The Vestal represents not only the idealized role of Woman – a fusion of the archetypal roles of la Vergine and la Mamma into the figure of la Madonna – but also the citizen body as a whole. Many cities are symbolized by women. Athens, symbolized and guarded by the virgin goddess Athena, is an obvious parallel but does not supply an explanation for the choice of a female virgin to represent a citizen body composed of men and their dependents. Pomeroy points towards an answer: “Since a virgin belongs to no man, she can incarnate the collective, the city: she can belong to everyone” (1975, 210). This insight, however, is incorrect in one important respect: an ordinary virgin in Roman law does belong to a man – she belongs to her father. Accordingly, for a virgin to incarnate the collective, she must be extraordinary. She must be freed not only from her father but also from all possible and catalogued forms of familial tie.

In the past the legal status of the Vestal Virgin has not been correctly conceptualized, since it has been approached almost entirely from a purely descriptive point of view. Her unique legal status should be viewed less as a mark of respect than as a magical function making it possible for her to incarnate the collective. Once the ritual and symbolic purpose of the laws is considered, the legal status and consequences of that status are very clear. Gardner summarizes (1986, 25):

The oddities of her position seem rather to arise from her position as one in charge of a worship central to the state and not belonging to any one family in the state. She was taken out of her family, with certain legal consequences, but she did not cease to be a woman.

It is necessary to go further. She was taken out of her family and not added to any other. Moreover, she was not just in charge of a worship central to the state; she was also the embodiment of that state. She did not cease to be a woman, but she ceased to be like any other woman. Roman society was governed by a strict series of exogamic rules, and the principle of Woman as Sign is more visible there than in many other cultures. The exchange of women to seal interfamilial bonds and political ties was a marked feature of Roman society. Thus, if the Vestal Virgin was to represent the society as a whole, she must be exterior to all families.

Since a basic principle of Roman law was that a woman always belonged to someone, the procedure to free the Vestals from ownership was both complex and comprehensive. The first step in the process was to exempt the Vestal initiate from the power of her father (patria potestas). Since this was normally accomplished by coemptio, a form of sale that merely placed her in someone else’s power, she was specifically said not to have undergone emancipation, which normally simply passed a woman into the tutela of her nearest male relative. She was then freed from any form of tutela but uniquely without loss of status (capitis minutio), i.e., without falling into the manus of any other man. Though she was under the formal discipline of the Pontifex Maximus, who could scourge her for minor offenses, he exercised neither patria potestas nor tutela over her. Thus the complex legal procedure prevented her from being an orphan while still guaranteeing that legally and religiously she had no family. She was completely removed from her agnatic family and yet did not pass to the ownership of any other family

A Roman woman existed legally only in relation to a man. A woman’s legal status was based entirely on this fact. The act of freeing a Vestal from any man so that she was free to incarnate all men removed her from all conventional classifications. Thus she was unmarried and so not a wife; a virgin and so not a mother; she was outside patria potestas and so not a daughter; she underwent no emancipatio, no coemptio and so not a ward. This unique status entailed a number of consequences. Since she had no family, she no longer inherited property nor did she leave property to her family if she died intestate. Rather than her property reverting to the gens, as would be the case for an intestate woman freed by ordinary emancipation, it reverted to the state, of which she was the embodiment. As a free agent, she necessarily acquired the right to dispose of her property by will and acquired the right to be a witness.

Holt N. Parker, “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State” (2004)

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