Vestals Remembered: An Examination of the Myths of Rhea Silvia, Tarpeia, and Tuccia

Smith, Rachel Allison
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This thesis examines three legendary Vestal Virgins and analyzes how they functioned as symbols of the inviolability of Rome. It begins with a preliminary chapter which outlines the cult’s regulations and the role of the Vestal Virgins, focusing specifically on the two main responsibilities of the maidens: maintaining the perpetual hearth fire and their vow of chastity. If either the flame was extinguished or unchastity occurred, often seen as consequences of unfavorable events in Rome, a Vestal was put to death. The first Vestal considered is Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus. Despite breaking her vow of chastity, Rhea became the mother of Rome. The second Vestal discussed is Tarpeia, who betrayed Rome to the Sabine army and was crushed to death by the soldiers’ shields. Although she was a traitoress, Rome nonetheless increased in population, territory, and political power as a result. The third and final Vestal analyzed is Tuccia, who, falsely accused of the breaking her chastity (crimen incesti), proved herself innocent by carrying a sieve full of water from the Tiber to the Vestal temple. She subsequently became a symbol of womanly virtue for over 500 years. These myths reveal that the Romans associated the Vestals with the prosperity and integrity of Rome.