Vestal Virgin

The virgin priestesses of Vesta who ministered in her temple and watched the eternal fire. Their existence at Alba Longa is connected with the earliest Roman traditions, for Rhea Silvia the mother of Romulus was a member of the sisterhood;1 their establishment in the city, in common with almost all other matters connected with state religion, is generally ascribed to Numa,2 who selected four (their names are given in Plutarch), two from the Titienses and two from the Ramnes,3 and two more were subsequently added from the Luceres, by Tarquinius Priscus according to one authority,4 by Servius Tullius according to another.5 This number of six remained unchanged at the time when Plutarch wrote, and the idea that it was afterwards increased to seven rests upon very unsatisfactory evidence.6

They were originally chosen (capere is the technical word) by the king7 and during the republic and empire by the Pontifex Maximus. It was necessary that the maiden should not be under six nor above ten years of age, perfect in all her limbs, in the full enjoyment of all her senses, patrima et matrima, the daughter of free and freeborn parents who had never been in slavery, who followed no dishonorable occupation, and whose home was in Italy.8 The lex Papia ordained that when a vacancy occurred the Pontifex Maximus should name at his discretion twenty qualified damsels, one of whom was publicly (in concione) fixed upon by lot, an exemption being granted in favor of such as had a sister already a vestal and of the daughters of certain priests of a high class.9 The above law appears to have been enacted in consequence of the unwillingness of fathers to resign all control over a child, and this reluctance was manifested to strongly in later times that in the age of Augustus libertinae were declared eligible.10 The casting of lots moreover does not seem to have been practiced if any respectable person came forward voluntarily and offered a daughter who fulfilled the necessary conditions. As soon as the election was concluded the Pontifex Maximus took the girl by the hand and addressed her in a solemn form preserved by Aulus Gellius from Fabius Pictor: Sacerdotem. Vestalem. Quae. Sacra. Faciat. Quae. Ious. Siet. Sacerdotem. Vestalem. Facere. Pro. Populo. Romano. Quiritium. Utei. Quae. Optima. Lege. Fovit. Ita. Te. Amata. Capio., where the title Amata seems simply to signify "beloved one," and not to refer as Gellius supposes to the name of one of the original Vestals, as no such name is to be found in the list of Plutarch alluded to above. After these words were pronounced she was led away to the atrium of Vesta, and lived thenceforward within the sacred precincts under the special superintendence and control of the pontifical college.11

The period of service lasted for thirty years. During the first ten the priestess was engaged in learning her mysterious duties, being termed discipula,12 during the next ten in performing them, during the last ten in giving instructions to the novices,13 and so long as she was thus employed she was bound by a solemn vow of chastity. But after the time specified was completed she might, if she thought fit, throw off the emblems of her office,14 unconsecrate herself (exaugurare15), return to the world and even enter into the marriage state.16 Few however availed themselves of these privileges; those who did were said to have lived in sorrow and remorse (as might indeed have been expected from the habits they had formed); hence such a proceeding was considered ominous, and the priestesses for the most part died as they had lived in the service of the goddess.17

The senior sister was entitled Vestalis Maxima, or Virgo Maxima,18 and we find also the expressions Vestalium vetustissimam19 and tres maximae.20

Their chief office was to watch by turns, night and day, the everlasting fire which blazed upon the altar of Vesta (Virginesque Vestales in urbe custodiunto ignem foci publici sempiternum21), its extinction being considered as the most fearful of all prodigies, and emblemate of the extinction of the state.22 If such misfortune befell and was caused by the carefulness of the priestess on discovery, she was stripped and scourged by the Pontifex Maximus, in the dark and with a screen interposed, and he rekindled the flame by the friction of two pieces of wood from a felix arbor.23 Their other ordinary duties consisted in presenting offerings to the goddess at stated times, and in sprinkling and purifying the shrine each morning with water, which according to the institution of Numa was to be drawn from the Egerian fount, although in later times it was considered lawful to employ any water from a living spring or running stream, but not such as had passed through pipes. When used for sacrificial purposes it was mixed with muries, that is, salt which had been pounded in a mortar, thrown into an earthen jar and baked in an oven.24 They assisted moreover at all great public holy rites, such as the festivals of the Bona Dea25 and the consecration of temples,26 they were invited to priestly banquets,27 and we are told that they were present at the solemn appeal to the gods made by Cicero during the conspiracy of Catiline.28 They also guarded the sacred relics which formed the fatale pignus imperii, the pledge granted by fate for the permanency of the Roman sway, deposited in the inmost adytum (penus Vestae29) which no one was permitted to enter save the virgins and the chief pontifex. What this object was no one knew, some supposed that it was the Palladium, others the Samothracian gods carried by Dardanus to Troy and transported from thence to Italy by Aeneas, but all agreed in believing that something of awful sanctity was here preserved, contained, it was said, in a small earthen jar closely sealed, while another exactly similar in form but empty, stood by its side.30

