Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.49

Molly M. Lindner, Portraits of the Vestal Virgins: Priestesses of Ancient Rome.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2015.  Pp. xxii, 291.  ISBN 9780472118953.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Peta Greenfield, The University of Sydney (

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This book examines Vestal portraiture and reflects Lindner’s progression on the subject since her 1996 dissertation.1 The sculptures are considered through the paradigm of Art History, a pertinent fact for readers specialising in other disciplines. The book opens with a series of introductory chapters that serve to establish aspects of cult practice (Chapters 1-2), a history of the archaeological activity at the site of the atrium Vestae (Chapters 3-4), and a discussion of major points relating to iconography (Chapter 5-6). The centrepiece of the work is Chapter 7, ‘Catalog of Sixteen Vestal Portraits’, where Lindner proposes a chronology for the portraits and establishes visual signifiers of Vestals in sculpture. The portraits in the catalogue date from the Trajanic period (Cat. 1 dated to c. 100 CE, p. 128) to the Middle to Late Severan (Cat. 16 dated to c. 235 CE, p. 156). Chapters 8-14 further analyse the catalogue entries and expand consideration of the role of Vestal portraiture by locating it in the broader context of concurrent female portraiture.

Lindner provides a comprehensive overview of the Vestal college in the first half of the book, with some moments of speculation. The suggestion that statues allowed the Vestals to enter the “‘modern’ era” is oblique and greater expansion of the meaning is needed. That statues permitted Vestals to “balance their aura of inapproachability and mystique by increasing the Roman populace’s awareness of their humanity” (p. 73) is somewhat at odds with Lindner’s earlier proposal that many of the Vestal statues were displayed in the atrium Vestae, to which public access was restricted (p. 64). Some dates drawn from the fasti require revision. The assertion that the Temple of Vesta was cleaned prior to the entry of Roman women during the Vestalia (p. 24) is contradicted directly by Ov. Fast. 6.713-4; the accompanying point that women brought laurel branches to decorate the Temple after the Vestalia is likewise incorrect, with this event falling in March (Ov. Fast. 3.141-144) while the Vestalia takes place in June (Ov. Fast. 6.249-468). Lindner finds firmer ground with the history of archaeological excavation of the atrium Vestae, which is discussed chronologically. The thorough consideration of the major archaeological excavations and the principle scholarly work drawing upon the archaeology in Chapter 3 underpins the arguments advanced in Chapter 4 regarding the display of Vestal statuary in the atrium Vestae. The discussion of topics such as the history of dedications to Vestals, likely statue locations within the atrium Vestae, and the relationship between bases and statues are each of interest and provide a clear sense of the major features of the site, as well as a solid understanding of the scholarly work in this area.

Lindner proposes that Vestal portraiture evolved over the second and third centuries CE and that differences in type reflect changing values. This thesis is most demonstrable in Lindner’s proposed ‘Vestal Burning Incense’ (VBI) type (p. 226). The figure is defined as ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ (p. 262) and engaged in the process of sacrifice, i.e. standing and holding accoutrements of sacrifice such as a patera, acerra, simpulum, or secespita. This portrait type cannot be directly extrapolated from the catalogue provided, as most Vestal portraits survive in fragmented form, either as heads or busts. Of the sixteen portraits in the catalogue, five are in a complete enough state to permit discussion of arms and hands (Cat. 3, 7, 9, 10, and 13). Given the limitations of the sculptural evidence, Lindner builds the case for the VBI type through examination of Vestal dress as a signifier of distinct status from other Roman women, particularly the infulae, suffibulum, and vittae. There are particular challenges with such an approach, however, which Lindner acknowledges. The visual distinction between Vestals in sculpture and other women is complicated by the increasing cooption of traditional Vestal signifiers, such as the seni crines hairstyle, by other Roman women (Chapter 8). Lindner argues that this ambiguity in visual signifiers is a consequence of Domitian’s prosecution of the Vestal cult between 82 and 91 CE, a central turning point that ushers in a new morality for the cult. As a consequence, the visual signifiers of Vestals are increasingly adopted by Roman women during the second and third centuries in order to demonstrate their pudicitia (Chapter 9). Matronal pudicitia is read as in a dynamic relationship with Vestal chastity (pp. 190-1). While the moral character of the Vestal cult is an issue under Domitian, the connection between imperial women and the Vestal Virgins dates to Augustan era legal privileges of Livia and Octavia. The increasing parallels between Vestal iconography and visual signifiers adopted by Roman women in the second century is likely, in part, the expansion of statuary generally to Roman citizen women, and the stylistic convention of emulating imperial style, a feature Lindner readily acknowledges in order to date the Vestal statues.

