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Classics in Primary Schools (Take Two): Let’s Add Philosophy!

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51UIQZQYggLAround this time last year I found myself writing a blog about my experiences in running a Classics Club for the first time as a student teacher. In my second year at Stranmillis University College Belfast, I wanted to introduce Classics to children who had never experienced the subject before; to challenge myself and the children but most importantly, to demonstrate as best I could the relevance Classics holds for children in primary schools. My time in Whitehouse Primary last year proved to me that Classics was an immeasurably important and useful subject for children to be exposed to. The level of interest and engagement the children had for the things I taught them spurred me to want to continue my Classics Club in the future.


Fast forward to a few months ago and I found myself back in Whitehouse Primary for my 3rd year placement, running my Classics Club for P6s and P7s. For the first few weeks we did similar things to the previous year. We used the Cambridge Latin course for our first two lessons, again looking at Caecilius and his family in Pompeii. The new pupils were enthralled by this new language, intrigued by its links to Harry Potter and also how it helps us understand our own English language. Even the pupils who had previously attended appreciated looking at Latin again. Caecilius is a lovable character and they enjoyed the chance to explore the language a second time, noting things that perhaps had not clicked before such as the syntax of Latin sentences. I thought it was exciting that the children noticed this, as it showed that their understanding of Latin had progressed from the previous year; their confidence in revisiting the topic allowing them to engage with the language deeper than at surface level.

We also revisited the Greek alphabet, again rapping it and dancing along (because how else would you learn to recite it?). Last year, I had the children practice writing out each individual letter to allow them to get to grips with their formation; however, one of the points I reflected on last year was that I focussed too much on rapping the song at the start, meaning I did not get to progress the lesson as much as I wanted to. This year, I managed my time more effectively and the lesson moved more quickly. As a result, not only did the children write out the basic formation of Greek letters but they were also able to scribe their transliterated names – something that was much more fun and meaningful to them! I noticed in the coming weeks most wrote their names on their worksheets in Greek without my instruction – I was thrilled!

Something that I had wanted to do the previous year but was perhaps too nervous to do was to discuss some philosophy with the children. My Latin teacher when I was at school always encouraged challenge in learning. She believed it was important to never shy away from things that may be perceived as ‘too difficult’ as then children would be losing out on meaningful learning, especially because the children will take so much more from a lesson if they feel encouraged to engage in it, no matter how different or challenging the lesson may be; it’s all down to how a teacher puts the information across. So I took a deep breath and began to think about what I could put into a Classical Philosophy lesson.


I decided to base the lesson on Plato’s Socratic dialogue Euthyphro, written in the 4th century BC. It tells the story of Socrates meeting Euthyphro outside court. Euthyphro is there to prosecute his father on charges of murder for leaving a man who killed a slave tied up and left to die from exposure. Socrates, astonished by Euthyphro’s confidence in prosecuting his own father, states that Euthyphro must have a clear idea of what is pious or impious due to his audacious attitude towards the situation. A dialogue ensues between the two, based on concepts of morality and religion. If I were to put this across to children, I had to change it a bit.

I started with introducing the club to the concept of philosophy itself: what it is, the etymology of the word (including how we can write it using our newly learned alphabet) and looking at examples of ‘big questions’ that they may have considered themselves. To set the scene I felt it necessary to portray Socrates visually as a character. We looked at pictures of statues and busts of him, learning how he was perceived as a person and how he perceived himself as the ‘Gadfly of Athens’.


Moving on from this, I presented an altered version of the Euthyphro dialogue the children. To keep it suitable for everyone in attendance, I strayed from the more religious connotations of the original, and led the discussion into a questioning of morality. Our question of the day was; what makes something just, just? After I told the story I gave them 5 minutes to jot down their thoughts on a table. On one side: why Euthyphro was right to prosecute his father. On the other: why he was wrong. The discussion that followed this brainstorm astounded me. To summarise what we discussed, we decided that as a people, we follow the law to do what is right; we follow the law as the government created these laws; we trust the government to decide what is right as they make the laws on the basis of morality; morality comes as a matter of instinct and instinct is a matter of unconscious thought. In this way, Euthyphro’s father committed a crime by acting consciously to leave the man to die. The question was raised that perhaps someone else should have charged his father, not Euthyphro himself.


In what I have just written it is important to say that all of that information and discussion came from the mouths of 10-11 year olds. I merely led the questioning to heighten their thinking. The children in this club were a range of abilities, all equally engaged in this debate. I was fascinated to see the discussion being led in directions that I had not even thought of myself in the planning stages. If there had been more time for discussion, I would have let the debate run on for far longer.

