As in the case of the murder of the Vestals, outbreaks of witch-hunts leveled against the matrons of Rome cluster around times of external threat and internal danger. Thus in 491, the cult of Fortuna Muliebris was founded, open only to univirae, celebrating the salvation of Rome by the mother and wife of Coriolanus. In 331, a year of plague, twenty patrician wives were charged with a city-wide poisoning conspiracy. The women were forced to drink the drugs that they claimed were beneficial and of course died – an obvious trial by ordeal. A further one hundred seventy matrons were executed as a result of the subsequent investigation. In 296, the cult of Plebeian Chastity was founded. In the following year, an unknown number of matrons was found guilty of adultery, fined, and the money used to build the temple of Venus Obsequens as a warning to adulteresses. In 215, following the disaster at Cannae, the Oppian law was passed, the temple of Venus Verticordia dedicated, and the Vestal Virgins Floronia and Opimia ex- ecuted, together with more explicit human sacrifice. In 213, there was a suppression of foreign cults and an unspecified number of wives exiled for adultery. In 204, there was the trial by ordeal of Claudia Quinta, charged with adultery. In 186, the Bacchanalia crisis erupted when unknown numbers (in the thousands) of women were executed by family tribunal or the state. In 184, there was a further series of poisoning trials, involving both men and women. In 180, Hostilia Quarta was condemned for poisoning her husband in order to advance her son by an earlier marriage, while in Rome and environs, three thousand people were found guilty of poisoning. In 154, Publilia and Licinia were accused of poisoning their husbands, tried by family tribunals, and strangled. In 113, following the condemnation and execution of the Vestal Virgins, the temple of Venus Verticordia was rededicated.

Two questions arise: Why was this fear directed against matrons, women at the center of society, rather than solely against the old, the widowed, the unprotected, or other societally marginal women, as in the European witch craze?  And why was the charge of adultery the expression of that fear?

These eruptions of rage against women reveal a profound fear at the core of Roman society. In brief, the role of Woman as Sign has led to the role of Woman as Stranger: the very interchangeability and exchangeability on which Rome was based necessitated that a woman still be attached to, and be a member of, her father’s family for her to have value as an exchange. As a result, she was still a stranger in her marriage family and feared as a stranger, that is, as a potential traitoress to her new family, as a potential witch to her husband and poisoner of his children. This fear, though best known to folklore as centering on the figure of the step-mother, was not confined to her. Rather, since for Rome the children were the husband’s, both legally and biologically, all mothers were stepmothers, fostering another’s children. Anthropological data from a variety of cultures demonstrate the way in which accusations of witchcraft are frequent against brides brought into virilocal or patrilineal villages.

For Rome, a single example may serve to illustrate this nexus of adultery, poisoning, and betrayal. According to Plutarch (Rom. 22.3), the laws of Romulus specified that a husband may divorce his wife only for poisoning his children, counterfeiting his keys, or adultery. This very marginality of women, as we have seen, makes them the perfect victims. In times of panic, the society can easily be restored to health by the sacrifice, exile, or punishment of wives, who are central to the family yet not fully members of it; who are necessary to produce children yet expendable; who are, in short, human but less than human. Yet why do Girard’s objections to women as the ideal sacrificial victim not apply? The execution of a wife would appear to be fraught with the dangers of reciprocal violence from either her birth family or her marriage family, which Girard noted.

Here we can see the role that the charge of adultery played. Adultery of a wife was the betrayal of all her male relatives, both by birth and by marriage. Only for adultery did both husband and father have the right, indeed the duty, to kill a matron. Only the charge of adultery could sever a woman from both her agnatic and her marriage families. The list in the Appendix makes clear the prevalence of the theme of conspiracy. We hear not of individual women put on trial but masses. We are told not of monstrous women acting alone but in consort, and not merely with adulterers, but more terrifyingly with the other outsiders, with slaves and foreigners, and most terrifyingly, with each other. They formed an anti-society, an underground where women were adulterous and poisoned their husbands, even their children. They created a witch-world whose values were distorted parodies of the values of patriarchal society: women as active, rather than passive; as sexual subjects, rather than sexual objects; as murderers, rather than victims. Thus the magical and liminal functions of women were not confined to the Vestal Virgins. Female sexuality under male control was the basis of and paradigm for keeping society under control. Yet in times of crisis, the society turned on those elements, which it feared would threaten social stability, the very categories it created in order to have stability at all. The unpenetrated virgin and the well-regulated wife both embodied the city in the symbolic universes of sympathetic magic and ideological praxis.

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


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)

The Vestal Virgin was the symbol of the city, specially set apart in order to incarnate the impregnable boundaries of Rome. When Rome was subject to violence, it was because she had been violated. Yet it was this very status that made it possible for her to be used as a witch figure whose sacrifice averted the anger of the gods. She could become a pharmakos. Like the pharmakos, she was a ritually pure victim. Seneca (Cont. 4.2) explicitly compared the physical perfection of the sacrificing priest to the physical perfection of the sacrificial victim.

