On February 4, the House of the Vestal Virgins at the foot of the Palatine Hill in the Roman Forum was reopened after 20 years of archaeological restoration. Six Vestals and three Senators strolled through the remains of the former three-story 50-room palace, eyeing the mostly headless statues of the Vestals, the gardens and the fountains in the Atrium, the space that is now open to the public.
The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the virgin Goddess of Hearth, Home and Family, responsible for keeping the sacred fire burning in her temple. The Pontifex Maximus, the High Priest in ancient Rome, chose the Vestals from young girl candidates from Roman patrician families.
In exchange for their duties, they were freed of any social obligations to marry and raise children, making them some of the most privileged and liberated women in ancient Rome. They lived in luxury and were not under the thumb of an oppressive male head of household (father, husband, or brother) who could do what he wanted to his women.
The trade-off was a vow of chastity for their 30-year period of service. After that time, they could marry, but few chose to leave their luxurious lifestyle only to submit to the strict restrictions on women imposed by Roman law. In fact, they had significant privileges; including: transport to public games and performances; reserved seats of honor; freedom to own property, make a will, and vote; ability to pardon condemned prisoners; and sacred status so that anyone injuring them was given the death penalty.
However, a Vestal who allowed the fire to die out was punishable by whipping with a special Roman whip made of leather and metal. Any goddess who lost her virginity was buried alive. Ironically, the only statue with a head in the Atrium of the Vestals is one of the ten Vestals, now nameless, who was buried alive in the 1,000 years of the Cult of the Vestals (717-673 BC to 394 AD).
Fortuitous timing for the Vestals to be honored again, given the thousands of women who will be marching in indignation in 200 cities in Italy this weekend.
An in depth look by Trisha Thomas at Associated Press with Laura Weinstein about the “return” of the Vestal Virgins is available on youtube.