A woman named Minucia was a member of the prestigious religious order of the Vestal Virgins in Rome during the second half of the 4th century BCE. She, like the other members of her religious order, had been selected for the priestly office when she was between six and ten years of age, at which point she was shepherded away by the pontifex maximus of Rome to join the cult of the hearth goddess, Vesta. As a Vestal Virgin, Minucia led a privileged and prominent life, yet her ascendance up the social hierarchy came at a price. As the name of the group suggests, the Vestal Virgins were required to remain chaste during their period of active service in the religious order, with their terms typically lasting for thirty years. During those decades, Vesta’s priestesses had to be on their best behavior, for enforcement of the rules and restrictions imposed on the Vestal Virgins in Rome was no joke. A Vestal found guilty of neglecting her religious duties could be legally beaten as punishment, and an exponentially worse fate was reserved for Vestals who were deemed to have broken their vow of chastity. Minucia’s story, unfortunately, became a prime example of the horrors potentially faced by Vestal Virgins that ran afoul of the authorities in Rome.
According to Roman tradition and its early folkloric history, the breach of trust between Minucia and the pontiffs of Rome began innocently enough. As told by the ancient Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17CE), “Vestal Minucia first attracted suspicion by her dress, which was more elegant than was proper…” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.15). Now, other Vestals in the past had been charged with similar accusations of improper wardrobe and only received a strict talking-to in way of punishment, as was the case of a certain Vestal named Postumia who was criticized but acquitted in a trial that was said to have taken place around 420 BCE. Minucia, however, would not prove to be so lucky as her ancient predecessor. Perhaps, she had made enemies among the authorities in Rome. Whatever the case, the Roman investigators spared no effort in digging up (or manufacturing) evidence that could seal Minucia’s fate in trial.
When Minucia was first charged with dressing improperly, she was banned from performing her religious duties. Curiously, it was also forbidden for her to free any slaves that worked in her household, presumably so that the authorities would have free reign to implement torture during the questioning of the enslaved workers. During interrogations under torture, tortured individuals often respond to leading questions and regurgitate the narrative that interrogators want to hear. Something of this kind might have occurred during the interrogation of Minucia’s servants, for the questions and answers gradually led into topics that were more incriminating than mere improper dress. Instead of building a case around solid evidence, the authorities based their argument around the dubious torture-coerced testimony. Unfortunately, in the ancient world, this was enough to condemn an accused woman to an abysmal end. On the trial that ensued, Livy wrote:
“[Minucia] was subsequently charged before the pontiffs on the evidence of a slave. She was ordered by their decree to abstain from performing sacred rites and to retain her household slaves in her power; after sentence was passed she was buried alive near the Colline Gate, to the right of the paved road, in the Polluted Field—a place so named, I believe, from her unchastity” (Livy, Roman History, 8.15).
Such was the fate of the Vestal Virgin, Minucia. After being accused of having too elegant of a wardrobe, the resulting investigation spiraled out of control, ending with her being charged with unchastity. The trial, and her resulting execution by being buried alive, reportedly occurred around the year 337 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Lucius Albinius Rescues the Vestal Virgins, attributed to Antonio Giuseppe Basoli (c. 1774–1843), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian Institute).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.