Vestalia Story 1: An Opinionated Roman Matrona

1835 water colour of the aedes Vestae (‘Temple of Vesta’).

Water colour of the aedes Vestae (‘Temple of Vesta’) by Alessandro Castelli (1835).

It is 15th June and the summer sun beats down on my back as I make my way to the Forum and the Temple of Vesta in order to give my offerings to the goddess. We pass some asses on our way towards the temple and my daughter, Clodia, wanted to reach out and touch their heads, which were garlanded with violets and hung with small loaves. I pulled her back and reminded her that the reason she had gone without bread this morning was due to the annual bakers’ and millers’ holiday, and the donkey’s decoration was symbolic of this.(i) Her tummy rumbled loudly and she scowled at the passing donkeys.

Marble head of a Vestal showing her characteristic hairstyle, headdress and veil (flammaeum).

Marble head of a Vestal showing her characteristic hairstyle, headdress and veil (flammaeum). Hadrianic era (117-138 AD). Palatine Museum, Rome. © Ann Raia (2009). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

In the distance I caught a glimpse of the Pontifex Maximus with his instantly identifiable Vestals, all wearing the flammeum and with their sex crines, and all busy sweeping dung from the penus vestae.(ii) I know we have to hurry to make the offerings in time before the penus is closed again for the year. It has been open for eight days, since the 7th June, but I just haven’t had the time to get here until now, especially since I have to make the visit without the company of my husband because men are forbidden to enter this part of the temple, except, of course, for the Pontifex Maximus.(iii)

Head and shoulders of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, with a fold of his toga draw up over his head.

The Via Labicana Augustus (c. 20 BC): Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, with his head veiled for a sacrifice. National Museums, Rome.

There are six Vestal Virgins, who are said to have been originally ordained by Numa. Nowadays they are appointed by the Pontifex Maximus when they are between the ages of six and ten. Daughters of patrician families are volunteered by their fathers to remain under the paternal authority of the Pontifex Maximus for thirty years.(iv) I’ve heard that Caesar Augustus announced that if he had a granddaughter of the suitable age, he would gladly put her forward for this sacred honour. However, in their thirty years of service they are only permitted to leave the aedes vestae to perform their sacred duties and I am not sure I would want to give up my daughter at such a young age, knowing that I may never see her again. It’s not the same for Augustus! I can still remember twenty-two springs ago, when I was six years old, and everyone celebrated when he took the position of Pontifex Maximus, so he would be able to see his granddaughter every day!(v)

On the other hand, the privileges bestowed on the Vestals are the highest honours a woman can hope to receive in our great city. Only last night my husband recounted the tale of a day in the Forum when a Vestal crossed paths with a criminal sentenced to death; he was immediately pardoned of all charges to reflect the magnitude of this good omen.(vi) Even their legal power matches that given to a free matron with three children!(vii)

The most important duty of the Vestals is to tend to the holy fire of Vesta and I can see the flame burning brightly as I pass through towards the penus. One of the worst omens for the safety of our city is the extinction of this flame, which means that the Vestals are whipped for their negligence if they allow it to go out.(viii) Some people think that, so long as the fire burns, we will have a good, substantial harvest. The only exception to this is on the last day of the year, when the fire is deliberately put out and rekindled again on New Year’s day, 1st March, by rubbing sticks together.(ix) My mother told me, and I will tell my daughter, that the continued security of the state is reliant on Vesta’s satisfaction with the priestess’ ongoing chastity. She can remember two young Vestals being dragged from the city, accused of breaking their vow of virginity, and being buried alive to appease Vesta. I have also heard that many years ago a defiled priestess was scourged with rods and thrown into the Tiber, but I feel that immurement is a far more humane form of execution for such an important public figure.

Head of Vesta and a citizen wearing a toga dropping a voting tablet into a voting urn on a bronze Roman coin.

