Vestalia Story 4: A Disillusioned Manual Worker and a Retired Vestal

“Ah, the Vestalia, the day that compounds my misery!”[i] As I stand here, where the Forum is joined by the Via Nova, looking west towards Capitoline Hill,[ii] I proclaim vehemently to anyone within earshot my indignation at the madness before my eyes.[iii] “You, yourself, among my audience, you will hear what I have to say, whether you like it or not!

“For a whole week now, women have been flocking to the temple of the goddess, barefoot and shameless in their excitement.[iv] They proceed to the temple in droves, kicking up a cloud of dust that in the early summer heat clings to bodies already caked in sweat. The whole thing stinks!

“You are to bring an offering of food when you attend the Vestalia. How can you, when you’re living hand to mouth, hard pressed by your lack of a family in these Augustan times? My household cannot afford the food for the goddess’ blessing, and even so, praying for a blessing on your house is all well and good if you’ve got one![v] Vesta seems to reserve her blessings for the propertied. Those of us who rent receive no such favour, and why would we, when we have nothing to offer the great goddess in return? I had best look out for myself since she seems to have made it clear that she’s no goddess of mine!

“I’m looking forward to the end of the Vestalia! As soon as those temple doors shut, I can start earning a living again! My workshop is hounded by thieves. Earning a living is hard enough without having to shut up shop constantly for festivals to gods and goddesses who do nothing for you!

“At least it’s a decent day off for the asses. Otherwise they’d be walking themselves into the ground in the mills.[vi] There they go, covered head to foot in – loaves of bread…[vii] Look! There they go among the procession from the temple, favoured more by the gods than I! If I cannot even supplant the animal most hated by Isis, it’s high time I upped and left this city![viii]

Roman coin with religious implements, including a sescepita

A denarius minted in Rome by P. Galba (69BC), shows the secespita (sacrificial knife), simplum (blood-catching vessel) and secures (axe) used in Roman sacrificial ritual. The obverse has a veiled head of Vesta. © Joe Geranio.

“How can these priestesses be honoured so highly for being unmarried? And, in addition, make a virtue of their chastity? If they were like me, they would never be rewarded for this: in fact, they’d even be punished! For thirty years now, since the introduction of those laws championing marriage and encouraging childbearing and rewarding it with cash, those of us who remain childless find our business opportunities squeezed and our reputations in tatters.[ix] But just look at how these noble-born unmarried girls are honoured, given the secespita and allowed to butcher animals at sacrifices, joining in the communal feast with the gods that is closed to the rest of us.[x]

“Close contact with Vesta herself is forbidden me, no-one will let me near the ritual. All I did was visit a ‘less reputable’ part of town last night! I’m ‘polluted’, looked down on by a disapproving Pontifex Maximus. I bet he’d indulge himself in ‘polluting acts’ too if he’d not been born into the more noble rank! It will take at least two to three days to wear off, or so I’ve been told…[xi] Just long enough to keep me away from the sacrifices… And any chance of a free meal!

“Yet more girls dressed all in white – the favourite colour of this city’s numerous festivals – scatter flowers in front of this pageant and check that the garlands of the animals have not come loose. Oh, Vesta! How I wish such attention was paid to me! Even the idle millstones are garlanded in flowers, looking better than ever I shall![xii] Ignore my house and my business if you will, but at least accord me more honour than an animal! Even sacrificial victims get more respect than I…

Obverse and reverse of Roman coin with Vesta and her Temple.

Denarius minted in Rome by Quintus Cassius Longinus (55BC) with a veiled head of Vesta and a representation of the Temple of Vesta with a magistrate’s chair inside it, flanked by a voting urn and a voting tablet inscribed AC for “Absolvo” (not guilty) and “Condemno” (guilty).

“Oh, Vesta, you are supposed to be the bread-maker’s goddess![xiii] The only way in which this festival really benefits us is that the Vestals clean and purify the storehouses and barns.[xiv] But, I’m just part of the mob, expected to stand by and accept the will of the gods… Well, I’ll have you know, I have my own will and you shall see it soon enough when I depart this city of Rome!

“In the old days, Vesta was content with an uncomplicated procession of wreathed asses.[xv] Wreathed asses?!?! I ask you! Madness! Yet there was some sense behind it, we’re told: these animals’ braying saved Vesta from the unwanted attentions of Priapus.[xvi] Vile Priapus! The exact same Priapus we honour as the protector of our gardens. It makes you wonder whether religion is yet another way of controlling the mob. Doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it?”

At that a barefoot woman, who’d been eyeballing me for some time, cried out, “Sit down and be quiet. You should not, even through ignorance, insult the goddess!”

