The Vestal Virgins were the priestesses of the goddess Vesta: the goddess of the hearth and life whose symbol was the fire of the hearth. The ancient roman writer Ovid tells us that Vesta was synonymous with “Fire” although in other passages he relates her to “Earth”.
Virgil reconciles the two attributes by observing that Fire, the natural heat through which all things are produced is enclosed in the Earth.
Each Roman family had some sort of statuette or tribute to the goddess Vesta situated somewhere near the fireplace at home. The flame of the hearth would be “fed” with wood and during meals crumbs of bread would be thrown into the fire also.
The myth of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome relates that their evil uncle Amulius tried to do away with future competition to the throne by forcing their mother Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal virgin. This suggests that the cult of Vesta predates the founding of Rome or is at least contemporary with it. We meet with a Sacred Fire as early as the times of Aeneas (the Trojan war). Tradition attributes the institution of the Vestal Virgins to the second king of Rome after Romulus, Numa Pompilius (715-673BC) although as is suggested by Virgil’s Aenid this possibly refers to Numa being the first to settle the Order and to build a temple to the goddess Vesta in Rome.
The goddess Vesta was worshipped not only in the home but also in a circular temple in the Forum. It was a circular construction with a hole in the top of the roof to allow smoke to escape. Within the temple there was an altar with a flame which continually burned as well as a number of relics which were thought to influence the destiny of Rome. Accounts of the relics are uncertain at best but they are thought to have included the famous Palladium: an ancient image of the goddess Minerva brought from Troy by Romulus’ forefather, Aeneas, several hundred years before the founding of Rome.
In the earliest days the temple was a simple hut made of straw and mud but this was later replaced by a brick and marble building. The earliest foundations are in Tufa rock – a sort of porous chrystalised earth of volcanic origin which abounds in the area around Rome. The temple was rebuilt after the great fire of Rome during the reign of Nero (64AD) and was rebuilt a second time a century later.
The Vestal priestesses slept and lived in buildings just behind the temple. Rather than the simple cells one might imagine the Vestals actually lived in apartments which recent excavations indicate to have been supplied with hot water (suggesting a degree of comfort). The work of the priestesses was aided by a number of servants and slaves who lived in the same complex.
The buildings were two or three stories high and they enclosed a rectangular courtyard, rather like a cloister, which was decorated with the statues of the high-priestesses of the past. Portions of these buildings are still visible and a few of the statues which decorated the cloister are still there. I seem to remember that the pedestals of the statues bear names but that one, who must have dishonored the order has had her name obliterated, possibly because she converted to Christianity.
Continue to page 2 of 2 about Vesta and the Vestal Virgins: Their privileges and punishments.
You can also read about several of the other religious orders of ancient Rome