In 114 BC a strange thing happened in Rome. A young girl named Helvia rode a horse when she was struck by lightning and killed. People were shocked by what they found on the site of the accident. The horse didn’t survive the hit and lied stripped of its trappings, but it was the girl’s appearance that attracted even more attention. Her belongings (shoes and jewellery) were scattered all around the place, her tongue was stuck out of her mouth and, most disturbingly, her dress has been pulled up, exposing her private parts. The priests, haruspices, were consulted and their opinion was clear – this was an ill omen. Some disasters are clearly going to happen in the near future, and they will somehow be connected to knights (the social class of equites) and virgins. Most prominent virgins in Rome at the time were, of course, the Vestal virgins, priestesses of Vesta, responsible for maintaining the sacred flame in the temple of the goddess.
These priestesses took a chastity vow and were strictly forbidden to engage in any sexual activities for the 30 years when they held the priesthood. The penalty for breaking this vow was death, and the execution was carried out in a special traditional way – the spilling of their blood had to be avoided. Instead, they were buried alive outside one of the city gates. The Romans believed that a crime against a Vestal’s chastity came with serious negative consequences for the whole community. After all, one cannot so blatantly disregard the gods and remain unpunished.
In December 114 BCE, not one, but three Vastals stood on trial at once, accused of this terrible crime. Their names were Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia – all supposedly broke their sacred wow and, despite their religious duties, engaged in sexual relations with men. The main witness in the process was a slave of Vetutius Barrus, who testified that his master, a knight, seduced one of the girls. Slaves were not usually asked to testify against their owners, but cases like this, when the safety of Rome was believed to be at stake, were an exception. The priestly college of the pontifices, headed by a pontifex maximus L. Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus, held the right to judge the Vastals and that is exactly what the did. The trial ended with two girls acquitted, but one, Aemilia, found guilty, sentenced to death and executed.
The execution didn’t put an end to the matter. With only one of the careless girls punished, people still felt there is justice to be done and the gods would not be appeased until all the criminals were taken care of. As often happens, some politicians were more than ready to oblige to people’s wishes and took the initiative in their hands. In this case, the tribune of the plebs, Sextus Peducaeus revived the trial. Obviously, he claimed, the pontifices were no longer equipped to deliver just decisions, therefore the jury needed to be changed. Peducaeus proposed a bill to hold a new trial, where the jurors would come from the rank of the knights. To add even more prestige to the accusers, a special prosecutor was selected – and not a less prestigious one than Lucius Cassius Longinus, a former consul. Under those circumstances, with the new jury under serious pressure from the frightened people, another acquittal would be a miracle. Just as one would expect, the court found Licinia and Marcia guilty and a death sentence was carried out.
Was this finally the end of the scandal? Again, not. Plutarch tells us, that the abhorrence of the crime was so frightening that Romans had to consult the Sybilline books. According to an old legend, the books came from an ancient oracle, who sold them to Roman king Tarquinius, centuries before. In critical times, special priests were asked to read the books to find answers that would guide the Romans in their handling of the crisis. This usually meant a religious action – for example introducing a new cult or building a new temple. This time, however, a new temple would not do the job. A new temple to Venus Verticordia (“the changer of the hearts”, supposed to turn girls’ hearts toward chastity) was dedicated, but it was simply not enough. The priests asked for more drastic measures – a human sacrifice.
While in the Roman religion sacrifice played an important role, sacrificing people was unheard of. Well… almost. When the state faced the deepest crisis, the Romans did the unthinkable and really killed someone. In 228 BCE when Rome faced a Gallic invasion, in 216 BCE with Hannibal’s armies marching through Italy and finally in 113 BCE, when the three Vestal virgins offended the gods and the Gauls were once again prepared to attack (a so-called Cimbrian war followed in the next couple of years). The Romans did what they thought was necessary and 4 people (a pair of Greeks and a pair of Gauls) were buried alive in an attempt to regain the favour of the gods. Did it work? Was the danger averted?
The effects were mixed at best. In 114 BCE, shortly before these events, the Roman army in Thrace was destroyed. Interestingly, Festus, full of disgust, states that the Thracians “sacrificed to the gods with human blood; drank out of human skulls”. In the following years, the Numidian king Jugurtha humiliated Roman commanders prone to bribery in the Jugurtine war. The Gallic and Germanic tribes attacked, and the Romans suffered several costly defeats, including a disastrous battle of Arausio. In the time of desperation, a young commander Gaius Marius took charge, implementing significant military reforms, defeating the Numidians and driving the Germanic and Gallic forces out of Italy. His reforms and personal power eventually lead to the beginning of the era of civil wars, the fall of the Republic and the beginning of the reign of emperors.
- Plutarch – Roman Questions
- Florus – The Epitome of Roman History
- Elizabeth Rawson – Religion and Politics in the Late Second Century B. C. at Rome; Phoenix, Vol. 28, No. 2
- T. J. Cornell – Some observations on the „crimen incesti“ ; Le délit religieux dans la cité antique. Actes de la table ronde de Rome
- Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price – Religions of Rome