The Vestal Virgins and Power: Tradition and Change in Third Century Rome

Outi Sihvonen

Tutkimustuotos: Doctoral thesisMonograph


This dissertation studies the social influence of the Vestal virgins, virgines Vestales, in the third century Rome. The cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was an essential part of the Roman state religion and the six Vestal virgins were the only female priesthood of the pontifical college. They were trained to the profession of the priestesses from the early years on of their childhood, and they were required to stay for thirty years in the cult’s service. For that term they achieved an independent status receiving great privileges. However, remaining chaste was obligatory under penalty of death – an unchaste Vestal was buried alive within the city walls. Although the Vestals are profoundly studied in the earlier research, their capacity as the influential women is a neglected theme. In order to find out the impact and extent of their agency, the thesis analyses their privileges, their economic benefits and capacity as the independent women of élite. The key questions are: for what purposes, and for whose benefit, did these women use their privileged position and religious power? The temporal focus of this study is third century society which fell into the political and social crisis. Therefore I discuss how the crisis effected to their public roles as the priestesses and benefactresses. In contrast to the Vestals’ active role as benefactresses, a question of their significance and social value in imperial politics is studied thoroughly. As the notable figures of the society, the priestesses were the intermediaries between their clients and the imperial house. However, their prominent status was also used as an instrument for manifesting imperial politics and power.

The main materials are the literary as well as epigraphic sources which are analysed with qualitative methods and with a social-historic approach. The numerous honorary inscriptions dedicated to the priestesses during the third century are the important material, which is not studied yet thoroughly in the context of the third century crisis. During this epoch, production of inscriptions declined but the habit of donating them to the Vestals did not suffer such development. The numismatic material provides an important evidence of the Vestals’ relationships with the imperial house. It is shown that the Vestals course of life was an essential for development of their social status and agency. The different stages of female course of life – puella, nupta and matrona – were represented by the six priestesses living in the household of the Atrium Vestae. The most influential figure in their cultic institute was the chief Vestal, virgo Vestalis maxima, under whose leadership the cult functioned. Her relationship with the imperial women was based on the amicitia, friendship, which was possible between the equals. The achievements of a virgo Vestalis maxima were manifested in the honorary inscriptions which the dedicators designed to display a Vestal’s public role as well as their own position. The honorary texts have been interpreted as monotonous and formal but the Vestals are praised with different tones and characterizations. Some of the chief Vestals appear as the dutiful benefactresses while some are praised for their religious and sacred character. These specializations create interesting differences among the Vestals and their public images.

One of my main findings is that a Vestal represented her family also during her priesthood, and therefore the status and influence of her family had an effect to her honorary position as a priestess and to the economic benefits which she received. Despite of the times of crisis, their economic position remained secured. Thus, the third century Vestals continued to act influential benefactresses for their biological family members and clients. Taking care of the eternal fire of the state hearth – which was in practice the imperial home altar – the Vestals represented the imperial power. While the third century emperors were often absent from the capital and their term in office was short lived in most cases, the Vestals stayed many decades in their office representing continuity and stability of the Roman state. The significance of my thesis is to demonstrate the various roles of the priestesses and show the scale of the social agency of the élite women in the society which was in the stage of transformation and crisis.
ISBN (elektroninen)978-952-03-1670-9
TilaJulkaistu - 2020
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG4 Monografiaväitöskirja


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