The Sun God and the Vestal Virgin

The religion of Ancient Rome was unlike anything we’d recognize today. It was a set of superstitions centered around a pantheon of gods who needed to be kept happy otherwise the people would suffer. To keep them happy they demanded the sacrifices of animals and on a handful of occasions, humans. The gods manifested their will through omens, and the ancient historians would find plenty of these just before a major event in Roman history.

For example the ancient historian Livy provides a veritable laundry-list of bad omens before the battle of Cannae in 216 BC that saw the decimation of Roman forces at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal, leaving Rome defenseless. From Livy’s History of Rome, book 22:

To add to the general feeling of apprehension, information was received of portents having occurred simultaneously in several places. In Sicily several of the soldiers’ darts were covered with flames; in Sardinia the same thing happened to the staff in the hand of an officer who was going his rounds to inspect the sentinels on the wall; the shores had been lit up by numerous fires; a couple of shields had sweated blood; some soldiers had been struck by lightning; an eclipse of the sun had been observed; at Praeneste there had been a shower of red-hot stones; at Arpi shields had been seen in the sky and the sun had appeared to be fighting with the moon; at Capena two moons were visible in the daytime; at Caere the waters ran mingled with blood, and even the spring of Hercules had bubbled up with drops of blood on the water; at Antium the ears of corn which fell into the reapers’ basket were blood-stained; at Falerii the sky seemed to be cleft asunder as with an enormous rift and all over the opening there was a blazing light; the oracular tablets shrank and shrivelled without being touched and one had fallen out with this inscription, “MARS IS SHAKING HIS SPEAR”; and at the same time the statue of Mars on the Appian Way and the images of the Wolves sweated blood. Finally, at Capua the sight was seen of the sky on fire and the moon falling in the midst of a shower of rain. Then credence was given to comparatively trifling portents, such as that certain people’s goats were suddenly clothed with wool, a hen turned into a cock, and a cock into a hen.

But more important than all of these omens was the misbehavior of vestal virgins. It’s difficult to describe the importance of vestal virgins to the Romans to a modern audience. The Vestals were servants of the goddess Vestal, the protector home and family and ultimately of Rome itself. The vestals were viewed as the living embodiment of the state, a kind of “royal family” that consisted of women selected between the ages of 6 and 10 who served for 30 years. There is no modern equivalent, but the Romans took their vestals very, very seriously, and when they strayed, Rome was doomed.

Livy writes, “For, over and above these serious disasters, considerable alarm was created by portents which occurred. Two Vestal virgins, Opimia and Floronia, were found guilty of unchastity. One was buried alive, as is the custom, at the Colline Gate, the other committed suicide.”

1,800 years ago the Roman empire was under the domination of Septimius Severus and his descendants who ruled from 193 AD to 235 AD. Severus was of Carthaginian ancestry and his wife Julia Domna was of Syrian. Although Severus was a powerful general, the real power of the dynasty was his wife’s family, in particular his sister-in-law Julia Maesa. In 218 Maesa engineered the elevation of her 14 year old grandson, Elagabalus, to the throne.

Elagabalus usually appears near the top of the worst Roman emperors. During Severan rule the worship of Heliogabalus spread through the empire, and Elagabalus became a high priest of the cult like his grandfather, Maesa’s husband. As the teen emperor of Rome he must have seen himself in a unique position to spread the religion upon the normally religiously tolerant Roman masses. One of his first actions was to bring a sacred black stone, likely a meteorite, that symbolized Heliogabalus from Emesa Syria to Rome. When it arrived he placed it in a chariot pulled by four horses and led it walking backwards through the streets of Rome to the pantheon where he installed it above the statues of all the other Roman gods including Jupiter.


Gold coin with Elagabalus on obverse, quadriga chariot carrying the sacred stone symbolizing the sun god Heliogabalus on reverse. (British Museum)

Not content with angering the Romans with that move, he divorced his first wife and married a vestal virgin, Julia Aquilia Severa, viewing the act as a symbolic marriage between the Roman goddess Vesta and Heliogabalus. The marriage was quickly annulled and Elagabalus was forced to marry Marcus Aurelius’s great-granddaughter. But the marriage didn’t last long. Elagabalus rebelled and again married Severa.

Silver coin featuring Aquilia Severa on obverse, Concordia goddess of marital and civil peace on reverse.

It is unclear whether Elagabalus had feelings for Severa or whether he viewed the marriage as religiously important. The ancient historians weren’t objective writers so it’s difficult to determine the true nature of the relationship. Nevertheless Severa remained with the emperor until he was murdered at the age of 18 by his own guards. After that she disappears from history.

Elagabalus marrying a vestal not once but twice would be like a new British Prime Minister marrying the Queen of England. I can’t imagine what the average superstitious Roman must have thought being handed a coin featuring a portrait of Aquilia Severa. Coinage was seen as an important part of the state’s propaganda efforts. Whenever a new emperor took power one of the first things he did was issue coins with his portrait on them. After a particularly bad emperor was dethroned circulating coins with his portrait were often defaced in a process known as damnatio memoriae, literally “damnation of memory.”

Brass damnatio memoriae coin with Nero’s portrait defaced. (Romae Aeternae Numismatics)

The coins of Aquilia Severa are scarce and there is no evidence that she suffered damnatio memoriae. But one wonders how a Roman receiving one of her coins would have felt. How would a pious Roman have felt holding a piece of silver with a defiled vestal virgin on its face? Would he have felt the coin would bring the wrath of the gods on him and his family, or was he happy possessing a coin that represented a day’s wages for a Roman legionnaire?

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One Comment

  1. Rob Miller:

    Wonderful article Scott! BTW, I believe the actual name of the goddess in question was Vesta. The Vestal Virgins were her attendants and you’re right, they had a major importance in Roman pre-Christian society.

    I wonder if that’s where the Catholic Church got the idea of nuns?

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