PORTRAITS OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS, PRIESTESSES OF ANCIENT ROME

By Molly M. Lindner

Michigan (2015) h/b 318pp £95.95 (ISBN 9780472118953)

Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was one of Rome’s most ancient and venerable deities.  Her annual festival, the Vestalia, was held in June.  The priestesses who ministered to Vesta were six ‘Vestal Virgins’.  These were patrician ladies of fine physique, who had been chosen by the Senate.  When appointed, the Vestals were aged between 6 and 10.  To modern eyes that seems a bit young for making career choices.

The Vestals served for at least 30 years and usually longer. They lived together in a special house and their main job was to keep a sacred fire burning on the hearth.  The Chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima) was in charge. The Pontifex Maximus had overall control of the college of Vestal Virgins.  After 12 BC that meant the Emperor.

The Vestals had a prominent role in ceremonies to honour Vesta. There was much burning of incense, so that pleasant smells wafted up to heaven.  The goddess also required sacrifices.  Some of these were a bit gory: for example, killing a pregnant cow, extracting the foetuses and then burning them.

In this delightful book Molly Lindner pulls together both literary and archaeological sources to tell the ‘story’ of the Vestals. Contrary to their modern image, they did not live like Catholic nuns.  They played an active part in public life and enjoyed high status.  They had retinues of clients and much business to attend to, both religious and secular.  The great and the good, including the Emperor and senators, were regular visitors to their residence.

The sumptuous house in which these ladies lived underwent many changes over the centuries, especially after the great fire of AD 64. It included a central courtyard in which the statues of prominent Vestals stood.  The remains of the house and many of the statues or their bases came to light during excavations in the 1880s.

The Vestals were presented as exemplars of feminine virtues: in particular inviolability (sanctitas), modesty (pudicitia) and piety in the performance of rituals (pietas).   Any misbehaviour had dire consequences.  If a Vestal let the fire go out, she was beaten.  If she lost her virginity, the punishment was execution by being buried alive.  Mere suspicion of sexual misbehaviour could be fatal for the virgins—Domitian executed four of them on dubious grounds.  Modern notions of employees’ rights and due process had no place in the ancient world.

The centrepiece of the book is chapter 6, the ‘catalogue’ of the sixteen Vestals whose statues (or at least the heads) survive. Eleven come from the second century and five from the early third century.  They range from Chief Vestals to more junior members of the college.  The girl at number 8 in the catalogue seems to be aged about fifteen.  The distinctive feature of all of them is the magnificent headdress.

Professor Lindner gives a fascinating account of the headdresses. For this she draws on Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius and imperial relief sculptures, as well as the sixteen statue heads.  The headdress had three elements:

  • Infulae—strands of wool wrapped around the head in parallel rows, covering the braided hair;
  • Vittae—long strands of wool that hung over the shoulders and back;
  • Suffibula—rectangular fabric, worn over the infulae and vittae when the virgin was sacrificing.

These ladies must have caused quite a sensation, as they passed through the city displaying their fabulous hair-dos. Luckily, whenever the Vestals were out and about, lictors accompanied them ready to beat off any plebs who came too close.

All great institutions must come to an end. The rise of Christianity meant no more public funding for the college of Vestal Virgins.  Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan, took particular exception to the privileges and wealth enjoyed by these ladies.  By the end of the fourth century the Vestal Virgins were disbanded.

This book combines some serious scholarship with much human interest. I commend it to all who enjoy the classics.                                                                                                                                         Rupert Jackson

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