Who does she think she is to order me around? Is she a better Roman than I? A mere woman should not have the audacity to tell me to pipe down![xvii] The look she fixed me with was sufficient to silence me, but only for a moment. Really, who does she think she is…

“All is well,” I thought as I set out from my house on this special day that will be so different from those of previous years. I suppose it will get easier for me but it has not been long since I was a Vestal myself and it is easy to feel disconnected from my old patterns of behaviour, especially today when Vesta’s temple is opened for the Vestalia, for women to make offerings. I feel almost as if I am going home. Especially as I will be able to enter the penus – the innermost sanctum – which contains sacred items used for the various rituals conducted throughout the year. During the dies religious, the few days before and after the Vestalia, we were always in and out, but I have to remember now that it is forbidden to anyone other than the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus, except for Rome’s women on these few days of the year.

The cult of Vesta is very old, going back to the time of the early Roman kings, long before our glorious Empire and even before the Republic; Vestals are educated about our primitive beginnings during our service.[xviii] Many years ago Vesta was only worshipped privately, at the household hearth, but then she was brought into public worship at a hearth protected by the Vestals, as if the whole community was one big household.[xix]

Two days after the Vestals began preparing for the Vestalia, on the morning of June 9th, I prayed to the Lares and Penates at home to bless my household. Today, on the day the festival begins for the rest of Rome, I, like other Roman women, am making my way barefoot to the Forum to celebrate the Vestalia. I have many offerings of simple food with me for this purpose.[xx]

On my way to the Forum, I see many girls of all ages on their way to the temple. Upon reaching the Forum, I see one of my friends, Cynthia, whom I met during my time as a Vestal Virgin, standing near the entrance with her husband of two years. Unlike myself and many others, Cynthia chose to get married to a charming miller from just outside Rome when she retired. The dowry given to us by the state following our service allows us to do this. However, I chose to remain unwed as most of us do.[xxi] Cynthia has told me that since leaving Vesta’s service her life has not been so very different because she still spends her days cleaning and looking after the house!

I join Cynthia and her husband and we walk together to the southwest corner of the Forum. This has been the first year since leaving Vesta’s service that I have attended the Vestalia and I find I am excited to see some new faces, as well as the old ones. Upon arriving, I place my offerings of bread on the altar.

I can see the procession of Vestals leave the Atrium Vestae and the Chief Vestal, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, is leading the way.[xxii]

Relief of the six Vestals processing behind the Pontifex Maximus

Procession of the six Vestal Virgins, walking according to height and age, led by the Pontifex Maximus. Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

I presume that the girls will be relieved to leave the hearth for a while and attend the ceremony outside, just as I was. Of course I respected, and still do respect, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima but it was a lovely change to be outside and not have to worry about accidentally putting out the sacred fire. If the fire was accidentally extinguished, we were whipped and then had to undertake the laborious task of rekindling the fire. I can still remember such a terrible day ten years ago, when another Vestal Virgin accidentally let the fire go out. It was a horrible sight and she was severely chastised by the Pontifex Maximus![xxiii] It is only on March 1st every year that the sacred flame is ceremonially put out and then rekindled by rubbing two sticks together, using tinder carried in a bronze sieve…[xxiv]

I can still remember my first day as a Vestal, when my father gave me away to the then Pontifex Maximus. Now Emperor Augustus is the high priest and I am watching in delight as a girl of about seven is being initiated into the temple of Vesta through the process known as captae. The rite of passage is going very well. Augustus takes her by the hand and calls her “Amata”.[xxv] Then she enters the Atrium Vestae, at the South East end of the Forum.[xxvi] I can still remember the words said to me by the high priest, just as they are being said today to the young girl:

“In celebration of the sacred rites prescribed for a Vestal on behalf of the Roman people and Quirites, I take thee, Beloved, as a candidate chosen in keeping with the purest of laws, as a Vestal priestess.”[xxvii]

I was of plebeian status before being handed over to the state; the women that enter Vesta’s service can be plebeian or patrician, as long as they are unblemished.[xxviii] I have heard talk around the city that it is becoming increasingly hard to find suitable, willing, candidates. It would seem that Roman women these days are reluctant to spend thirty years unmarried, probably due to the recent privileges given by Augustus to women who are married and have children![xxix] Regardless of those privileges, I would much rather stay chaste and virtuous in order to stay loyal to Vesta.