For my final lesson I let the pupils decide what they wanted to learn about. Of course, they chose the gods. Seeing the group’s ability and interest in the philosophy lesson, I took this as an opportunity to let them explore Classics in a different way. In my first year at Stranmillis, my Literacy lecturer told us about the power of reading to the children. Just reading. Letting them sit back and listen to a text, appreciating its stylistic devices, envisioning its detail and building a level of comprehension that they may not have if they only read it to themselves.


I did not have a simplified book of Greek myths for kids at hand, nor did I feel it necessary. These children deserved a challenge, one that would let them fully appreciate the splendour and beauty of Classical literature. I chose to read them Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the translated Penguin Classics version, with a few words and phrases omitted here and there), specifically Book III when Acoetes and his crew are captured by Dionysus under the guise of a young boy. I felt this would let them see the power of the gods, without having to simplify the story. They marvelled as I read to them about the “beautiful faced” young boy staggering along the shore to Acoetes’ ship, demanding to be taken to the island of Naxos. They sat transfixed as they listened to how the sailors’ bodies contorted, twisted and changed colour as they transformed into dolphins as Dionysus’ wrath overpowered them for not being taken to his destination. They sat in awe as Dionysus revealed himself in his true form, covered in grapevines, and surrounded by exotic cats while the ship was slowly enrobed in ivy. Comparing this final image to Peter Pan’s ship turning to gold from Tinkerbell’s pixie dust helped them even further in appreciating the beautiful images that Ovid has constructed for us.


Their reactions to being read this story that I had specifically chosen not to simplify made me feel I had made the right decision. They did not need a fairy tale version of Ovid’s myth; they just needed it to be read as though it was one. From this telling they were able to see the true power of the gods, and a glimpse of what it would be like to face their wrath.

All too soon, my Classics Club had come to an end. I felt proud at what I had discovered this time around. Not only was it proven to me once again that Classics is a relevant and engaging topic for children at KS2 level, but it provides avenues of challenge that children of all abilities may not otherwise be able to explore. The children seemed to appreciate how I approached the club lessons every week – I did not over simplify them, I always answered their questions (if I was able to) and, what I feel was most important, we explored Classics together.

Rather than through a transmission model of teaching, I felt this time I really did hold an ongoing discussion with my pupils. We pondered, we questioned and we delved into topics such as philosophy head first. We listened to stories that captivated us through their words, not just the pictures on the page. In this way an inclusive atmosphere was created, where all streams of thought were welcome, allowing the children to learn from the club what they wanted, encouraging individuality in opinion and acceptance of different points of view. I felt that, through my determination to challenge my pupils, they in turn felt respected to be able to handle ‘big questions’ and so were able to develop their own ways of thinking, no matter what their ability level was. In turn, by understanding that they were being met with challenge and being encouraged to tackle it, the children were more engaged in what I had to say and in what we discussed together, thus continuing to develop their love and understanding for the Classics.

Below are some of their responses in a final self-assessment that I asked them to complete for me, further demonstrating the impact the study of Classics has on young pupils;

“I attended last year and loved the addition of the lesson on philosophy. I enjoyed questioning different things and reading the stories of Socrates and Euthyphro…I love learning and reading about the gods and I want to keep studying Latin.”

 “…This year we did something different, we learned about Philosophy. It was hard and challenging but that’s what I enjoyed about it…”

 “Last week we did Philosophy which means to think deeply. We learned the story of Socrates and his friend Euthyphro. Some pupils even got so engaged in the subject they began to make multiple booklets and take pages of notes. The subject was definitely challenging but our teacher managed to make it fun.”

 I would like to thank Whitehouse Primary School and its Acting Principal Ms. Dawn Blain for allowing me the wonderful opportunity of once again holding my Classics Club within their school. I would also like to extend my thanks to the pupils who attended my Classics Club, for their enthusiasm, engagement and encouraging me to continue to pursue the teaching of Classics to primary school children.

Amber Taylor

Amber has also blogged on Pompeii and P6: Let’s Talk Volcanoes!

“Reception of Classics in Irish Literature” Lynn Gordon (RBAI) Review

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CANI’s final public event in the 2018-19 calendar was a lecture given by Lynn Gordon on Wednesday 22 May 2019.  Lynn is an alumna of Methodist College Belfast, after which she studied classics at Cambridge.  Following a period teaching in England, she returned to Belfast to become head of classics at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. MV5BN2FhOTcwNjAtZGJmNS00ZWQ3LWE5Y2MtOGYzYmYyZjZkYjE1L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc4MzI2NQ@@._V1_UY317_CR20,0,214,317_AL_

Lynn’s paper was entitled “Reception of Classics in Irish Literature” and she chose to focus on a poem from Seamus Heaney’s final collection of poetry published in 2010, entitled Human Chain. Heaney’s stand-alone translation of Aeneid VI was published posthumously in 2016.


