In ancient Rome, the Vestals or Vestal Virgins (Latin: Vestālēs, singular Vestālis[wɛsˈtaːlɪs]) were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. The College of the Vestals and its well-being were regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children and took a 30-year vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were forbidden to the colleges of male priests.
The Vestals became a powerful and influential force in the Roman state. When Sulla included the young Julius Caesar in his proscriptions, the Vestals interceded on Caesar's behalf and gained him pardon.Augustus included the Vestals in all major dedications and ceremonies. They were held in awe, and attributed certain magical powers. Pliny the Elder, for example, in Book 28 of his Natural History discussing the efficacy of magic, chooses not to refute, but rather tacitly accept as truth:
At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.
The urban prefectSymmachus, who sought to maintain traditional Roman religion during the rise of Christianity, wrote:
The laws of our ancestors provided for the Vestal virgins and the ministers of the gods a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This gift was preserved inviolate till the time of the degenerate moneychangers, who diverted the maintenance of sacred chastity into a fund for the payment of base porters. A public famine ensued on this act, and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces ... it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.
The College of the Vestals was disbanded and the sacred fire extinguished in 394, by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius. Zosimus records how the Christian noblewoman Serena, a niece of Theodosius, entered the temple and took from the statue of the goddess Rhea Silvia a necklace and placed it on her own neck. An old woman appeared, the last of the Vestals, who proceeded to rebuke Serena and called down upon her all just punishment for her act of impiety. According to Zosimus, Serena was then subject to dreadful dreams predicting her own untimely death. Augustine would be inspired to write The City of God in response to murmurings that the capture of Rome and the disintegration of its empire was due to the advent of the Christian era, and its intolerance of the old gods who had defended the city for over a thousand years.
The chief Vestal (Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, "greatest of the Vestals") oversaw the efforts of the Vestals, and was present in the College of Pontiffs. The Vestalis Maxima Occia presided over the Vestals for 57 years, according to Tacitus. The last known chief vestal was Coelia Concordia, who stepped down in 394 with the disbanding of the College of the Vestals.
The Vestalium Maxima was the most important of Rome's high priestesses. Although the Flaminica Dialis and the regina sacrorum each held unique responsibility for certain religious rites, each came into her office as the spouse of another appointed priest, whereas the vestals all held office independently.