Scandalous Virgins

Rome would stand “as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitoline beside the silent Virgin,” the poet Horace said. The “silent Virgin” was a Vestal virgin, a priestess of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home. She was an embodiment of the city and citizenry, and her well-being was fundamental to the well-being and security of Rome. A vestal is a woman of the city. Beloved and closely watched by the people. But what usually happens to the woman who is “watched by the people”?

Sacrifice the Virgin, Save the People

According to Pliny the Elder, human sacrifice in Ancient Rome was abolished by a senatorial decree in 97 BCE, although by this time the practice had already become so rare that the decree was mostly a symbolic act. The Vedic Purushamedha (“human sacrifice”) is already a purely symbolic act in its earliest records. This was then followed by a period of embarrassment about violence in rituals of this sort as this period corresponds to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which place emphasis on ahimsa (“non-violence”). Apparently for a time, a very very long time ago, virgin sacrifice could be done for a number of widely accepted reasons – from winning a war, appeasing an angry deity, to architecture.