Heaney was greatly influenced by Aeneid VI and the poem “Route 110” which describes the bus route which Heaney regularly used to journey from Belfast to Cookstown is compared with Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. Heaney appears as both Virgil and Aeneas, and his girlfriend as Dido. Belfast’s Smithfield Market is set as the opening to the Underworld, while the bus is Charon’s boat across the river Styx.


Lynn noted that Northern Irish authors such as Robert McLiam Wilson, Glenn Patterson and Michael Longley showed strong classical influences in their work.  James Joyce’s Ulysses is of course based on Homer’s Odyssey and there was a brief discussion about what Heaney’s reasons may have been to choose to focus on VirgilFollowing questions, the audience remained to talk to our speaker over summer drinks.  The Association was delighted that a number of Lynn’s students attended to offer support to their teacher.

CANI would like to thank all those who attended our events during the year.  Your support is very much appreciated and we look forward to sharing our 2019/20 programme with you soon.

Helen McVeigh

The Original Christian Heretic

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simon_magus-basilicaThroughout its history, the Christian Church has had to deal with its own ever-developing understanding of aspects of its own faith as various thinkers raised questions that had yet to be answered. Disputes over those answers could lead to forms of schism and heresy.

While it may be difficult to identify the first ‘Christian’ – John the Baptist, St. Peter, Andrew Protokletos (the ‘first-called) or a group including all of the disciples and other early followers of Jesus of Nazareth, early Christian literary traditions did identify who they considered to be the first Christian heretic: Simon Magus – ‘Simon the Magician’.

He appears in the Book of Acts as a magician in Samaria, who used his skills to convince people that he was “the Power of God that is Great.” The Biblical story sees Philip the Evangelist arrive in the city, causing many to convert and accept baptism through his preaching of God’s Gospel. These converts seemingly included Simon Magus himself, “who was astounded by Philip’s miracle, which were truly divine, not manipulations of magic” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Act 8: 9-13).


The Christian converts in Samaria, including Simon, were then treated to a visit by the apostles Peter and John, who provided the converts with the gift of the Spirit through the laying on of hands (Acts 8: 14-17). The magus was impressed, perhaps too much so as he soon allowed his manipulative nature to take over. He tried to bribe Peter and John to bring him into their apostolic inner circle – “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19). Peter reproached Simon, sending him away, “urging him to repent of his wickedness. In humility, Simon asked that the apostles pray for him” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Eusebius, EH II.14.2-3).

This is where the Biblical story of Simon Magus ends, but as the Christian literary tradition grew throughout the late first/early second century, so did the role of the magician. Simon became a Samaritan from the city of Gitta; his parents became Antonius and Rachel and is thought to have studied Greek literature at Alexandria. More importantly, Simon became portrayed as being unrepentant and determined to persuade people that he had supernatural powers (Ps-Clement, Recognitions II).

This determination saw him move from the Middle East to the imperial capital of Rome itself, although it may be more appropriate to talk about him being transplanted there in order to set the magician up as an opponent for ‘the rock upon which the Church was built’, St. Peter, who had also moved to Rome.


Christian literature presents Simon as being highly successful in persuading Romans that he was divine. Justin Martyr, a mid-second century Christian apologist resident in Rome, records that people in Rome even set up an altar to Simon on Tiber Island, site of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island since 998. It was reputedly inscribed with the dedication “Simoni Deo Sancto” – “To Simon, the Holy God” (Justin Martyr, Apol. I.26).


There was seemingly no physical evidence of this inscribed altar, which made Justin’s claim suspect. However, in July 1574, an altar with an inscription was found which fits Justin’s description… with one slight and important addition. When the uncovered inscription was inspected, it read ‘Semoni Sanco Sancto Deo.’ “What a difference a word makes!” (Ehrman (2003), 165)

This ‘Sanco’ changes the identification of this altar from potentially being for Simon Magus to definitely being for the pagan god of trust called Semo Sanctus, who had been worshipped in Rome for centuries, having been brought there by the Sabines.

This misinterpreted inscription, now in the Vatican Musuem, was not the only shrine to Semo Sancus in Rome. The Sabines built a shrine on the Quirinal Hill (Dion. Hal. II.49.2), the foundations of which were discovered under the convent of San Silvestro al Quirinale in March 1881. It was a “strange coincidence” (Lanciani (1893), 105) that, despite there being no clear connection to the excavations at San Silvestro, a life-sized statue and inscribed pedestal of Semo Sancus appeared on the market around the same time.


The inscription has some similarities to that of Tiber Island…


(Lanciani (1893), 105-106)

The question should be asked as to how and why Justin Martyr came to make this misidentification. It might be immediately assumed that he is using faulty sources or has misunderstood the source he was using; however, Justin resided in Rome so his source is more than likely to have been his own eyes. Has he made a fundamental mistake in equating Simon with Semo Sancus? Did he so hurriedly glance at the inscription that he took it up incorrectly? Or has he been intentionally dishonest in order to build up Simon Magus so as to make his eventual defeat all the more spectacular? We might never be sure. While archaeology has undermined the extent of Simon’s popularity or at least the extent to which the inhabitants of Rome were willing to reward it on Tiber Island, the success he was having led to the intervention of St. Peter, a story continued in some of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles – those which for various reasons were not incorporated into the final canon of the New Testament.


