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Transposing Religious Rules across Genders

The visibility and the exceptional quality of the patrician religious offices are also apparent in their inclusion of women, a practice not found in the priesthoods available to plebeians. This needs no argument in the cases of the Reginae Sacrorum and the Flaminicae, the wives of the great Flamines. For the Salii, however, we are dependent on a very weak tradition. Fay Glinister has shown that the Saliae virgines in a quotation of Cincius in the lexicon of Festus refers to patrician girls in their sacerdotal capacity.[1] If the parallelism between the Rex and the Flamines holds true for the Salii also, Cincius’s use of the term conducticiae (referring to female Salii) might be a deliberate linguistic reference to the expression in matrimonium ducere, a term that was applied, of course, to the marriage entered into per confar- reationem. It is important to note that this form of marriage was also open to women of plebeian origin, who were thus made patricians.[2]

The topic of women calls attention to an obvious gap in my presentation of the evidence thus far, and it offers a further argument for interpreting Roman religion as a historical phenomenon subject to constant modification. There was another lifelong priesthood with high visibility: the Virgines Vestae, the vestals, persons who were excluded from all political offices on account their gender. While male priests have entered the historical record by virtue of their appointment, in the case of the vestals it is more often than not their removal from office—in the horrifying ritual of being buried alive—that has brought their names into the literary tradition. This is true from mythical times down to the late antique corpus of letters of Symmachus, in which he continues to make the detection of unchaste vestals a task of the pontifical college, one of the few remaining at the end of the fourth century.[3] Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier has shown that the threat of lawsuits on account of incestus, frequently resulting in death sentences, was a basic feature, the conditio humana so to speak, of the six-headed college of Vesta. This was a danger for which other legal privileges did not fully compensate.[4]

The issue here is the precariousness, the vulnerability of sacerdotal status construed mainly as a consequence of (alleged) infringement of ritual prescriptions; it was this state of insecurity that Lucius Caecilius Metellus, as a plebeian Pontifex Maximus, tried in vain to introduce among the patrician Flamines maiores when he enforced the penalty of divestment of a priesthood for the mere loss of a headgear during a ritual. For a period of more than half a millennium this vulnerability so construed was imposed much more forcefully on the Vestal Virgins, the priesthood dwelling at the heart of the city.[5] Therefore we should now investigate the status of the vestals. Answers, I claim, are to be found not in the latest monographs,[6] but in prosopography. Plebeian names, twelve (with any certainty) of the seventeen names that are known, dominate the republican period, starting with the mythical names.

The temporal distribution of the exceptions is interesting. The earliest is an Aemilia, made vestal around 205, who in 178 served as Vestalis Maxima and in a wondrous way relit the fire that a younger vestal had, in her carelessness, allowed to dwindle.[7] This Aemilia[8] has been considered a patrician since Friedrich Munzer identified her as the oldest daughter of the later Pontifex Maximus Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.[9] The assumption that the anonymous younger delinquent vestal was also patrician[10] is completely unfounded. The patrician status of Claudia, the daughter (or sister, according to a less probable tradition) of the triumphator and consul of 143 BC, Appius Claudius Pulcher, is secure.[11] The vestal Aemilia executed in 114 might well have been patrician;[12] it would be unusual to find a plebeian Aemilia in such a position by the late second century. However, this argument applies in no way to the vestal Fabia, accused of incestus with Sergius Catilina but acquitted in the year 73.[13] This half sister of Cicero’s wife Terentia could quite probably have been a plebeian; distinguished patrician family branches hardly offer themselves for identification in this period. If Fabia was plebeian, the only possible patrician would be removed from the circle of the Virgines Vestales, the composition of which is completely known for the late seventies: for Popillia, Perpennia, Fonteia,

Licinia, and Arruntia, the remaining five of this period, we can exclude such a status with certainty.[14]

Virgines Vestales were, therefore, plebeians presumably until the end of the third century BC and again, unquestionably, in the first century. It might have been due to the activity of the Pontifex Maximus Crassus, already discussed above, that the first exception occurred at the end of the third century. Toward the end of the second century, perhaps with the execution of Aemilia in the year 114, we cease to find any examples of patrician vestals. This observation is corroborated by legislation from the following period. For example, the lex Papia, recorded by Gellius in the second half of the second century AD, systematically laid out rules regarding this priesthood. Gellius catalogs norms: at what age, from what kind of family, by what rites, ceremonies, and observances, and under what conditions a Vestal Virgin was “captured” by the Pontifex Maximus. He describes the legal privileges she was granted immediately upon being chosen, and he states that, according to Labeo, neither was she lawfully heir of an intestate person, nor could anyone be her heir, in the case that she died without a will. He continues:

Sed Papiam legem inuenimus, qua caueretur, ut pontificis maximi arbitratu uirgines e populo uinginti legantur sortitioque in contione ex eo numero fiat et, cuius uirginis ducta erit, ut eam pontifex maximus capiat eaque Vestae fiat. sed ea sortitio ex lege Papia non necessaria nunc uideri solet. nam si quis honesto loco natus adeat pontificem maximum atque offerat ad sacerdotium filiam suam, cuius dumtaxat saluis religionum obseruationibus ratio haberi possit, gratia Papiae legis per senatum fit.[15]

Yet there is a Papian law, which provides that twenty girls be selected from the people at the discretion of the supreme pontiff, that a choice by lot be made from that number in the assembly, and that the girl whose lot is drawn be ‘taken’ by the supreme pontiff and become Vesta’s. But that allotment in accordance with the Papian law is usually unnecessary at present. For if any man of respectable birth goes to the supreme pontiff and offers his daughter for the priesthood, provided consideration may be given to her candidacy without violating any religious requirement, the senate grants him exemption from the Papian law.

