The Vestal Virgin functioned as Sign, Stranger, and Sacrifice. She was the Sign for the Roman people, incarnating the collective. Yet in order to serve as the totem of Rome, she was made a Stranger, removed from all familial ties. This combination made her the ideal Sacrifice: both interior and exterior, she could serve as prodigium, pharmakos, and devotio to expiate and protect the city.

These uses of women were not confined to the Vestal Virgins. Rather, Roman society reveals a deep misogyny, erupting at times of crisis into murderous fear directed against its own matrons, against women in their roles as wives and as mothers.

Again, the logic of sympathetic magic is evident. The emphasis is on the element of control. Even for the Vestal Virgins, the sources are emphatic that, although the Vestals no longer belonged to any man, they were still under the discipline of the Pontifex Maximus, whose punishments extended to beatings for minor infractions and to execution for incestum. To control women and their sexuality was to control the state. As the state escaped control, among the omens was the escape of women from proper male control. The danger to the Urbs could only be warded off by the punishment of women and the subsequent founding of public cults of chastity with admonitory and apotropaic functions. Again, this was a common ploy of rhetoric and is reflected in a number of historical or quasi-historical events (see Appendix for the sources).

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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