We have seen above that supreme importance was attached to the purity of the Vestals, and a terrible punishment waited her who violated the vow of chastity. According to the law of Numa she was simply to be stoned to death,31 but a more cruel torture was devised by Tarquinius Priscus32 and inflicted from that time forward. When condemned by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other badges of office, was scourged,33 was attired like a corpse, placed in a close litter and borne through the Forum attended by her weeping kindred, with all the ceremonies of a real funeral, to a rising ground called the Campus Sceleratus, just within the city walls, close to the Colline gate. There a small vault underground had been previously prepared, containing a couch, a lamp, and table with a little food. The Pontifex Maximus, having lifted up his hands to heaven and uttered a secret prayer, opened the litter, led forth the culprit, and placing her on the steps of the ladder which gave access to the subterranean cell, delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who conducted her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed. In every case the paramour was publicly scourged to death in the Forum.34

But if the labors of the Vestals were unremitting and the rules of the order rigidly and pitilessly enforced, so the honors they enjoyed were such as in a great measure to compensate for their privation. They were maintained at the public cost and from sums of money and land bequeathed from time to time to the corporation.35 From the moment of their consecration they became as it were the property of the goddess alone, and were completely released from all parental sway without going through the form of emancipatio or suffering any capitis diminutio.36 They had a right to make a will, and to give evidence in a court of justice without taking an oath,37 distinctions first conceded by an Horatian law to a certain Caia Tarratia or Fufetia, and afterwards communicated to all.38 From the time of the triumviri each was preceded by a lictor when she went abroad,39 consuls and praetors made way for them, and lowered their fasces,40 even the tribunes of the plebs respected their holy character,41 and if any one passed under their litter he was put to death.42 Augustus granted to them all the rights of matrons who had borne three children,43 and assigned them a conspicuous place in the theater.44 Great weight was attached to their intercession on behalf of those in danger and difficulty, of which we have a remarkable example in the entreaties which they addressed to Sulla on behalf of Julius Caesar,45 and if they chanced to meet a criminal as he was led to punishment they had a right to demand his release, provided it could be proved that the encounter was accidental. Wills, even those of the emperors, were committed to their charge,46 for when in such keeping they were considered inviolable;47 and in like manner very solemn treaties, such as that of the triumvirs with Sextus Pompeius, were placed in their hands.48 That they might be honored in death as in life, their ashes were interred within the pomoerium.49

They were attired in a stola over which was an upper vestment made of linen,50 and in addition to the Infula and white woolen Vitta they wore when sacrificing a peculiar head-dress called suffibulum, consisting of a piece of white cloth bordered with purple, oblong in shape, and secured by a clasp.51 In dress and general deportment they were required to observe the utmost simplicity and decorum, any fanciful ornaments in the one or levity in the other being always regarded with disgust and suspicion.52 We infer from a passage in Pliny53 that their hair was cut off, probably at the period of their consecration; whether this was repeated from time to time does not appear, but they are never represented with flowing locks.


In the porticoes which surround the inner-court of the Atrium Vestiae on the Forum, a few remaining statues of the vestals can be found, dressed as described above.



