March 27, 2011 by

Women In Ancient Rome–Guest Post by Suzanne Tyrpak

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , ,

Today I have a guest post by author, Suzanne Tyrpak.  Welcome, Suzanne!


     About seven years ago (before my divorce, when I had some expendable income) I traveled to Rome with a group of writers. I fell in love with Italy, Rome in particular. A travel book I read contained a short blurb about vestal virgins; it mentioned they were sworn to thirty years of chastity and, if that vow were broken, they would be entombed alive. That got me going! Plus, on a tour of the Coliseum, a guide pointed out the seats designated to the vestal virgins—the six priestess of Vesta were educated, and therefore powerful, at a time when most women weren’t even taught to read.

Vestals were in charge of legal documents. They not only wrote these documents, in triplicate, but kept them secure within the House of the Vestals. The vestals were closely connected with the Collegiate of Pontiffs, the priests of Rome. Consequently, the vestals were often included in gatherings of state.

     But there realm extended well beyond the political arena. As priestesses of Vesta, they performed religious rituals, and their prayers were believed to hold great power. Their purity of spirit and body had mystical significance, and vestals were charged with tending the sacred fire representing the heart of Rome. If the fire died, Rome risked destruction and the wrath of the gods. Once a year, the flame was ritually extinguished, then reignited using a crystal and the rays of the sun.

Vestals were wealthy, paid a stipend, and, unlike other Roman women, they could own property.

While the upper classes of Rome lived a life of decadence, Roman matrons of good family were supposed to be reclusive. Their lives centered around their households. Of course, there were exceptions—but generally, wealthy men enjoyed much more freedom than wealthy women. These households were dependent upon slaves, many of them foreigners. Sometimes, but not often, a slave might be freed, otherwise a slave’s circumstance was completely dependent on the good (or bad) will of her masters.

     The plebs, commoners, lived hard lives. Fire ran rampant through overcrowded apartments. While wealthy Romans enjoyed steam heat and running water (granted, it ran through poisonous lead pipes, which led to infertility and madness), the poor had to haul their water, often up five flights of stairs. Many women worked outside of their homes, so, to some degree, they might have more freedom than a wealthier woman, who might be cloistered within her home.

    Writing Vestal Virgin required a lot of research. I traveled to Rome twice, and on my second trip I hired a scholar who specialized in the year I’m writing about, A.D. 63-64, to give me a tour of the Forum. One of the most useful books I found was History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, published in 1934 by T. Cato Worsfold. I also wrote to Colleen McCullough, and she was kind enough to write back. She gave me the name of an out-of-print book that I’ve used a lot, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, by H.H. Scullard. I have shelves of books about Roman history and Paul of Tarsus—hardly anything is written about vestal virgins—but that gives me quite a bit of leeway. After all, I’m writing fiction.

Vestel Virgin, is available at

Vestal Virgin–suspense in ancient Rome

Elissa Rubria Honoria is a Vestal Virgin–priestess of the sacred flame, a visionary, and one of the most powerful women in Rome. Vestals are sacrosanct, sworn to chastity on penalty of death, but the emperor, Nero, holds himself above the law. He pursues Elissa, engaging her in a deadly game of wits and sexuality. Or is Elissa really the pursuer? She stumbles on dark secrets. No longer trusting Roman gods, she follows a new god, Jesus of Nazareth, jeopardizing her life and the future of The Roman Empire.

2 Responses to Women In Ancient Rome–Guest Post by Suzanne Tyrpak

  1. Suzanne Tyrpak

    Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful blog, Sarah.

    For anyone fortunate enough to be traveling to Rome, The House of the Vestals has recently been reopened to the public.