Rome, 7th cent. B.C. (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10, exc. 2nd cent. A.D. G)

The goddess of the hearth, Vesta, was served by six virgins, whose duty it was to keep the sacred fire which took the place of a cult statue. Vesta’s temple was a round building in the Roman Forum. Its institution was attributed to Numa Pompilius, the pious second king of Rome (715-673 B.C.), who succeeded the warlike Romulus.[1]

(10.1) At first they say that Gegania and Verenia were made priestesses by Numa, and next Canuleia and Tarpeia. Later Servius added two more, to bring the number up to what has been since that time. The king set the term of service for the holy virgins at thirty years; in the first decade they learn their duties, in the middle decade they do what they have learned, and in the third they teach others. (10.2) After that a virgin is free to marry if she wishes to or to adopt another style of life, once her term of service has been completed. But few are said to have welcomed this opportunity, and that matters did not go well for those who did, but rather because they were afflicted by regret and depression for the rest of their lives they inspired pious reverence in the others, so that they remained constant in their virginity until old age and death. 

(10.3) Numa gave them significant honours, one of which is the right to make a will during their father’s lifetime and to conduct their other business affairs without a guardian, like the mothers of three children.[2]

When they go out they are preceded by lictors with the fasces, and if they accidentally happen to meet a criminal being led to execution, his life is spared. The virgin must swear that the meeting was involuntary and accidental and not planned. Anyone who goes underneath a Vestal’s litter when she is being carried is put to death. (10.4) 

The Virgins’ minor offences are punished by beating, which is administered by the Pontifex, with the offender naked, and in a dark place with a curtain set up between them. A Virgin who is seduced is buried alive near what is known as the Colline gate. At this place in the city there is a little ridge of land that extends for some distance, which is called a ‘mound’ in the Latin language.[3]

(10.5) Here they prepare a small room, with an entrance from above. In it there is a bed with a cover, a lighted lamp, and some of the basic necessities of life, such as bread, water in a bucket, milk, oil, because they consider it impious to allow a body that is consecrated to the most holy rites to die of starvation.[4]

They put the woman who is being punished on a litter, which they cover over from outside and bind down with straps, so that not even her voice can be heard, and they take her through the Forum. Everyone there stands aside silently and follows the litter without a word, in serious dejection. There is no other sight so terrifying, (10.7) and the city finds no day more distasteful than that day. When the litter is borne to the special place, the attendants unfasten her chains and the chief priest says certain secret prayers and lifts his hands to the gods in prayer because of he is required to carry out the execution, and he leads the victim out veiled and settlers her on the ladder that carries her down to the room. Then he, along with the other priests, turns away. The ladder is removed from the entrance and a great pile of earth is placed over the room to hide it, so that the place is on a level with the rest of the mound. That is how those who abandon their sacred virginity are punished.

1. See Beard, 1980.

2. On the privilege of the ius triorum liberorum, cf. 154.

3. The Latin word is agger

4. Creon orders similar arrangements to be made for Antigone in Sophocles’ play, also in order not to incur pollution, 772-6.