Rome's Vestal Virgins: protectors of the city's sacred flame

Chosen as young girls, the priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, swore a 30-year vow of chastity and in turn were granted rights, privileges, and power unavailable to other women in Rome.

Highest Priestess

A second-century B.C. statue shows the distinctive dress of a Vestalis Maxima, chief of the Vestal Virgins.
Photograph by DEA/Album

Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the richest and most powerful Roman citizen in the first century B.C. Yet he nearly lost it all, his life included, when he was accused of being too intimate with Licinia, a Vestal Virgin. He was brought to trial, where his true motives emerged. As the first-century historian Plutarch recounts, Licinia was the owner of “a pleasant villa in the suburbs which Crassus wished to get at a low price, and it was for this reason that he was forever hovering about the woman and paying his court to her.” When it became clear that Crassus’ wooing was motivated by avarice rather than lust, he was acquitted, saving both his and Licinia’s lives.

One of the most remarkable elements of this story is the fact that Licinia owned a villa in the first place. Unlike other women, Licinia could own property precisely because she was a Vestal Virgin. The story of her trial also reveals how that privilege came with a price: A Vestal Virgin had to abstain from sex, a sacred obligation to one of Rome’s most ancient customs that would continue until Christianity ended the cult in A.D. 394.

According to Roman authors, the cult was founded by Numa Pompilius, a semi-mythical Roman king who ruled around 715 to 673 B.C. Unlike most Roman religious cults, worship of Vesta was run by women. The hearth was sacred to this goddess, one of Rome’s three major virgin goddesses (the other two being Minerva and Diana). The rites surrounding the Vestals remained relatively fixed from the time of the Roman Republic through the fourth century A.D.

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