House of the Vestal Virgins

HOUSE OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS

Rodolfo Lanciani. Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 1898.

The fall of a Vestal was regarded as incest. The expiation was terrible. The unfortunate girl, as soon as the trial was over and the condemnation pronounced, was divested of the distinctive garments of the order, and flogged by the judges themselves. Then the funeral procession was organized. The culprit, covered by a pall and lying the hearse, was brought through the Forum, the Long Street (Vicus longus), and the High Street (Alta Semita), to the Porta Collina, amidst the mourning and dejected crowd of her friends and relatives. Let us quote the thrilling account of an execution given by Plutarch: “The Vestal convicted of incest is buried alive in the neighborhood of the Porta Collina, under the Agger of Servius Tullius. Here is a crypt, small in size, with an opening in the vault, through which the ladder is lowered; it is furnished with a bed, an oil lamp, and a few scanty provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. These provisions (in fact, a refinement of cruelty) are prepared because it would appear a sacrilege to condemn to starvation women formerly consecrated to the gods. The unfortunate culprit is brought here in a covered hearse, to which she is tied with leather straps, so that it is impossible that her sighs and lamentations should be heard by the attendant mourners. The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse; not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the while city is shaken with terror and sorrow. The hearse being brought to the edge of the opening, the executioner cuts the bands, and the high-priest mutters an inaudible prayer, and lifts up his arms towards the gods, before bidding the culprit good-bye. He follows and assists her to the top of the ladder, and turns back at the fatal instant of her disappearance. As soon as she reaches the bottom, the ladder is removed, opening is sealed, and a large mass of earth is heaped upon the stone that seals it, until the top of the embankment is reached, and every trace of the execution made to disappear.”

Lanciani, Rodolfo Amedeo. Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries. Houghton, Mifflin and Company Boston and New York, 1898.

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Stephanie Sepúlveda & John William Bailly  10 April 2018

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