Yet we hear of no examination to determine a loss of virginity, apart from the trial by ordeal of burial alive. To have definite medical evidence one way or the other would destroy that precarious balance that Girard points out, since the victim must be simultaneously pure and yet guilty. Like the pharmakos, she was paraded through the town in order “to absorb all the noxious influences that may be abroad.” She partook, therefore, of the dual nature of the pharmakos, even as pharmakon has a dual sense. The ritual victim is both disease and cure. Dion. Hal. 9.40.1 (on the murder of Urbina in 472) makes the mechanism clear: once the Vestal was buried alive, the plague that had afflicted the women with sterility and miscarriages ceased (again, note the standard association of witchcraft with plague).

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

The crime of the Vestal was neither against the gods alone nor against the Pontifex Maximus alone. The trial and execution of the Vestal Virgin was unique because it was simultaneously both a religious rite to drive out the pollution of incestum and a judicial rite for the punishment of treason. The penetrated virgin was a monster and so must be expiated as a prodigium. Yet she sinned willingly and so was a traitor. The trial therefore had two corresponding functions. First, the trial guaranteed the unanimity of the sacrifice, the “absolute faith in the guilt of the surrogate victim.” It separated the Vestal Virgin from the community and increased the sacrificially necessary guilt. She was made responsible for all the evils that occurred in the time of crisis, especially sterility of women and diseases of cattle (note the common witchcraft charges).

Second, the trial served as the disguise necessary to the proper functioning of the sacred. The Greek and Latin sources themselves carefully distinguished between the execution of the Vestals in 215 and 113 and the sacrifice of the two Greeks and two Gauls along with them (see Appendix).

The disguise has worked extraordinarily well. Pliny is not the only one to be unable to convince himself of the possibility of wrongful conviction. Modern authors commenting on the historical texts hold to an oddly naive and credulous style of reporting. The trials and executions of the Vestals are never referred to as – what they so palpably are – human sacrifice.

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

Those who work with and are in contact with the sacred are especially likely to become its victims. The primary notion is that of contagion. The fear of the contaminated insider abetting an external enemy is crucial to the thinking of many societies, and anthropological analysis of witchcraft can help illuminate how this fear manifested itself in Rome as well. Thus, Philip Mayer in a famous article describes the witch as “The Traitor within the Gates” (1970, 60):

The figure of the witch, clearly enough, embodies those characteristics that society specially disapproves. The values of the witch directly negate the values of society…. However, I think that another or a more particular kind of opposition is also vitally involved. I mean the opposition between “us” and “them.”… The witch is the figure who has turned traitor to his own group. He has secretly taken the wrong side in the basic societal opposition between “us” and “them.” This is what makes him a criminal and not only a sinner.

These remarks cast an important light on the Vestal Virgin. For the Vestal accused of incestum was held to be not only a sinner but a criminal as well, and the worst criminal of all: a traitor-ess. The specifically feminine form is significant. In undoing herself, she has undone Rome. I say “undoing herself” in the same sense as “got herself pregnant.” For a feature, usually unnoticed or unremarked by both ancients and moderns, is the entirely optional presence of a man. The sequence of events is clear: misfortune results in suspicion of unchastity; unchastity implies a seducer; one is occasionally sought and found. While we know the names of several men executed or exiled for having had intercourse with Vestal Virgins and while such a charge clearly might be used for political purposes, Vestals were most often tried for unchastity quite by themselves with no male codefendants, or (just as revealing) the existence of male corespondents was not considered worthy of record. There is no case recorded of a Vestal Virgin suspected or convicted because she was pregnant nor any case where a Vestal was charged with unchastity because she had been raped. Vestals always sinned willingly. It was necessary for them to do so…

Thus, the penetrated Vestal Virgin becomes a witch; that is, when a witch was needed, a Vestal was deemed to have been penetrated. Here we see one of the most frequent uses of witchcraft: to protect other value systems. The failure of sacred ritual can be attributed to witchcraft, specifically to betrayal by those very technicians of the sacred whose duty it was to perform the rituals that protect society. This linking of betrayal and unchastity in the figure of the traitoress (traditura) ran deep in the Roman mind. It is an intimate part of the cultural encyclopedia. It features prominently in myth and mythical history (Horatia and Tarpeia) as well as rhetoric and rhetorical history (Sempronia). It is also enshrined in law, which allows the torture of slaves to provide evidence against their masters only for cases of incestum and for treason.

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

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)

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)

The Vestal was not merely a mode of representation. She was also a symbol that could be manipulated. Archaic Roman religion was based on and steeped in magical practice. By “magical practice” I mean that technology of analogy as defined by Tambiah: “Magical acts … constitute ‘performative’ acts by which a property is imperatively transferred to a recipient object or person on an analogical basis.” Magic, since Frazer, has traditionally been divided between the imitative and the contagious. In imitative magic, the law of similarity applies: “like produces like”; in contagious magic, the law of contiguity applies: “objects which have been in contact, but since ceased to be so, continue to act on each other at a distance” (Frazer 1991, 1: 52). The Vestal, who preserved the inviolability of Rome by preserving the inviolability of her body, exemplifies both forms of magic and indeed shows their overlap and a certain arbitrariness in the distinction. Imitative magic is perhaps better characterized as metaphoric (similia similibus): as she remained integra, so did the city. The Vestal’s body served as the microcosm of the city.