Roman coin showing a carpentum

Obverse of a brass sestertius of Tiberius, minted in Rome (22-23 AD), with the covered mule cart, called a carpentum. The coin may commemorate the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) granting Livia (Iulia Augusta) the right to sit with the Vestals at public games; she may also have been granted the right to ride in a carpentum. Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

The Vestals ride through Rome in a carpentum and sit in sacred chairs, which no one dare touch; Vestals are the only women in Rome permitted to ride on two-wheeled carriages, an example of just one of the privileges allowed to those who enter into Vesta’s service.![xxx] Through the streets of Rome, the Vestals are accompanied by lictors and the fasces are carried in front of them.[xxxi] Throughout the service, the Vestals wear the beautiful flammeum and sex crines, which I enjoyed wearing during my thirty years service![xxxii] I always thought the veil was very beautiful and each Vestal today looks just as wonderful in it, along with her stola and the vittae that they are wearing today.[xxxiii]

Relief with a lictor, Roma and a Vestal

Cancelleria Relief B (93-95 AD) shows a lictor curiatus (representing religious rather than political power) standing behind a young Vestal, who wears the distinctive headdress made up of an infula (band of wool wrapped several times around the head) and vittae (the long looped side pieces). The female figure behind them is a personification of Rome herself. Vatican Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

I have many enjoyable memories of being a Vestal which have all been brought back by this day. However, there were many activities that we took part in that the public did not see. From March 7th until March 15th, we cleaned the aedes Vestae which I greatly enjoyed as I loved knowing that through my efforts I was pleasing the goddess Vesta.[xxxiv] From May 7th until May 14th, two other Vestal Virgins and I used to make the mola salsa, which I greatly enjoyed as well. We would collect water from the sacred spring, then roast, pound and grind the spelt, which was collected on the 7th, 9th and 11th May, into flour. Today the mola salsa I helped to make is sprinkled on the animals ready for sacrifice and baked in the cakes offered to Vesta. It will also be used to be used for the Ides of September and the Lupercalia, but after that there will no longer be a part of me in the festivals, I will just watch.[xxxv]During my time as a Vestal, I had a direct role during the animal sacrifices, just as the Vestal Virgins have today. Upon entering the temple of Vesta at such a young age, we were given a sescepita, which meant we could take part in animal sacrifices. The Vestals also participate in the sacrifice by word and deed.[xxxvi] The festival is such a beautiful sight and there are so many people as it is such a special day; even the donkeys are decorated with wreaths and cakes.[xxxvii] It is amusing to see the beasts decked with garlands, marching in triumphal pomp.[xxxviii] A donkey, which is led by the Chief Vestal, is being sacrificed by the Vestals. It is such a joyful moment as we all pray to the goddess.

There are six main stages in the ritual; firstly, the pompa of victims to the altar, then the prayer and offerings of wine and incense at the altar. This is followed by the pouring of wine and mola salsa over the animal’s head by the main sacrificant. The animal is then killed and then its entrails are examined. Finally, parts of the animal are burned on the altar.[xxxix] As a Vestal, I also had the privilege of being involved in sacrificial rites during other festivals, like the Fordicia and the Bona Dea.[xl]

Roman altar with sacrificial scene

An Augustan-period altar from Cervetari dedicated to Gaius Manlius shows a male figure with his toga pulled over his head pouring wine onto an altar before which two kneeling victimarii hold the head of a bull while another prepares to swing the sacrificial axe. Behind the bull another victimarius holds the hammer used to stun the bull in his right hand and a plate with mola salsa in his left. In front of him stand a flute player and a camillus (boy sacrificial attendant). Vatican Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

Watching the Vestals today, it brings back the memory of what I had to say and do during the Vestalia when I was one of the Vestals. As much as I enjoyed my time as a Vestal, I hated walking barefoot during my early years serving Vesta. The young girls today seem happy enough, but as a child my feet always got burned by the sun during the festival! However, I am used to walking barefoot now, so today’s walk has been no discomfort to me, unlike some of the other women gathered here! All the women form a procession and we pace barefoot to the temple of Vesta and to the altar of Jupiter Pistor.[xli]

She is such a kind a gentle goddess, but some people cannot truly appreciate this! An incredibly rude man, who does not seem to be honouring the festival or the goddess, is shouting blasphemous and disrespectful remarks, causing a terrible distraction from this important occasion! I tell him in no uncertain terms to sit down and learn some manners, but he simply ignores me. At that moment I miss the days where my accompanying lictors could strike such impudent man down! Who does he think he is? What will Vesta think?

There is no statue of her on display during this festival, but there is one outside the House of the Vestals.[xlii] The statue of her is beautiful: she’s draped in a long robe with a veil on her head, carrying an awe-inspiring javelin and a lamp.[xliii] I pray, as I have done every year, to the sacred flame of the hearth, to thank Vesta for a blessed life.

