The powerful and long-lasting Roman empire based its success and continuity on a group of six female priestesses, the Vestal virgins. As long as the Vestals remained chaste and they watched over the eternal fire of Vesta, the Rome would conquer new territories and stay as the leader of the known world.
The Vestal virgins gave thirty years for the cult, for which time they had to remain virgins and faithfully execute all their religious duties. Unlike the other priests of Rome, they were faced with the capital punishment if they failed. To counterbalance their heavy responsibilities the Vestals were bestowed with impressive privileges which gave them large independence, influential social status and considerable economic wealth.
In my dissertation I have studied this question of the Vestals’ social influence and power; how the privileges enabled them to achieve an independent position, and what was it like to be a priestess of Vesta in the third century Rome. Ultimately my work answers a question of how religious office holding was used to exercise power and how it benefitted the priestesses and their families and clients. These questions are studied in the third century context which makes a fascinating and yet unexplored approach for my work.
During the third century Rome went through tremendous transformation and cultural change. The so called third century crisis nearly destroyed the empire and political instability created political power vacuum, which was finally restored in 280’s. In this situation, the cult of Vesta had to struggle with challenges which tested endurance of the age-old traditions and cults. Therefore, an ongoing theme in work has been to explore how the traditions and practices of the cult of Vesta either changed or transformed during the critical times.
Particularly it is their extraordinarily privileged position in the Roman society which have puzzled the scholars over the decades. Also, a dichotomy in their lives – great privileges but severe responsibility and death penalty in case of failing – have interested the classicists greatly.
First when I started doing this research, I was faced with the immensely large quantity of earlier research studying the Vestals. Particularly it is their extraordinarily privileged position in the Roman society which have puzzled the scholars over the decades. Also, a dichotomy in their lives – great privileges but severe responsibility and death penalty in case of failing – have interested the classicists greatly.
Also, their status as the independent women in society which was patriarchal and hierarchical has raised the questions. Should the Vestals be compared to the Roman women at all, or should they find their peer group from the Roman men with the similar status? Evidently the rise of the gender studies has had a great impact on studying the Vestals. Their social prominence and virginal status are an interesting combination which evidently deserves to be explained. The one of the most interesting studies was accomplished by professors Mary Beard and Ariadne Staples, who came to the conclusion that the Vestal virgins exceeded the conventional gender categories of the Roman society, and they actually represented the qualities and privileges which were usually available only for the Roman men. Only recently there has also been the studies which are less keen to find out what their virginity signified, but which explore the questions such as the social background of the priestesses, signification of their religious duties or their relationships with the contemporary society.
Only recently there has also been the studies which are less keen to find out what their virginity signified, but which explore the questions such as the social background of the priestesses, signification of their religious duties or their relationships with the contemporary society.
And as interesting as the cultural anthropological approach is, which Professors Beard and Staples represent with distinction, my approach was indeed different. So, instead of discussing their gender and significations of their virginity, I started from the assumption that the Vestals life-course and their age were essential for development of their social status and agency.
The different stages of female course of life – puella, nupta and matrona – girl – maiden – married woman – were represented by the six priestesses of different ages. Because the Vestals were taken in the early age as the members of the cult – this happened when they were only six to ten years – these child priestesses participated in religious activities. Thus, the young girls and teen-age maidens were seen in the public ceremonies, they were trained in the profession of a priestess and their contribution was considered unreplaceable.
Studying the life-stages of a priestess and their gradual advancement during their career has opened new perspectives for understanding their social activity. Although, the Vestals lived in the hierarchical cultic system, and it was difficult to get as a cult’s member in the first place, the Roman religious system provided for young girls – as well as matured women – an opportunity to achieve the prominent public position, and there were possibility for them to be at the centre of public admiration, and approval.
The process which led me to do this research and study these questions started with the feelings of irritation. Much to my annoyance the researches discussing the Vestals had disregarded the third century and its crisis as the context. The republican priestesses, the Vestals of Augustan Rome or the Vestals’ history of the late antiquity are all well represented in the research field. However, the third century – time of crises, time of horribly incapable emperors and time of economic depression – they seem to interest nobody. One factor is of course the fragmentary of the sources, there are only a couple of historians, Cassius Dio and Herodian, who give an eye-witness report of the emperors and political as well as cultural changes – and their testimonies reach only to the 240’s, so the mid-third century and late third century are without reliable written sources. Furthermore, when considering the epigraphic material, the inscriptions, their production decreased compared to the earlier centuries – And therefore the researches of this century meet challenges when gathering the evidence.
There are evidences that the priestesses of the earlier or later times were honoured in similar way, but only the third century inscriptions form the entire corpus of inscriptions from which we are able to follow the development of the cult, and identify the leading Vestals and so on.