Denarius minted by Lucius Cassius Longinus (63 BC). The obverse has a head of the goddess Vesta and the reverse shows a citizen wearing a toga dropping a voting tablet into a voting urn. The tablet records a “yes” vote (V for vti rogas, meaning “as you ask”), referring to the 113 BC plebiscite that established Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla’s prosecution of three Vestal Virgins charged with lack of chastity. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. © Barbara McManus (2009). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

Our city’s grain supply also relies heavily on the Vestals. By maintaining their chastity, Rome’s fertility is ensured and they protect the state’s annual grain supply within the penus vestae.(x) Some of the more excitable gossips amongst my friends have been saying that rumour reports that there are holy objects hidden within the temple which no man (or woman for that matter) may see except the Vestals themselves. A common suggestion is that the Trojan Palladium brought to Italy by Aeneas is kept there, whilst others claim that it houses his Samothracian gods. My neighbour claims to know the truth and says that there are two jars, one open and empty and one full and closed. However, I think she has confused these ‘unseen holy objects’ with the jars in which the earliest Vestals sealed their sacred possessions, which they buried under the Temple of Quirinus.(xi)

Anyway, the important thing is that all the proper rituals are followed throughout the festival, so, when I arrive, I will make sure I remember to leave my shoes at the threshold and pray to Vesta whilst making my offerings on two clean plates.(xii) Today is the last day the penus vestae will be open and before it closes the primary concern of the Vestals is to ensure that it is carefully cleansed of purgamina in preparation for the reception for new grain. The unclean substances are swept half way up the Capitoline Hill, whereupon it is carried off by slaves and thrown into the Tiber.(xiii) No wonder people complain of the stench from the river!

So far as I know, the festival has been held ever since the earliest settlement that began the city of Rome was founded. The hearth has always been sacred and Vesta acknowledged as its protector. Families are said to have eaten around the hearth and mola salsa, a mixture of spelt flour and salt, was baked into bread by the daughters of the family. The Vestals now do this for our state, as living symbols of these ancient daughters. Each day, after the first course of the mid-day meal, an offering was made to Vesta, from a dish called a patera, of mola salsa. This is why the offering is made to the goddess during the Vestalia nowadays. This is my opinion but, as with anything as ancient as the Vestalia, there are many conflicting ideas about how it began.

The Vestals are present at most of the large public festivals. I find it strange that the Vestals are permitted direct involvement in these sacrifices, since usually women, including priestesses, are forbidden to have any part in this kind of religious ritual. However, Vestals can often even be seen at the altar with their sescepitae, running the blade along the spine of the victims, although a pontifex always completes the act of spilling the animal’s blood.(xiv) Today two of the younger Vestals sprinkle mola salsa on the heads of all the sacrificial victims, causing them to nod in assent to the sacrifice.(xv) Each year for a week, beginning on the 7th of May, the three most senior Vestals collect grain from the new harvest, roast, crush and grind it, add salt and then bake the mola salsa for use in all public sacrifices.(xvi) Most importantly, they collect water from the sacred spring of Juturna, near the temple, in a pot that cannot be set down because touching the earth destroys the holiness of the water.(xvii)

Today is, for me, the focal point of the Vestalia because today the Vestals pray for the state and for individual households. I can see them pouring libations of wine and oil on the altar of Vesta and now the first offering of mola salsa will be made. Usually the ritual proceedings include the slaughter of willing sacrificial animals and that’s not something I like to watch. I particularly enjoy taking part in this festival because it has no live sacrifices.(xviii)

Last year, one of the plates containing mola salsa fell to the floor and the Pontifex Maximus deemed this to be a bad omen, so the entire ritual was repeated because we cannot risk a grain shortage. Since the libations have been poured and prayers made in accordance with Jupiter’s ancient commands, Vesta should now ensure that we have enough grain to last the city until the next harvest, which means that my Clodia’s stomach will not need to rumble in earnest, unlike this morning!

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(i) Ovid mentions the bakers and millers holiday on 15th June, in which the millstones and donkeys used in milling were garlanded with small decorative loaves and violets (Fasti 6.311-18). That this symbolised their freedom from their usual daily toil, see R. Littlewood, (2006), A Commentary on Ovid: Fasti Book VI, Oxford: 99.

(ii) The sex crines (‘six locks’) was the hairstyle worn by the Vestals (L. Adkins & R.A. Adkins, (1996), Dictionary of Roman Religion, New York) and the flammeum was the red veil worn as part of their headdress throughout their service. These were both otherwise only worn by brides on their wedding day, see J Scheid, (1992), ‘The Religious Roles of Roman Women’ in P. Schmitt-Pantel (ed.), A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Cambridge: 377-408.

(iii) The Vestalia ran from the 7th to the 15th of June according to the fasti anni Romana, which was Numa’s calendar of the Roman’s festivals and was inscribed in stone, see W.W. Fowler, (1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London.

