This illustration, by the German artist Nathaniel Sichel (c. 1843-1907), strives to re-create a member of the ancient Roman religious order of the Vestal Virgins. According to the ancient sources, candidates for the female-exclusive priestly office were selected when the girls were between the ages of six and ten. After being chosen, the new Vestal would be shepherded away by the pontifex maximus of Rome to join the cult of the hearth goddess, Vesta—the namesake of the order. As the Vestal Virgin title implied, the members of the order swore a temporary oath of chastity, and this vow, along with other religious duties, was no laughing matter. Vestal Virgins could be beaten for neglecting their responsibilities in the order, and if they were proven to have broken their vow of chastity, the punishment was execution. As it was taboo and sacrilegious for the blood of a Vestal Virgin to be spilled, the method of execution used against a disgraced Vestal was often horrifyingly inhumane, such as death by being buried alive (a way in which no blood would be shed). Fortunately, members of the Vestal Virgins did not spend their entire lifetime in the order. Instead, the typical amount of time that a woman spent in the order averaged around thirty years. Once they were officially out of the order, the former Vestals could marry—though most reportedly did not—and they also, unlike most other women in Rome, were able to oversee their own properties and estates without the influence of male kinsmen.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.