  1. Livy. The History of Rome I.20; Dionysius, i, 76.
  2. Dionysius, ii, 65; Plutarch. Numa, 10.
  3. Dionysius, ii, 67; Festus, s.v. Sex Vestae.
  4. Plutarch. Numa, l.c.
  5. Dionysius, iii, 67.
  6. see Mémoires de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. Vol. 4, p. 167; Ambrosius. Letters v, 31, c. Symmachus and the remarks of Lipsius.
  7. Livy, Dionysius,
  8. Gellius. Noctes Atticae i, 12.
  9. Gellius, l.c.
  10. Cassius Dio, lv, 22; Suetonius. Octavius Caesar Augustus, 31.
  11. Dionysius, II, 67; Livy. The History of Rome iv, 44; viii, 15; Pliny the Younger. Epistulae iv, 11; Suetonius. Octavius Caesar Augustus, 31; Gellius. Noctes Atticae i, 12.
  12. Valerius Maximus, i, 1.7.
  13. Dionysius, l.c.; Plutarch, l.c.; Seneca. de Vita Beata, 29.
  14. Dionysius, l.c.
  15. Gellius. Noctes Atticae vii, 7.
  16. Plutarch, l.c.
  17. Tacitus. Annals ii, 86; Inscription quoted by Gronovius on Tacitus' Annals iii, 64.
  18. Ovid. Fasti iv, 639; Suetonius. Divus Julius, 83; Domitianus, 8; von Orelli. Inscriptiones Latinae, n. 2233 ff.; ἡ πρεσβεύουσα, Cassius Dio, liv, 24;b ἡ ἀρχιερεία, lxxix, 9.
  19. Tacitus. Annals xi, 32.
  20. Servius on Virgil's Eclogues, viii, 82.
  21. Cicero. De Legibus ii, 8.12; Livy. The History of Rome xxviii, 11; Valerius Maximus, i, 1.6; Seneca. de Providentia, 5.
  22. Dionysius, ii, 67; Livy. The History of Rome xxvi, 1.
  23. Dionysius, Plutarch, Valerius Maximus,; Festus, s.v. Ignis.
  24. Ovid. Fasti iii, 11; Sextus Propertius. Elegies iv, 4.15; Plutarch. Numa, 13; Festus, s.v. Muries.
  25. Cassius Dio, xxxvii, 45.
  26. Tacitus. Historiae iv, 53.
  27. Macrobius, iii, 13.11; Cassius Dio, xlvii, 19.
  28. Cassius Dio, xxxvii, 35.
  29. See Festus, s.v..
  30. Dionysius, i, 69; ii, 66; Plutarch. Camillus, 20; Livy. The History of Rome xxvi, 27; Lampridius. Elagabalus, 6; Ovid. Fasti vi, 365; Lucan, ix, 994.
  31. Cedrenus. A concise history of the world, p. 148, or p. 259 (ed. Bekker).
  32. Dionysius, iii, 67; Zonaras, vii, 8.
  33. Dionysius, ix, 40.
  34. Plutarch. Numa, 10; Fabulae; Max. 18; Plutarch. Roman Questions. Vol. 7, p. 154 (ed. Reiske); Dionysius, ii, 67; iii, 67; viii, 89; ix, 40; Livy. The History of Rome iv, 44; viii, 15; xxii, 57; Pliny the Younger. Epistulae iv, 11; Suetonius. Domitianus, 8; Cassius Dio, lxvii, 3; lxxvii, 16 and fragment xci, xcii; Festus, s.v. Probrum et Sceleratus Campus.
  35. Suetonius. Octavius Caesar Augustus, 31, Tibullus, 76; Sicullus Flaccus, 23 (ed. Goes).
  36. Gellius. Noctes Atticae i, 12.
  37. ibid. x, 15.
  38. ibid. i, 12; Gaius, i, 145; cf. Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xxxiv, 11.
  39. Cassius Dio, xlvii, 19.
  40. Seneca. Controversiae vi, 8; cf. Plutarc. Tiberius Gracchus, 15.
  41. Oros. v, 4; Suetonius. Tiberius, 2; cf. Cicero. For Marcus Caelius 14; Valerius Maximus, v, 4.6.
  42. Plutarch. Numa, 10.
  43. Cassius Dio, lvi, 10; Plutarch, l.c.
  44. Cicero. For Lucius Murena, 35.
  45. Suetonius. Divus Julius, 1; cf. Cicero. For Fonteio, 17; Suetonius. Vitellius, 16; Cassius Dio, lxv, 8; Tacitus. Annals iii, 69; xi, 32; Historiae iii, 81.
  46. Suetonius. Divus Julius, 83; Octavius Caesar Augustus, 101; Tacitus. Annals i, 8.
  47. Plutarch. Antonius, 58.
  48. Appian. Civil Wars v, 73; Cassius Dio, xlviii, 37 and 46; cf. xlviii, 12.
  49. Servius on Virgil's Aeneid xi, 206.
  50. Valerius Maximus, i, 1.7; Dionysius, ii, 68; Pliny the Younger. Epistulae iv, 11.
  51. Festus, s.v. Suffibulum.
  52. Livy. The History of Rome iv, 44; viii, 15; Pliny the Younger. Epistulae iv, 11; Ovid. Fasti iv, 285.
  53. Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia xvi, 85.


  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.