The Roman Vestals: Women Who Ruled Ancient Rome

Fareeha Arshad
A portrait of a VestalWikimedia Commons

The ancient Romans were superpowers of the world once. There are many reasons behind their dominance — they fought well, provided well, and ruled well. Despite that, they held certain beliefs and practices that wouldn’t make much sense now. One of the many such insane beliefs was that in Vestals.

The priests in the ancient Roman Empire believed that the goddess Vesta protects their kingdom from any harm that may befall their empire. However, her protection would last as long they lit a never-dying fire in her honour. And this fire protection could only be done by a group of virgins called the vestals — who kept the fire burning for more than a millennia. Let’s look at three facts about the vestals that made them unique among the Romans.

1. Vestals were the most powerful group in Rome

Marrying a former Vestal was considered a matter of honour and pride among the ancient Roman men. The Vestals were not just powerful; they were highly respected and received a lavish pension from the government. Such high status attracted a large number of wealthy men across Rome.

One of such men was Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was the wealthiest man in Roman history. In the greed of getting hold of more properties at a cheaper rate, Crassus got involved in a scandal with Licinia, a Vestal. Both of them were put on trial, which revealed the true intentions of Crassus — his greed for Vestal’s properties.

2. Vestals couldn't break the rules: if they did, they had to die

Vestals were not like the other women in Rome. While the ordinary Roman women could neither vote nor could own properties, the Vestals were some of the most powerful women in Rome and had the influence that a woman at that time could only imagine. After all, the Vestals were the ones to ‘protected’ Rome from getting destroyed.

Besides being the most influential priestesses in Rome, Vestals were not tied with the men around them — no, not even their fathers or husbands. They could buy and sell properties on their own and could participate in legal and political matters. Being sacred and powerful, the Vestals could free a slave by their touch, intervene in legal procedures, and pardon a criminal without any case.

3. Everybody wanted to marry a former Vestal

The virtue of the Vestals was a pretty big deal among the Romans. Despite the position, they were out in and their status, they were still humans — fallible. However, unlike the general Roman population, they were rarely forgiven, and their punishments were outrageously severe.

The Romans believed that if the sacred fire that the Vestals protected went out, their Goddess Vesta would get angry and leave them. Then the Vestals who were supposed to protect the fire would be whipped harshly. In case they would compromise their vows of celibacy, they were buried alive.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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