Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Vestalia continues…7th -15th June

The Vestalia continues…

Yesterday, I mentioned being surprised by information I found about the Temple/ 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 itself.

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 Rome. They could visit the shrine that day, barefoot to make offerings and pray to the goddess.

More tomorrow on the Vestalia…


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