“Since a virgin belongs to no man, she can incarnate the collective, the city: she can belong to everyone.” Pomeroy 1975: 210
This week we examine the role of women in the religious life at Rome. The Vestal Virgins were a special group of women who were chosen to devote their lives to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. These women were chosen at a young age usually from elite families. They served for 30 years in chastity, wore the garments of matrons (the stola, the uittae, and a hairdo similar to that of brides). In addition to various religious rites, their principal duties were to keep the flame of Vesta alight, and to remain sexually pure. Their behaviour and purity were directly connected to the welfare of the Roman state. They lived together in the Atrium Vestae, in the center of Rome, next to her main public shrine, the circular Aedes Vestae. There was no statue of Vesta in the shrine (Ovid Fasti 295–8): it contained only the fire and, in the inner sanctum, the ‘sacred things that may not be divulged’: the Palladium (Livy, 26. 27. 14), and the fascinum, the erect phallus that averted evil.
A reconstruction of the House of the Vestals by Christian Huelsen (1905) (wikimedia)
The remains of the Aedes Vestae in the Roman Forum (wikimedia)
From the historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 – after 7 BCE), we receive a description of the duties of the Vestal Virgins, and some of the punishments which could befall them for a perceived blemish in their performance (Roman Antiquities 2.67):
 The virgins who serve the goddess were originally four and were chosen by the kings according to the principles established by Numa, but afterwards, from the multiplicity of the sacred rites they perform, their number was increased of six, and has so remained down to our time. They live in the temple of the goddess, into which none who wish are hindered from entering in the daytime, whereas it is not lawful for any man to remain there at night.  They were required to remain undefiled by marriage for the space of thirty years, devoting themselves to offering sacrifices and performing the other rites ordained by law. During the first ten years their duty was to learn their functions, in the second ten to perform them, and during the remaining ten to teach others. After the expiration of the term of thirty years nothing hindered those who so desired from marrying, upon laying aside their fillets and the other insignia of their priesthood. And some, though very few, have done this; but they came to ends that were not at all happy or enviable. In consequence, the rest, looking upon their misfortunes as ominous, remain virgins in the temple of the goddess till their death, and then once more another is chosen by the pontiffs to supply the vacancy.  Many high honours have been granted them by the commonwealth, as a result of which they feel no desire either for marriage or for children; and severe penalties have been established for their misdeeds. It is the pontiffs who by law both inquire into and punish these offences; to Vestals who are guilty of lesser misdemeanours they scourge with rods, but those who have suffered defilement they deliver up to the most shameful and the most miserable death.  While they are yet alive they are carried upon a bier with all the formality of a funeral, their friends and relations attending them with lamentations, and after being brought as far as the Colline Gate, they are placed in an underground cell prepared within the walls, clad in their funeral attire; but they are not given a monument or funeral rites or any other customary solemnities.  There are many indications, it seems, when a priestess is not performing her holy functions with purity, but the principal one is the extinction of the fire, which the Romans dread above all misfortunes, looking upon it, from whatever cause it proceeds, as an omen that portends the destruction of the city; and they bring fire again into the temple with many supplicatory rites, concerning which I shall speak on the proper occasion.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus goes on (2.68f.) to refer to two cases where accused Vestal Virgins are saved via divine assistance, having to go through certain trials to prove their chastity: one, Aemilia, was suspect because she allowed to sacred fire to go out, managed to rekindle the fire following a prayer to Vesta; another, Tuccia, proved her innocence by carrying water in a sieve from the Tiber, spilling not even a drop (Roman Antiquities, 2.68):
 However, it is also well worth relating in what manner the goddess has manifested herself in favour of those virgins who have been falsely accused. For these things, however incredible they may be, have been believed by the Romans and their historians have related much about them.  To be sure, the professors of the atheistic philosophies, — if, indeed, their theories deserve the name of philosophy, — who ridicule all the manifestations of the gods which have taken place among either the Greeks or barbarians, will also laugh these reports to scorn and attribute them to human imposture, on the ground that none of the gods concern themselves in anything relating to mankind. Those, however, who do not absolve the gods from the care of human affairs, but, after looking deeply into history, hold that they are favourable to the good and hostile to the wicked, will not regard even these manifestations as incredible.  It is said, then, that once, when the fire had been extinguished through some negligence on the part of Aemilia, who had the care of it at the time and had entrusted it to another virgin, one of those who had been newly chosen and were then learning their duties, the whole city was in great commotion and an inquiry was made by the pontiffs whether there might not have been some defilement of the priestess to account for the extinction of the fire. Thereupon, they say, Aemilia, who was innocent, but distracted at what had happened, stretched out her hands toward the altar and in the presence of the priests and the rest of the virgins cried:  “O Vesta, guardian of the Romans’ city, if, during the space of nearly thirty years, I have performed the sacred offices to thee in a holy and proper manner, keeping a pure mind and a chaste body, do thou manifest thyself in my defence and assist me and do not suffer thy priestess to die the most miserable of all deaths; but if I have been guilty of any impious deed, let my punishment expiate the guilt of the city.”  Having said this, she tore off the band of the linen garment she had on and threw it upon the altar, they say, following her prayer; and from the ashes, which had been long cold and retained no spark, a great flame flared up through the linen, so that the city no longer required either expiations or a new fire.