One of the earliest was the Acts of Peter, which, as well as being the first text to record the tradition that St. Peter was crucified upside-down, records Peter and Simon going head-to-head before the assembled members of the Roman Senate. Peter challenged the magician to support his views, declaring “I believe in the living God, through whom I shall destroy your magic arts.” Simon responded by attacking some of the central tenets of Christianity – “You have the impudence to speak of Jesus the Nazarene, the son of a carpenter, himself a carpenter, whose family is from Judaea. Listen, Peter. The Romans have understanding. They are no fools.” Turning to the crowd, Simon proclaimed “Men of Rome, is a God born? Is he crucified? Whoever has a Lord is no God” (Acts of Peter 23).

The two were then challenged by the Roman prefect to provide proof of their divine backing. A slave was brought into the arena and Simon was challenged to kill him through supernatural means, which he succeeded in doing just by whispering a single word in the slave’s ear. Peter was then challenged to raise the same slave from the dead. By doing so, Peter defeated Simon in the eyes of the spectators, who proclaimed “There is only one God, the God of Peter” (Acts of Peter 26).

Despite his defeat in the arena, Simon continued his public displays with Peter finding him using his powers to fly before a crowd on the Via Sacra. Simon taunted Peter with his divine powers, only for the apostle to pray to Jesus to bring the magician low in order to restore belief in Peter and his God. With that, Simon fell to the ground, breaking his leg in three places. The crowd then turned on him, pelting the injured magician with stones. He was carried away by his remaining supporters, but the heretical sorcerer later died of his injuries, perhaps encouraged on his journey into the afterlife by the efforts of two physicians (Acts of Peter 32).


The Acts of Peter and Paul, another of the apocryphal Acts, gives a slightly different version of Simon’s demise, with his flying taking place during a debate with Peter before the emperor Nero and with the apostle Paul present as well. After the fall kills Simon, Nero ordered Peter and Paul arrested and the body of the magician kept for three days in case he rose from the dead.


Beyond the apocryphal Acts, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, and his successors were a little more specific on the nature of Simon Magus’ heresy. To them, he was the first Gnostic, who used the basic layout of Christianity, but “taught the he was personally the divine redeemer sent from the heavenly realm to reveal the truths necessary for salvation” (Ehrman (2003), 165). This Gnostic Simon also claimed to have access to the ‘Primal Thought’; the first thing to emanate from God. This emanation reputedly became embodied in a woman called Helen. Opponents of Simon claimed that the magician had found Helen in a brothel, allowing them to claim that “Gnostics have prostituted themselves in more ways than one” (Ehrman (2003), 165; Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.23).

The fourth century churchman Eusebius of Caesarea compiled a ten-volume account of various Christian heretics. He took the stories of Acts, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and their successors to present Simon Magus as demonic agent, using black magic to persuade people that he was divine.

This all meant that as he could be connected to a variety of successive heretics – Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, identifying Simon Magus as fraudulent, demonic and the origin of all heresy was a useful tool, particularly with his various defeats by St. Peter. It meant that the “many-headed hydra” (Ehrman (2003), 192) of heresy was automatically built on foundations of sand, even before the light of orthodoxy was shone on their individual innovative heads.


The portrayal of Simon Magus as the first head of the heresy hydra may not have been the only use of the magician. It has been suggested that he has been used as a cipher for other early interpretations of Christian belief and practice which were later thought to be incorrect.

There are some hints of Marcionism in the portrayal of Simon in the writings of the Pseudo-Clement. This was the mid-second century dualist Christianity of Marcion of Sinope, which saw the God of the Old Testament as a different entity to the God of the New Testament (Ehrman (2003), 183; Ps-Clement, Homilies III.10, 38).

It would not be surprising for the Christian orthodox tradition to attack such a fundamentally different and indeed polytheistic version of their faith. However, it has also been suggested that Simon Magus is used by the Ps-Clementine literature as a cipher to attack Paul the Apostle. Or at least the Ps-Clementine writings were used by others, such as the fourth century sect of the Ebionites, to attack Paul, who they refused to recognise as an apostle. They pointed to the similarity between some of Simon’s claims and those of Paul, such as having had visions of the Lord. They also accentuated the seeming usurpation of apostolic seniority, highlighting how Simon and therefore Paul claimed to have better knowledge of Jesus’ teachings than the disciples. It has even been argued that the confrontation between Simon and Peter in Acts 8 has some basis in the conflict between Peter and Paul (Detering (1995); Price (2012)), although this has not been met with widespread acceptance.

