One Virgin Too Many

Book Cover, One Virgin Too Many

Much of this book has been given over to descriptions of varia priesthoods, Deified Emperors, and the rites of the Arval Brothers and Vestal Virgins. What was their purpose and function within the state? Why have they been included as illustrations of the life of the state on the Palatine with Vespasian taking direct intervention, as described by Rutilius Gallicus?

AD 74, late May. Falco has just arrived home from Lepcis Magna in Tripoli with dire news to deliver to his sister. Vespasian and his Great Census interrupt. Next day, Falco crosses his bridge of the unknown and delivers the news. A little 6 year old girl, strong candidate for election as a Vestal Virgin, approaches Falco with her suspicions that someone is trying to kill her. Falco (recently raised to equestrian status by Vespasian, and appointed Procurator of the Sacred Geese and Poultry) has had enough for one day. He declines to take the girl as a client and sends her home. An act which was to cause him quite some work.

Aelianus, the elder Camillus son, is trying to kick start his senate career and seeks admission into the Arval Brothers, and extraordinarily powerful and influential group belonging to an obscure and somewhat reclusive priesthood. During his quest for admission, Aelianus is turned down, stumbles upon a deceased Arval brother, and flees home.

Well, perhaps it was all divinely ordained that Falco’s plans went awry on that first day; every eligible girl under the age of 7 in Rome who wanted to be a Vestal Virgin was at the Palatine being introduced to Queen Berenice, the living flame of Titus Caesar, and placing their name forward for the lottery. Among them, Falco’s sister Maia and his niece, Cloelia.

Falco ends up with many clients (and perhaps no paying clients either)

  • Maia Favonia, his sister, who wants her daughter kept at home;
  • Titus Caesar (who wishes to save the reputation of Berenice);
  • Gaia Laelia, a winsome candidate for Vestal Virgin;
  • The Flamen Pomonalis, who wishes to protect the family secrets;
  • The Flamen Dialis, who wants his grand-daughter found;
  • Rutilius Gallicus, who has energy and goodwill;

As Falco backs his hunches and digs deeper into the mysteries of the missing candidate, and the deceased Arval Brother, one Ventidius Silanus, Falco encounters strange lives—lives that a pre-scripted, proscribed, protected and ritualised. Falco’s little client and her family would never have had an ordinary life with the ups and downs of humanity in ordinary. Theirs were lives spent in service for the life of Rome, domestic harmony and peace notwithstanding. An example shows how Falco himself was proscribed by these traditions:

Falco shares his hunches with Rutilius Gallicus that the girl is at home, and he must needs search and question all present. Falco asks for assistance from the Vigiles in the form of his ex-partner Petro. Rutilius Gallicus replies:

‘I thought you would say that too,’ Rutilius confessed. ‘Sorry; it is impossible. The Emperor decided that we should not involve the vigiles in direct contact with the family. The troops are to be ordered to search the city for the child, but the old Flamen is adamant he does not want the big boys invading his home. Remember, Falco, for most of his life, Numentinus was bound never to look on armed men or to witness fetters. Even his ring had to be made from a broken band of metal. He cannot change. The paraphernalia of law and order still affronts him. This is the situation: he refuses to let in the vigiles; you have been put forward as the acceptable alternative.’

Falco and Roman Priesthoods

Procession of Roman Sacerdotes

A Virgin Too Many is replete with references to ancient priesthoods, brethrens and enclosed communities of virgins. The main story is about a young girl who is seeking to be admitted (by lottery) for service as Vestal Virgin, for 30 years.

A complimentary and interwoven narrative is that of Aelianus, the elder Camillus son who is attempting to craft a persona of patrician respectability and take up his path to the senate and serve Rome. Aulus is actually looking for the fast path—and the Arval Brothers will supply that admirably. They were the cream of the cream of Rome.

Virgines Vestales (The Vestal Virgins)

The Vestal Virgins served Vesta, the divine personification of the Hearth Fire. The were a priesthood of six women who guarded the Sacred Hearth of Rome. They oversee the cult of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth and Fire, and lead public rites sacred to Vesta. The duties of the Vestals included maintaining the fire in the Sacred Hearth of Rome, and making Mola Salsa (sacred cakes made from spelt flour used in public rites.) They also engaged in ritual purification rites.

The Hearth Fire was the religious centre of the home, thus the sacred fire was symbolic of the “home” of the empire—the sacred fire was not allowed to go out. The bridal torch was kindled from the hearth fire and the groom received the bride with a torch lit from his own hearth. This has overtones of the power of chastity.

Home and hearth were synonymous. It is interesting that the Latin word for hearth was focus, meaning a central point where rays of light converge. Today this has powerful overtones of optical focus, but also, the focus within the eye itself of light rays converging hints at divinity with flame and light itself. Agni was the ancient Indian god of the hearth, god of fire, who received offering of sacred ghee, food, etcetera, etcetera.

