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The Vestal Virgins - the Most Powerful Women in Antiquity


In the days when women's social status was akin to that of slaves and farm animals, there was one group of women that stood near the very peak of the societal hierarchy. These were the Vestals or Vestal Virgins - the priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta. Their main obligation was to tend to the sacred fire of the highly revered goddess, a task they were successful in fulfilling for more than 1000 years.

In Ancient Rome, it would have been easier for a person to get away with offending the emperor than a Vestal Virgin. This kind of transgression was punishable by death. The mystical virgins of the goddess possessed the authority to pardon criminals' offenses, even if the Senate itself or emperor had convicted the individual.

The selection process of Vestals was extremely strict. They were chosen among the nobility of the city of Rome at just 6 years of age and their training continued for 10 years. Only 6 girls in all of the Roman empire could be Vestals at any given time.

A mandatory prerequisite was for the priestesses to be virgins. The belief held that while the sacred flame of Vesta still burned, her priestesses need to remain untouched, else the fire would spread out of the temple and burn all of Rome.

Each Vestal served until the age of 30, at which point she was freed of her vows. After finishing her service, each priestess automatically turned into the most desirable partner for marriage in all of the Empire, with emperors and nobles all vying for her hand.

For Romans, one of the greatest sins was to violate a Vestal Virgin's oath of celibacy. An example was the 25th Roman Emperor, Elagabalus, who did just that. Convinced of his greatness, he decided to take a Vestal still in service for a wife. He married the high priestess Aquilia Severa, an act which the Romans were not pleased with, leading to his assassination.

An even worse crime for the Romans was for someone to disobey the will of a priestess. For such a crime, the guilty were stoned to death or crucified on a cross.

The Vestal fire in the priestess temple burned from the founding of the city of Rome until the year 394 A.D., when emperor Theodosius accepted Christianity and ordered the fire to be extinguished. Several years later, the Goths invaded and brutally pillaged the city. This led to a massive resurgence of the ancient Roman religion among the populace and the flame was re-lit. However, it would only continue to burn until the fall of the Roman empire in 476.