When it comes to the Vestals, however, the conditions with the source materials are quite favourable for a researcher. Interestingly, in the middle of the chaotic century the Vestal virgins are a group of women whose honorary inscriptions are preserved for us. There are evidences that the priestesses of the earlier or later times were honoured in similar way, but only the third century inscriptions form the entire corpus of inscriptions from which we are able to follow the development of the cult, and identify the leading Vestals and so on. In this picture we see the House of Vestals today, and we can see that the honorary monuments made from white marble, are set up to the central courtyard of the building. It was probably there where they situated also during the third century, when the Vestals clients and relatives commissioned them to be built. They discuss the Vestals’ achievements, their relationships with their family and clients, or the ideal qualities which the public connected to their priesthood.
Although the inscriptions are challenging source material, these texts provides us first hand evidence. The inscriptions were an ancient way to use media and gain social prominence. Through them the dedicators showed their gratitude for the good deeds the priestesses had performed on their behalf. However, the honorary monuments manifested the dedicators’ achievements also and their names and memory were preserved as well. Thus, the inscriptions show us how the social networks functioned, what the persons had accomplished and what kind of memory they wished to leave to the future generations. During the restless third century, the House of Vestals was a perfect place to preserve a memory. It was an age-old religious sanctuary and the residence of the influential priestesses. By dedicating monument for a Vestal, one guaranteed an enduring memory. In the Roman society getting your name in a public monument and thereby ensuring an immortal reputation, was a sign of a successful and an accomplished individual.
One problem which perplexed me a lot during the research process was that why the different types of sources give us so different testimonies of the Vestals social position and their course of life. For example, the literary sources overlook the long career of the chief Vestals entirely. The literary sources are very precise that the obligatory thirty years of a Vestal’s career should be divided as follows: first ten years a Vestal learns her religious duties, and the next ten years she executes them. Finally, she will be a teacher for the last ten years of her period in office, and if she is lucky, she will achieve the office of a virgo Vestalis maxima, chief Vestal. This is what the literary sources tell us about their career development.
However, as I noticed, the inscriptions tell us a different story and different reality. The inscription texts celebrate their work and the fact that they have stayed in their position as the chief Vestals even though they were theoretically free to leave the cult after the obligatory thirty years. There are congratulations on a Vestals twenty years celebrations as virgo Vestalis maxima. Thus, there seemed to be a conflict between the ideas and practical reality, which called for explaining.
Good reputation of the Vestal virgins made them reliable business partners, and this was important during the third century when the trade and finances suffered from the uncertain political situation and depression.
I came to the conclusion that during the third century, in particular, social crises and the instability of the political situation put the priestesses in position where it was useful to stay as long as possible in the office of the chief Vestal. The priestesses could expect to gather considerable wealth, and they were in the independent position which allowed them to use their privileges as they wished. Through this freedom they promoted their business ventures and also a good reputation of the Vestal virgins made them reliable business partners, and this was important during the third century when the trade and finances suffered from the uncertain political situation and depression.
On the other hand, the Vestals’ families could expect relatively long time to benefit from her office holding. This made an office of a Vestal as an option for élite families. Particularly the younger generations of her family – her siblings and their children – could expect to be a Vestal’s beneficiaries. For their clients, on the other hand, the Vestals provided not only the economic aid, but they gave their references about their clients who were often seeking an office in military or in imperial administration. Thus, a Vestal’s good opinion was very valuable, we can say that it was equally valuable as the financial support which they also gave for their clients. Thus, the Vestals received a lot from their office holding – wealth, honour, and influence – but they also gave back and distributed their success. In the background of their social agency there were the Roman ideals and virtues which emphasized the individuals’ responsibilities towards their families and society – and towards the gods also.
The third century was the darkest hour for the state of Rome. The state was impoverished by on-going war, the emperors were incapable to correct the destructive development, and the society went through great transformation which had an effect on the religious as well as political practices. However, my study shows that the Vestals’ social activity brought wellbeing and progress for the several individuals. Through their agency their clients were able to improve their social status in the society where there was no social security or social justice. Not only the memory and good reputation of the priestesses were preserved in the public honorary monuments, but their clients and relatives achieved immortal memory. So, both the Vestals and their dedicators got their proportion of fame and glory. The significance of my thesis is to demonstrate how various roles of the priestesses had, and it also shows the scale of the social agency of the élite women in the society which was in the stage of transformation and crisis. Through the Vestals it is possible to study the Roman religious system in large and perceive how the individuals and groups contributed and achieved public visibility.
Through the Vestals it is possible to study the Roman religious system in large and perceive how the individuals and groups contributed and achieved public visibility.
Therefore, the Roman culture teaches us a valuable lesson of multiculturalism and communication between different social agents as well. The Romans seem to remind us that there is a time and place for everyone. Whether you were young or old, foreign or Roman, a person of nobility or a one of humble status: all could contribute and gain acknowledgement through the religious participation.
During the times of crises there often appears individuals or groups who are able to convert the difficulties for triumphant and make difference by helping the others. The Vestals’ agency is an example of how they adopted the Roman ideals of doing ones best for the community. It was their duty and responsibility to help their inferior and their families. Most importantly the Vestals brought hope in the society which was in the constant turmoil of challenges and conflict. As such – hope givers – they remain examples of history even for us today.
The dissertation The Vestal Virgins and Power – Tradition and Change in Third Century Rome is available online here.