Simon Magus fulfils several roles in the early traditions of the Christian Church: a Samaritan magician who was converted by the powers of the apostles; the unrepentant first heretic who wanted to share in apostolic authority; the original Gnostic, who had Christian writers incorrectly suggesting that inhabitants of Rome viewed him as the divine being he portrayed himself as and the levitating cipher used to promote the actions of St. Peter and to attack other heretics and even Paul the Apostle. Perhaps Simon will have been happy with that kind of varied and lasting legacy, even if lost archaeology proved that there was no inscription dedicated to him on Tiber Island.


Ehrman, B. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford (2003)

Detering, H. The Fabricated Paul: Early Christian Thought in Twilight. Mannheim (1995)

Grant, R.M. Greek Apologists of the Second Century. London (1988)

Lanciani, R. Pagan and Christian Rome. Cambridge (1893)

Price, R.M. The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul. Huddersfield (2012)

Cartlidge, D.R. ‘The Fall and Rise of Simon Magus,’ Bible Review 21 (2005), 24-36

CANI Film Night IV: Disney’s Hercules

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Hercules collageContinuing our partnership with the Ulster Museum, the fourth annual CANI film screening took place in the Lecture Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 4th May.

In previous years, we have watched the epic of Gladiator, the comedy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the 1960s classic Jason and the Argonauts, with Ray Harryhausen’s unforgettable special effects. This year, our film offering was Disney’s animated Hercules, released in cinemas in 1997.

The movie is centred on its title character ‘Hercules’ based on the legendary mythological Greek hero, Herakles. The voice cast includes many famous voices including Charlton Heston as the narrator, Tate Donovan as Hercules, Danny DeVito as Phil, James Woods as Hades, and Rip Torn as Zeus.

Amber Taylor, CANI Board member, presented a short introduction to the Disney film and the myth.  In Greek myth Hercules is the son of Zeus and Alcmene but in the Disney version, he is born to the king and queen of the gods Zeus and Hera, with Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon becoming Hercules’ foster parents through in interference of Hades and his minions. The movie opens with ‘goddesses of the Arts and proclaimers of heroes’ who help carry the story of Hercules along, as well as provide ‘gospel choir’ style musical numbers along the way. These are based on the Muses of epic tales, history, tragedy, dance and comedy, who governed creative and intellectual pursuits and had the power of possession to inspire actors and poets to perform at their best.

Amber discussed the role of women in the film, pointing out that Hercules’ love interest, Meg, represents the classical hero Herakles’ wife, Megaera, who in Greek myth is the daughter of King Creon of Thebes. This marriage met an unfortunate end when Herakles, driven mad by the goddess Hera, kills both her and their two children. Meg does not follow the stereotypes of an Ancient Greek woman whose life was dedicated to maintaining the household and rearing children as she is first seen wrestling Nessus the centaur. When Hercules tries to save her, Meg replies “I’m a damsel; I’m in distress; I can handle this.”

Hercules/Herakles is famed for his godlike strength and the 12 labours which he was required to undertake. He must carry out tasks such as cleaning out stables (a task set to humiliate him) and obtaining the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. The labours culminated in capturing Cerberus, the three headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. Marble statues depict Hercules as an incredibly tall, muscular man, often seen with a club and holding the skin of the Nemean lion obtained in his first ‘labour’. Amber suggested that this depiction of strength influences athletes and health-fans alike whose ultimate goal might be to become as chiselled as Herakles. She referred to modern representations of Hercules which fulfil this body type, for example, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The character of Herakles has inspired many movies, the earliest of which is the 1957 version starring Steve Reeves, a well-known body-builder. Amber concluded by mentioning the Marvel Comics superhero, Hercules, who uses his inhuman strength to drag the entire island of Manhattan, while being able to run at speeds of 100mph.

At our screening, the youngest member of the audience was four years old, and there was at least one octogenarian present. The film was enjoyed by all, a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

Thanks are due to the following: the Ulster Museum for their generosity in allowing us to hold our event on their premises; Amber for sharing her love of Hercules; Peter for his technological expertise; helpers Naomi, Grace and Megan, for welcoming all those attending and looking after the merchandise table; the CANI Board for their endless enthusiasm, and the members of the audience for their support.

Helen McVeigh

The Last Vestal

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Chief Vestal

The Vestal Virgins are one of the most evocative establishments of Ancient Rome. They might not know exactly what they were or what they did, but the name of Vestal Virgin can spark something in many people. They might have heard of their guardianship of the Sacred Flame of Vesta; they may have heard of how they could be buried alive for breaking their vows of virginity; they may only know of them through the lyrics of Procul Harum’s 1967 hit ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale…’ but there is something enduring about the Vestal Virgins.

