Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion

Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion

Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion

Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion


Roman women were the procreators and nurturers of life, both in the domestic world of the family and in the larger sphere of the state. Although deterred from participating in most aspects of public life, women played an essential role in public religious ceremonies, taking part in rituals designed to ensure the fecundity and success of the agricultural cycle on which Roman society depended. Thus religion is a key area for understanding the contributions of women to Roman society and their importance beyond their homes and families.

In this book, Sarolta A. Takács offers a sweeping overview of Roman women's roles and functions in religion and, by extension, in Rome's history and culture from the republic through the empire. She begins with the religious calendar and the various festivals in which women played a significant role. She then examines major female deities and cults, including the Sibyl, Mater Magna, Isis, and the Vestal Virgins, to show how conservative Roman society adopted and integrated Greek culture into its mythic history, artistic expressions, and religion. Takács's discussion of the Bona Dea Festival of 62 BCE and of the Bacchantes, female worshippers of the god Bacchus or Dionysus, reveals how women could also jeopardize Rome's existence by stepping out of their assigned roles. Takács's examination of the provincial female flaminate and the Matres/Matronae demonstrates how women served to bind imperial Rome and its provinces into a cohesive society.


The purpose of this book is to elucidate Roman women's role and function in Roman religion and, by extension, its history and culture through literary and epigraphic sources. The Roman state was an agricultural, patriarchal, militaristic, and imperialistic society. While men acquired territory and controlled Rome's Empire, women functioned as the guarantors of the continuance of the state. Social spheres were strictly defined: a man's world was the public sphere; a woman's, her home. In other words, politics of the state were pursuits of men; child rearing and caring for family members were duties of a Roman matron. Roman writers, ever ready to point out moral or immoral behavior of their protagonists, have lots to say about women who moved outside their assigned sphere. Most of these women were troublemakers, disruptors of the social order, and thus examples of immoral or un-Roman behavior.

Only women who entered the political sphere to act on behalf of the state so that it could maintain or return to its customary sociopolitical status quo were rewarded with approval and thought to be examples of proper behavior. Although religious ceremonies did bring Roman women into the public sphere, these rites were carried out on behalf of Rome and, by extension, its Empire. In these sanctioned roles, women strengthened the established order. The underlying elements of a woman's sphere, the domestic, were procreation and nurture. Projected onto the public sphere through religious ceremonies carried out by women, the same fundamentals come to the foreground. Placed within an agricultural cycle, these rituals stressed fecundity and continuation of life.

Roman women, heroines or villains, drive historical narratives. In this epistemological formation, what writers adopted as their rhetoric or discourse, the quiet and silent women were the morally upright ones, whereas the unprincipled ones acted loudly and noisily. A good example of this discourse can be found in the historian Livy's work, From the Founda-

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