Licinia: Vestal Virgins and Sociopolitical Mobility Through Property Rights and Acts of Independence in the 1st Century BCE
Throughout history, women have held fewer rights than their contemporary male counterparts. Our understandings of the classical and modern worlds are so ingrained around this concept that there is seldom a debate on the amount of rights or the freedoms of historical women, the clear understanding being that women never held the same rights as men. We know that women were considered less important than men, intellectually inferior to men, weaker than men in both body and spir-it, wicked by nature, or even as the property of the men closest to them, be it a father or a husband. Historical and feminist scholars alike cannot find the starting point of when the blatant inequality between men and women first began, but it is a constant throughout time, in nearly all cultures.1 All of these elements make the rare cases and incidents in which women are able to break from this maledominated idea of predestined subservience all the more fascinating and incredible. Women who were able to find areas for advancement or ways to create spaces for themselves within male-created institutions where they could exhibit comparative freedoms are among the most determined and courageous women in history. While these cases may seem few and far between, when compared collectively they establish that women in history and modernity have worked hard to find their own kind of equality and were able to break through years of disenfranchisement to better themselves without the assistance of men. Not the least among these groups of women were the Vestal Virgins of Rome. The Vestals in their long history as exceptional religious figures of Rome were never completely freed from the demands and the regulations placed upon them by the male priests of both the republic and the empire. But the priestesses of the Vestal Order had something that other women, not only in Rome, but also in many other contemporary societies, lacked. The Vestals had property and ownership rights. While property rights and privileges may not seem like much of an advantage at a first glance, the reality of being able to own, sell, rent, and will property created not only a revenue source for the Vestals, but also an accumulation of power and influence that cannot be quantitatively measured. The Vestals used their rights to property, combined with the other benefits granted to them through their order, to expand not only the power of the individual Vestal but also the power of the Vestal order as a whole, allowing them to be able to live their lives with relative autonomy compared to the other women of Rome and to create a legacy that would help other Vestals in the future. Over the many centuries that the Vestal order was involved in both Roman religion and society, the Vestals eventually began to stretch the intended limits to their freedoms, as would be explicitly demonstrated by the life of Licinia, a Vestal in the 1st century B. CE and the cousin of Marcus Crassus. Licinia's life and actions are illustrative of how the Vestals, rather than remaining as simple priestesses and strict religious figures in the 1st century BCE, used the power and the influence garnered by their property and ownership rights to progress into being members of high society during the transitional period of Rome from republic to empire.