priestess Isis or her priestess, ivory, 1st century CE

Religious participation of Roman women was divided between sacra publica, state worship, and sacra privata, rituals held for the family or gens. Women's religious roles in the home included rites focused on Vesta, the goddess of the hearth fire, the lar familiaris, the guardian of the household, the di Penates, the gods of the pantry, and the genius and juno (guardian spirits) of the paterfamilias and materfamilias. Women had responsibilities for prayer to heal family members and to ensure their own fertility and safe pregnancy; they participated in rites at the birth of a child and at funerals. On the state level, however, religious power was a male prerogative; while women were present at civic religious rituals, communal feasts, and festivals and played important roles in religious cults that were central to the state religion, they had no voice in activities where religion touched on public policy. The most prominent priesthood held by women was that of the Vestal Virgins, a sacerdotium of six priestesses (the most senior of whom was the Virgo Vestalis Maxima). It was legendarily founded by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (715-673 BCE), to tend the flame of the state hearth in the circular marble temple (reconstruction; coin of Vespasian) of the goddess Vesta beside their residence (reconstruction drawing) in the heart of the Roman Forum, under the brow of the Palatine hill, the earliest home of the Romans. These aristocratic servants of the goddess Vesta whose chastity safeguarded the state and was critical to the maintenance of Rome's pax deorum were a powerful presence in the city. Other early priestesses were the flaminica Dialis and the Regina Sacrorum; little is known of their roles and duties, together with those of the wives of the flamines, the college of priests in charge of the major state divinities, who were given the title flaminicae. Some cults, such as that of Pudicitia, Juno Caprotina, Venus Verticordia, and Bona Dea were open only to women. During the Republic, in times of dire threat from war or plague, the Senate turned to the matronae or the virgines to make special offerings to the gods on behalf of the state. In the Imperial period, women's participation in religious life increased, following the example set by Livia, who became head of the cult of the deified Augustus, and by later empresses who often chose to have themselves represented in marble variously as priestesses or goddesses. Inscriptions bear witness that women all over the empire held office as priestesses in local cults of the emperor, in the cult of Magna Mater, and in other imported religions, most notably the cult of Isis. For further information on priestesses and women's participation in Roman religion, see Chiu (2016), DiLuzio (2016), Hemelrijk (2005, 2007, 2015), Kraemer (2004), Panoussi (2019), "Carrying Water in a Sieve" in Richlin (2014), Staples (1998), Schultz (2006), Will (1979) in the Bibliography; see also Images of Religion below: Goddesses, Priestesses, Rituals & Implements, Monuments.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Silius Italicus, Punica 17.1-47: Claudia Quinta's vindication See The Worlds of Roman Women for the following print text:
Officia sacra feminea: testimony for women's role in family worship P. Ovidius Naso, Fasti 4.293-328, 343-344: Claudia Quinta (inscription for Claudia Syntyche)
Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 1.39: Hispala Faecenia   
Publius Ovidius Naso, Fasti 6.219-234: Proper times for a wedding     
Q. Horatius Flaccus, Sermo I. 8: Canidia the witch

The VESTAL Project:

P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis 4.630-662: Dido's sacrifice Images: Virgines Vestales; Virgines Vestales Maximae 
Gaius Valerius Catullus, Carmina 34: Hymn to Diana  Chronological List of Named Vestals 
Q. Horatius Flaccus, Carmina 3.23: Phidyle Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae I.12.1-19: Virgo Vestae 


Dedicatory, for Eumachia
Cornelius Tacitus, Annales II. 86.1-2: Occia
            Dedicatory & Funerary: Sacerdotes Extra Romam Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita IV. 44: Postumia 
            Funerary, for Metilia Acte Residence of the Vestals: Atrium Vestae
            Defixiones: Three Curses Monumental Inscriptions for Virgines Vestales Maximae 
            Defixio: Curse against Rhodine Commemorative Statues of Virgines Vestales Maximae







All images are courtesy of the VRoma Project's Image Archive.