Numa Pompiliu

The founding of this ancient order of virgin priestesses has been attributed to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (c.717-673BC), who reputedly led the first Vestal away from her parents by the hand and founded the Temple of Vesta (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights I.12; Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius II.65).

Temple of Vesta

However, this idea that Numa Pompilius created the Vestal priestesshood contravenes some other mythical traditions. Livy mentions that the Vestals had some kind of origin in the city of Alba Longa (Livy I.20; cf. Dionysius I.76), which would seemingly fit in with the record of Rhea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, being a Vestal Virgin, which in turn suggests that the Vestals pre-dated the foundation of Rome itself. Perhaps Numa Pompilius transferred the pre-existent Vestals to Rome from Alba Longa or opened his own chapter of the priestesshood in Rome. Or that the story of Rhea Silvia was embellished in its (re-)telling to link her more clearly to well-known Roman institutions.


House of the Vestals by Christian Heulson (1905)

Whomever founded the Vestals in or transferred them to Rome, they came to reside in the Atrium Vestiae – the House of the Vestals, a three-storey building at the foot of the Palatine Hill, behind the Temple of Vesta.

Despite having such a residence and prominence, the Vestals remained an exclusive priestesshood. Procul Harum may sing about “16 vestal virgins”, but there were never that many at any one time. Numa appointed two priestesses at the outset, before increasing it to four – named as Gegania, Veneneia, Canuleia, and Tarpeia.

The daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a general of Romulus, Tarpeia reputedly betrayed Rome to the Sabines, a betrayal which might provide some of the reasoning for the potentially harsh punishments meted out to Vestals who are thought to have broken their vows or otherwise transgressed (this incident also gave the Tarpeian Rock its name – a site of shameful execution in Rome, as Tarpeia was reputedly buried there.

Tarpeia’s betrayal

Either Tarquinius Priscus, Rome’s fifth king (c.616-579BC) or Servius Tullius, Rome’s sixth king (c.575-535BC) may instead have been involved in the increase to four, before it was later increased to six (Plutarch, Life of Numa Pompilius 9.5-10; Dionysius III.67). The maximum recorded in antiquity was seven, a number alluded to by Ambrose of Milan (Ambrose, Ep. 18/31), although this has been doubted (Worsfold (1932) 22).

Once there were sufficient candidates coming forward, aged between 6 and 10 years old, new Vestals were chosen by lot from a list of twenty (Kroppenberg (2010), 426-427), although the replacing of a Vestal who had died before her 30-year period of sworn celibate service ended saw the Chief Vestal – Virgo Vestalis Maxima or Vestalium Maxima, “greatest of the Vestals” – select the most virtuous of the candidates, who did not need to be prepubescents or even virgins.

Their tasks included the maintenance of the Sacred Flame of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and home, which served as a symbolic and actual source of fire and heat for Roman households. The Vestals were also tasked with collecting water from a sacred spring, preparing food for use in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the Temple of Vesta. They were also charged with the safe-keeping of the wills of many important Romans, most famously of Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius.

These important religious, symbolic, social, and legal tasks saw the Vestals held in awe in Roman society. Pliny the Elder highlights their perceived connection to the gods… “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.” (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3)

Even the most powerful individuals within the Roman state took note of their opinions, demonstrated by their successful intercession on behalf of Julius Caesar when he was about to become a victim of the proscriptions of dictator Sulla (Suetonius, Julius Caesar I.2).

This exalted position inevitably led to significant privileges for the Vestals. Their person was sacrosanct, meaning that anyone who injured them faced the death penalty. When giving evidence in a court, they were excused the customary oath, with their word trusted without question. They were accorded places of honour at public ceremonies, games and performances, while their very touch or presence could grant a condemned prisoner or slave their freedom (Dionysius I.19, 38).

Dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini

However, more well-known than their duties and privileges were the punishments Vestals faced for breaking their vows or neglecting their responsibilities. Allowing the Sacred Flame of Vesta to go out was a serious offence, as it suggested that the divine protection of the city had been withdrawn. Vestals guilty of this dereliction of duty would be whipped or beaten.

However, the breaking of their vow of chastity was met with far more drastic punishments… The earliest Vestals at Alba Longa were whipped and “put to death” for breaking these vows, and any offspring were thrown into the river (Dionysius I.78), a form of punishment best presented in the story of Rhea Silvia, whose twins, Romulus and Remus, were put in the Tiber (Livy I.4).

In Rome, as their chastity, much like the Sacred Flame, was considered to be directly linked to the health of the Roman state and as a daughter of the Roman state, any sexual liaison with a citizen was an incestuous act of treason and injurious to Rome.

Numa’s initial punishment for breaking the oath of celibacy is recorded as being stoning to death, only for Tarquinius Priscus to take the punishment to a new, more sinister level (George Kedrenos, Hist. Comp. 148/259; Dionysius III.58).