The Vestalia will continue for eight days, during which many women and I will go to the temple to worship, as well as worshipping the household gods at home. For these eight sacred days, we will dress simply and take off our shoes before entering the beautiful, round temple of Vesta.[xliv] The last day of the Vestalia is the vesta clauditur, which will fall on June 15th. On that day, quando stercum delatum fas, the dirt will be swept from the temple of Vesta and its doors will be closed. Only then will it be lawful to transact public business.[xlv] However, the Vestalia will not end for me until I know that the Vestals have disposed of the dirt by taking it along an alley halfway up the Capitoline slope, through the portica stercoria and down to the River Tiber. Only then can the Vestals return to their usual routine and duties, just as I did during my time in service.[xlvi]

Since leaving the Temple of Vesta, I am aware of how important Vesta is outside because I see her face everywhere, on coins and even notices![xlvii] Vesta can be seen all around the city and in its homes; she is important to households because she is kind to human beings. She is dear to me and, despite the evidence of that outspoken man, to the simple folk of Rome.[xlviii]

_______________________________

[i] For a similarly disgruntled Roman, who lives in an insula, see Juvenal’s classic example in Satire III, tr. P. Green, (2004), Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, St. Ives.
[ii] Based on Ovid, Fasti, 6.395 ff., where he describes where he stands during the Vestalia.
[iii] This characteristic is displayed by the satirist Juvenal, see W. Kupersmith, (1976), ‘Juvenal as Sublime Satirist’, Publications of the Modern Language Association 87: 508-511: 508.
[iv] C. Di Leonardo & L. Hadley, (1947), ‘Vestalia’, Classical Journal 42 (1947): 356-368: 356
[v] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[vi] T. Worsfold, (1934), The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, London: 44.
[vii] Ovid, Fasti, 311 ff., tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.
[viii] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.6, tr. P. Walsh (2008), Apuleius: Metamorphoses, Oxford.
[ix] S.Hornblower & A. Spawforth, eds, (2003), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: 549.
[x] On the sescepita and the role of Vestals in sacrifices, see J. Scheid, (1994), ‘The Religious Roles of Roman Women’ in P. Pantel, A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, vol. 1, Cambridge: 383.The comment from our disgruntled Roman about the pretence that everyone who is involved in the festival feasts with the gods symbolises the character’s feeling of detachment from the community.
[xi] Augustus became Pontifex Maximus following the death of Lepidus in 16BC. On pollution and proximity to the Vestals, see M. Beard, (1980), ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins’, The Journal of Roman Studies 70: 12-27: 12.
[xii] Ovid, Fasti, 3.11 ff., tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.
[xiii] Following F. Bennett, (1913), ‘A Theory concerning the Origin and the Affiliations of the Cult of Vesta’, Classical Weekly 7: 35-37: 36.
[xiv] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xv] Propertius V, i, 21, tr. V. Katz, (2004), Propertius: Elegies, Princeton.
[xvi] Worsfold, n.[vi]: 44.
[xvii] Based on comments in Ovid, Fasti, 6.395 (tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.) where the author is reprimanded.
[xviii] Bennett, n.[xiii]: 35
[xix] H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 148-150.
[xx] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xxi] S. Pomeroy, (1976), Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves, London: 210-214
[xxii] M. Imber, (2011), ‘Vestalia’ in Roman Civilisation: CMS 206/History 206 (online course support at http://abacus.bates.edu/~mimber/Rciv/vestalia.htm viewable through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine).
[xxiii] Bennett, n.[xiii]: 36.
[xxiv] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 149.
[xxv] Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12.L, reproduced in M. Lefkowitz & M. Fant, (1992), Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, as edited for Diotima by Suzanne Bonefas and Ross Scaife.
[xxvi] Beard, n.[xi]: 21.
[xxvii] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xxviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xxix] Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214.
[xxx] Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214.
[xxxi] On lictors accompanying Vestals, see Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214. On the fasces preceding Vestals, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 2 – A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 203.
[xxxii] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xxxiii] Beard, n.[xi]: 16.
[xxxiv] Beard, n.[xi]: 14.
[xxxv] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 150. The Lupercalia is held in February.
[xxxvi] Scheid, n.[x]: 383.
[xxxvii] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xxxviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xxxix] Beard et al., n.[xxxii]: 148.
[xl] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xli] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xlii] Imber, n.[xxii].
[xliii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xliv] Imber, n.[xxii].
[xlv] The entire duration of the Vestalia is declared as fastus, meaning that no business may be transacted, Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xlvi] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 153.
[xlvii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xlviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 36.