The law limits the Pontifex Maximus’s absolute right in the determination of the virgines Vestae. He is obliged to prepare a list of candidates including twenty names—one cannot otherwise understand the phrase pontificis maximi arbitratu uirgines e populo uiginti legantur (11)—from which one name is drawn by lot in a public meeting (contio), as a future vestal. The text suggests that the names of the fathers of the candidates were on the lots. The girl was then made vestal by the Pontifex Maximus’s ritual “capture.”

A conflict regarding whether patrician women could be made vestals is already suggested by the nomination of the patrician Aemilia by the plebeian chief pontiff, and if one seeks more definitive evidence for such a dispute, one could find it in a detail that, with no connection to the context, Gellius mentions shortly before his treatment of the Papian law. It was permitted to sisters of vestals as well as daughters and fiancees of different priests, to decline the office:

. . . eam cuius soror ad id sacerdotium lecta est, excusationem mereri aiunt; item cuius pater Flamen aut augur aut XV uirum sacris faciundis aut VII uirum epulonum aut Salius est. sponsae quoque pontificis et tubicinis sacro- rum filiae uacatio a sacerdotio ista tribui solet.[16]

But they say that one whose sister has been chosen to that priesthood acquires exemption, as well as one whose father is a Flamen or an augur, one of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, one of the Septemviri epulonum, or a Salian. Exemption from that priesthood is regularly permitted also to the betrothed of a pontiff and to the daughter of the tubicines sacrorum.

The exemption of daughters of Flamines or Salii implies that it was not priests per se but primarily patricians that were concerned, even if Gelli- us’s wording avoids explicit mention of this status. This concentrates the choice of vestals on plebeian families. The superiority of patricians is demonstrated to all ex negativo in every lawsuit against the vestals, and the systemic exemption of patricians from the danger of losing their religious qualification again contributes to the adscription of special status.

Let me return to the cases of the end of the third and beginning of the second century BC. We see innovative behavior not only on the part of the plebeian Pontifices Maximi; we also find among the patricians individuals who interpret a priestly role not in the traditional way (as a lifelong magistracy with some ritual tasks) but as a specifically religious role, as a Sa- lius for instance. Both case types demonstrate highly individual behavior. It seems that the actors intended to problematize the relationship between their priestly and political offices or to privilege a specific religious obligation over a political role. In each case they did this by asserting the obligation of perfect religious performance. Basic, however, to these individual attempts to further develop given roles was a shared conviction: the religious framework of the Roman polity was to be provided by its patrician members in particular. Even the elite’s “civic religion” was not available in equal part to all noble citizens. In the emperors’ postconstitutional state[17] this inequality was even further highlighted by the extensive ennobiliza- tion of supporters through the endowment of patrician status and by Augustus’s reorganization of patrician priesthoods like the Salii. With regard to the priestesses of Vesta, the combination of these trends entailed further accusations and sentences. The limitations on individual appropriations of this religious role were clearly drawn more tightly.

  • [1] Fest. 439.18 L; Glinister 2011.
  • [2] Thus Baudry, following my suggestion in Rupke 1990.
  • [3] Symm. Epist. 9.108—9 and 147—48. See Wissowa 1923.
  • [4] Cancik-Lindemaier 1990, 10; for the political dimension of the lawsuit of 114/3 BC, seeCancik-Lindemaier 1990, 8. For the ritual construction of the burial, see Schultz 2012.
  • [5] See the documentation in Arvanitis 2010.
  • [6] Wildfang 2006; Schultz 2006; Mekacher 2006; Takacs 2008; Batz 2012. Cf. Saquete 2000,120—22, who repeats the older status opinionis in assuming an opening for plebeians as a consequence of the lex Ogulnia of 300 BC.
  • [7] Rupke 2005d, no. 490 listing the sources; the dated account of Livy (Livy Per. 41; Obseq.8) quotes no names.
  • [8] Rupke 2005d, no. 507.
  • [9] Munzer 1920, 173-76; 1937, 199-203.
  • [10] Saquete 2000, 64; followed by Rupke 2005d, no. 130.
  • [11] Rupke 2005d, no. 1152.
  • [12] Ibid., no. 491.
  • [13] Ibid., no. 1577.
  • [14] These names are known from the list of participants in the inaugural dinner of the pontifical college in 70 BC (Macrob. Sat. 3.13.11).
  • [15] Gell. 1.12.11-12.
  • [16] Ibid., 1.12.6-7.
  • [17] I take this concept from Alfred Schmid: Schmid 2005, 54—64.
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