Chapter V

Vestal Virgins and Matron's Stola and Palla

       Numa, the second king of Rome (714 B.C. – 673 B.C.), was traditionally the founder of Roman religious ritual. He instituted the position of the Vestal Virgins as holy female priestesses of Vesta. Their main task was to maintain the fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum. They were the only female priests within the Roman religious system. The head of the college of Vesta was called the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, and she was under the direct authority of the Pontifex Maximus. There were six Vestal Virgins at any given time which were selected from distinguished patrician families at an age from six to ten, and such appointments were considered a top honor for any family to receive.

Below are some writings for Vestal Virgins:

Livy XXII-56

               Two vestal virgins, Opimia and Floronia, were that year convicted of 
               incontinence; one of whom was, according to custom,
               buried alive at the Colline gate; the other destroyed herself.



Numa Pompilius, king of the Rome, seems to have consecrated a temple of a  round construction to Vesta, because he believed this goddess to be the same as the earth which provides for human life, and he gave it the form of a ball so that this goddess would be honored in a temple made in her image.[1]

There is a story how Roman citizen looked up Vestal Virgins. Valerius Maximus 1.1.10

This conviction has also been at work in the hearts of private persons. When Rome was captured by the Gauls and the Flamen of Quirinus and the Vestal Virgins were transporting the sacred objects, dividing the load between them, they crossed the Pons Sublicius and began to ascend the slope that leads to Janiculum. L. Albanius, who was carrying his wife and daughters in a cart, saw them. Public religion being closer to him than private affection, he told his family to get down from the cart and put the Virgins and cult objects into it, and abandoning the journey he had begun took them to the town of Caere, where they were received with profound reverence.[2]

Plutarch, Life of Numa 10

10 1) In the beginning, then, they say that Gegania and Verenia were consecrated to this office by Numa, who subsequently added to them Canuleia and Tarpeia; that at a later time two others were added by Servius, making the number which has continued to the present time. It was ordained by the king that the sacred virgins should vow themselves to chastity for thirty years; during the first decade they are to learn their duties, during the second to perform the duties they have learned, and during the third to teach others these duties. 2) Then, the thirty years being now passed, anyone who wishes has liberty to marry and adopt a different mode of life, after laying down her sacred office. We are told, however, that few have welcomed the indulgence, and that those who did so were not happy, but were a prey to repentance and dejection for the rest of their lives, thereby inspiring the rest with superstitious fears, so that until old age and death they remained steadfast in their virginity. 3) But Numa bestowed great privileges upon them, such as the right to make a will during the life time of their fathers, and to transact and manage their other affairs without a guardian, like the mothers of three children. When they appear in public, the fasces are carried before them, and if they accidentally meet a criminal on his way to execution, his life is spared; but the virgin must make oath that the meeting was involuntary and fortuitous, and not of design. He who passes under the litter on which they are borne, is put to death. 4) For their minor offences the virgins are punished with stripes, the Pontifex Maximus sometimes scourging the culprit on her bare flesh, in a dark place, with a curtain interposed. But she that has broken her vow of chastity is buried alive near the Colline Gate. Here a little ridge of earth extends for some distance along the inside of the city-wall; the Latin word for it is "agger." 5) Under it a small chamber is constructed, with steps leading down from above. In this are placed a couch with its coverings, a lighted lamp, and very small portions of the necessaries of life, such as bread, a bowl of water, milk, and oil, as though they would thereby absolve themselves from the charge of destroying by hunger a life which had been consecrated to the highest services of religion. 6) Then the culprit herself is placed on a litter, over which coverings are thrown and fastened down with cords so that not even a cry can be heard from within, and carried through the forum. All the people there silently make way for the litter, and follow it without uttering a sound, in a terrible depression of soul. No other spectacle is more appalling, nor does any other day bring more gloom to the city than this. 7) When the litter reaches its destination, the attendants unfasten the cords of the coverings. Then the high-priest, after stretching his hands toward heaven and uttering certain mysterious prayers before the fatal act, brings forth the culprit, who is closely veiled, and places her on the steps leading down into the chamber. After this he turns away his face, as do the rest of the priests, and when she has gone down, the steps are taken up, and great quantities of earth are thrown into the entrance to the chamber, hiding it away, and make the place level with the rest of the mound. Such is the punishment of those who break their vow of virginity. [3]

            They were considered inviolable and sacred and their blood could not be spilt without fear of terrible repercussion from the gods.

