Recently, having decided to brave both the swilling, Selfie-obsessed tourists in Rome as well as the gladiatorial arena that is Rome Airport, I found myself walking through the ruins of ancient Rome – specifically the Roman Forum, musing over life as it was here in the centuries BC. What does one make of life in this ancient, awesome (I use the word deliberately) Republic? It was huge, multicultural, wealthy, economical, ruthless, clever, violent, dominant, decadent, peaceful, intolerant …..the list could go on.
The ruins of the Roman Forum proudly attest to the magnificence of the ancient Republic and are a joy to behold at any given time. However testament as they are to incredible architectural and engineering skills, and constructions of great beauty, I was sidelined into thinking about what it would be like living there from a female’s perspective. Definitely not easy despite these wonderful buildings and facilities, women’s rights being an oxymoron. Coming across the ruins of the Temple and dwelling place of the Vestal Virgins (VV), the priestesses of the Roman goddess Vesta, the state religion of ancient Rome, it occurred to me how good life must have been by contrast for these young women. I have to tell you girls, this was one mighty good gig if you were a Roman woman in those times.
Let me prosecute my case on why the VV job was such a winner, and one I’d put my hand up for.
Say you were born into a patrician family in ancient Rome – patrician meaning ‘freeborn of freeborn’, as to be otherwise means you’d be a slave or a just-freed slave, so we won’t go there for this case. Imagine yourself though, lolling back on couches in magnificent marble homes, wine in hand and slaves at feet. Gorgeous husband of the looks of a Marc Anthony. Dream on, it’s as likely as a Lotto win. OK, so the dwelling place was gorgeous and household help was plentiful, but forget the wine (I’ll explain later) and forget ideas of married love, romance, and passion. Your husband was likely to be an unattractive old bloke, man boobs rather than manly chest, pot belly, chicken legs (you get the picture) and chosen for political and financial purposes by your father. Love and passion replaced by ‘Wham, Bang, but no thank-you Mam’. The purpose of marriage was simply to create mothers who could produce living children. And if you were a female child, you were basically on the losing team.
Here’s why. Girls were married around 12 years of age, barely out of childhood. The position of ‘wife’ was basically as breeder: a battery farm chicken turning out eggs, but in this case turning out children, literally by the dozen. Out of the average 12 births, one could expect 2 to 3 children to survive past 10 years of age, and this was the goal. It also lead to an early death for young women somewhere between 20 and 30 years of age, either by the hazards of childbirth or a weakened health inevitable by perpetual pregnancy.
Although you may have had some personal freedoms (if there was any energy left after the breeding-farm business), there was little chance for individuality or personal choice. You would be under the constant supervision of your father, male relative, or husband. Preferably the latter but not necessarily so, as the men would regularly kiss the beleagured female on the mouth, not as a loving husbandly smooch but a close sniff or taste to find out if you had drunk wine, as it was believed that wine caused women to have adulterous relationships. Drinking wine was strictly forbidden for Roman women and you could be punished by death by your fathers or guardian. Indeed, adulterous relationships were said to be very common given the no-choice husband situation. I can see where they were coming from.
Women existed purely within their families, with no identity of their own. They were not allowed personal names, but took a feminized version of the father’s middle name. Bad luck if he had a crass name like Crassus. From your name people could tell who your father was and evaluate your position in society, which may or may not have been helpful, depending upon the popularity and status of your father.
Fathers also had absolute control over lives of their girls and could even sell them into slavery, or into a marriage and even out of one too if he found a more lucrative and prestigious family to marry his daughter into. If you had children at the time of the divorce, you would be forced to leave them behind, and most unlikely to ever see them again.
It was not just no rights to the children but no rights either to one’s ‘dosh’. One’s father or guardian could keep your property and retain a hold over your wealth. Even if a woman did hold money of her own, she was not free to use it as she might wish , with few exceptions. One of these was the right to spend it on her son’s education or political advancement. Otherwise women were considered incapable of acting in their own best interest. Oh really? Who said a bit of retail therapy isn’t in our own best interests?
It almost goes without saying that while women were considered citizens, they were not permitted to vote or participate in government procedures. Patrician women nevertheless were generally well educated, and likely between the sheets to have exerted some social or political influence.
I hope so -they were no fools.
Now, let’s look at the alternative for a girl from an aristocratic family. The Vestal Virgin. You tell me if this doesn’t look like the cream of all jobs.
Imagine a recruitment ad like this:
The state of Rome is seeking applicants for the highly competitive position of Vestal Virgin. Only 6 girls at any one time will hold this role, and they will be expected to hold their position on a 30 year contract. You will be held by all in high regard as the bride of Vesta, and the only full-time clergy (collegia) of our Roman deity and state religion. The position will comprise 10 years in training, 10 years in service, and 10 years training the trainees.
- Females aged between 6 and 10 years of age, from a patrician family
- Parents of established and demonstrated respectability
- Parents to be alive at the time of selection
- Free from physical and mental defects.
