Although their number never exceeded six at a given time, the Vestal Virgins of Rome have been a focus of fascination for dozens of centuries. Chosen by lot from a group of specially selected, physically impeccable girls with two living parents, a Vestal entered the Order between her sixth and tenth year and was sworn to thirty years of chastity and demending service.
A chief Vestal duty was tending the sacred fire in the round, peaked-roofed Temple of Vesta. The goddess Vesta was a Roman adaptation of the Greek goddess Hestia, pictured at the left.
Vesta was once the goddess of the hearth and later became the goddess of the flame that symbolized the Roman state. Since the continuity and salvation of the state was believed to depend on the accurate performance and, above all, the purity of the Vestals, any fall from virginal grace bought the severe punishment of being buried alive. Happily, in the hundreds of years the College of Vestal Virgins existed, this sentence was seldom carried out.
In an era when religion was rich in pagentry, the awesome presence of the Vestals was required innumerous public ceremonies. They alone were allowed to throw ritual straw figurines called Argei, into the Tiber on May 15. In June, they gathered grain and fashioned salty cakes for the Vestalia, Vesta's festival. They guarded important state documents; and in national crises the advisory power of the Senior Vestal, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, was undisputed. Yet the long years had pleasing moments too, in the form of privileged seats at the theatre and frequent dinner parties where the menu featured such delacacies as pates, boiled ostrich, doormice stuffed with nuts, and fricassee of roses in pastry shells.
"Home" meant rigid seclusion in the then sumptuous Atrium Vestae, the House of the Vestals, an 84-room palace in the ancient Forum Roman built around an elegant court with a gleaming double pool. To this day, remains of the statues of the Vestals can be seen in the Atrium. These statues were erected by grateful recipients of favors bestowed by these winsome women, who were revered all during their lifetimes as divinities.