Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae I.12.1-19: Virgo Vestae

Young Vestal
Marble head of young Vestal
Rome, early 2nd century CE

The Vestals were an anomaly in the ancient world and a paradox as Roman women. They were Roman citizens, but under the law they fit no other citizen category: they were neither matronae nor virgines (that is, young women unmarried but destined for marriage), nor did they belong to a family or to any male, but rather to the whole State. The requirements of their unique status allowed them to stand for and represent the entire city of males and females and to administer on its behalf the cult of the virgin goddess of the public hearth, Vesta (see Ovid's explanation for their virginity: Fasti 6.283-94). But even before the founding of Rome, Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus by the god Mars, was forced to take the vow of chastity as a Vestal by her uncle so that she could not produce royal heirs. Until the last century of the Republic Vestals were chosen by the Pontifex Maximus from freeborn girls between the ages of 6 and 10 years old for 30 years of service to the cult. An elite public priesthood of six females who were supervised by the Pontifex Maximus, the head of the Collegium Pontificum, they maintained the integrity of Rome through the exact performance of their duties and the chastity of their bodies. More significant as a group than as individuals, they ranged in age at any one time between 6 and upwards of 90 years. In the passage below, Gellius, a Latin encyclopedist of the 2nd century CE, describes the process of selection of the Vestal Virgins, naming his sources for the age and status of the girls selected, the location to which they were taken, and the words of their ritual induction. He tells us nothing about the girls themselves, their lives or duties. Following a tradition instituted by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (c.717-623 BCE), the sacerdotium of six Vestals each gave thirty years of chaste service to the goddess Vesta, maintaining her sacred fire, cleansing her temple, grinding the sacred flour (mola salsa) for sacrifice to the gods, and guarding the Palladium (see the wooden icon of Pallas Athena on Vesta's shoulder), said to have been carried by Aeneas from Troy and deposited in the Temple of Vesta. The first century CE Greek historian Plutarch writes in his Life of Numa 9.5-10:

The strict observance of chastity for the holy virgins was established by the king [Numa] at thirty years, during which, for the first ten years, they learn what they need to know, in the next they perform what they have learned, and in the third they are themselves the teachers of others. After this time if she wishes, a Vestal is permitted to marry and after putting aside her priestly service to take up a new style of life. Only a few are said to have welcomed this freedom, and those who did were not happy. . . . Numa bestowed great honors on them, including the right to make a will even while their father was alive and to handle their other affairs without a guardian, as if they were mothers of three children. The fasces are carried before them when they go out, and if they happen to pass a man being led to his execution, his life will be spared.

The Vestal Virgins were often depicted with a special headdress composed of a band of wool wrapped several times around the head (infula) with hanging looped or tied side pieces (vittae; see article and video of their reputed hairstyle). They inhabited the Vestal residence, the Atrium Vestae, in the heart of the Roman Forum. Built into the side of the Palatine hill, it was set between the Via Sacra and the Via Nova (Plan), beside the Temple of Vesta, the Aedes Vestae, and near the Regia, the office of the Pontifex Maximus. For additional Companion texts on the Vestals, see Occia, from Tacitus' Annales, Postumia, from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, and monumental inscriptions from the courtyard of the Atrium Vestae. For further information on the cult, consult the Bibliography for Parker (2004), Staples (1998), Takacs (2008), Wildfang (2006).

I.12 Virgo Vestae: quid aetatis et ex quali familia et quo ritu quibusque caerimoniis ac religionibus ac quo nomine a pontifice maximo capiatur et quo statim iure esse incipiat, simul atque capta est; quodque, ut Labeo dicit, nec intestato cuiquam nec eius intestatae quisquam iure heres est.

(1) Qui de virgine capienda scripserunt, quorum diligentissime scripsit Labeo Antistius, minorem quam annos sex, maiorem quam annos decem natam negaverunt capi fas esse;

(2) item quae non sit patrima et matrima;

(3)) item quae lingua debili sensuve aurium deminuta aliave qua corporis labe insignita sit;

(4) item quae ipsa aut cuius pater emancipatus sit, etiamsi vivo patre in avi potestate sit;

(5) item cuius parentes alter ambove servitutem servierunt aut in negotiis sordidis versantur.

(6) Sed et eam, cuius soror ad id sacerdotium lecta est, excusationem mereri aiunt; item link link cuius pater flamen aut augur aut quindecimvirum sacris faciundis aut septemvirum epulonum aut Salius est.


(7) Sponsae quoque pontificis et tubicinis sacrorum filiae vacatio a sacerdotio isto tribui solet.

(8) Praeterea Capito Ateius scriptum reliquit neque eius legendam filiam, qui domicilium in Italia non haberet, et excusandam eius, qui liberos tres haberet.


(9) Virgo autem Vestalis, simul est capta atque in atrium Vestae deducta et pontificibus tradita est, eo statim tempore sine emancipatione ac sine capitis minutione e patris potestate exit et ius testamenti faciundi adipiscitur.

(10) De more autem rituque capiundae virginis litterae quidem antiquiores non extant, nisi, link quae capta prima est, a Numa rege esse captam.

(11) Sed Papiam legem invenimus, qua cavetur, ut pontificis maximi arbitratu virgines e populo viginti legantur sortitioque in contione ex eo numero fiat et, cuius virginis ducta erit, ut eam pontifex maximus capiat eaque Vestae fiat.

(12) Sed ea sortitio ex lege Papia non necessaria nunc videri solet. Nam si quis honesto loco natus adeat pontificem maximum atque offerat ad sacerdotium filiam suam, cuius dumtaxat salvis religionum observationibus ratio haberi possit, gratia Papiae legis per senatum fit.

(13) “Capi” autem virgo propterea dici videtur, quia pontificis maximi manu prensa ab eo parente, in cuius potestate est, veluti bello capta abducitur.


(14) In libro primo Fabii Pictoris, quae verba pontificem maximum dicere oporteat, cum virginem capiat, scriptum est. Ea verba haec sunt: “Sacerdotem Vestalem, quae sacra faciat, quae ius siet sacerdotem Vestalem facere pro populo Romano Quiritibus, uti quae optima lege fuit, ita te, Amata, capio.”

(15) Plerique autem “capi” virginem solam debere dici putant. Sed flamines quoque Diales, linkitem pontifices et augures “capi” dicebantur.

link link

(16) L. Sulla Rerum Gestarum libro secundo ita scripsit: “P. Cornelius, cui primum cognomen Sullae impositum est, flamen Dialis captus.”

link link

(17) M. Cato de Lusitanis, cum Servium Galbam accusavit: “Tamen dicunt deficere voluisse. Ego me nunc volo ius pontificium optime scire; iamne ea causa pontifex capiar? si volo augurium optime tenere, ecquis me ob eam rem augurem capiat?”


(18) Praeterea in Commentariis Labeonis, quae ad duodecim tabulas composuit, ita scriptum est: “Virgo Vestalis neque heres est cuiquam intestato, neque intestatae quisquam, sed bona eius in publicum redigi aiunt. Id quo iure fiat, quaeritur.”

(19) “Amata” inter capiendum a pontifice maximo appellatur, quoniam, quae prima capta est, hoc fuisse nomen traditum est.

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