Occia achieved the position of Virgo Vestalis Maxima in the year, unrecorded, that she became the oldest living priestess of the goddess Vesta; she passed away at about 90 years of age in 19 CE. Including her death among the events which close Annales II, Tacitus observes that the Emperor Tiberius, as Pontifex Maximus and guardian of the priestesses, was obliged in 19 CE to select a new young priestess to complete the State's complement of six Vestals. He notes briefly but significantly that Occia had given impeccable service to the goddess Vesta on behalf of the Roman people for almost 60 years. Clearly, Occia had made a significant choice of her own, deciding at the completion of her 30-year term, between the ages of 36-40, to live out her life as a Vestal, safeguarding the State by maintaining Rome's pax deorum (accord with the gods) with her chastity. As a child of 6-10 years of age Occia would have been given by her parents into the hands of the Pontifex Maximus in 32-28 BCE, during the final chaotic years of the civil wars between Antony and Octavian and the latter's consolidation of his sole power in Rome (Actium 31 BCE). Too young at first to feel the political pressures of the State, she would have been focused on adjusting to her new home, the Atrium Vestae (drawing) in the sacred area of the Roman Forum, learning her duties in the Aedes Vestae, participating in State rituals, schooling herself to obedience, and eventually modeling the appearance and conduct of Vestal purity (see The Worlds of Roman Women, 102-3, for Postumia's trial for misconduct in 420 BCE; she was one of the few Vestals acquited of the charge of impurity). As an adult Vestal Occia would have experienced the new regime of the imperial Pontifex Maximus under Augustus (24 BCE-14 CE); as Vestalis Maxima, her successful rise to leadership would have attracted the attention of Livia Augusta (d. 29 CE) and the succeeding Pontifex Maximus, Tiberius. In this passage Tacitus describes the competition between the aristocrats Gaius Fonteius Agrippa and Domitius Pollio to win favor from the emperor and status for their family by offering their young daughters as Vestals. Although politically powerless themselves except as symbols of the wellbeing of the State, the Vestals wielded enormous political influence. Julius Caesar, long-time Pontifex Maximus (63-44 BCE), upon his third consulship in 43 BCE coined an aureus with the veiled head of Vesta on the obverse, mindful of the intercession of the Vestals against his proscription by Sulla in 83 BCE. Augustus included the Vestals in all public religious observances, depicting them in procession on the wing of the inner altar of the Ara Pacis. On the Cancelleria relief an attendant Vestal is prominent among the officials with Domitian, welcoming Vespasian into Rome as emperor in 70 CE. The general Postumus minted a coin in Germany in 263 CE showing him with the Vestals before the Temple of Vesta, confirming him as emperor of the Gallic Empire. Still a symbolic force at the end of the 4th century CE, they were disbanded by the Christian Emperor Theodosius and Vesta's hearth fire was extinguished.
Tacitus's announcement of the virtuous Occia's passing stands in vivid contrast to his narration in the previous section (85) of the shocking behavior of Vistilia, a much-married upper-class matrona who challenged not only traditional expectations but a law of the Senate by registering herself as a prostitute with the Aediles. An important ancient source for the requirements and practice of choosing a Vestal is Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae I.12. 1-19 (for the Latin commentary, see The Worlds of Roman Women, 17-19). For further information about the Vestals, consult Parker (2004), Staples (1998), Takacs (2008) in the Bibliography and view Stephens' recreation of the Vestal hairstyle.
(1) Post quae rettulit Caesar capiendam virginem in locum Occiae, quae septem et quinquaginta per annos summa sanctimonia Vestalibus sacris praesederat; egitque grates Fonteio Agrippae et Domitio Pollioni quod offerendo filias de officio in rem publicam certarent.
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