Vestalia: An Introduction


7-15 June: Vesta’s temple is open to women

9 June (V. Id. Iun) is the Vestalia, centred around the circular aedes (house) of Vesta. On this day, the Vestals make the cakes (mola salsa), which involves cooking grain with salt. Hence it is a holy day for millers/ bakers, for which millstones and asses were garlanded with flowers and loaves. Food on clean plates is offered to Vesta.

15 June: the temple is closed and the storehouse is wept clean: Q.ST.D.F = quando stercum delatum fas (‘when it is lawful for the dirt/filth to be carried away’). This filth was carried to the Tiber and thrown into the river.

1st century B.C. Historical Impact

Augustus brings Vesta close to or into his own house on the Palatine.

Controversies and Opinions 

What was the origin of the festival? Did it go back to the time of Numa?

What is its purpose? Was it to promote the fertility of crops? Or was it a celebration of the power of the hearth/oven to manufacture/provide food?

What was in inner sanctum of the temple of Vesta? Did it serve as a store for sacred items for other festivals (e.g. the ashes used for the Parilia)? Did it house the statue of Pallas Athene (Palladium) that Aeneas brought to Italy from Troy? Did it contain statuettes of the Penates (the protectors of store cupboards)?

Who or what did the Vestals represent? Were they symbolic of wives or daughters from Rome’s regal period? Or do they occupy a special liminal position between daughter and mother, man and woman, mortal and divine?

What duties did the Vestals specifically perform during this period? How much can we safely assume?

Did the women approach the shrine barefooted?

Major Ancient Testimony

OVID, Fasti, 6.249-468

LIVY, 1.20

PLUTARCH, Life of Romulus 22; Life of Numa 9-11

Secondary Reading

M. Beard (1980), “The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins”, Journal of Roman Studies 70, 12-27

M. Beard (1995), “Re-reading (Vestal) Virginity”, in R. Hawley and B. Levick (edd.), Women in Antiquity: New Assessments, London, 166-77

M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome,Cambridge, I.51-4

R.J. Littlewood (2006), A Commentary on Ovid’s Fasti, Book 6,Oxford, 79ff.

H.N. Parker (2004), “Why were the Vestals Virgins? The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the RomanState”, American Journal of Philology 125, 563-601

S. Pomeroy (1976), Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves,London, 210-14

J. Scheid (1992), “The Religious Roles of Roman Women”, in P. Schmitt Pantel (ed.), A History of Women in the West. Vol.1, From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints,Cambridge, 381-84

H.H. Scullard (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York, 149-50, 153

A. Staples (1998), From Good Goddess to Vestal Virgins: Sex and Category in Roman Religion,London

R.L. Wildfang (1999), “The Vestal Virgin’s Ritual Function in Roman Religion”, Classica et Mediaevalia 50, 227-34

R.L. Wildfang (2001), “The Vestals and Annual Public Rites”, Classica et Mediaevalia 52, 223-55