AO 4:01, Jan/Feb 2001
The Curse of the Last Vestal
Like other pagan priests and priestesses, the Vestal virgins lost power and influence as Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. In 391, the Roman emperor Theodosius effectively ended public pagan worship by cutting off state funding for sacrifices and the upkeep of temples.
According to the fifth-century Greek historian Zosimus, however, the story of the Vestals does not end with Theodosiuss edict. A few years later, a Christian noblewoman named Serena entered the sanctuary of the Temple of Cybele in Rome and removed a necklace from the statue of the goddess Rhea (an ancestral earth goddess and the mother of Vesta). As Serena put the necklace around her neck, a very old woman stepped out from the shadows to chastise her for this act of impiety. This woman, writes Zosimus, was the last Vestal, still carrying out her duties in the abandoned temples.