You’re listening to an Audio Guide to Ancient Rome. This episode is one in a series of short descriptions of monuments in the Roman Forum. In this episode I’m describing the Temple of Vesta.
The Temple of Vesta was integrated into the adjacent House and Sanctuary of the Vestal Virgins. The only remains of the temple itself are a modest mound of concrete however there is a reconstruction of part of the circular temple wall with adjacent columns that give some sense of the shape and scale of the temple building.
Much of the underlying Sanctuary structure dates back to at least 150 BCE but it is likely that there were earlier temples and housing here as the tradition goes back to at least 400 years earlier. The area has been rebuilt and expanded multiple times over the course of the empire. At one time the large complex housed over 60 rooms, had its own well, courtyard and altar that presumably catered to the Vestal Virgins, their religious ceremonies and their large retinue of slaves and assistants.
The area served as both accommodation and a religious site for only six vestal virgins and provided a place where they could keep the sacred fire alight – a key part of their service to Vesta.
Vesta was the goddess of the home, the family and the hearth. Entry into her temple was permitted only to her priestesses, the Vestals, who tended the sacred fire. The goddess was rarely shown in human form and more often simply represented by the flame of her temple. Vesta’s annual festival, the Vestalia took place in mid June and was regarded as one of the most important Roman holidays.
Vestals entered service between the ages of 6 and 10 and remained in position for a minimum of 30 years. They had special privileges such as enjoying special seating at major events, they were able to own property, any injury to them was punishable by death, they could free condemned prisoners simply by touching them and they had complete right of way while moving around Rome and were aided in this by having a lictor walk ahead of them clearing the way.
In addition to maintaining the sacred flame, their duties included collecting water from a sacred spring, preparation of food used in rituals and caring for sacred objects in the temple’s sanctuary.
One example of this is the Palladium – an ancient artifact that guaranteed the security of Rome – this was a wooden statue of the goddess Athena.
The Vestals also made a special kind of flour called mola salsa, an ingrediant in the preparation of a salt cake used in public offerings to the gods.
By maintaining Vesta’s sacred flame, from which anyone could receive fire for household use, they functioned effectively as “housekeepers”, in a religious sense, for all of Rome. This role effectively made them part of every Roman family and, by extension, any sexual relationship with them was viewed as an act of incest.
If a Vestal Virgin was delinquent in her duties she might be severely beaten. But there was much worse punishment if a Vestal Virgin broke her most sacred vow of chastity.
“If these vestals commit any minor fault, they are punishable by the high-priest only, who scourges the offender, sometimes with her clothes off, in a dark place, with a curtain drawn between; but she that has broken her vow is buried alive near the gate called Collina, where a little mound of earth stands.”
Most of the virgins on record kept their vows and faithfully served their goddess Vesta, and the city and people of Rome; this continued until the coming of Christianity and, specifically, the Christian emperor Theodosius I who decreed against the practice of any pagan rituals. He ordered that the sacred fire be extinguished and insisted on the dissolution of the order of the Vestals.