestesses. For the Romans, a Vestal’s virginity
signaled not only her castitas, or modest spirit and body, but also her ritual purity. So Licinia knows she must never
let the flame go out. Her life, the lives of her fellow Vestals, and the safety of Rome itself
depends upon it. Licinia learns to collect water each day
from a nearby fountain to cleanse the temple. She learns the Fasti, the calendar
of sacred rituals and she watches while the senior
priestesses conduct sacrifices. By the time Licinia
completes her training, she’s 16 years old. Licinia understands that
the way she must act is a reflection of the goddess she serves. When it’s her turn to collect the water,
she keeps her eyes lowered to the ground. When she performs sacrifices,
she focuses intently on the task. Licinia directs her energy towards
being the best priestess she can be. She’s worried that someday the state
will claim her life for its own purposes to protect itself from danger. Licinia could be accused of incestum,
meaning unchastity, at any time and be sacrificed whether
she’s innocent or guilty. Licinia fully understands now why her
predecessor was buried alive. Ten years ago,
the flame of Vesta went out. The priestesses knew that they couldn’t
keep it a secret. The future of Rome depended upon it. They went to the chief priest
and he opened an investigation to discover why the flame had failed. Someone came forward and claimed
that one of the Vestals was no longer a virgin. That was the beginning of the end. The accused protested her innocence,
but it wasn’t enough. She was tried and found guilty. That Vestal’s death was meant
to protect the city, but Licinia weeps for what has been lost
and for what she knows now. Her own path was paved by the death
of another, and her life could be taken just as easily for something as simple
as a flame going out.

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