Though issues surrounding COVID and race occupy our present discourse, we will likely see the question of women in our society revisited soon. Questions about patriarchy and equal pay have not played themselves out yet, and democracy, which often favors abandoning tradition and rapid change, will likely provide a platform for us to hash these issues out more fully.
Camille Paglia–certainly no conservative–has argued that women in traditional societies actually had a great deal of power, maybe even more than in the modern west. Coming from an Italian background, she observed large family gatherings and saw women deciding the course of events, the menu, etc. while the men mostly stood around and looked under the hoods of cars.*
We think of Rome as a masculine society, with its emphasis on conquest, the ‘pater familias,’ and their Senate. And yet, it appears that the most important job in Rome belonged to women–their Vestal Virgins.
We moderns might blanch at such a statement. We rarely talk about the importance of religion, and certainly never would dream of thinking about virginity as even remotely resembling a civilizational issue. But Robin Lorsch Wildfang (who doesn’t wish that their own name was Robin Lorsch Wildfang?) reminds us in her useful book Rome’s Vestal Virgins: A Study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, that the Romans were not moderns. We have borrowed so much from Rome for our political and legal system. And yet, anyone perusing this book knows a vast gulf separates our two civilizations.
I give credit to Wildfang for telegraphing exactly the nature of her work. As a reader, one knows that the author will give you densely packed facts with gobs of footnotes, with little overall agenda. We read these books for enjoyment no more than we eat those sawdust-like “power bars” for the taste. But both deliver on their promise. So many other books fail on this account.
Several times Wildfang mentions that, “Without the Vestals and their cult, in the eyes of Romans there would be no Rome.” Roman Vestals had unique privileges among women in Rome especially regarding their property rights. They could also suffer the most severe forms of punishment. But their duties seem to boil down to:
- Their maintenance of the sacred fire, which always had to stay lit
- Their oversight of a secret storeroom/offerings of basic crops
- The continuation of the virginity as long as they served (Vestals usually began their service between 8-10 years old, and had to serve for 30 years at least, but could leave after that time).
How we interpret these duties will say much about how one interprets the past.
For the fire . . .
Ovid, Cicero, Dionysius of Hallicanarsus, and Plutarch all agree that the Vestals maintained the sacred fire because fire consumes rather than bears fruit. The “dryness” of fire would be linked then with their virginity. The ancient authors talk of two fires, one of Vulcan, the other of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.
But Wildfang looks for an alternative explanation. Rather than delve into the symbolism here for an explanation, she stresses the antiquity of the rite. Since the Vestal cult predated Rome’s founding, we should see only Rome’s desire to maintain its ties to antiquity, and the various associations some make to virginity and fruitfulness (or its lack) become unnecessary.
I admire Wildfang’s thoroughness and academic integrity, but I rarely approve of Occam’s razor as it applies to historical conclusions. Here at least, it just seems to convenient, too much of an “easy out” for us moderns.
I think that we gain interesting insights by taking these sources along with the scope of Rome’s history. This in turn might lead to understanding the sources in a different way. Wildfang mentions in a few places that Vestals entered into the order via “abduction” somewhere between 6-10 years old. This abduction rite happened with the father’s consent, as the girls were taken from their families in front of their father in a prepared ceremony of sorts. We may blanch at the fact that the girls likely rarely consented themselves, but this in itself gives an important clue as to the meaning of their order for Rome.
Of all the peripheral clues she gives as to the meaning of the abduction ceremony, Wildfang never deal with the story of Rome’s founding, which happened in part through the abduction of Sabine women. Romulus and his male cohorts invite a variety of women on the pretext of a religious festival. They then basically kidnap them and “marry” them–no doubt forcibly for many of them. In the telling Livy refuses to sugarcoat or condemn the deed. He seems to shrug his shoulders over it. Simply put, the Roman state could not have a future without families and children. Maybe this tale has within it some deep symbolism. Maybe the practical Romans just stated the facts and expected one to deal with it. Whatever the case, the abduction into the Vestal order mirrors this event rather evenly. This comparison makes more sense to me when we recall that Romulus’ mother Rhea was a Vestal herself, and begat her twin boys either through the rape/seduction of Mars or some other guy, depending on the tale.
Thus, I think we can say that the Vestals “married” Rome when they entered the order. So I am not sure that we should view the fire they had to maintain so precisely as “sterile.” If the Romans thought of this fire as “fruitless” why punish them so severely for letting it go out?**
If we think of fire as a “heavenly” substance of the “air” and we recall their duty to maintain the sacred storehouse of food, we might see these two elements as a reflection of marriage itself, a union of the masculine and feminine, of Sky father and Earth mother. Relations with another man would effectively then become adultery to Rome itself. The women maintain the fire possibly because women in general are the foremost keepers of the marriage institution. For example, Penelope worked harder to maintain her marriage than Odysseus did.
No Vestal rites means no marriage of heaven and earth, and so no families, and no “future” for Rome. Thus, the Romans took the extinguishing of the Vestal fire after the Battle of Cannae as a worse omen than the massive death toll of the battle itself.
