As a fairly regular visitor to Rome, I have to admit that I always visit some of the sites every year. This might seem a little strange to some people, who might think that once you have seen something you can tick it off your bucket list and move on. However, many of the sites in Rome offer a constantly shifting itinerary as new features are excavated, restored or finally opened to the public. Others, such as the Colosseum, offer temporary exhibitions every year to keep me returning.
It has been four years since my last trip to the Eternal City, and I am pleased to report that the Italian financial crisis has not had a terrible impact on the major sites in the center of the historical district. Indeed, many new areas are now open for viewing and there has been a massive improvement in signage and facilities throughout the Palatine and Forum. The Houses of Livia and Augustus are still closed up, but it looks as if we may get into them very soon, which will be exciting: they are favorite characters of mine because of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God.
One newly open area was very welcome: the House of the Vestals. Every year I have strained over the barrier to get a glimpse into the magnificent gardens that offer a corner of relief from all that marble! In amongst all those grandiose buildings erected to glorify the men who funded them, it is wonderful to see this haven of pure femininity. This year, for the first time, I got to tread the paths of their garden and imagine the peace and quiet of the one area in the Forum that was run by women.
The Vestals were one of the few priesthoods that were exclusively female, which in itself made them highly unusual. However, they were extremely powerful politically and held a crucial position in the life of the city. They were the guardians of the scared flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, which was kept in the small Temple in front of their House. Anyone could use the sacred flame to create embers for lighting a household fire, and so the Vestals provided a vital public function. The flame needed to remain alight at all times, and if it went out it was seen as a sign that the goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city, which was regarded as a terrible omen of bad luck. Any Vestal who allowed this to happen was punished severely by being scourged.
However, this was nothing compared to the punishment meted out for proof that a Vestal had not retained her virginity, which made her sacred to Vesta and worthy to conduct all her duties. Transgressing Vestals were killed by being sealed into an underground chamber with enough food and water for a few days. This allowed their death to be assured without the necessity of admitting that a person had been buried within city limits, which was against the law. It also meant that her sacred blood had not been spilled. Cases against Vestals were rare, but they are recorded by such authors as Livy and Pliny The Younger. The men involved were whipped to death in public, so I am not sure whose punishment was worse. One Vestal who survived an accusation of impropriety was Tuccia, but she proved her innocence by carrying a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the Temple of Vesta, a feat that became a popular image for depicting chastity in the Middle Ages.
Despite the threat of being buried alive if you were caught doing anything inappropriate, Vestals enjoyed a surprising amount of freedom. The served in the House for a term of thirty years: ten years to learn their duties, ten to fulfill them every day and then ten to teach the new students. After their retirement they were allowed to marry and were given a generous pension. As this often occurred when they were as young as thirty-six years old, they often went on to lead long and productive lives and were considered very prestigious as wives.
One thing that attracts me to the history of the Vestals is their unusual standing in society. Unlike all other women, they could own property, vote and make a will. This unique position outside the normal law, added to their implicit incorruptibility meant that they were trusted to hold important state documents, including peace treaties. They were also tasked with holding the wills of many important men in the city. This meant that they always held a position that was firmly outside normal Roman society, and yet they were vitally important to its proper functioning.
Unfortunately, the rise of Christianity led to the ultimate disbanding of the Vestals in 394 CE by order of Emperor Theodosius I. The eternal flame was extinguished forever and the Vestals faded into history. I, for one, felt honored to finally walk in their footsteps and feel a connection to some of the most unusual and important women in the whole of Roman society.