Given the fact that the Vestal Virgins and their perceived purity were so closely connected to the safety and health of the Roman state, and, given the fact that girls who were chosen to become Vestals usually came from the old aristocracy (most known Vestals come from a senatorial family), the Vestals were often politicized, and embroiled in both public and private feuds. Here are the circumstances of several high profile scandals (or events) of Vestals:
- legendary Rome: Ilia/Rhea Silvia a Vestal Virgin (Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.76); raped by Mars to become mother of Romulus + Remus.
- 420 BCE: Vestal Virgin named Postumia put on trial for sexual offense. Livy 4.44.11: “Actually she was innocent, but the fact that she dressed well and talked rather more freely and wittily than a young girl should, up to apoint justified the suspicion against her. She was remanded, and afterwards acquitted, with a warning from the Pontifex Maximus, in the name of the college of priests, to stop making jokes and to dress in future with more regard to sanctity and less to elegance.
- 216 BCE: following the disaster of the Battle of Cannae (defeat of Roman army by Hannibal and Carthaginians), two Vestal Virgins were denounced and declared guilty (Livy 22.57.2).
- 114 BCE: priests investigated and condemned one Vestal Virgin; in 113 BCE two that had been acquitted in 114 BCE were condemned.
- 73 BCE: the Vestal Fabia (half-sister of Cicero’s first wife, Terentia) thought to have been seduced by Catiline (Cicero, In Cat. 3.9; In Tog. Cand. 91); the Vestal Licinia rumoured to have slept with her cousin, none other than Crassus (Plutarch, Crassus 1).
- 31 CE: daughter of Sejanus (plotted against emperor Tiberius) raped and strangled to death (Tacitus, Annals 5.9).
- 83 CE and 90 CE: Vestal Virgins condemned by the Emperor Domitian (see this week’s [handout]).
Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) in his life of the legendary king Numa (10), gives us a vivid description of the gruesome execution of Vestals (as quote by Balsdon p240):
In addition to the Vestal Virgins, elite women were involved in Roman religion in a number of important ways. Bona Dea (the “Good Goddess”), an Italian goddess worshipped especially at Rome and Latium, was worshipped in Rome twice a year (Balsdon p243), once on May 1st in her Temple on the Aventine, and once in the household of a curule magistrate on an evening in early December. On this second occasion, no men were allowed to be present (and images of men and male animals such as statues, paintings, mosaics were covered or removed). The wife of the magistrate presided and was attended by elite women and the Vestal Virgins. At the ceremony, a sow was sacrificed; wine was referred to as “milk”, the wine jar as the “honey pot”. Although the rite was possibly supposed to be a secret, we nonetheless have several accounts of the rites of Bona Dea, some of which are deliberately sensational. In 62 BCE, there was the infamous Bona Dea scandal, at which P. Clodius Pulcher snuck into the female ceremonies to sleep with Caesar’s wife. We learn about this from Plutarch in his Life of Julius Caesar (9-10):
9  However, there were no disturbances in consequence of Caesar’s praetorship (=62 BCE), but an unpleasant incident happened in his family.  Publius Clodius was a man of patrician birth, and conspicuous for wealth and eloquence, but in insolence and effrontery he surpassed all the notorious scoundrels of his time.  This man was in love with Pompeia the wife of Caesar, and she was not unwilling. But close watch was kept upon the women’s apartments, and Aurelia, Caesar’s mother, a woman of discretion, would never let the young wife out of her sight, and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to have an interview.  Now, the Romans have a goddess whom they call Bona, corresponding to the Greek Gynaeceia. The Phrygians claim this goddess as their own, and say that she was the mother of King Midas; the Romans say she was a Dryad nymph and the wife of Faunus; the Greeks that she was the unnameable one among the mothers of Dionysus.  And this is the reason why the women cover their booths with vine-branches when they celebrate her festival, and why a sacred serpent is enthroned beside the goddess in conformity with the myth.  It is not lawful for a man to attend the sacred ceremonies, nor even to be in the house when they are celebrated; but the women, apart by themselves, are said to perform many rites during their sacred service which are Orphic in their character.  Accordingly, when the time for the festival is at hand, the consul or praetor at whose house it is to be held goes away, and every male with him while his wife takes possession of the premises and puts them in due array.  The most important rites are celebrated by night, when mirth attends the revels, and much music, too, is heard. 10.  At the time of which I speak, Pompeia was celebrating this festival, and Clodius, who was still beardless and on this account thought to pass unnoticed, assumed the dress and implements of a lute-girl and went to the house, looking like a young woman.  He found the door open, and was brought in safely by the maid-servant there, who was in on the secret; but after she had run on ahead to tell Pompeia and some time had elapsed, Clodius had not the patience to wait where he had been left, and so, as he was wandering about in the house (a large one) and trying to avoid the lights, an attendant of Aurelia came upon him and asked him to play with her, as one woman would another, and when he refused, she dragged him forward and asked who he was and whence he came,  Clodius answered that he was waiting for Pompeia’s Abra (this was the very name by which the maid was called), and his voice betrayed him. The attendant of Aurelia at once sprang away with a scream to the lights and the throng, crying out that she had caught a man. The women were panic-stricken, and Aurelia put a stop to the mystic rites of the goddess and covered up the emblems. Then she ordered the doors to be closed and went about the house with torches, searching for Clodius.  He was found where he had taken refuge, in the chamber of the girl who had let him into the house; and when they saw who he was, the women drove him out of doors.  Then at once, and in the night, they went off and told the matter to their husbands, and when day came a report spread through the city that Clodius had committed sacrilege and owed satisfaction, not only to those whom he had insulted, but also to the city and to the gods.  Accordingly, one of the tribunes of the people indicted Clodius for sacrilege, and the most influential senators leagued themselves together and bore witness against him that, among other shocking abominations, he had committed adultery with his sister.  But against the eager efforts of these men the people arrayed themselves in defence of Clodius, and were of great assistance to him with the jurors in the case, who were terror-stricken and afraid of the multitude.  Caesar divorced Pompeia at once, but when he was summoned to testify at the trial, he said he knew nothing about the matters with which Clodius was charged.  His statement appeared strange, and the prosecutor therefore asked, “Why, then, didst thou divorce thy wife?” “Because,” said Caesar, “I thought my wife ought not even to be under suspicion.”
We learn from Cicero (Att. 1.13.3) that the Vestal Virgins performed some of the rites again, so as to ensure that Rome would not suffer from this sacrilege. The poet, Juvenal (1st-2nd century CE), describes the Bona Dea rites as an orgy (6.314-327):
Everyone knows the secret rites of the Good Goddess, when the pipe excites the loins and, crazed by horn and wine alike, the maenads of Priapus are carried away, whirling their hair and howling. How their minds are all on fire to get laid then, how they squeal to the dance of their desire, how abundant a torrent of undiluted lust runs over their dripping thighs! Saufeia takes off her garland and issues a challenge to the brothel-keepers’ slave girls. She wins the prize for swinging her arse, then she in turn worships Medullina’s undulating surges. The contest is between the ladies: their expertise matches their birth. Nothing there will be pretend or imitation. It’ll all be done for real. It could create a spark in the son of Laomedon, already chill with age, or in Nestor’s swollen scrotum. That’s the itch of impatience, that’s the moment of pure Woman.
