The Unwilling Vestal by Edward Lucas White tells the story of Brinnaria, a high-spirited young girl who is the daughter of a patrician family in imperial Rome during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Brinnaria is in love with the young nobleman Caius Almo, but her father insists that she marry another man, Calvaster, or become a Vestal virgin: a choice similar to that faced by Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Brinnaria becomes a Vestal, one of six virgin priestesses of the goddess Vesta, whose duty it was to guard the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta. If the flame were ever to go out, it meant dire consequences for Rome, in the minds of the people.
At first Brinnaria hates being condemned to at least thirty years as a virgin priestess, but under the tutelage of the emperor and the chief Vestal, she learns how highly regarded the Vestals are. In imperial Rome, the Vestal virgins were the highest-ranked woman after the empress, and unlike most women, they were free to come and go throughout the city, and they had access to the emperor without having to ask for an audience. They also had a private box, near the emperor's, at the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. And, after thirty years of service, they were allowed to leave the order and marry.
After the death of her family in a plague, Brinnaria becomes a wealthy woman in her own right, since Vestal virgins were allowed to own property. She gains a reputation as a breeder of champion race horses. But she never stops loving Almo, and intends to marry him at the end of her thirty years' service. So that she won't be tempted to break her vows--a Vestal virgin who broke her vows was buried alive--she asks the emperor to send Almo to Africa with the army, which he does. But instead of remaining in Africa, Almo sells himself into slavery and becomes a gladiator. Meanwhile, Calvaster, Brinnaria's rejected suitor, is determined to take revenge on her. Matters come to a head after Marcus Aurelius dies and his son Commodus becomes emperor. (You may be familiar with Commodus as the villain in the movie Gladiator. He's portrayed somewhat more sympathetically here.) Commodus is terrified of a prophecy that says his reign will mark the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire, and if he has to condemn an accused Vestal to death, he will do so. Can Brinnaria escape a tragic fate?
Edward Lucas White (1866-1934) was an American author of historical fiction and fantasy. The Unwilling Vestal, first published in 1918, was often recommended by Latin teachers for their students to read, and it still reads very well. The details of the lives of the Vestal virgins are fascinating, and historically accurate, from what I can find. Parts of the novel read more like a textbook than a novel, which I don't mind, even though I know some people would. Also, I couldn't help noticing that the narrative is very different from that of a modern historical novel. White's omniscient narrator often makes comparisons between ancient Rome and his own society, while today's historical novels are usually immersed in the time period in which they take place, with no references to the present day. But The Unwilling Vestal is still very much worth reading as the story of a strong woman in ancient Rome.
Here is a picture of the House of the Vestals that I took during my recent trip to Rome. Unfortunately, I couldn't get up very close to it and had to take the picture from a distance. It's the building with the three columns.