The Vestalia continues…
Yesterday, I mentioned being surprised by information I found about the
Shrine of Vesta at the Ancient Roman Forum. What is to be seen looks as ancient
as the rest of the ruins but it was reconstructed like pieces of a jigsaw in
the 1930s from blocks purloined in past centuries to build ecclesiastical buildings.
The fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, wanted to create a new Rome harkening back to the glory of the
Ancients and in his own way destroyed later baroque buildings to mark out his
own architectural areas. It is due to his many building projects in the city of
Rome that much
of what is able to be seen now was uncovered. The area defining what had been
the shrine of Vesta was revealed and the partial reconstruction we can see
today was done to pinpoint the area.
|Temple of Vesta- Nancy Jardine|
Who was Vesta? And what was her shrine all about?
Vesta was originally a goddess of the home and hearth who was popular in other places, like Pompei, before her cult was adopted by
Rome. She was revered as
the goddess of the hearth, carer of domestic life and a guardian of the home
and represented the vital force of earth - the flame, or fire, of vitality. After
a time of being a more personal domestic goddess of the hearth her cult was
adopted by the state of Ancient Rome and the function of Vesta developed to
become the protector of Rome
I’ve read about the vestal virgins in many different fictional works and about their importance to the Ancient Romans. Vesta was the guardian of the eternal flame of
Rome and as such her shrine
at the heart of Rome
was the most revered site in what became the Forum area. Being the protector of
the state of Rome was an incredibly responsible task and the earliest known aedes sacra (sacred building) is thought
to have been built during the early Roman republic, possibly ( maybe
mythically) by Numa Pompilius the religious founder of Rome. Built on a
circular base, essentially similar to a Celtic roundhouse, the most original
forms of the shrine of Vesta are thought to have had wicker walls and a thatched
roof, probably with a hole at the centre for the smoke from the eternal fire to
escape. The earliest forms of the building were subject to weathering and potential
accidental fire and these were gradually replaced in stone. The circular base remained a feature of the
shrine with stone/ marble columns replacing the walls.
It was believed that if the scared eternal flame inside the shrine was extinguished great harm would befall
Rome. The shrine was attended to by the
priestesses of Vesta, the Vestals, whose solemn duty was to protect that flame
at all costs and to ensure it continued from one day to the next. The Vestal
priestesses were specially chosen from the elite of Roman Families and it was their
sacred duty to give their life to the cult for a period of thirty years, during
which time they remained a virgin. In this way they aped the purity and
elemental nature of fire. If they lost their virginal status it could get
pretty brutal for them - the Vestal was buried alive in the Campus Sceleris (field of wickedness) as
it was believed she could not be killed in the normal way.
June the 7th was the beginning of the festival of Vestalia and it was on this day (7th) that the penus Vestae, the normally ‘forbidden to the public’ sanctity of the shrine was opened to women of
could visit the shrine that day, barefoot to make offerings and pray to the goddess.
More tomorrow on the Vestalia…