Women offered advice and schemed in the background, and on occasion they demonstrated in the open, but they were denied public office and a role in the government. A few exceptions existed in matters of religion. With never more than six at a time, the position of Vestal Virgin was hardly a career opportunity for the average woman and it had little real power, but it possessed prestige rivaling that of most magistracies and provided benefits and a lifestyle unavailable to any other woman in the land. Whenever there was need for a replacement, the chief pontiff would choose 20 well born girls between 7 and 10 years of age who showed promise of developing great beauty and talent. To give the goddess the opportunity to express her preference, the final winner was chosen by lot. Vestal Virgins signed on for a thirty year term. The first ten were spent learning the job, the second carrying out the duties of a Vestal Virgin, and the final ten were devoted to teaching the newcomers. They would be 40 at most at the end of their term and free to marry, but most chose to remain in service, for rumor had it that the few ex-Vestals who did marry had not done well.

       Most women took rather seriously the responsibility of keeping alight the kitchen fire at home, for it was the sole source of warmth, light and heat for cooking, and restarting it involved the arduous task of rubbing two sticks together. Just as the fireplace was the symbolic centre of the home, so was the eternal fire burning inside Vesta’s temple seen as emblematic of the heart and soul of Rome. The eternal flame was Vesta, an ancient Roman goddess whose responsibility was the hearth, and if the fire, and by extension Vesta herself, were extinguished, then disaster would strike the city. Along with keeping the fire burning the Vestal Virgins assisted at other religious ceremonies throughout the city and kept secure any important documents that had been entrusted to them in the temple for safekeeping. They had to make a vow of chastity and would be executed if they ever broke that vow or allowed the flame to go out, but otherwise they lived a life of great privilege. The virgin priestesses of Ceres, the goddess of grain and harvest and one of the twelve great deities of Rome, enjoyed privileges almost as great as those of the Vestal Virgins.