Another Plutarch’s writing:

The Roman Questions of Plutarch

XCVI (#96) Q. Why do they punish unchastity in the holy maidens by no other method than burial alive?

A. (a) Is it because they burn their dead, and to commit to the fire the body of one who had not guarded the divine fire in chastity was thought unjust? (b) Or did they hold it impious to destroy a body which had been dedicated by the most solemn rites, and to lay hands on a consecrated woman? wherefore they arranged that she should die of herself, by putting her into a chamber made underground, in which was placed a burning lamp, a loaf of bread, and some milk and water; after which the top of the chamber was covered over with earth. Even this ritual does not rid them entirely of superstitious fears, but to this very day the priests go to that place and make offerings to the dead.[4]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote, The Roman Antiquities Book II 67.4

For 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.[5]

            Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote more about Vestal Virgins. There was a hard war, neither side of the army any longer ventured out for battle.  You’ll see how Romans see Vestal’s service, rites affect Roman’s safety.

The Roman Antiquities Book VIII. 89 3 – 5

While these things were happening in the camp, in Rome itself many prodigies in the way of unusual voices and sights occurred as indications of divine wrath. And they all pointed to this conclusion, as the augurs and the interpreters of religious matters declared, after pooling their experiences, that some of the gods were angered because they were not receiving their customary honours, as their rites were not being performed in a pure and holy manner. Thereupon strict inquiry was made by everyone, and at last information was given to the pontiffs that one of the virgins who guarded the sacred fire, Opimia by name, had lost her virginity and was polluting the holy rites. The pontiffs, having by tortures and other proofs found that the information was true, took from her head the fillets, and solemnly conducting her through the Forum, buried her alive inside the city walls. As for the two men who were convicted of violating her, they ordered them to be scourged in public and then put to death at once. Thereupon the sacrifices and the auguries became favourable, as if the gods had given up their anger against them.[6]

            Dionysius also wrote interesting story about Aemilia, a High Vestal Virgin.

Dionysius, The Roman Antiquities Book II 68. 1. And it is also mentioned in Valerius Maximus 1.1.7[7];

However, it is also well worth relating in what manner the goddess has manifested herself in favor 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.[8]

            Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, known in English as Juvenal, a collection of satirical poems, was a Roman poet active in the late 1st and early 2nd century A.D., author of the Satires  The Satires of Juvenal IV, 9-10. (A filleted priestess)

The vestal virgins, as priestesses of Vesta, had fillets bound round their heads,       made of ribbons, or the like.[9]

Also Vestal's burial was listed in The Satires of Juvenal IV:

The vestal virgins vowed chastity, and if any was broken, they were buried            alive, by a law of Numa Pompilius their founder.

The following is a description of the ancient Roman style of the bride's hair on her wedding day:

            Brides are adorned with six braids because this was the most ancient style for them. The bride’s hair was parted into six braids (sex crines) which were fastened together with woolen fillets (vittae). These were placed at the top of her head in the shape of cone (meta), called tutulus.  The Vestal Virgin's hair style was the same as the brides. Vestals wore stola, an outer garment reaching the ankles, and when sacrificing, wore infula and suffibulum.

  Besides Vestals, only the matronae, respectable women, were allowed to wear stola in ancient Rome. The stola was the symbol of purity. The matronae wore palla, a long shawl. The purity of the Vestal Virgins was the token and guarantee of the good health and salvation of Rome itself.


The women, when they got married, were adorned with six braids of hair, because this kind of embellishment is very ancient (the oldest).  According to others this came about because the Vestal virgins adorned themselves with such an ornament and because newly married women committed themselves to keep a chastity comparable to the one observed by the Vestal virgins to their husbands.[10]

Another Festus' statement on Nupta:

This word is taken from the Greek, for the Greeks call a newly married women a νέαν νύμφην[11]

This has another explanation later:

It was claimed that the wife was thus called from nubere [to veil, to marry. In this last sense it was only used for women because women put on a veil on the day of their nuptials (marriage).][12]

Rome’s social life:

In 18 B.C., the Emperor Augustus turned his attention to social problems at Rome. Extravagance and adultery were widespread among the upper classes and marriage was increasingly infrequent and many couples who did marry failed to produce offspring.

