The Vestal was thus the totem of Rome, and her sacred character derives from her status as the embodiment of the clan. Her virginity is a type of binding spell familiar from ritual observances in many cultures. A single totemic item is invested with the safety of an individual or state. As long as it remains unharmed so does that which it signifies. For Rome there was, significantly, the Palladium, which the Vestal Virgins guarded and with which they were associated and identified as the “guarantee of Roman power.”

Thus, as long as the Vestal remained intact, so did Rome. This symbolic function is explicitly stated. For example, a Vestal’s epitaph reads: “The republic saw with good fortune day after day her exceptional discipline in morals and most exact observance of the rituals.” Thus the Vestal Aemilia, when the sacred fire went out, prayed to Vesta (Dion. Hal. 2.68.4): “If anything unholy has been done by me, let the pollution of the city be expiated by my punishment.” Most tellingly the Vestal Cornelia, on her way to be buried alive by the order of Domitian, ties the safety of Rome explicitly to her virginity and reveals the underlying magical logic: “Does Caesar think that I have been unchaste, when he has conquered and triumphed while I have been performing the rites!”

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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