Colleen McCoulough, Author of the Thorne Birds, also wrote a five book series on Caesar. I read them, and attended a book signing where she said: “Thorn Birds gave me the means to go to Rome and do the research I always wanted to do.” The books are a delightful timescape over some of Rome’s most interesting years along with insights and revelations about daily Roman Life and customs. Caesar doesn’t show up until Book three.But everyone focuses on Caesar. Today I want to talk about Vestal Virgins. Turns out Vestal Virgins were the predecessors of today’s Clerk and Recorder.
Candidates for the position of Vestal Virgin were offered by families and chosen by the Pontifex Maximus (high priest). The pre-pubescent girl was bound to 30 years of abstinence and service. The three decades of service were broken into student, servant, and teachers. After their term of service, they were retired and allowed to marry. Marrying a vestal virgin was considered exceeding good luck. Marriages were often arranged by the Pontifex Maximus. Not to mention that the retired Vestal received a pension.
The duties of the Vestal Virgins (There were anywhere from two to six virgins in residence at the temple at any one time) were:
* They kept the home fire burning. They managed an eternal flame that any roman could avail themselves of at any time. If your fire went out, you went to the Vestals temple to get a flame.
* They collected water from a sacred spring that was used in the preparation of sacred food for rituals.
* They kept watch over sacred objects kept in the temple’s sanctuary.
* They kept wills.
Having just dealt with a death in the family and deciphering a will, this caught my eye. They kept wills. What a great service in a world of illiteracy. You showed up as a Roman citizen and claimed your right to have a will. You dictated your wishes to the Vestal who then “notarized” it and stored it in the library of wills. After a death, the family would assemble in the temple for a reading of the will. The Vestals were absolutely, by definition, trustworthy, so there was no question as to whether the will had been compromised.
Privileges – Vestals were unique and had many special privileges:
* They were transported in a special, covered, two-wheeled carriage, proceeded by a lictor. They had right of way.
* They were required to appear at various public ceremonies. Ceremonies with food and entertainment.
* They had a box seat at the games.
* They were not under the control of a male head of household, and so, they could own property, make a will, and vote. That’s right, a woman voting in ancient Rome.
* If there was a court case, and the Vestal was asked to testify, she didn’t have to take an oath to tell the truth. She always told the truth, without question.
* Their bodies were sacred. They had bodyguards, and injuring a vestal resulted in a death penalty.
Bummer – If you were a Vestal Virgin, and you broke your vow of chastity, the sentence was to be buried alive. This technique brought death to the defiled former priestess without bloodshed. Me personally, I’d stick with the chastity bit.