The Vestals lived in the atrium of the Temple of Vesta, and were only permitted to go outside the confines of the aedes vestae to perform their public duties. Livy refers to the Vestals’ life within the aedes vestae when he says: ‘There is only one place for Vestals, and nothing save the capture of the city has ever moved them from it.’ (5.52). The temple was particularly unusual because it was round in shape. The holy fire was tended in the aedes vestae and citizens were permitted to enter this area. The penus vestae, however, was a symbolic representation of the grainstore of the state and was closed to the public for the entirety of the year, with the exception of the week of the Vestalia. Even then, men were still refused entry, and only women would come, barefoot, to give offerings to the goddess. It is not clear what was actually contained within the penus vestae. Details taken from Fowler, n.(iii): 101.

(iv) During the first ten years of a woman’s life as a Vestal she would be taught the duties which needed to be performed. For the next ten she would perform them and for the final ten she would instruct the novices. The women were then permitted to take a large dowry and marry as their period of civic duty was over, but many appear to have chosen to continue their life as a priestess rather than entering society. Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.67-69.

(v) Augustus took the position of Pontifex Maximus on 6th March 12 BC and held it until his death in 31 AD.

(vi) Plutarch (Life of Numa X) specifies that criminals were only pardoned if it could be proved the crossing of their paths with a Vestal was accidental.

(vii) In recognition of the commitment made by these girls, who often chose to continue to serve as a Vestal for the remainder of their lives after their compulsory thirty years (see n.(iv)), Numa declared that they should be given certain privileges. They were permitted to make a will, whilst their father was still living, and had full control of their own affairs, without supervision from a guardian. This was usually a privilege reserved for matrons with three or more children in recognition of their service to the state in providing citizen children. See, Plutarch Life of Numa X.

(viii) Livy’s statement: ‘I do not need to mention the everlasting flame of Vesta and the image which is housed in her temple as guarantor of Rome’s empire’ (5.52) indicates that the fire was viewed as preserving the safety of Rome.

(ix) The fire was relit by the time-consuming method of friction. The cult seems to have changed very little over time. See, Fowler, n.(iii): 136.

(x) Most secondary sources consider the fire to be responsible for the fertility of Rome. However, Ovid refers to the fire as ‘sterile’ (Fasti 6.291-4) and the chastity of the Vestals can be seen to reflect the purity of the fire, see Scheid, n.(ii): 382.

(xi) Plutarch speaks of holy objects, supposedly buried under the Temple of Quirinus, and suggests that the Vestals were rumoured to have other pastimes: ‘Some say the only duty of the Vestal Virgins is to watch that eternal fire, but others say they perform secret rites.’ (Life of Numa X).

(xii) ‘I observed a lady, climbing down this way, barefoot’ (Ovid Fasti 6.397).

(xiii) Following the feriae on 9th June, three days of revelry commenced by the Tibicina. The end of this jubilant worship was marked by the focal point of the festival, the closing of the penus vestae on 15th June. See, M. York, (1986), The Roman Festival Calender of Numa Pompilius, New York: 133.

(xiv) Vestals were presented with a sacrificial knife to symbolise their permission to be involved in public sacrifices. However, there is no evidence to suggest that they ever took an active role in the ritual slaughter of the sacrificial victims, see Scheid, n.(iii):377-408.

(xv) The salt used in mola salsa was brought from a salt pan and pounded in a mortar. It was then baked and the resultant hard lump was cut with an iron saw when salt was needed for use in the preparation of the cake. See, H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 149.

(xvi) The oldest and longest serving Vestal Virgin was known as the Virgo Vestalis Maxima (‘Chief Vestal’). See C. Bailey, (1932), Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, California: 159.

(xvii) It is thought that originally the water for the mola salsa had to be collected from the spring of Egeria, which was outside the Capena gate but that later on the Vestals were permitted to use the spring of Juturna, which was much closer to the temple. See Scullard, n.(xv): 149.

(xviii) Other than the events within the temple, very little is known of the public aspect of this festival, see Scullard, n.(xv): 150. As most festivals include animal sacrifices, it is likely that the Vestalia did too, but as no record of the appropriate animals remains, it is possible that it did not. The Roman legionary calendar shows that the Vestalia merited a supplicatio (decoration of military standards and their presentation at an altar) rather than a sacrifice, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 2 – A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 71-74, especially 73. For the relation of the city and army calendars to each other and to the Augustan religious calendar, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 1 – A History, Cambridge: 324-5.