A lone priestess walks towards an underground chamber. People line the streets to watch as she proclaims her innocence. It doesn’t matter. She’s already been judged and found guilty. The sentence? Live burial. The underground chamber contains a portion of bread, water, milk, and oil. She will have a lamp, a bed, and a blanket, but she won’t emerge alive. At the threshold, the priestess pauses, claims her innocence one last time, then enters the chamber never to be seen again by the Roman people.
The priestess is one of Rome’s six Vestal Virgins, each carefully selected as children from Rome’s most aristocratic families. But now with her death, there are only five, and a new priestess must be chosen. The six-year-old Licinia witnessed the spectacle, never suspecting that a few days later, she’d be chosen as the next Vestal Virgin. Her age, her patrician family lineage, and her apparent good health makes her the best candidate to serve the goddess Vesta in the eyes of the Romans.
Her parents are proud that their daughter’s been chosen. Licinia is afraid, but she has no choice in the matter. She must serve the goddess for at least the next 30 years. For the first ten years of Licinia’s service, she’s considered in training, learning how to be a Vestal Virgin. Her most important duty is keeping vigil over the flame of Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth.
Vesta doesn’t have a statue like other Roman gods and goddesses. Instead, she’s represented by the flame which burns day and night in her temple located next to the Forum in the center of the city. Like all Vestal priestesses, Licinia spends part of each day on shift, watching and tending to the flame. The flame represents two things. The first is the continuation of Rome as a power in the world.
The Romans believed that if the flame goes out, the city’s in danger. The flame also symbolizes the continuing virginity of Vesta’s priestesses. For the Romans, a Vestal’s virginity signaled not only her castitas, or modest spirit and body, but also her ritual purity. So Licinia knows she must never let the flame go out. Her life, the lives of her fellow Vestals, and the safety of Rome itself depends upon it. Licinia learns to collect water each day from a nearby fountain to cleanse the temple.
She learns the Fasti, the calendar of sacred rituals and she watches while the senior priestesses conduct sacrifices. By the time Licinia completes her training, she’s 16 years old. Licinia understands that the way she must act is a reflection of the goddess she serves. When it’s her turn to collect the water, she keeps her eyes lowered to the ground. When she performs sacrifices, she focuses intently on the task. Licinia directs her energy towards being the best priestess she can be. She’s worried that someday the state will claim her life for its own purposes to protect itself from danger.
Licinia could be accused of incestum, meaning unchastity, at any time and be sacrificed whether she’s innocent or guilty. Licinia fully understands now why her predecessor was buried alive. Ten years ago, the flame of Vesta went out. The priestesses knew that they couldn’t keep it a secret. The future of Rome depended upon it. They went to the chief priest and he opened an investigation to discover why the flame had failed.
Someone came forward and claimed that one of the Vestals was no longer a virgin. That was the beginning of the end. The accused protested her innocence, but it wasn’t enough. She was tried and found guilty. That Vestal’s death was meant to protect the city, but Licinia weeps for what has been lost and for what she knows now. Her own path was paved by the death of another, and her life could be taken just as easily for something as simple as a flame going out.