- Tend the sacred fire in the shrine of Vesta (Just don’t let it go out. How hard is that?)
- Care of sacred objects held within the shrine and inner sanctuary (Ditto–bit of a dust maybe)
- Preparation of ritual foods such as the herbs to be sprinkled on sacrifices or the bread to be offered on feast days such as 1st March, being our New Year
- Officiating at public events during the annual Vestalis, being Vesta’s feast days between June 7th to 15th
- Throw straw figurines into the Tiber to purify the city (uncomplicated sanitation task) on 15th May
- Fetch water for your personal use from the sacred spring, considered far superior to our town supply and conveniently right alongside the VV quarters
- Keep miscellaneous divine secrets known only unto your VV colleagues (Secret Women’s Business may be defined however you wish as we don’t know what it is because it’s secret)
- Retain virginity and chasteness (no drooling when watching Marc Anthony on the big screen)
- Dress with Armani-like simplicity (no D & G bling please), and you will find the soft white linens quite a blessing in our Roman heat. The sandals are pretty cool too.
- Do a bit of Will and Solemn Treaty minding – that is, just pop it in the safe or under your bed
The position of VV is a live-in situation, and we offer an attractive package that includes:
- Sumptuous live-in accommodation
- Most needs provided for by temple tithes
- Freedom from the many mean and nasty restrictions on your female peers out there in the community (eg no one to check your breath after a decent wine or two with the girls)
- Emancipation from your father’s rule
- Right to own and handle your own property
- Right to make a Will, and to bequeath your property to whomever you wish, even to another female
- Right to give evidence in a court of justice without having to take an oath (you could have fun with this if you need to ‘pay-out’ on someone)
- Best seats in the house at the Colosseum
- Great weight will be placed upon any intercession you might make on behalf of those in danger or difficulty
- A generous pension upon retirement
- Freedom to marry whomever you wish, and/or otherwise indulge in pleasures of the flesh upon retirement (noting that you will be only 40 years of age at a maximum, which might consider as one’s prime in matters of sexual enjoyment, given you may expect to be by then free of the threat of pregnancy. (The young applicant is encouraged to closely consider the supplementary notes on childbirth too)
- In relation to the above, freedom from early death or a birth passage that’s shot to bits by the traumas of repeated childbirth
- Retention of perky breasts and enviable abs, again in relation to freedom from childbearing
- Possibly retention of a perky butt (see above rationale)
- No need for fear of sneezing or laughing in later years from a weak bladder (ditto)
- Regular manis and pedis (you will have a lot of lovely free time)
- Bridal hair do’s by our experienced hairstylist slave (given that you are considered a bride of Vesta, even if Vesta is a female)
- All transport provided on luxurious litters, and you will be preceded by Lictors (body-guards of sorts carrying axes in the bundles of rods, way-clearers, and possibly quite an attractive view from behind).
Supplementary Notes on Childbirth benefits
The young applicant, being plucked from the nursery and fond of playing with her dolls, may be unaware of the reality of childbirth, and the significant benefits of remaining a virgin.
Our local remedies to ease the pains of labour and parturition may be effective as placebos, but unattractive to any thinking female who actually has a choice in the matter. Birthing practices might include:
- For labour pain, a drink sprinkled with sow’s dung
- For delivery, a drink of goose semen mixed with water, or the liquid that flows from a weasel’s uterus through it’s genitals
- To bring on immediate delivery (you might be dead, near dead, or wishing you were dead by then) fumigation with the fat from a hyena’s loins
- C-sections have yet to be invented except in post-mortem cases, and stories about Julies Caesar have been greatly exaggerated
- We haven’t discovered sanitation yet, so if you survive the above, you may face death by germs (a term we haven’t heard of yet, let alone bacteria and puerperal sepsis).
Supplementary Punishment Benefits
The applicant will be aware that the sacred fire must never be permitted to extinguish, as it risks the failure of our military campaigns and the well-being and survival of Rome. The requirement to retain your virginity and chastity is equally paramount. Failures in either area will be dealt with accordingly.
Should you fail in your general duties, you can expect the High Priest to take you to a darkened room hidden behind a screen, remove your clthes and flog you. There are no rules about whether or not he might enjoy this kinky stuff.
Should you lose your virginity, you will be put to death. The State of Rome and anyone within it is not allowed to kill a VV, but can ensure your demise nevertheless. You will be taken to an underground room which will be sealed off, leaving you to die of natural causes if you call starvation or suffocation a natural cause. We will however do this a bit more kindly than you might expect by providing your death cell with a bed, lamp and some food. We think it a nice touch.
Now you tell me, what job would you rather have. That of a Roman wife or that of a Vestal Virgin?
I rest my case.
PS: In case you need more evidence, almost no VV’s married after retirement — the few that did were recorded as having regretted it bitterly. Nothing is recorded though on how many VV’s had ‘affairs’ post retirement — smart girls. The statue says it all