Around the year 420 BCE, a peculiar trial took place involving a young priestess in Rome. The priestess in question was a youthful and unruly member of the Vestal Virgins, and her name was Postumia. She, like the other members of her religious order, had been selected for the priestly office when she was between the ages of six and ten, at which point she was shepherded away by the pontifex maximus of Rome to join the cult of the hearth goddess, Vesta. It is unknown how old Postumia was in 420 BCE, but she was young enough to be more interested in fun, fashion, and pranks than in the religious duties that she had been chosen to carry out. Her youthful antics, however, earned her great criticisms from the more prudish members of the Roman elite. As Postumia’s record of witty quips, impious fashion choices, and rebellious stunts began to accumulate, her haughty superiors decided to crack down on her free spirit by putting her on trial for improper behavior.
As portrayed by the historian Livy (59 BCE- 17 CE), the trial of Postumia was more of a scare tactic to correct her behavior, instead of a true prosecution. Despite this, the experience would have been terrifying for the priestess. In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins could be beaten for neglecting their duties, and if they were proven to have broken their vow of chastity, the punishment was execution. Fortunately for Postumia, no evidence of any true misconduct was produced or manufactured during her trial and, ultimately, the worst punishment that the young priestess faced during her ordeal was a harsh talking-to from her boss, the pontifex maximus. The aforementioned Livy described the scene, writing, “She was remanded, and afterwards acquitted, with a warning from the Pontifex Maximus, in the name of the college of priests, to stop making jokes and to dress in [the] future with more regard to sanctity and less to elegance” (History of Rome, 4.44).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Dedication of a new Vestal Virgin, by Alessandro Marchesini (1663–1738), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.