No One Ever Wants To Talk About The Vestal Virgins Who Don't Get Buried Alive For Breaking Their Vows

Jean Raoux' Vestal Virgins
Jean Raoux' Vestal Virgins

You could be forgiven for thinking we all of us end up getting buried alive, the way some people talk about it – that the majority of each day is spent catching one another in violation of our sacred vows, tearing our hair and robes in mad grief for our soiled sister, tramping down a spiral staircase with sorrowing feet to a spare and solitary chamber beneath the Colline Gate, leaving her there with a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, a lamp, a couch and eternity, such that the ground beneath the Colline Gate must be near as populous as Rome itself with sisters found guilty of incestum, stripped of her vittae, scourged, borne through the forum by her weeping kindred, and then immured there, but the simple truth is that being a vestal virgin (we don't bother capitalizing it any more than we'd write, "Oh, she's a Teacher" or "He's a Butcher," viz., it looks ridiculous) is a very straightforward, easy thing, and hardly any of us are buried alive in the long run. Besides which lots of people who aren't vestal virgins, or indeed virgins of any kind, are buried alive all the time. One reads about it. Thucydides, for example. In his Peloponnesian War, he talks about how during the Corfu rebellion some were even walled up alive in the temple of Dionysus. And there were certainly no vestal virgins at Corfu in those days.

I don't mean to sound rude, and I apologize if it comes off that way. But you wouldn't believe how many people seem unable to resist the urge to crack a little wise as soon as they hear what I do for a living. "A Vestal Virgin?" they say (you can hear the capitalization when they say it). "Aren't you afraid of getting buried alive?" Or if you offer to get everyone a round of drinks or anything that's just basically polite, they'll throw their hands up like you've just given them a come-on: "Whoa, there – I like you, but I'm not ready to get beaten to death in the Forum Boarium just yet!" Everyone thinks they're Terence when they meet a vestal virgin. We happen to personally embody the health and integrity of Rome, which you might think Roman citizens should take seriously, but in my experience that really hasn't been the case.

We have an important job! We tend the sacred fire, guard the temple, preside over the Vestalia, collect water from Vesta's favorite spring – sister Serena is always sweeping the steps to the shrine – and yes, cultivate chastity. It's very easy to do once you get used to it. And we reap wheat. And during the Fordicidia we preside over the sacrifices, which is no easy task during ordinary festivals, but at this time of year requires reducing a pregnant cow and her unborn calf to ashes, which takes positively ages and requires very careful, very regular stirring and breaking-up of the corpse and keeping the flames at just the right temperature. I mean, think of how long it takes to cook a good-sized pot roast. Now imagine reducing it to ash, and this time it's the whole cow! That takes real work, I don't mind telling you.

Would you like to know just how long Rome has had vestal virgins? 1000 years. (That's longer than Rome has been Rome, while we're keeping track.) And would you like to guess how many vestal virgins we've had to immure for incestum during that time? I mean real immurements, not just your buddy the lawyer Flavius Minicianus who knew a girl who etc, but real-deal live burials in the Campus Sceleratus that someone wrote about, with real names and real dates and eyewitnesses to boot. Ten. That's an average of one girl buried alive every one hundred years. There are Roman legions who would kill for retention rates like ours.

There's Oppia, and for what it's worth, I don't think she did it. 483 was a bad year, full of prodigies and bad stars. She was a convenient scapegoat.

Orbinia I think did it.

Minucia was a hundred and fifty years later and I also think she did it, and deserved to be buried alive. Does your family have an uninterrupted one hundred and fifty year record of blameless conduct?

Sextilia ibid.

Floronia ibid. I think she did it.

Licinia – come to think of it, she was acquitted.

Aemilia – she was definitely guilty, and Marcia too, and there was a second Licinia, I think, and she was guilty too. I don't know if they were immured separately or together. I don't know if we have a policy about that. I wouldn't begrudge a vestal virgin being immured with her sisters in guilt, if she had sisters in guilt, as a final gesture.

Cornelia – oh, she sounded sweet. You remember that story about how she wouldn't let the executioner help her free her robe when it caught on the staircase during that final descent? I don't see how she could have been guilty, acting like that. That was a real shame.

Clodia Laeta – There's nothing decent I can say about that. We'll call it a draw.

There was also Postumia, who it is true was never seen to commit a direct crime, was once arrested and charged with "showiness," although later acquitted.

I do not count girls who committed suicide during trial, although I will say that personally – not in my capacity as a vestal virgin, you understand, merely in my capacity as a private member of Roman life – I consider it unsporting. Not in itself incontrovertible proof of guilt, but unsporting, and certainly conduct unbecoming. Regardless, you cannot argue that a girl who throws herself out of a window has been buried alive, so my count still stands. The important thing is that I could easily name a hundred vestal virgins who were never buried alive and some of whom are in fact happily living and sweeping the steps of the temple even as we speak! As it happens I don't have time to get into all of their names just now but I'm sure someone has written them down somewhere. Lovely to catch up with you. Don't be a stranger! Come by and take a look at the sacred fire sometime!

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]