Any Vestal found guilty of breaking their celibacy oath was to be buried alive in an underground chamber near the Colline Gate on the Campus Sceleratus (“Evil Field”). As it was forbidden for anyone to be buried within the city limits or to spill the blood of a Vestal, the victim was supplied with a few days of food and water (Dionysius IX.40 also records an instance of whipping with rods before live burial).

While this punishment was (in)famous, it must be remembered that cases of broken celibacy vows and subsequent vivisepulture were rare. Over the course of the 1,100 years of Vestal history, there are only ten recorded convictions. A few Vestals were acquitted, with some clearing their name through some kind of physical ordeal, such as carrying water in a sieve (Pliny, NH XXVIII.3). It must also be noted that the person found to have engaged in sexual congress with a Vestal Virgin would be publically whipped to death.

Such was the perceived importance of their chastity and duties to the Roman state, looking after the Vestal Virgins and helping to police their behaviour was an important part of the position of pontifex maximus (seemingly also created by Numa), the chief priest of the Roman state, a position which became part of the imperial title under Augustus and then later part of the papal title (where it remains to this day).

House of the Vestals

It was not only the pontifex maximus who oversaw the behaviour and works of the Vestals. The aforementioned Chief Vestal also played a significant role in overseeing the five priestesses with whom she shared the Atrium Vestiae.

And it is a woman who held this title in the fourth century AD who is the main subject of this piece: Coelia Concordia. She was well regarded for her “distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261). Prevailing circumstances in Rome saw her also cast as something of a “religious innovator” (Cooper (1999), 100), which seems like a rather peculiar guise for the most senior priestess in a 1,100 year old institution.

The focus of this innovation was her proposal of a statue to Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (ca. 315-384), a wealthy pagan aristocrat who held various cult priesthoods and the position of praetorian prefect under Valentinian II in 384, the last year of his life.

During his brief tenure as praetorian prefect, Praetextatus influenced Valentinian II to issue a law offering some protection to pagan temples and giving powers of investigation of any attacks on these edifices over to the praefectus urbi of Rome (Symmachus, Rel. 21.3-5). Such an act, his previous priestly service and no doubt benefactions to pagan cults saw Praetextatus considered “a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by the Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261), and indeed worthy of a statue.

The college of pontifices approved of the statue, as did Coelia herself, but there was a high-ranking cadre of pagans, including many senators and Symmachus himself, who felt that this gesture went against tradition as it was not usual to bestow such an honour on men (cf. Symmachus, Ep. II.36; Lefkowitz and Fant (1992), 357 n.91). In the end though, Coelia and the pontifices triumphed and the statue was erected.

“This is a very interesting example of where a powerful woman, with a status and independence almost unparalleled in Late Antique Rome, prevailed over the views and wishes of some of the male establishment.” (Mitchell, 6)

Coelia’s own position, reputation and dedication of the statue to Praetextatus saw her in turn honoured with a statue on the order of Fabia Paulina, Praetextatus’ widow, with the inscription…

In honour of Coelia Concordia, chief Vestal Virgin, Fabia Paulina arranged that a statue be made and set up first on account of her distinguished charity and celebrated holiness concerning the divine cult, and chiefly because [Coelia Concordia] first had set up a statue to [Paulina’s] husband Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who was a man in all ways exceptional and deserving of honour even by Virgins and by priestesses of this [high] rank” (CIL VI.2145 = ILS 1261).

This dispute at the heart of paganism between traditionalists and perceived innovators highlights the pressure that paganism was under. Coelia’s time as Virgo Vestalis Maxima came at a point of major change in Roman society. Following the Christianising of the imperial family in the wake of the conversion of Constantine I, Christianity had become increasingly popular at the expense of the old religions.

By the last decade of the fourth century, pagan rites, rituals, traditions and edifices were coming under increasing pressure from the legislation of Theodosius I. Indeed, such was the pressure that was to come to bear on pagan institutions during the last years of Theodosius’ reign that the most famous thing about Coelia Concordia was that after over 1,100 years, she was to be the last Chief Vestal.

Theodosius I

There had been repeated anti-pagan laws throughout the fourth century, with virtually every emperor enacting/re-enacting his own legislation against the ancient cults. Theodosius himself had already issued some anti-pagan laws, such as a ban on sacrifice in 381 and making haruspicy a capital crime in 384, but it was 391 that saw legislation directly affect the adherents of Vesta.

Valentinian II

Two successive laws – CTh XVI.10.10-11 – from 24 February and 18 June saw the reiteration of a ban on blood sacrifice and targeted pagan temples and sanctuaries for closure. With regard to the Temple of Vesta, its virgin priestesses and Coelia Concordia, it was perhaps the second law which was to have a terminal effect. It should be noted that this law, which declared that all pagan temples (in the west?) were to be closed, was perhaps as much the work of Valentinian II and even Ambrose of Milan as it was Theodosius.