Visual alignment between Roman women and the Vestals in sculpture confirms the inherent ambiguity in drawing meaning from the evidence, and this is both the strength and challenge of the work overall. Lindner’s proposal that ‘[t]his book relocates the Vestal Virgins’ portraits in the history of Roman art and ... shows that their influence as artworks extended into the imperial court as well as into the Roman middle class’ (p. 5) is supported by the examination of shared signifiers between the Vestals and Roman women, but also ensures that proposals to identify a figure as either category need to be scrutinised carefully. On the basis of visual signifiers, Lindner builds a case for distinguishing the Virgo Vestalis Maxima in iconography from imperial women. The argument focuses on the depiction of the infulae, vittae, and suffibulum; in particular, Lindner proposes that the visibility of the vittae marks out a Vestal as opposed to an imperial woman (p. 230). Lindner’s work in this area serves as an alternative to the scholarship on Vestal sculpture (notably Mekacher),2 and on Vestal dress (notably Sebesta, Olson, and Fantham).3 The difficulty in reconciling the literary source descriptions of parts of dress and the variety apparent in archaeological evidence remains.

Readers interested in the archaeological history of the atrium Vestae, the connection between individual portraits and prevailing imperial styles, and the contribution that sculptural evidence can offer to the study of the second and third centuries will benefit from considering Lindner’s work as part of the scholarship on this period. There are moments when more detail would be welcome, such as when Lindner notes scholarly disagreement about the existence of a statue of Vesta in Augustus’ Palatine shrine (p. 80). The late offered thesis that ‘[w]omen will seek out each other when pressures mount that threaten their security or when men enforce laws and policies that require women to change their public behaviour’ (p. 261) is broad and would benefit from explicit framing throughout. Moments when the argument is poised on the cusp of theoretical engagement, but does not pursue it, such as the conclusion of Chapter 5—‘Theories of visuality offer a way to explicate the many layers of meaning in such a complex set of visual connections’—may leave readers who value a clear theoretical framework unsatisfied. The extent to which these features of the text reflect the disciplinary approach of Art History is difficult to assess; nevertheless, historians and classicists may find the arguments advanced open to question as a consequence.

The organisation of this book is not immediately intuitive for the reader. The catalogue of Vestal portraits appears in the central chapter (Chapter 7), but catalogue entries are mentioned in earlier chapters with no explanation of how the catalogue system works. The placement of the catalogue roughly in the middle of the text means that following up on internal references to the catalogue requires extra attention from the reader in order to precisely locate each entry. Such issues are cosmetic and do not impinge on the argumentation overall. A more curious feature of the catalogue is entry Cat. 4, which is referred to on a number of occasions in the text, most notably pp. 133-4, but for which there is no accompanying figure provided in Chapter 7 or in the List of Figures. No rationale is offered as to why the image of Cat. 4 is missing from the catalogue, leaving the reader to speculate. Readers interested in Lindner’s case for viewing Cat. 4 as a fake must seek out a reproduction of the image in other scholarly works.

There are a few minor errors in the text itself. Most do not detract from the work as a whole and are likely a result of the proofing process. A penchant for ‘ascension’ rather than ‘accession’ is notable on a couple of occasions (p. 48, 123). There are a few errors in spelling. There is also an error in measurement in the description on p. 131: “The sculptor of Cat. 2 used asymmetry to give the face expression. For example, the left eye is about 4cm higher on the face than the right.” Reasonable deduction from the accompanying figure suggests that 4mm is the intended scope of the asymmetry.


1.   Lindner, M. M. M. The Vestal Virgins and Their Imperial Patrons: Sculptures and Inscriptions from the Atrium Vestae in the Roman Forum. Diss. The University of Michigan, 1996.
2.   Mekacher, N. Die vestalischen Jungfrauen in der römischen Kaiserzeit. Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2006.
3.   Sebesta, J. L. ‘Symbolism in the Costume of Roman Women’ in Sebesta, J. L., Bonfante, L. (eds.) The World of Roman Costume. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison: 46-53, 1994; Olson, K. Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation and society. Routledge, Abingdon, London, 2008; Olson, K. ‘The Appearance of the Young Roman Girl’ in Edmondson, J., Keith, A. (eds.) Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 139-57, 2008; Fantham, E. ‘Covering the Head at Rome: Ritual and Gender’ in Edmondson, J., Keith, A. (eds.) Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 158-71, 2008. ​

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