Vestal Virgins back in the Forum

February 11, 2011 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Italy

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.

Gretchen Bloom

by Gretchen Bloom reader and Central Italy expert. Also a recent Senior Advisor at the UN’s World Food Program as well as head of WFP’s Programme Unit in Kabul, Afghanistan, for 15 months. Expert in gender issues and community health.

14 Responses to “Vestal Virgins back in the Forum”

  1. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Excellent article Gretchen and I so like the photographs with the white robes and the blue sky above.

  2. I am so glad you have sent us this article. After reading the new book Cleopatra,which did include the Roman Forum so many times, now seeing the Vestal Virgins in your article is so authentic.
    I am so glad , that part of the Roman Forum is now open to the public. Hopefully my husband and I will be going back to Italy in 2012.We will then continue our tour of the Roman Forum again.
    Thank you again for the wonderful article.

  3. What a wonderful factoid of Roman history — grazie tanti!! I’ll remember that next time guests come to town and I take them out and about!

  4. Virginia C. Mars

    I enjoyed reading the article and learned much more about Vestal Virgins. However, out of curiosity (or ignorance?) why are the Italian women marching in 200 cities? In indignation of what?

  5. Joseph Galascione

    Was there really a need to use the re-opening of such a huge archaeological treasure to throw in a barb at the Prime Minister? I read these articles to see the places, foods, history and people of Italy, not to listen to political jibes. I appreciate you focusing on such a beautiful site as the House of the Vestals however the people dressed up in the pictures seem very bizarre. I just hope the times I visit Roma I avoid similiar crowds.

  6. Ms Bloom: Wonderful article. Alway wondered just what the Vestal Virgins did. Will return to ROme in Septmeber and will look forward to seeing the restoration. Thank you

  7. Frank cilea

    I enjoyed reading the article, you made me re-live my childhood, born and raised in LA VECCHIA ROMA, CITTA’ ETERNA.
    Grazie mille

  8. Madelyn Pesci

    I too am interested in knowing why the indignant Italian women will be marching. I couldn’t find any reference to it online.

  9. Virginia C. Mars

    Thank you Penny. I assumed that it had something to do with Mr. Berlusconi. I don’t blame them for protesting!


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