Morgan E. Palmer
The Vestal Virgins served as power brokers with the ability to advance individual careers, and inscriptions from the atrium Vestae attest to how they assisted others. Amelius Pardalas credits the Vestal Campia Severina with using her influence to secure his prestigious military position (CIL 6.2131), and the imperial financial administrator Quintus Veturius Callistratus reports that he got his job “by her vote” (suffragio eius, CIL 6.2132). Additionally, literary sources describe how the Vestals influenced Roman politics (Cancik-Lindemaier 1990; Scardigli 2003; Wildfang 2006; DiLuzio 2016), as well as their interactions with women from the imperial family (Lindner 2015). The extent to which the Vestals used their considerable power and authority in service to other women deserves more attention. Senior Vestals served as mentors to younger Vestals who entered the order between the ages of six and ten (Aul. Gell. NA 1.12.1–2). Removed from the ordinary cycle of a woman’s life and housed together in the atrium Vestae, the Vestals were not just “Sisters Doin’ For Themselves,” but also “Sisters Doin’ For Each Other.” This paper will examine literary and epigraphic evidence for the important and under-recognized role of women’s mentoring in the Vestal priesthood.
First, I will discuss the Vestal Virgin Aemilia, who convinced the goddess Vesta to rekindle the fire after her younger mentee accidentally let it go out (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2.68.3–5). As Chief Vestal, Aemilia could have left her student (discipula, Val Max.1.1.7) to take the blame, ensuring that her own service as a Vestal remained above suspicion. Instead, she used her distinguished record to negotiate with Vesta, protecting her pupil while taking full responsibility for her role as the young woman’s supervisor.
Next, I will suggest that this literary example may be contextualized with inscriptions honoring the Vestal Virgins as mentors and advisors. An inscription dedicated by the Vestal Octavia Honorata in honor of her distinguished Chief Vestal Virgin mentor, Flavia Publicia, reports that she was “always advanced by her recommendations” (eius admonitionibus semper provecta, CIL 6.2138). Flavia Publicia was honored with several inscriptions (Frei-Stolba 1998), and another monument commemorates her advancement through “all of the ranks” (omnes gradus) of the priesthood (CIL 6.2135). This inscription was dedicated by the parents of a junior Vestal who highlight the potential of their daughter, Terentia Rufilla, thereby encouraging Flavia Publicia to take an interest in mentoring her. A later inscription confirms that Terentia Rufilla followed in the footsteps of her distinguished mentor, achieving the rank of Chief Vestal (CIL 6.2143).
Additionally, the Vestals assisted women outside of the priesthood. Aurelia Epiphana, who is described as a clarissima femina, honors a Vestal with an inscription recording how she was “helped and protected (or advanced) by her kindnesses” (beneficiis iuta adqu[e prot/prov]ecta, CIL 6.32425; Mekacher 2006). These examples illustrate that the Vestals served as distinguished advisors while contributing to a powerful network of women mentoring and promoting women in ancient Rome.
I will conclude that the Vestal Virgins have contemporary relevance, as they illustrate how those who have advanced “through the ranks” have a responsibility to use their power in service to women. The future of the Vestal order depended on a continuous cycle of priestesses who worked to train, promote, and protect those who were just entering the priesthood. Chief Vestals such as Aemilia took this duty seriously, and Vestals such as Octavia Honorata recognized and appreciated the work of their mentors. Their efforts ensured that the Vestal priesthood would continue to prosper, and parallel the best practices of contemporary mentoring (cf. Johnson and Ridley 2018). Inscriptions attest that the mentoring relationships were reciprocal (cf. Duff 1999), as the younger Vestals also promoted those who had mentored them, creating monuments which give the impression of a thriving priesthood. Although inscriptions honoring the Chief Vestals commemorate their own personal advancement, the true measure of their legacy was the continual success of the women whom they mentored.
Sisters Doin' it for Themselves: Women in Power in the Ancient World and the Ancient Imaginary