For more than eleven hundred years, the Vestal Virgins dedicated their lives to the goddess Vesta, protector of the Roman state. Though supervised by a male priest, the Pontifex Maximus, they had privileges beyond those of most women; like Roman men, they dispensed favors and influence on behalf of their clients and relatives. In 1883, Rodolfo Lanciani, Director of Antiquities for Rome, discovered the first Vestal statues. The recovery of the Vestals’ house, and the objects contained therein, was an exciting moment in Roman archaeology. Newspapers were filled with details about the huge numbers of sculptures, inscriptions, jewelry, coins, and terracotta figures.
Molly M. Lindner examines the sculptural presentation of the Vestal Virgins and investigates what images of long-dead women tell us about their lives. She addresses why these portraits were created, and why they only began to appear in the late first or second century CE—much later than portraits of other Roman priestesses and nonimperial women. Lindner sheds light on the distinctions between a Vestal portrait and portraits of other priestesses, and considers why Vestal portraits do not copy each other’s headdresses and hairstyles. In addition to the extensive illustrations that complement the text, a catalog of all known Vestal portraits displays historical clues embedded in the hairstyles and facial features of the Vestals and other women of their day. In Portraits of the Vestal Virgins, Priestesses of Ancient Rome, Lindner has given a voice to the long-silent women of these extraordinary marble portraits.
Jacket illustration: Head of a Vestal Virgin. London, British Museum, inv. 1979 11-8.1. (© Trustees of the British Museum.)