The Classical Review 58 (1):212-214 (2008)

The Vestal Virgins are one of the most famous elements of Roman religion, yet despite their perennial appeal and the importance of some smaller scale studies of the priesthood, the priestesses have not received a monograph-length study since F. Giuzzi, Aspetti giuridici del sacerdozio romano. II sacerdozio di Vesta (Naples, 1968). Now we have books by R.L. Wildfang and M.C. Martini that could not be more different. The former offers a thorough survey of what the sources can tell us about the priesthood in the period from the end of the Second Carthaginian War to the first century C.E. The latter is an analysis of early Roman historiography and the role the Vestals, in particular their periodic unchastity, played in the creation of the traditional account of the development of Rome. W's book puts forward two main arguments: (1) the Vestals were charged with the ritual purification of the city and with the storage and preparation of ritual materials, and (2) many aspects of the priesthood that have long puzzled scholars are tied to the Vestals' status as Roman citizens, but citizens who existed outside the traditional family structure. The book will be accessible to those new to the topic, but the notes will repay specialists. Ancient sources are quoted in translation, with original texts provided in an appendix. A second appendix provides a list of known Vestals. This slender volume could have been even thinner if the frequent repetitions were cut down. W's work might have been better as a hefty article, so little is there to know about the Vestals. The Classical Review vol. 58 no. 1 C The Classical Association 2008; all rights reserved This content downloaded from on Sat, 26 Jul 2014 11:47:09 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions THE CLASSICAL REVIEW 213 In the Introduction, W makes a welcome distinction among types of rituals often lumped together in discussions of 'fertility' rituals, with which the Vestals are often associated (p. 4). W reserves 'fertility' to describe only those rites that deal with the reproduction of people, livestock and the growth of crops. Harvest rituals are linked to the harvesting of crops, while another set of rites, 'storage rites', are tied to the preservation of the harvest. The final group, purification rituals, aim at the cleansing of an individual, place or object of 'all forms of pollution that would render it or them unfit to come into contact with the religious sphere'. The book is arranged thematically. The first two chapters lay out all we can know about the priestesses' ritual obligations performed in the seclusion of the temple and out amongst the people. While a reader may not find W's interpretation of each of the Vestals' actions equally persuasive, the overall argument that the priestesses' activities were, by and large, purificatory is convincing. Two of the more interesting aspects of W.'s discussion are her considerations of Vesta's fire and of the water required for some of her rituals (pp. 8-11). Fire was seen by the Romans as both a fertile and a sterile force, and scholars have emphasised one or the other, or the contrast between them, in their interpretation of the Vestals. W points out that fertile fire is always described in masculine terms and is associated with Vulcan. Vesta's fire, however, is always associated with sterility and purity, and so should be understood as having a purificatory significance. W points out that Vesta's fire was used only in the manufacture of ritually necessary items: roasting spelt for mola salsa, baking brine for muries and burning ashes from the fetal cow from the Fordicidia and the tail of the October horse, both of which were used at the Parilia. For other rituals, the Vestals were required to use water, the purificatory substance par excellence, drawn only from the spring of Juturna and carried only in vessels that could not be set down. These restrictions ensured that the water was always fresh, running water that never touched profane earth. Chapters 3-5 trace out the unique position the Vestals occupied in Roman society, arguing that they existed outside the standard Roman familial and other social structures, yet remained fully part of the Roman state. W suggests that the initiation rite of captio removed the new priestess not only from her family but, more importantly, from her family cult, thus avoiding any potential contamination of familial and public cult. Virginity was required for multiple reasons, the most significant being that such a status allowed the priestess to remain a full member of the Roman state, but prevented her from being a member of a traditional family structure. Throughout the book, W makes much of the idea of Vestals as represen tatives of Roman citizen women without ever really dealing with the question to what extent any Roman woman, priestess or not, was a ciuis. Though W is probably correct, it is not entirely certain to what extent women were citizens in the Republic, and at least a reference to some key ancient sources and to recent scholarship on this question should be made (e.g. L. Peppe, Posizione giuridica e ruolo sociale della donna romana in eta repubblicana [Milan, 1984]). The sixth chapter, 'The Vestals in the Romans' History', looks at the appearance of Vestals in the early history of Rome, refining the common assumption that accusations of, and convictions for, incestum arose only in periods of great stress and danger. W adds that a priestess's involvement, or her family's involvement, in one of the groups taking part in the conflict or struggle of the moment also played a role. This chapter traces changes over the course of 300 years in the attitudes of the priestesses and the Romans more generally toward the priesthood, its role in society This content downloaded from on Sat, 26 Jul 2014 11:47:09 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 214 THE CLASSICAL REVIEW and its requirement of 30 years of chastity. The argument hangs on even less evidence than other sections of the work. In contrast to their central place in W's book, the Vestals play only a small (though crucial, in her interpretation) role in M.'s work. The basic argument of the book is that episodes of Vestal incestum are linked in the historiographic tradition to key moments in the development of the Roman state: the separation of augurium from regnum, the development of a mixed patrician-plebeian aristocracy, the creation of a monetary system and the expansion of the colonial system outside Italy. The history of Rome can be seen as alternating phases of stasis and transformation; instances of Vestal incestum mark the transitions (p. 95). The work falls into two parts that are not well integrated. The first is a useful discussion of the historiography of the Roman Republic, taking in turn each element of the story of the founding of Rome from the arrival of Aeneas to the death of Remus. M. traces how early Roman writers, especially Fabius Pictor, reshaped the tradition already present in some Greek authors, distancing Rome from the Greek world and adding an Italic element to the tale. This detailed analysis is well worth consulting and will be of interest to those working on many aspects of cultural life in the Republic. The second, larger, section of the book comprises a series of studies of the Vestals known to have been convicted of incestum during the Republic. After dealing with issues of dating and sources, M. links each case of incestum to a major event in Roman history. Not all the events are equally important for the creation of the Rome of the middle and late Republic. One wonders why M. chose to tie the conviction of Minucia, somewhere between 339 and 332, to the admission of plebeians to the praetorship in 337 rather than to the conclusion of the Latin War in 338. Some explanation is warranted. The connection M. draws is often very vague, as in the case of Sextilia (pp. 144-54), convicted and interred alive in either 275 or 274. M. sees this as marking the end of any meaningful distinction between patricians and plebeians, following as it does the first time a plebeian censor completed a lustrum. The gap of five or six years between Sextilia's conviction and Cn. Domitius Calvinus Maximus' censorship in 280 passes unremarked. Similarly, in discussing the three Vestals accused of incestum in 114-113 (pp. 188-210), M. steps away from the commonly accepted interpretation of the event as part of the continuing struggle between Gracchan and senatorial forces, arguing instead that it is tied to the establishment in 118 of the colony of Narbo Martius, Rome's first colony in Gaul. Here, as elsewhere, there is no evidence that any ancient author linked the founding of the colony and Vestal unchastity; the temporal gap makes an association even more unlikely. Ultimately, it is not possible to accept M.'s argument that Vestal incestum punctuated key stages in the development of the 'cosmo Romano' in the way she imagines. Even so, M.'s effort to reintegrate the Vestals into the larger narrative of Rome's history is thought-provoking, and it is to be hoped that it will spark further work in the same vein. The field is perhaps in a better position to undertake work on this scale now that we have W's careful and comprehensive collection and interpre tation of what there is to know about the Vestals. Yale University CELIA E. SCHULTZ celia.schultz( This content downloaded from on Sat, 26 Jul 2014 11:47:09 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Keywords Vestal Virgins
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DOI 10.1017/S0009840X07002557
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