Keeping the Fire On: The Vestal Virgins in Ancient Rome

In today’s lesson, we started by looking at this statue, and I asked you all to guess who it might be, and what you noted about the attire, stance and other parts of sculpture. Many of you guessed that it was a Roman emperor, and a number of you noted that it seemed to have a military pose, and a child sitting on something. Some of you thought it looked a bit like Aeneas. In fact, the statue is of Augustus, at the Prima Porta, a suburb of Rome. We will discuss at the start of next half term the various messages and representations intended in this important statue. Augustus was the first Roman emperor, and was very keen to connect himself to Roman founding legend and mythology, as we shall see later on.


I then asked you to recap the story of Romulus and Remus, which most of you remembered well – how they were put in a basket and sent down the River Tiber, raised by a she-wolf, and ultimately how they fought over founding a city, and Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded Rome.

We looked at how Romulus is said to have created the first Roman senate, made up a hundred men from particular families, and the these became known as the ‘patres’, and their descendants became known as ‘patricians’. Everyone else became known as the ‘plebeians, so there were two separate parts of Roman society. He also found that the city was filling up with young men, so ultimately to solve this, he is said to have stolen local women while holding a festival, something known in legend as the Rape of the Sabine Women. Finally, after 37 years, he is said to have disappeared in a whirlwind, or ascended to heaven, or been torn apart by senators.


The second king of Rome was Numa Pompilius, a Sabine, and he was given a gift of a sacred fire by the goddess Vesta. He was told that as long as it never went out, the city would be safe. He appointed a priesthood of Vestal Virgins whose job was to tend to the fire. They had to remain celibate for 30 years, but after that they could marry – and indeed marriage to an ex-Vestal was highly prized. If they broke the rule of celibacy during their tenure, they would be buried alive with a few days of food and drink in the city (since it was forbidden to actually kill a Vestal).


They had lots of special rights and privileges, including the right to vote, surprisingly, front row seats at stadium shows, and the right to own property. They were also able to pardon Julius Caesar, and if a slave touched a Vestal, he or she would immediately be freed, and if a criminal saw a Vestal on the way to execution, he would be automatically pardoned.

The Vestals were also very good at their job! The fire never went out, and only ten Vestals were punished for breaking the rules of celibacy over more than 1000 years. Eventually, as Christianity emerged, and ultimately became the official state religion, the fire was put out and the priesthood shut down. Shortly after this, Rome was sacked, and many blamed the putting out of the sacred fire for this.

Finally, we had a short debate on whether Romulus or Aeneas made a better Roman king. Please hand in the long exam question you did on this to me before half term, if you haven’t already. Don’t forget the Dystopia Event on Thursday afternoon – all are welcome! It should be really interesting ad enjoyable.

Homework is to research and write about haruspicy. Have a good half term.

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