THE WORLD OF RELIGION

priestess Isis or her priestess, ivory, 1st century CE

Religious participation of Roman women was divided between sacra publica, state worship, and sacra privata, rituals held for the family or gens. Women's religious roles in the home included rites focused on Vesta, the goddess of the hearth fire, the lar familiaris, the guardian of the household, the di Penates, the gods of the pantry, and the genius or guardian spirit of the paterfamilias. Women had responsibilities for prayer to heal family members and to ensure their own fertility and safe pregnancy; they participated in rites at the birth of a child and at funerals. On the state level, however, religious power was a male prerogative; while women were present at civic religious rituals, communal feasts, and festivals and played important roles in religious cults that were central to the state religion, they had no voice in activities where religion touched on public policy. The most prominent priesthood held by women was that of the Vestal Virgins, a sacerdotium of six priestesses (the eldest of whom was the Vestalis Maxima), legendarily created by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (715-673 BCE), to tend the flame of the state hearth in the circular marble temple (reconstruction; coin of Vespasian) of the goddess Vesta beside their residence (reconstruction drawing) in the heart of the Roman Forum, under the brow of the Palatine hill, the earliest home of the Romans. These aristocratic servants of the goddess Vesta whose chastity safeguarded the state and was critical to the maintenance of Rome's pax deorum were a powerful presence in the city. Other pre-imperial priestesses were the flaminica Dialis and the Regina Sacrorum; almost nothing is known of their roles and duties, together with those of the wives of the flamines, the college of priests in charge of the major state divinities, who were given the title flaminicae. Some cults, such as that of Pudicitia, Juno Caprotina, Venus Verticordia, and Bona Dea were open only to women. During the Republic, in times of dire threat from war or plague, the Senate turned to the matronae or the virgines to make special offerings to the gods on behalf of the state. In the Imperial period, women's participation in religious life increased, following the example set by Livia, who became head of the cult of the deified Augustus, and by later empresses who often chose to have themselves represented in marble variously as priestesses or goddesses. Inscriptions bear witness that women all over the empire held office as priestesses in local cults of the emperor, in the cult of Magna Mater, and in other imported religions, most notably the cult of Isis. For further information see Hemelrijk (2005, 2007), Staples (1998), Schultz (2006) in the Bibliography; see also Images of Religion below.

Text-Commentaries Additional Readings
Cornelius Tacitus, Annales II. 86.1-2: Occia See the Latin reader The Worlds of Roman Women for the following texts:
Officia sacra feminea: testimony for women's role in family worship Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 1.12: choosing a Vestal
Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita I.39: Hispala Faecenia T. Livius, Ab Urbe Condita 4.44: a Vestal regrets
Q. Horatius Flaccus, Sermo I. 8: Canidia the witch P. Ovidius Naso, Fasti 4.293-328, 343-344: Claudia Quinta
P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis 4.630-662: Dido's sacrifice  
Silius Italicus, Punica 17.1-47: Claudia Quinta's vindication  

Inscriptions:

 
Dedicatory, for Eumachia  
Dedicatory & Funerary: Sacerdotes Extra Romam  
Funerary, for Metilia Acte  
Defixiones: Three Curses  
Defixio: Curse against Rhodine  

IMAGES of RELIGION

GODDESSES

PRIESTESSES

RITUALS

RITUAL IMPLEMENTS

MONUMENTS

All images are courtesy of the VRoma Project's Image Archive.