BMCR 2007.10.12

Rome’s Vestal Virgins. A Study of Rome’s Vestal Priestesses in the Late Republic and Early Empire

, Rome's vestal virgins : a study of Rome's vestal priestesses in the late Republic and Early Empire. London/New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (x, 158 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0203968387. £19.99.

Despite a rather misleading title, Wildfang is quite clear about her principal argument in this little book. She is concerned to demonstrate that the cult practices of the Vestal virgins were not about fertility but purification, the safety of the storeroom and, by extension, that of the Roman people. She also gives attention to the legal, social and political status of the priestesses over time, relying on antiquarian and historical sources, chiefly — but not exclusively — of the late republican and Augustan eras— to trace their history from the regal period to the turn of the first century CE. It is probably this reliance on Cicero, Varro, Livy, and Ovid that explains the title.

Five chapters of the book discuss the Vestals at work in the atrium Vestae and in public, the rite of captio, their virginity and their legal and financial position. The last two chapters, titled “The Vestals in the Romans’ history” and “The Vestals in Roman history,” treat respectively “the Vestals’ appearances in Roman historical accounts of the centuries between the founding of Rome and the end of the Second Punic War,” and “the various historical appearances of the Vestals from the end of this war to the end of the first century CE for which we have contemporary or almost contemporary sources.” The distinction derives from the author’s sensitivity to ancient authorial intent, something to which one must be alert at any time. A related problem of course is that the ancient sources themselves are not especially knowledgeable about the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of what the Vestals did, and this has obviously encouraged the variety of modern interpretations with which the author engages.

Wildfang, for her part, views the Vestals in the second and first centuries in terms of contemporary political and cultural developments. She agrees with those who see the Vestals as eager to participate in “factional” politics and to enhance their prestige, despite both conservative and popular resistance, which could come at no small cost, as the “special prosecutor” of 113, L. Cassius Longinus, attests. In the first century, however, she sees the liberation of the Vestals continuing, even apparently with regard to sexual activity. This is fostered by changes in religious and social attitudes across Roman society. Anecdotes about their somewhat equivocal status in the early empire make an epilogue to her study. While in the author’s opinion the Vestals “continued to symbolize Rome itself in a very real way,” they also served to enhance the status of the imperial family and its supporters.

The appendices are two lists: one (pp. 111-141) supplies the original Greek and Latin texts that are given in translation in the book; the other the names of known Vestals in chronological order from Rhea Silvia to Coelia Concordia, although the later imperial priestesses, known from inscriptions, are only mentioned in passing in the text.

In the end, the work reads, and has the heft, of an engaging article, not a book; nor has it been carefully checked. In Latin there are such expressions as “the virgines and the matrones,” Numicius for Numicus just in the first chapter and they continue: in the index the chief Vestal appears as Vestal virgo maxima. Such things do not serve the author’s cause. In terms of method, she could be still more sensitive to some of her authors’ intentions in episodes from which she picks details to support her arguments (Ovid comes immediately to mind), and she projects the Vestals onto a rather conventional historical screen from the mid-republican period onward. Nevertheless her comprehensive and up to date bibliography is a welcome feature in which the variety of approaches to the study of the Vestals is well represented.