Drawing of Temple of Vesta

So we have this very powerful religious meaning of hearth-fire-light all converging in the religious centre of the home itself. The fire the virgins are maintaining as Priestesses is a sacred fire of national focus. Vesta herself was a formless deity, a goddess without form. It was an imageless cult. Falco describes the temple:

We had reached the Temple of Vesta anyway. Destroyed in the Great Fire in Nero’s time, it had been quickly rebuilt, still on the ancient model: a round hut. In fact it was now a solid marble construction, standing on a high, stepped podium and surrounded by the famous columns and carved lattice work. Smoke wreathed through a hole in the circular roof from the Sacred Fire below …

Within the temple I knew there was never an image of Vesta, only the hearth representing the life, welfare and unity of the Roman state, shaded by a sacred laurel tree. Also, there was the palladium … which acted as a talisman, protecting Rome.

Fratres Arvales, The Arval Brothers

The Arval Brothers (or Brethren) were of ancient origin with hymns and chants dating from antiquity (which the brethren, even in Falco’s day , could not understand). There is a legend that Acca Larentia, (who had twelve sons) nursemaid to Romulus lost a son, and Romulus decided to be son to her. He called himself and the other brothers “Arval Fratres“, literally, brothers of the lands and fields.

These priests were the oldest priestly college in Rome. The Arval Brethren offered public sacrifices for the fertility of the fields, and presided over the worship of Dea Dia, a Goddess of Grain and Cereal crops. Due the restoration undertaken by Caesar Augustus, over time, the focus of the rituals of the Arvals tended to be on the person of the Emperor and the Imperial Household.

Camillus Verus has determined that it is time for his son Aelianus to gather a few embellishments on his social record. The priesthood of Arvals had 12 members and this number was never exceeded. They filled their own vacancies by co-opting members. Two officers were elected annually, a magister and a flamen; they filled their offices from Saturnalia, one year to the next (17th December). The Arval Brethren also had a private slave for sacristan and the Emperor assigned public slaves to assist in tasks and rituals.

Whilst the primary ritual activity was sustenance of agriculture, over time this was adapted to the universal religion of Rome, and Emperor worship. Ceremonies, rites and sacrifices were in the interests of the Emperor and the Imperial Household. For example, sacrifices were offered for the following events in the Imperial Household:

  • birthdays
  • anniversary of accession
  • anniversary of consecration
  • when conspiracies were overthrown
  • when great military victories were won
  • along with regular annual undertaking of vows (vota) on behalf of the Emperor and the Imperial Household.

It is also to be noted that there were expiatory rites associated with the Sacred Grove of the Arvals; there were rites for bringing Iron and Bronze implements into the grove, taking the implements out, and ritual reconsecration of the sacred arbours. These rites were undertaken when there were broken branches, trees destroyed by old age, and damage from snow storms. Falco and Aelianus know that it is a sacrilege to bring a blade into the grove of the Arval Brethren.

A Functional Role?

Falco is crass. He ponders to himself that if any son of his got the notion to join the Arvals and wear fancy headgear, he would lock him in the cupboard until the notion left the boy’s mind. Not for plebeians are the priestly roles of the College Pontificum.

The Vestal Virgins were priestesses of the Goddess Vesta, and the Arval Brethren were priests of the Dia Dea, the goddess of agriculture and produce generally (and often thought to be a form of Ceres). A thriving culture has priesthoods with arcane rites and sacrifices in order to maintain the bunds of work, commerce, agriculture and all aspects of daily life, beginning from the home and heart. These serve to embody the guiding principles of the culture and society. All sacred rites and sacrifices are to obtain divine favours and to allay or appease divine disfavours.

Rites and sacrifices, rituals and festivals provide the unseen foundation for culture and life; they hold integrity of purpose in order to make propitiations to the gods/goddesses for success in every endeavour. So when the Arval Brothers are conducting their annual four day festival, they are providing the prescribed events to propitiate Dia Dea and obtain a continuing supply of food and grain for the Senate and People of Rome. These rites provide the divine auspice for productivity, progress and prosperity.

The Vestals underwent a rite not dissimilar to the Hindu concept of taking sanyasa (state of detachment), where they dissolved attachments to home and family, and became daughters of the state. Their rites of tending the sacred fire and making the sacred cakes also provide order, meaning and form to the principles upon which the empire is founded and furthered.

The Sacred Fire is the benefice of the sacred hearth of the empire. Service as a vestal is empowered by the chastity of the servants themselves. Human power and energy in the form of Chastity bestows self control, self discipline and focus of time, energy and talents to the proper completion of the sacred task. Rome and the Empire draw benefice from the service of the vestals.

Thus do the ancient priesthoods provide the divine auspice for the Emperor and the Army, the Senate and the peoples, to undertake trade and commerce, cultural activities and economic management, with divine favour and protection, with expectation of outcome and success. That Rome was replete with so many temples should not come as a surprise as there was a reason and a purpose for every human activity to be overshadowed by divine activity.

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