Who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome?
How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this short article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’.
At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometres. Just to put that in perspective; the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 Billion football pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five a side. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.
The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor - in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* - who was responsible for some sixty five million people. So, The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor?
You could argue that both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people. They also spent a fortune keeping the people entertained – and pliant - with Gladiatorial contests and other sporting events. However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the Vestal Virgins.
The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; this did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours, “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”
The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome. We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’, “Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta's fire.”
Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their divine influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:
“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”
The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influenced by their words. More importantly, the people of Rome believed that they had this divine gift. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. The vestals had a power to wield such influence as to change the political landscape. To think that the Vestals wouldn’t take the regular opportunity to put this power to practise would be naïve.
For example, the Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious.
That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.***
Yet, what power comes without severe risk? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?
*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.
**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst having a widdle at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.
*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.