Sulmo, Italy, birthplace of Ovid (pleiades project)
Tomis, on the Black Sea, to which Ovid was exiled in 8 CE (pleiades)
In the second part of this week, we turn from the role of women in Roman religion to the depiction of women in the works of the poet Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE). From Sulmo, Ovid was one of the famous Latin poets of the Augustan era, known, to some scholars, as the most politically subversive of Rome’s poets of the early imperial period. Since Ovid speaks of himself somewhat freely, we seem to know quite a bit about him. In 8 CE Ovid was unexpectedly punished by Augustus and relegated to Tomis, on the Black Sea. We do not know exactly what the cause of this exile was (Ovid speaks of it in veiled terms in Tristia 2.107), but behind the official reason — the immorality of his poetry — Ovid seems to have had some involvement in the adultery of Julia Minor, Augustus’ granddaughter, with Decimus Junius Silanus. Ovid composed a wide range of poetry in which the themes of love and politics intertwined and reflected one another. Although previous Latin love poets had had a specific female muse around which they structured their poetry, and to some extent their world view (as Catullus with Lesbia, Propertius with Cynthia, Tibullus with Delia), Ovid’s love, “Corinna”, seems most unreal, and most like an amalgam created for poetic reasons. Besides, Ovid often writes that he cannot be satisfied by one woman: he prefers two (Am. 2.10), or that he cannot be charmed by any beautiful woman (Am. 2.4).
- the Amores, initially in 5 books (after 20 BCE), we have a later edition in 3 books (49 elegies ranging from 20-100 verses), published many years later (perhaps 1 CE); elegiac couplet
- a Latin version of the Medea, now lost (between 12 and 8 BCE)
- Heroides (“The Heroines”): first set 1-15 (published c. 15 BCE), second set 16-21 (published 4-8 CE); elegiac couplet
- Ars Amatoria: first 2 books between 1 BCE and 1 CE; 3rd book, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae (“The Cosmetics of Women”) shortly after; elegiac couplet
- Metamorphoses: epic poem in 15 books (between 2-8 CE); hexameter
- Fasti: poetic calendar in elegiac couplets, 6 books for January-June (between 2-8 CE); elegiac couplet
- Tristia: 5 books written exile: book 1, written during voyage to Tomis; book 2, 9 CE; others written from 9-12 CE and published separately; elegiac couplet
- Epistulae ex Ponto: 4 books of 46 elegies, first 3 books published in 13 CE, 4th possibly posthumously; elegiac couplet
- Ibis: short invective poem, 11-12 CE; elegiac couplet
In class, we will be reading a few excerpts from his vast corpus which investigate the various aspects of Ovid’s view of women, which range from the greatly idealized, to the grimy aspects of the reality of contemporary Rome:
- Amores 1.5;
- Amores 2.12, 2.13, 2.14;
- Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) Book 3;
- Baucis + Philemon: Metamorphoses 8.629-8.724 (pp196-198);
- Tereus, Philomela, Procne: Metamorphoses 6.495-674 (pp148-153);
- Iphis: Metamorphoses 9.666-797 (pp221-224)
A passage of Soranus (Gynecology 1.19.60, translated by Temkin, cited by W in the C W p302) is a useful comparandum with Amores 2.13, 2.14:
For one party banishes abortives, citing the testimony of Hippocrates who says, “I will give to no one an abortive”; moreover, because it is the specific task of medicine to guard and preserve what has been engendered by nature. The other party prescribes abortives, but with discrimination, that is, they do not prescribe them when a person wishes to destroy the embryo because of adultery or out of consideration of youthful beauty; but only to prevent subsequent danger to parturition if the uterus is small and not capable of accommodating the complete development, or if the uterus at its orifice has knobbly swellings and fissures, or if some similar difficulty is involved. And they say the same about contraceptives as well, and we too agree with them.
— Vestal Virgins
— Bona Dea
— Aedes Vestae