Vestal Virgins (Lat. testales\ the priestesses who served in the temple of Vesta, and guarded the sacred fire. The earliest traditions ascribe their origin to a period before the foundation of Rome, Rhea Sylvia, the mother of Romulus, belonging to their number; but their establishment as a part of the Roman religious worship is usually attributed to Numa Pompilius. He selected four for this office, which number was afterward increased to six. At first they were selected by the king, but during the republic and the empire by the pontifex maximus. Originally none but the daughters of freeborn parents could be chosen; but so great was the reluctance of fathers to part with the control of their children, that in the time of Augustus libertinoe were also taken. The persons selected were obliged to be from six to ten years of age, without physical blemish; their parents must be residents of Italy who had never pursued any dishonorable profession. Their chief duty was to watch by turns night and day the sacred fire on the altar of Vesta, the extinction of which, whether happening from carelessness or design, was regarded as an omen of terrible evil to the state.
They also watched over the Palladium, a small wooden image of Minerva, which according to the myth fell from heaven upon the citadel of Troy, and was carried thence to Greece, and afterward to Rome; upon the preservation of this figure the people believed that the existence of the Roman power depended. The term of service lasted 30 years, the first 10 of which the priestess passed in learning her duties, the next 10 in performing them, and the remaining 10 in instructing others. After that time she might return to the world, and even marry; but the privilege was rarely taken advantage of. The greatest importance was attached to the chastity of a vestal; and when she violated her vow in this respect, she was, according to the law of Kuma, stoned to death, but according to the practice from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, she was buried alive in a place called the Campus Sceleratus near the Colline gate. Her paramour was scourged to death in public in the forum. The vestals were supported at the public expense, completely released from the control of their parents, could bear testimony in a court of justice without taking an oath, and could make wills; whenever they went abroad, they were preceded by lictors, and consuls and praetors made way for them, and lowered their fasces; a criminal whom they accidentally met was spared from punishment if they demanded it; and their intercession in behalf of accused persons had great weight.
Wills and solemn treaties were intrusted to their care, and conspicuous places were given them at the shows, and by Augustus at the theatres also. The oldest of the vestals was called vestalis maxima or mrgo maxima.