We see Wildfang employ Occam’s razor again with another related issue. If the vestals had sexual relations, they faced a charge of “incestum.” Certainly by the time period covered in the book, the word had just the meaning we would assume–sex with a family member. Wildfang can’t grasp the sense of this. Why would having sex with average Joe Roman be specifically incestuous? Seeking clarity, she suggests that “incestum” didn’t mean “incest,” but “impurity.” The Latin for impurity is “incastum,” so it “makes sense” to Wildfang that, because incastum predates incestum as a word, “incestum” need not be a special, more horrible form of impurity. Best to translate “incestum” in this case as simply impurity, i.e., incastum.
Again, I protest. If “incestum” was not a such an unusual crime, why the unusual punishment of being buried alive? Also, let us assume the Romans meant what they said, when they said it. They had two different words, and distinguished between them. Whatever the original context, in the time period Wildfang examines they had different words with different meanings. Finally, I think the natural meaning of “incestum” could make sense within my interpretation of the vestals “marrying” Rome. Maybe, to have relations with any Roman meant, then, having relations with a family member.
Consider this line of thought above speculative. I am obviously no expert. But I think this makes certain odd pieces of the vestal puzzle fit together.
Wildfang talks briefly about the political influence vestals had on rare occasions. Normally they stayed out of politics, but every so often they intervened. Why didn’t the vestals intervene more, or if they had only a religious function, why intervene at all? If we think of the vestals as married to Rome, per my earlier suggestion, our own experience of family dynamics helps explain this difficulty Wildfang mentions.
I had one set of grandparents who had a lot of influence over family events and dynamics. This influence came not from frequent edicts. They had no need to issue them, and certainly they did not look to control anyone. Their influence came by our love and respect for them. My grandfather might occasionally make a pronouncement or two. Of course we listened, but with my grandfather, we might discuss or mildly argue with him.
My grandmother made “pronouncements” even more rarely than my grandfather, but when she spoke that meant the end of the matter. In my world, challenging or even disagreeing with my grandmother simply was not possible (though please understand that she was the sweetest person in the world–everyone she knew thought that they were her favorite person–she had that effect on people). When I found out that she was a Yankee fan around the age of 9-10 I could not have been more stunned, or had my world more shaken (my dad spent formative years in Brooklyn and we were Dodger fans by birth). With my grandfather, I might have argued the case. Yet, I received this news from my grandmother in silence. I could conceive of no other reaction.^
The vestals likely had a similar power, but if used too frequently it would likely have diminished. When a plant blooms, what secures its life lies hidden in the earth. So too, the vestals kept their symbolic fruits of the earth hidden as part of their duties. They likely thought that the power of women remained greatest when they chose to conceal rather than reveal. Even the masculine, patriarchal Romans seem to have understood this. Perhaps it was just this overt masculinity allowed them to see the importance of the feminine with clarity.
*Paglia, an self-described atheist and also a lesbian, can speak fondly of ‘tradition’ because of her appreciation for paganism. Perhaps these days, even a pagan could qualify as some kind of conservative.
**I criticize Wildfang for not trusting the ancient sources in regards to “incestum,” but one could throw a similar charge back at me in this instance. Ovid makes a direct reference to linking the flame with the fact that a vestal “yields no seeds.” Dionysius of Halicanarsus makes a similar suggestion, but asserts it only as a suggestion. Plutarch follows Dionysius in making this interpretation one option among many.
In my defense, I would say the following:
- Ovid seems to play fast, loose, and as he pleases with his material. I see him as something of a prankster. This does not mean he lied or was inaccurate, but I would not trust him on a point of historical accuracy. That was not his aim.
- Dionysius and Plutarch have more gravitas, but both of them give only “some say” credence to this interpretation.
I think that the general sense of the vestal’s history and Rome’s history guide us better than these texts by themselves. The “first” of Rome’s vestals, Rhea, did “bear fruit” in birthing Romulus. When we combine this fact with the parallel to the abduction of the Sabine women, well . . . that’s my argument for my interpretation. It may not fit with with Ovid, but I don’t think it absolutely goes against the others.
^Another story to illustrate this point . . . I collected baseball cards for a few years growing up. When my grandparents visited she would often take me to the local baseball card shop to make a purchase for me. I remember driving home one day from such a trip–I was about 11 years old–and we saw a beautiful motorcycle pass us on the road. She asked if I liked the motorcycle and I said absolutely I did. She stated, “Those are not safe. If you decide to buy a motorcycle, no more trips to the baseball card store.”
In one sense her comment did not make much sense. By the time I was old enough for a motorcycle she would not be taking me to buy baseball cards (nor would I be collecting them).
But her comment absolutely stuck with me. I put all thoughts of motorcycle riding out of my head immediately. I still hear her voice whenever I take wistful middle-aged man glances at a Harley. But in my 30+ years of knowing her on Earth, this was one of only two times she ever told me not to do something. She shot very, very few “bullets” but those hit their mark and left an indelible impression