published on 18 January 2012
The fires of the hearth of the Roman home were symbolic of its stability: Keep the home fires burning, and keep the home thriving. The daughter of the household often held the vital responsibility of tending these fires, making sure they constantly burned. This concept of continuity extended out into the civic arena, where at the Temple of Vesta, a group of chosen women known as the Vestal Virgins stoked the home fires of the people of Rome, whose message paralleled that of the Roman household: stability and permanence. Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth, and her role in public religion was obviously crucial (in a metaphorical sense) to the strength of the ties among the citizens of the "Roman family". The College of the Vestal Virgins is a potent example of how politics and religion were intertwined in Rome, and another example of how some Roman women were afforded the opportunity to participate in the civic functions of Roman life.
In the earliest days of Rome, the young daughters of the kings held the responsibility of attending to the royal hearths, just as their lower class counterparts would have. Traditionally, these young girls would have been virgins. They would have belonged to no one man in a physical sense, and therefore they would have belonged to everyone in a civic sense. This idea would have probably been the foundation of the College of the Vestal Virgins.
The College was officially formed by the second Roman King Numa Pompilius in the mid seventh century B.C. This group was comprised of 18 members (at its historical peak), with 6 active Vestals working at a time. Originally, the members were of upper class blood. Later in Roman history, as the willingness of patriarchs to give up their daughters (and thus the continuation of their family bloodlines) to the post waned, opportunities for the daughters of freedmen to be Vestals opened up. The new Vestals were chosen by lot from among a group of handpicked girls who were considered to be physically ideal, and who were the offspring of two living parents. They were chosen at very young ages (usually between 6 and 10), were sworn to celibacy, and served their first 10 years as novice Vestals.
The next 10 years were spent in active service of the priesthood, where they tended a ceremonial fire at the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, and participated in the Vestalia, the annual festival in honor of the goddess. The final 10 years were spent as teachers to the new recruits. At the conclusion of their tenures, Vestal Virgins were permitted to get married. Many retired Vestals decided against marriage, and understandably so. Marriage for a Roman women meant total submission to a husband's whim and authority. This would have no doubt proved suffocating to an ex-Vestal after living for years with privileges and freedoms usually reserved for upper class and royal Roman males. Chief among those advantages included:
Prime seats at the theatre and the gladiatorial games Luxurious dinner parties,
Permission to vote,
Guardianship of royal wills and public treaties
Transportation in escorted, covered carriages (they were always granted the right of way)