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Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons

Women in Roman Religion

By Sarolta A. Takács

Publication Year: 2008

Roman women were the procreators and nurturers of life, both in the domestic world of the family and in the larger sphere of the state. Although deterred from participating in most aspects of public life, women played an essential role in public religious ceremonies, taking part in rituals designed to ensure the fecundity and success of the agricultural cycle on which Roman society depended. Thus religion is a key area for understanding the contributions of women to Roman society and their importance beyond their homes and families. In this book, Sarolta A. Takács offers a sweeping overview of Roman women’s roles and functions in religion and, by extension, in Rome’s history and culture from the republic through the empire. She begins with the religious calendar and the various festivals in which women played a significant role. She then examines major female deities and cults, including the Sibyl, Mater Magna, Isis, and the Vestal Virgins, to show how conservative Roman society adopted and integrated Greek culture into its mythic history, artistic expressions, and religion. Takács’s discussion of the Bona Dea Festival of 62 BCE and of the Bacchantes, female worshippers of the god Bacchus or Dionysus, reveals how women could also jeopardize Rome’s existence by stepping out of their assigned roles. Takács’s examination of the provincial female flaminate and the Matres/Matronae demonstrates how women served to bind imperial Rome and its provinces into a cohesive society.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

List of Abbreviations

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pp. ix-xv

Acknowledgments

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pp. xvii-

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Introduction

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pp. xix-xxiii

The purpose of this book is to elucidate Roman women’s role and function in Roman religion and, by extension, its history and culture through literary and epigraphic sources. The Roman state was an agricultural, patriarchal, militaristic, and imperialistic society. While men acquired territory and controlled Rome’s Empire, women functioned as the guarantors of the continuance of the...

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One. The Silent Ones Speak

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pp. 1-24

Literature, a cross-section of genres, provides us with paragons and opposites of Roman womanhood. It is here that we encounter makers and destroyers of Rome, where we see women move outside the private, domestic sphere and enter the public arena. Some were harshly judged for their abandonment of family; others were not. All the judges were men, for it is their records we have, employ, and analyze. Literary examples make clear the distinctions between a respectable and disreputable Roman woman. The emphasis is on moral behavior, understood as the single most important factor for the proper functioning of society. Roman historical writing, in particular, demanded moralization and much hinges on the private/public...

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Two. Life Cycles and Time Structures

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pp. 25-59

Religious rituals that were carried out by women for the well-being and continuation of the Roman state are the focus of this chapter. Rome was an agricultural society, which its cultic cycle reinforced. Like the seasons, there was great religious activity in preparation for and during the growing season, while there was little of note after the harvest season. Rome was a militaristic society, governed by male warriors, and one might expect that women had very limited roles in cultic activities. With Rome’s historical understanding of itself, however, women played an important role in the creation of the state, as we have seen. A closer look at the calendar reveals that for every cultic action performed by...

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Three. The Making of Rome

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pp. 61-79

This chapter focuses on divine beings that were instrumental in shaping Rome and its Empire, in particular, its self-definition. While territorial acquisition was men’s business, the preservation of Empire was linked to female entities, among them the Sibyls, the Great Mother (Mater Magna), and Isis. When the Roman state was faced with a portent indicating a rupture in the reciprocal relationship between the Romans and their gods, the Senate instructed the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books, which consisted for most of Rome’s history of the fifteen men, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, to consult the books. The interpretation of the sayings guided Rome’s political elite in the...

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Four. Rome Eternal

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pp. 80-89

The six Vestal Virgins dedicated their lives to the goddess Vesta and, by extension, to the Roman state. Though they were “between categories,” neither matrons nor priests, they dressed as married women, and for the entirety of their priestly tenure they were to remain in a virginal state. They preserved, as it were, rather than expressing or experiencing, their procreative potentiality, which was controlled by the Roman state. One of the main duties of the Vestals was the upkeep of the fire in the temple of Vesta. This fire symbolized procreation. The Vestals and the fire formed a controllable symbiotic whole of...

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Five. Rome Besieged

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pp. 90-111

A reciprocal relationship between the divine and the human sphere (pax deorum—pax hominum) was at the center of Roman understanding of religion. The proper and timely implementation of prescribed rituals translated into territorial rewards or Empire.1 Rome was successful because of the inhabitants’ care for their gods. Whenever the Roman state found itself in trouble, the underlying cause for it was sought in the religious sphere, as we have seen in the previous chapter. This is not to say that Romans did not address and solve political and societal problems within those spheres, but in their resolution...

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Six. Rome and Its Provinces

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pp. 112-121

Rome’s administration of its Empire brought religious structures to the provinces and provincial concepts to the capital. We see an example of this exchange process in the female flaminate and the Matres/Matronae, which, although not empirewide systems, allow a glimpse, especially in the case of the female flaminate, at a provincial adaptation of originally capital-specific priesthoods. The Matres/ Matronae, on the other hand, show how soldiers carried their ancestral worship outside their original home area to foreign territories and thus broadened the cult’s base of worshipers. In both cases, however, religion bound the center and the periphery, and women, either as priestesses or...

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Conclusion

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pp. 122-126

Roman religion was polytheistic and open, conservative yet flexible. Roman religion was not about faith, dogma, or morality; it was about the proper performance of prescribed rituals. Social standing defined the agents who performed the cultic actions on behalf of the state. The aim was a community’s prosperity and, by extension, the continued success of the Roman state. In this, its religion and politics were interrelated. The most important Roman citizens held the most important priestly positions. If there was a religious authority, it was the Roman Senate (only notionally from the time of Augustus onward, when the...

Appendix A. Ancient Authors

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pp. 127-135

Appendix B. Timeline

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pp. 137-144

Appendix C. Maps

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pp. 145-148

Notes

Chapter One

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pp. 149-

Chapter Two

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pp. 153-158

Chapter Three

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pp. 158-163

Chapter Four

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pp. 163-166

Chapter Five

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pp. 166-170

Chapter Six

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pp. 170-171

Conclusion

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pp. 171-

Bibliography

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pp. 173-179

Index

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pp. 181-194


E-ISBN-13: 9780292794436
E-ISBN-10: 0292794436
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292716933
Print-ISBN-10: 0292716931

Page Count: 220
Illustrations: 9 b&w illus., 4 maps
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Rome -- Religious life and customs.
  • Rome -- Religion.
  • Women -- Rome.
  • Rome -- Social life and customs.
  • Women and religion -- Rome.
  • Women -- Religious life -- Rome.
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