Ambrose of Milan

The potential closing of temples in Rome surely affected the priestesshood of the Vestal Virgins, as the Temple of Vesta is likely to have been one such closed temple, but it appears that despite this imperial intervention, pagan institutions continued to operate.

This may have led to Theodosius, after his victory over the usurper Eugenius, clamping down on paganism even further with laws which saw the withdrawal of all state funds for pagan institutions (Zosimus IV.59), the forbidding of visits to pagan temples, the abolition of remaining pagan holidays and stern punishments for taking of the auspices and witchcraft.

Most importantly, the year 394 is recorded as the date of the imperially ordered extinguishing of the Sacred Flame of Vesta and the disbandment of the Vestal Virgins. Without a priestesshood to preside over, Coelia Concordia stepped down from her post – or more accurately, she had that position abolished from under her.

Theodosius’ anti-pagan policies not only affected Coelia Concordia by removing her ‘livelihood’ through the closing of the Temple of Vesta and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame; the growing confidence and indeed arrogance potentially bred by these policies amongst some Christian elites (Zosimus V.38) may have seen Coelia Concordia thrust into the role of ‘prophetess of doom’ for part of the imperial family.

On the backdrop of this ramping up of anti-paganism actions, Theodosius’ niece, Serena, entered the Temple of Cybele and took a necklace from a statue of Rhea Silvia and wore it around her own neck. For this impiety, she was reproached by “an old woman, the last of the Vestal Virgins” (Zosimus V.38) – quite possibly Coelia Concordia herself. Serena abused this woman and had her attendants drive her away. As the imperial niece left the temple, this last Vestal proclaimed that Serena, her husband and her son would suffer for her impiety.

Serena took no notice of this ‘curse’ and showed off her new piece of jewellery.  However, she was soon struck by a series of dreams, visions and premonitions that predicted her approaching death. Others around her seem to have been afflicted with similar visions.

Even if Serena was struck by many visions, it appears that the ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ took 14 years to claim its first victim. Indeed, it is surprising that Zosimus does not link this ‘curse’ to the death of Theodosius himself, which occurred on 17 January 395. But when the dam finally broke in 408, the curse exacted its full payment from this branch of the imperial family.

Eucherius, Serena and Stilicho

Despite having given his entire career over to the preservation of the Roman Empire and the Theodosian dynasty, Serena’s husband, Stilicho, was executed on spurious charges of treason on the order of emperor Honorius on 22 August 408. Their son, Eucherius, did not long survive his father’s downfall.

The ‘Curse of the Last Vestal’ was then complete before 408 was out. When Rome itself was under siege from Alaric the Goth for the first time, Serena was suspected by the Senate and Galla Placidia of bringing the barbarians down upon the city, presumably in an act of vengeance for the murders of her husband and son. They thought that Alaric would retreat if Serena was done away with as that would leave no one in the city willing to betray it. And so, Serena was executed by strangulation/hanging, “although this suspicion was in fact false, for Serena thought of no such thing, she was all the same justly punished for her impieties” (Zosimus V.38.2; cf. Olympiodorus fr. 6). Her death also did not bring an end to the First Gothic Siege of Rome – that required a payment of 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silken tunics, 3,000 hides dyed scarlet, and 3,000 pounds of pepper…

And this was not the only supernatural vengeance supposedly acting on Rome. Rumours abound that there was a catastrophic legacy stemming from the end of the Vestal Virgins and the extinguishing of the Sacred Flame – Rome and her empire no longer received divine protection.


Symmachus claimed that the removal of maintenances and privileges from the Vestals saw “a public famine… and a bad harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces … it was sacrilege which rendered the year barren, for it was necessary that all should lose that which they had denied to religion.” (Symmachus, Memorial 14)

A major part of St. Augustine’s inspiration to write his famous City of God was to refute claims that the rise of Christianity and its intolerance of the old gods, who had protected the city for over a millennium, had led to the disasters overtaking the empire, including the Sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths in 410, a second sack by the Vandals in 455 and ultimately the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire by the end of the fifth century.

St Augustine

And as for Coelia Concordia, she represented the last holder of an office founded over 1,100 years before her stepping down in 394 when (or even before) Numa Pompilius led that first little girl by the hand away from her parents.

Coelia seems to have died 12 years after the abolition of the Vestals, which would mean she did not see the full humiliation of Rome by the Goths or the culmination of the ‘curse’ laid down upon Serena and her family (if she had been Zosimus’ last Vestal). However, its seems unlikely that she will have blamed those humiliations on the growing influence of Christianity for Coelia Concordia, the last Chief Vestal, with all its lineage back to the mother of Rome’s founder, is said to have converted to Christianity later in her life.



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