The college of priestesses who were in charge of the worship of Vesta, the numen or power inherent in the fire of the hearth, one of the oldest, most famous, and most elevated of ancient cults. The vestals were the representatives of the girls, not yet old enough to work in the fields, who in primitive agricultural villages were charged with keeping fires alight. The sacred fire which they kept continually burning in the temple of Vesta symbolized the unbroken continuation of the life of the state. If the fire should become extinguished, they were required to relight it, not by flint and steel, but by the primitive method of the fire drill. The round temple of Vesta with its pointed roof recalled its primitive origin, and it contained no statue. Vesta more than any other Roman divinity reflected the early Roman concept of numen.
The vestals formed a college of six priestesses under the direction of the senior member, the Vestalis maxima, and lived in a house adjoining the temple of Vesta and near the Regia, the house of the Pontifex Maximus, the head of the state religion. They were selected, at the age of six to ten, by the Pontifex Maximus from families of noble condition. Both parents of each had to be living at the time and each girl had to be without physical blemish. On being appointed, they were no longer under the tutelage of their parents, but came under the supervision of the Pontifex Maximus. They took a vow of chastity for 30 years. The first ten years were spent in learning their duties, the next ten in performing them, and the last ten in teaching the new members. They wore a sacred dress, with much symbolism attached to it, that otherwise was worn only by Roman brides. At the end of 30 years a vestal was free to leave the college and marry, but few did so. Vestals guilty of negligence in their duties were flogged by the Pontifex Maximus. The vestal who broke her vow of chastity was cursed and buried alive.
In addition to attending the sacred fire of Vesta, the vestals had charge of the penus or special storeroom containing sacred objects of direct concern to the welfare of the state. The precise nature of these objects was never revealed. The vestals celebrated the feast of Vesta, the Vestalia, on June 7 to 15, and participated in a number of other religious feasts, as the Feralia on February 13, the Lupercalia on February 15, the Parilia on April 21, and the Consualia and Opalia on August 21 and 25, respectively. Special seats were assigned to them at various functions at which they were permitted to be present, and they enjoyed universal public reverence and esteem. Their prayers were always regarded as being especially efficacious. Over a period of more than 1,000 years, the number of vestals accused of breaking the vow of chastity was very small. Following the defeat of the pagan usurper, Eugenius, the Emperor Theodosius suppressed the cult of Vesta, along with other pagan cults, in a.d. 394.
Bibliography: h. j. rose, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 943–944. j. a. hild, c. daremberg and e. saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines d'après les textes et les monuments, 5 v. in 9 (Graz 1962–63) 5:742–760. c. koch, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa, et al. (Stuttgart 1893–) 7A. 1:1717–76. g. wissowa, w. h. roscher, ed., Ausfürliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie (Leipzig 1884–1937) 6:241–273.
[m. r. p. mcguire]