Vestal Virgins: Powerful Priestesses of Rome’s Sacred Flame

What was it like living as a Vestal Virgin?

In the Res Gestae Divi Augustus (‘The Deeds of the Divine Augustus’), Augustus demonstrates his piety by stating that he was a member of all four major priesthoods in Rome – the Pontifices, Augures, Quindecemviri and Septemviri. There was, however, one Roman religious college that was off limits to men, even to the pious emperor himself. This was the College of the Vestals, popularly known as Vestal Virgins, which only had women amongst its ranks.

What Was the Role of the Vestal Virgins?

The College of the Vestals was an important institution that served to ensure the well-being and security of Rome. The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, and one of their most important functions was the maintenance of the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum.

According to the Roman writer Plutarch, the College of the Vestals was established by the second legendary king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. During Numa’s reign, there were only two Vestal Virgins, and Plutarch names the first two Vestal Virgins as Gegania and Verenia, who were afterwards succeeded by Canuleia and Tarpeia. Plutarch provides a suggestion why Numa may have ordered the priestesses maintain their virginity while watching over the sacred flame, he writes that Numa might have “considered the nature of fire to be pure and uncorrupted and so entrusted it to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies.“

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