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Female Priests in ancient Rome

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Vestal Virgins and the sacred fire of Rome Vestal Virgins and the sacred fire of Rome

The subtitle of this award-winning book is a bit misleading, as author Meghan J. DiLuzio does cover the role of priestesses in both the Republican and Imperial Roman periods, although the emphasis is certainly on the former. DiLuzio is assistant professor of Classics at Baylor University in Texas.


Earlier this year I met Dr. DiLuzio at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), where I asked about what led her to research this book. Here she mentions Dr. Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge.


“I decided to write about priestesses in Rome because I had read Mary Beard's article about Vestal virgins where she talked about how the Vestals must have had a masculine aura that surrounded them because they were the only priestesses in Rome. To sacrifice you had to have this official public status.


“That seemed odd to me because we do have evidence for other public priestesses like the flamen Dialis, the flamen of Mars, priestesses of the Quirnalis and of Ceres: so there are other priestesses but they weren't getting a lot of attention in the major scholarly works on priesthood or on women in religion.


“John Scheid's article on women in Roman religion asserts very definitively there are no priestesses other than the Vestals although he does acknowledge these other women are performing official roles but there is a sort of problem of categorizing them. I wanted to address what I thought was the issue of the way we are talking about women and their official role in public cults, and present all of the evidence to show they did have a very full role in public cults but one that was conditioned by their gender and Roman ideologies of gender.” DiLuzio said “how this impacted the kind of cults they were involved in and the kind of relationships they had to other public priests” was central to her project, which I must say is a great success.


Dr. DiLuzio with her bookDr. DiLuzio with her bookThe author convincingly demonstrates how pervasive the role of women was in a wide variety of ceremonial rites in ancient Rome. Sometimes this was in conjunction with a man, as a priest of a major cult was quite literally married to the priestess of the cult. If she died, the priest had to withdraw from his role, to replaced by another married couple. Foremost among these was the flamen Dialis, and his wife the flaminica Dialis, representing the priesthood of Jupiter, the foremost god. Their requirement to perform daily sacrifices meant they were never allowed to leave the city walls of Rome.


On page 144 she deals head-on with the model advanced by Beard that Vestal Virgins possessed a certain “sexual ambiguity” that made them sacred figures. This thesis, writes DiLuzio, “is untenable.” She looks at a particular leader of the Vestals, Cornelia, “who was convicted of incestum and buried alive” by the emperor Domitian. According to Livy, she defended herself thus: “does Caesar think that I have been unchaste, when he has conquered and triumphed while I have been performing the rites?” This plea, says DiLuzio, “hinges on the relationship between her virginity and efficacy of the sacra (religious rites) in her care. If she has performed the sacra unchastely, Domitian's campaigns would have been doomed to failure.”


The plea, which did not dissuade the tyrant, shows not only the link between Rome's own inviolability, but that of the Vestal Virgin. This also highlights the vast difference between what we regard as religion today, and what it meant to those in ancient Rome.


An examination of the Vestals occupies much of the book as it was the premiere cult that has survived the best in our sources, but the author gives full attention to several other cults. She describes the Salian Virgins as both enigmatic and the most intriguing of the ones under discussion. Unlike Vestals, Salian priestesses “only remained in office as long as they were virgins,” so they resigned upon marriage. Most were thus teenagers, who danced through the city to the Forum at the beginning of the military campaign season. Thus she disputes the opinion of some scholars that the Salian dance was not a martial ritual but merely an initiation rite into adulthood.


The book offers several illustrations showing how the Vestals dressed, and DiLuzio goes into great details about such things as their hairstyle, shoes, and jewelry (or lack of it). Their public role is also given its due in this book, showing how they could and did intervene in public affairs. The most notable of these is the decision by Sulla to kill the young Julius Caesar. Fortunately Caesar had already been named flamen Dialis, and a personal intervention to Sulla by the leader of the Vestal Virgins saved his life, and thus changed history.


A fascinating book that shows how, despite centuries of scholarly study, we still labour under serious misapprehensions about ancient Roman life and culture.

For A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome, CAMWS awarded its “First Book Award” to DiLuzio in 2017.


I noticed three typos: pg. 57 (That the he); pg. 102 (that that); pg. 193 (rather than); Photo with this article by C. Cunningham


A Place at the Altar: Priestesses in Republican Rome (281 pages) is $45 from Princeton University Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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