Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, was arguably the most important god in the Roman pantheon. Consequently, her priestesses – the Vestal Virgins – were very powerful women. They were given unprecedented privileges, but they were also given demanding responsibilities and strict rules, and the consequences for failing in their duties were fatal.
The most important duty of a Vestal Virgin was to watch the fire of Vesta. This fire ensured the existence of Rome, and without it, the people would lose the favor of the gods and become vulnerable to war, famine, disease, and even complete destruction. On the rare occasion that the fire did go out, there was mass panic.
The vestals had to remain virgins. One of their primary responsibilities was to ensure the purity of Rome, so they had to be completely pure themselves.
The vestals participated in almost every event and ceremony in Rome. They kept the wills and money of every citizen, they prepared purifying cakes for every animal sacrifice, they went to banquets and social events, they guarded over sacred relics… let’s just say, they were very busy women.
Vestal Virgins were legally severed from their families, so they didn’t have fathers or husbands to rule over them. They were the only women who could own land, make wills, and have a lictor (a body guard reserved for powerful men). They were given an enormous stipend for their service and seats of honor at every event they attended. When they walked through the street, people bowed their heads and even consuls and praetors had to make way to let them pass.
The vestals were only required to serve for 30 years, but a rare few left when their time was up. Considering what a great deal they were getting, who could blame them?
Restrictions and Punishments
The Vestal Virgins are perhaps most well-know for how they were punished. Not only did a vestal have to remain a virgin; she also had to retain the appearance of virginity, perform ceremonies with exactness, and be without fault. If something bad happened in Rome, such as a war or a disease, the vestals were scrutinized because people suspected their impurity had displeased the gods.
If they were deemed impure, they were executed.
It was against the law to kill a Vestal Virgin, so the Romans put them in a situation where they would die unless the gods saved them. In other words, they buried the women alive.
Even in death, they were honored. They were some of the privileged few to be buried inside the city, and a vestal’s executors routinely placed offerings on her grave for the rest of their lives.