The priestesses or “Vestal Virgins” were similar to nuns living in a semi-enclosed order and they spent most of their time in the central cloister. At any one time there were six priestesses of different ages and seniority, although Dionysius and Plutarch say that at the time of Numa there were only four and that the same number remained thereafter.
Continued from “The Vestal Virgins“.
The Vestal Virgins and the Goddess Vesta
The youngest were admitted to the Order between 6-10 years of age and they could expect to remain “in service” for as long as 30 years. In fact they were not properly said to be admitted but rather Captae – taken by force by the Pontifex Maximus (high priest of Rome) from their parents. The first 10 years of life in the Vestal community were spent as Novices, obliged to learn the ceremonies and perfect themselves in the duties of their religion. During the following ten years they would become priestesses who actually discharged the priestly functions. During the last ten years of service they would become the teachers of the Novices below them.
Once the priestesses had completed the 30 years of their term they were free to leave the Order and were at liberty to choose any condition of life they felt best suited them although leaving the order was felt to be unlucky and therefore rarely happened.
The writer Plutarch tells us that the chief objective of their office was the preservation of the Holy Fire, ensuring that it should never go out. In the event that the Fire did go out it could not be re-lit from any common impure fire but had to be done through the use of the pure and unpolluted rays of the sun. Every first of March, whether the Fire had gone out or not, it would be re-lit. The timing and source of the fire (the Sun) clearly belies the strong relationship with the re-birth observed during Spring.
Within society the Vestals held a position of great honour and had many privileges. To give an idea of these, when they went about their business in the city they were preceded by the Fasces which were carried before them (symbols of power to judge which were otherwise reserved for kings and rulers alone). For example, in the event that Vestal priestess should chance on a criminal being lead to execution, the high magistrates such as Consuls or Praetors, would have to make way for her to pass. Furthermore the Vestal priestess would have the power to deliver the captive from the hands of justice so long as she swore an oath to have come upon the situation by chance without any previous agreement or design.
However the Vestal virgins were also under the constant threat of a series of more or less severe punishments. Cases which were not so severe would be punished at the discretion of the Pontifex Maximus – the high priest of Rome (the Pope so to speak) which during the Empire was the Emperor himself.
In the most severe situations, such as breaking of their oath of virginity they were put to death by being buried alive, as their life-blood could not be spilt. There are accounts of the tyrant Domitian having ordered the Vestal Virgin Cornelia who was convicted for being unchaste to be punished “more maiorum” – ie. according to the traditional burying alive.
The burial would be outside the city walls in an allotted place called the Campus Sceleratus. Men charged with having brought a Vestal virgin to break her vow of chastity were also sentenced to death.
As a quick aside it is worth noting that Roman law forbade the blood of virgins from being spilt whether they were Vestals or not. However this hardly prevented the “hang-man” from doing his job in full respect of the law: the convict would be raped first and then done away with.