The Vestal Virgins

Wood engraving of Vestal Virgins in a temple.
ZU_09 / Getty Images

The Vestal Virgins were venerated priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth fire (full title: Vesta publica populi Romani Quiritium), and the guardians of the luck of Rome who could intervene on behalf of those in trouble. They prepared the mola salsa that was used in all state sacrifices. Originally, there were 2, then 4 (in Plutarch's time), and then 6 Vestal Virgins. They were proceeded by lictors, who carried the rods and ax that could be used to inflict punishments on the people, if necessary.

"Even today we believe that our vestal Virgins can root runaway slaves to the spot by a spell, provided the slaves have not left Rome."
—Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XXVIII, 13.

Selection of the Vestal Virgins

The first Vestal was taken from her parents "as though she had been captured in war," and led by the hand. It has been thought that the Vestal Virgins wore their hair in the seni crines style of brides where the six parts to be braided and piled up were separated by a spear. This first Vestal may have been taken by the second of 7 kings of Rome Numa Pomilius (or, possibly, Romulus, the first king and founder of Rome), according to the 2nd century A.D. Roman antiquarian Aulus Gellius (A.D. 123-170). According to Plutarch, in his life of Numa, there were originally two Vestals, and then 2 pairs under Servius Tullius named Gegania and Verenia, Cannulae and Tarpeia, representing the Romans and the Sabines. A third pair was formed when a third tribe was added to Rome. Since Romulus is credited with creating the three tribes this is problematic. Koptev says that an ancient grammarian, Festus says the six Vestals represented a division into three primary and three secondary Vestals, one of each for each tribe.

Their term as priestesses of the goddess Vesta was 30 years, after which they were free to leave and marry. Most Vestal Virgins preferred to remain single after retirement. Before that, they had to maintain chastity or face a frightening death.

The Perfection of the Vestal Virgin

Girls from the ages of 6 to 10, originally from patrician, and later, from any freeborn family, were eligible to become Vestals (sacerdotes Vestales). They may have originally represented the daughters of the chief/priest, according to William Warde Fowler in The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (1899). Besides aristocratic birth, vestals had to meet certain criteria assuring their perfection, including being free of bodily imperfection and having living parents. From those offered, the selections were made by lot. In exchange for a commitment of 30 years (10 in training, 10 in service, and 10 training others) and a vow of chastity, Vestals were emancipated, and so, free to administer their own affairs without a guardian (that is, they were free of their father's potestas), given honor, the right to make a will, luxurious accommodations at state expense, and when they went out lictors carrying rods proceeded them. They wore distinctive dress and probably seni crines, the hairstyle of a Roman bride.

"The Vestals are accompanied by three togate attendants, of whom the first and last are lictors, each carrying the two rods that in this period apparently distinguish the lictores curiatii assigned to the service of the priests. They wear mantles closely wrapped and over their heads the suffibulum, the white head-covering fastened under the chin which appears in other reliefs representing the Vestal Virgins. The first four carry sacred objects: a small spherical incense jar, a simpulum (?), and two large rectangular objects, possibly tablets containing the sacred ritual."
"Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art," by Inez Scott Ryberg; Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 22, Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art (1955); p. 41.

Special privileges were granted the Vestal Virgins. According to "Burial customs and the pollution of death in ancient Rome: procedures and paradoxes," by Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers, it was required that people be buried outside the city (beyond the Pomoerium) except for a privileged few that included the vestals.

The Functions of the Vestals

The Vestals' chief function was the preservation of an undying fire (ignis inextinctus) in the shrine of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, but they had other functions as well. On May 15, the Vestals threw straw figurines (Argei) into the Tiber. At the beginning of the June Vestalia festival, the inner sanctum (penus) of the circular shrine to Vesta, in the forum Romanum, was opened for women to bring offerings; otherwise, it was closed to all but the Vestals and the Pontifex Maximus. The Vestals made holy cakes (mola salsa) for the Vestalia, according to ritual prescriptions, from special salt, water, and grain. On the last day of the festival, the temple was ritually cleansed. The Vestals also kept wills and participated in ceremonies.

The last known chief Vestal (vestalis maxima) was Coelia Concordia in A.D. 380. The practice ended in 394.

Control Over and Punishment of the Vestal Virgins

The Vestals weren't the only priestly office Numa Pompilius instituted. Among others, he created the office of Pontifex Maximus to preside over rites, prescribe rules for public ceremony, and watch over the Vestals. It was the Pontifex' task to administer their punishment. For some offenses, a Vestal might be whipped, but if the sacred fire went out, it proved a Vestal was impure. Her impurity threatened the safety of Rome. A Vestal who lost her virginity was buried alive in the Campus Sceleratus (near the Colline gate) amid solemn ritual. The Vestal was brought to steps leading down to a room with food, a bed, and a lamp. After her descent, the steps were removed and dirt heaped on the entrance to the room. There she was left to die.

Virginity of the Vestal

The reasons behind the virginal status of the Vestals have been scrutinized by classicists and anthropologists. The Vestals' collective virginity may have been a form of binding magic preserving the safety of Rome. As long as it remained intact, Rome would remain safe. Should a Vestal be unchaste, her brutal ritual sacrifice would punish not only her but whatever might be polluting Rome. Should a Vestal become ill, she must be tended by a married woman outside the sacred area (aedes Vesta), according to Holt N. Parker, citing Pliny 7.19.1.

From "Why Were The Vestals Virgins? Or The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State," Holt N. Parker writes:

Contagious magic, on the other hand, is metonymic or synecdochic: "The part is to the whole as the image is to the represented object." The Vestal represents not only the idealized role of Woman -- a fusion of the archetypal roles of la Vergine and la Mamma into the figure of la Madonna -- but also the citizen body as a whole.
A Roman woman existed legally only in relation to a man. A woman's legal status was based entirely on this fact. The act of freeing a Vestal from any man so that she was free to incarnate all men removed her from all conventional classifications. Thus she was unmarried and so not a wife; a virgin and so not a mother; she was outside patria potestas and so not a daughter; she underwent no emancipatio, no coemptio and so not a ward.


  • "Why Were The Vestals Virgins? Or The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State," by Holt N. Parker. American Journal of Philology 125.4 (2004) 563-601.
  • Dictionary of Roman Religion, by Leslie and Roy Adkins.
  • Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers, "Burial customs and the pollution of death in ancient Rome: procedures and paradoxes," Acta Theologica, Vol.26:2 2006
  • "'Three Brothers' at the Head of Archaic Rome: The King and His 'Consuls,'" by Alexandr Koptev; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte
  • , Vol. 54, No. 4 (2005), pp. 382-423.
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Gill, N.S. "The Vestal Virgins." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, September 10). The Vestal Virgins. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Vestal Virgins." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 23, 2021).