Again, this is abundantly clear from the ancient sources. The Vestal must be not merely a virgin but physically perfect in every respect. The potential candidate was examined by the Pontifex Maximus to guarantee this. Both parents must be living, and neither she nor her father emancipated, since this would make her technically an orphan and hence imperfect. Her parents’ marriage must have been perfect. Neither of them could be divorced or ex-slaves or found to have engaged in negotia sordida. Should she fall sick, she must be removed from the aedes Vestae and cared for outside the holy area by a married woman (Pliny 7.19.1). Most importantly, as we have noted, her life and powers were circumscribed by the walls of the city.

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

The roles of women as symbolic counters in men’s codes of honor and the special function of virginity within those codes have been a major concern in what has come to be called “Mediterranean Anthropology.” Maureen J. Giovannini’s observations (1981) on the function of Woman as Sign in symbolizing and mediating various aspects of the family can help us in understanding this complex of contradictory ideas. Giovannini identified six archetypal categories into which women were placed by the citizens of the Sicilian town that she calls “Garre.” At the center is the pair la Vergine (the Virgin) and la Mamma (the Mother), representing woman in her two societally sanctioned roles, unpenetrated and penetrated. Each has an anti-type: la Puttana (the Whore) and la Madrigna (the Step- or Anti-mother). On the supernatural level, just as la Madonna unites the beneficent aspects of woman, so la Strega (the Witch) unites the figures of la Puttana and la Madrigna. The honor of the family is synonymous with the chastity of its women, who, because of their inherent vice of feminine sexual weakness, are in constant danger of becoming whores and adulteresses. For la Vergine, Giovannini notes (1981,412):

Her physical intactness is also viewed as a sign that her family possesses the unity and strength necessary to protect its patrimony…. As family member, la Vergine can synecdochically (part for whole) convey the message that her family is a viable entity with its boundaries intact …. la Vergine‘s (and, as we shall later discover, la Puttana‘s) corporal being constitutes a kind of cognitive map for the family unit by concretely representing the boundaries of this social group along with its internal unity.

For ancient Rome, the cult of Vesta was the symbol for the unity of all families. Hence Giovannini’s analysis applies not merely to the individual units but to the Roman state as a collective.

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

Our understanding of the symbolic role of the Vestals was greatly advanced by Mary Beard’s 1980 paper “The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins,” in which she carefully elucidated the fusion of aspects of the two categories of “virgin” and “matron” in the Vestals. More recently, Ariadne Staples’ From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins (1998) presented an insight fundamental to a correct interpretation of their role and cult. In brief: the primary role of the Vestal Virgin was to be an embodiment of the city and citizenry of Rome. I have reached similar conclusions by a different route, that of cultural anthropology. Staples’ work rightly returns our focus from putative origin to actual function. This symbolic role of the absolute virginity of the Vestal Virgins was the aspect to which the ancient texts gave the greatest prominence and which they explicitly labeled the most important. The Vestals’ embodiment of the city of Rome is clear throughout the sources.

Whether or not the cult of Vesta originated in the household of the Roman kings, one fact must be emphasized: from the beginning of the historical record it was not a private but a public cult. The role of Vesta herself in symbolizing Rome is abundantly clear. She was the hearth and heart of Rome. She stood literally at the center of the city and served to bind the city together. The common hearth and the common wall together signified the unity of Rome. The goddess’ official title was Vesta publica populi Romani Quiritium. The historians appealed to Vesta to demonstrate the impossibility of abandoning Rome. For the poets, Vesta was the metonym for Rome. Equally clear is the role of Vesta’s priestesses. The Vestals were “taken” in a complex ceremony whose formula stressed their service to the Roman people. The Vestals prayed for the people of Rome. Cicero ordained that the Vestal Virgins guard the public hearth of the city. Their temple was explicitly open to all by day, though shut to men at night. Their penus was the storehouse of the state, holding not merely state documents, but also the Palladium, the “guarantee of Roman power.” The Vestals tended the eternal fire, whose extinction was not just unlucky, but a grave prodigy, specifically said to presage the destruction of the city. Rome, said Horace, would stand “as long as the pontifex climbs the Capitoline beside the silent Virgin.”

It is here that we can seek the symbolic function of the Vestal’s virginity. Just as she embodied the city of Rome, so her unpenetrated body was a metaphor for the unpenetrated walls of Rome. This is manifest from the ancient sources. The powers of a Vestal were coterminous with the city walls. Pliny the Elder (NH 28.13) stated: “We still believe that our Vestals root to the spot fugitive slaves, if they have not yet left the city” (cf. Dio 48.19.4). Their lives and deaths were bound by the limits of the city. Vestal Virgins were given the honor of burial within the pomerium (Serv. Aen. 11.206), most strikingly even when they were buried alive after being convicted of unchastity (see below). However, the Vestal’s virginity was more than merely the symbol of the inviolability of Rome. It was also the guarantee. The whole state depended on the state of being whole. The Vestals did not just hold the repositories of the state; they were the repositories of the state

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