Princeton (2016) h/b 281pp £34.95 (ISBN 9780691169576)
This well-produced book argues that although most priestesses were ultimately subordinate to male authority, they enjoyed a higher profile in performing acts of public worship than has been traditionally accepted. While Vestal Virgins may have been the most conspicuous priestesses in the Roman state, they were only the spearhead of the vast army of women who helped maintain the pax deorum: in co-operative positions with their male counterparts, as priestesses with largely autonomous agency, or as ancillary staff involved in the day-to-day running of temples and sanctuaries.
After an introduction and survey of the overwhelmingly male-authored sources, chiefly dating from the imperial era, D. presents a detailed description of the roles of the flamen and flaminica Dialis, emphasising the joint nature of this priesthood, where a traditionally married couple served the gods together, the wife carrying out separate religious duties of her own and bound by ritual regulations equally with her husband. The second chapter investigates a number of other priestly couples, such as the flamines and flaminicae of various deities and the rex and regina sacrorum, maintaining that this was a widespread model of religious service, best understood in relation to household worship where the roles of husbands and wives are seen as complementary to one another. By the author’s own admission, the main difficulty with this thesis is lack of extant evidence, which necessitates making numerous assumptions by comparison with similar cases.
Chapter Three deals with a medley of religious officiants like the Salian Virgins and the priestesses of cults of female deities like Fortuna Muliebris, Bona Dea, Magna Mater and Ceres, as well as the wide range of female support staff, both slaves and freedwomen, who maintained temples, guarded sanctuaries, poured libations, assisted at sacrifices and provided music at religious rites.
The final four chapters, which contain a number of black and white illustrations, focus on Rome’s only full-time religious professionals, the Vestal Virgins: their conditions of service, initiation, legal status and privileges; their uniquely recognisable costume; their exacting calendar of ritual activities and examples of their possible influence in the realm of politics. Throughout the book D. often advances thoughtful observations on historical questions, arguing for example that the Vestal Virgins’ motive for petitioning Sulla to extend a pardon to the young Julius Caesar in 82BC was not because they shared his political sympathies or disapproved of bloodshed, but most probably because, as flamen Dialis, Caesar was a priestly colleague of their own.
This study, with its extensive bibliography and detailed index, is suitable for the use of undergraduates and scholars as well as the interested general reader, since all Latin and Greek quotations are translated into English. The text suffers from a certain amount of repetition stemming from its organisation into detailed subheadings, but it convincingly demonstrates that well-respected and knowledgeable women, although debarred from traditionally masculine roles in augury and divination, could nevertheless perform rituals for the welfare of Rome independently as well as in concert with men. It also provides an excellent window onto the variety and number of specialised staff necessary for the performance of the wide range of rituals that were considered vital to the well-being of the Roman state.