Vestal virgins

Rhonda Tharp

Active Member
Hey, I'm a little rusty on my Ancient Roman Civ History. Can anyone suggest sources to help me write a paper about the role of the Vestal Virgins before Christianity, and the impact Christianity had on them? Any help is appreciated!!!


Active Member
The Vestal Virgins (Vestales) were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, the Roman version of Hestia. The Vestales were responsible for guarding the hearth fire in the goddess' temple; the fire was never supposed to go out.
It was considered a great honour to be chosen for this role and the virgins received a great deal of respect and honour as well, something most women of that time would never have. The virgins were chosen six at a time as children from wealthy families. Their most important tasks were to remain chaste and to keep Vesta's fire burning. If ever they broke their vow of celebicy they would be sentenced to death (remember what happened to Medusa when she was rapped by Poseidon). If the fire ever died, the virgins would also be sentenced to death (burried alive).
The women served for thirty years, though they were not considered servants. They were allowed to go out and attend gathering where other women weren't allowed. For their first ten years they were students. The next ten years they were guardians of the fire. For the last ten years they were teachers of the next generation of priestesses. Afterwards, if they chose, they could marry.
The importance of the Vestales was that they wielded fire, something that was not readily available in that time period (6th century B.C. to 4th century A.D.) so if the fire went out, it wasn't just a "quick go get some matches before anyone notices", it was a "crap, everyone is going to freeze and starve and we're all going to die" situation. They also set a new tone for women. Whereasbefore they had no rights and no voice, they were able to become someone important with very important duties; they were given a voice and a role in society.
In 391 A.D. Theodosius took power in Rome. He put out the fire and ordered it never to be lit again. He forbade any and all pagan worship.
Elizabeth Abbott History of Celibacy takes a look at the Vestales role in Roman history.
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