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 Theodosius’s 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.

Serena laughed at the old woman and ordered her servants to remove the priestess from the temple. As the aged Vestal descended the temple stairs, she cursed Serena, her husband (the powerful Roman general Stilicho) and her children. Serena blithely ignored the Vestal’s curse and left the sanctuary, wearing the stolen necklace.

The last Vestal’s curse, apparently, was effective. In 408 A.D. Serena’s husband, Stilicho, and her son were executed by political rivals. Two years later, as the Visigoths laid siege to Rome, Serena herself was suspected of conspiring with the enemy invaders and executed on the orders of the Roman senate.

The Visigoths, under the command of Alaric, sacked and plundered Rome. Many Romans believed that the destruction of their city was the result of Christian impiety toward the traditional gods—especially toward the gods’ quintessential human representative, the last remaining Vestal virgin. In 413 A.D., to counter this pagan opposition, St. Augustine began writing his magisterial defense of Christianity, The City of God.