In early Rome, women and men alike wore a cloth called “toga”. The toga was considered the badge of Roman citizenship and was denied to foreigners, but permitted even for Roman prostitutes who were citizens.

Members of the senatorial order, which included senators and their sons, daughters, and, in the male line, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, and great granddaughters, were forbidden to marry or to betroth themselves to freedmen, freedwomen, actors, actresses, and anyone whose father or mother was an actor or actress; . . .. . .All other freeborn persons were forbidden prostitutes, pimps, procuresses, and persons condemned for adultery or caught in the act.[13]

In another law, a married man who had sexual relations with a woman not his wife, was not considered to have committed adultery unless the woman was married to another man but when a wife had an extramarital affair with a lover, she was prosecuted as an adulterer. The offended husband and father of this daughter were even given the right to kill the guilty party or parties if the lovers were discovered while engaging in sexual intercourse.

A woman named Vistilia, who was the daughter of a praetorian (upper-class Roman), was married to Titidius Labeo. She attempted to escape prosecution for adultery by claiming the exempt status of prostitute. The attempt failed, however, and Vistilia was found guilty of adultery and deported to the Greek Island of Seriphos.

            In 17 B.C., an Augustan adultery law was issued. The purpose of this legislation was to keep prostitutes out of the upper classes and to prevent members of those upper classes from misbehaving. The adultery law punished female offenders by relegating them to a class of “prostitutes.”

A woman convicted under the Augustan adultery stature was forbidden to remarry. If she did, her new husband was guilty of lenociniun, and where adulterous lovers married each other their union was void. The lex Iulia et Papta forbade persons caught in the act, as well as those convicted of adultery, to marry the freeborn. Marriage contracted in violation of this ban rendered the spouses caelibes under the marriage stature: an SC passed under Marcus and Commodus went further and declared totally void unions that violated the prohibitions imposed on the ordo senatorius. Women were also compelled to wear the toga as a symbol of their shame.[14]

The adultery law lowered the status of the wife found guilty of adultery to that of prostitute, and was forbidden to remarry. She was also compelled to wear the dark toga of the prostitute as a symbol of her shame. Wearing of the stola and palla were not permitted for a woman convicted of adultery but the Romans did not want to see pimps and prostitutes joining the ranks of the upper classes.


[1] Auguste Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De La Signification Des Mots, Volume 2, (C. L. F. Panckoucke, Editeur, 1846) p. 469

[2] VALERIUS MAXIMUS, VOL I, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Loeb Classical Library Volume 492, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright 2000 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Loeb Classical Library is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. P. 23

[3] Bernadotte Perrin, Plutarch's Lives Vol 1 Numa, (Harvard University Press, 1914), pp. 341-345

[4] H. J. Rose, The Roman Questions of Plutarch, A new translation with introductory essays & a running commentary (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1924) pp. 160-161

[5] Earnest Cary, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Books I-II, (Harvard University Press, 1937) p. 509

[6] Earnest Cary, Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus,(Harvard University Press, 1945) p. 277

[7] D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Valerius Maximus Memorable doings and sayings, (Harvard University Press, 2000) p. 21

[8] Earnest Cary, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities Book 1-2, (Harvard University Press, 1937) pp. 509-513

[9] Rev. M. Madan, Juvenal and Persius, (Dublin, 1820) p. 116

[10] Auguste Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De La Signification Des Mots, Volume 2, (C. L. F. Panckoucke, Editeur, 1846) p. 605

[11] Auguste Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De La Signification Des Mots, Volume 1 (C. L. F. Panckoucke, Editeur, 1846)p. 291

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thomas McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998 ) p.72

By permission of Oxford University Press, USA

[14] Thomas McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998 ) p. 143

By permission of Oxford University Press, USA