Vestalia Story 8: A Senior Vestal Virgin

Statue of a Vestal

Marble statue of a Vestal, Museo di Palazzo Braschi, Rome. © Lalupa, 2007.

My name is Aemilia and I am one of the six priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins.[i] I spent my first ten years as a Vestal learning the duties of the Virgins, the second ten years was spent performing those duties and now I am teaching them to the younger Vestals.[ii] The main duty of the Vestals is to guard the sacred fire of Vesta.[iii] It is very important that this fire never goes out or it may bring about the destruction of the city.[iv] Some say Romulus was the first to consecrate the holy fire but others think it was Numa because we believe him to be the first Pontifex Maximus and he began the institution of the high priests.[v] I heard that Numa spoke to the muses and consecrated this fire.[vi] The fire is kept within the confines of the aedes Vestae and is a representation of the goddess Vesta.[vii] The fire burns constantly and is only extinguished and relit by us once a year.[viii] Rumour has it that we start the flame afresh by lighting an unpolluted flame from the rays of the sun.[ix] In truth, we relight the fire by rubbing together two pieces of wood from an arbor felix and then moving the initial flame into Vesta’s temple on a bronze sieve.[x] Vesta is nothing other than this living flame. We see that no bodies have been born from the flame, therefore she is a virgin by right and neither gives nor receives seed and so loves companions in her virginity.[xi] This is why we have to ensure we stay pure and chaste.

As priestesses of Vesta, who is connected with the fruit of the earth, we celebrate this day to stimulate the fertility ofRome’s crops, men, beasts, supply of sunshine and rainfall.[xii] The fire we guard is at the centre of the city because Vesta symbolises the earth and is thought to be the centre of the universe.[xiii]. The fire is linked to the foundation, generation and continuation of the Roman race.[xiv] But something I have failed to understand in my twenty years as a Vestal Virgin is why, if fire is not a viable element – apparently from it nothing can be born, since it consumes all things – is it thought to be a symbol of Rome’s fertility?[xv]

Roman coin with Aeneas and hids father and the the sacred objects from Troy.

Reverse of a silver denarius of Gaius Julius Caesar, 47-46BC, showing Aeneas fleeing Troy with the Palladium in his right hand and his father, Anchises, who transported the Penates, on his left shoulder. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Ann Raia, 2007. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

We also protect the sacred items that we keep in the aedes of Vesta.[xvi] These include: a statue of Pallas Athene known as the Palladium and two small statuettes of the Penates.[xvii] I remember being told of one particularly devastating time when my home, the aedes Vestae, caught on fire. The Senate were apparently terrified as the fires started to rage throughout the Forum Romanum and they thought it was caused by sin and impiety.[xviii] Apparently the Vestals were so traumatised that they just stood still and wept until Metellus ran in to save the Palladium.[xix] If there is ever a fire in the temple, we Vestals are expected to carry the Palladium out and keep it in a safe place as it is essential to the safety of the city, just like it once was at Troy.[xx]

In preparation for today, earlier this year we spent every other day for two nundinae in early May placing ears of spelt in reaper’s baskets and drying, crushing and grinding the ears; we then stored the meal.[xxi] When the time of the Vestalia came round in June we used it to make the mola salsa.[xxii] First we collected water in narrow-based vessels from the sacred spring of Juturna located near the temple of Vesta.[xxiii] The vessel’s shape prevents us from putting them down – they would fall over – because the water must not touch the ground, as that would destroy its virtue.[xxiv] We had already specially prepared the salt: pounding crystals from the brine from a salt pan in a mortar and baking them in a jar, the resultant lump was cut with an iron saw and we added this salt to the meal we had ground in May.[xxv]. When we make the mola salsa using the meal and salt it reminds me of the well-known story of when Jupiter told Vesta to ‘make their dwindling corn appear plentiful’, which saved the people of Rome during the siege of Rome by the Gauls.[xxvi] The Vestalia is one of the three occasions in the year that we will make the mola salsa, the others are the Lupercalia and the Ides of September.[xxvii] But those festivals are far away, whereas the Vestalia is upon us and it is in this festival’s rituals that I am training the younger Vestals!

We have so much to do on this day; I wonder how when there were only four Vestal Virgins they managed to perform all their duties? Thankfully Servius added two more Vestal Virgins to our number.[xxviii]. For the past two days leading up to the festival of the Vestalia, the aedes has been open and large numbers of women have been bringing offerings to Vesta. The matrons of Rome will continue to approach barefoot with offerings of food today and for the next five days.[xix] It’s exhausting but as we Vestals are withdrawn from the normal activities of life it is interesting to interact with the public on these festival days, so that they can witness the vitality and purity of our cult.[xxx] Today is the focal point of our activities and the first offering of the mola salsa is made.[xxxi] The mola salsa is a purifying substance and we Vestal Virgins are perceived by the public as having a purifying role. I find it peculiar that on this day we do not make an animal sacrifice, something which is a prominent part of other festivals, such as the Lupercalia. At that festival goats are sacrificed because of their sexual potency, a connection with fertility that would also be appropriate for today’s festival.[xxxii]

Outside I can see loaves of bread hanging from garlanded donkeys. The donkey is sacred to the goddess Vesta and is protected by her, which is why we honour the donkey on this day.[xxxiii] The public appear to be in high spirits today because this day is a holiday for both bakers and millers and all public business has been put on hold until the temple is cleansed and the festival ends.[xxxiv]

As I wander around the temple, I overhear two women talking about a recent incident when the fire went out in hushed fearful tones because the sacred fire going out is considered the direst of omens.[xxxv] On that occasion I, in my role as a teacher of duties, had entrusted the fire to a younger Vestal who is learning her duties.[xxxvi] Somehow, she managed to let the fire go out – I think she must have fallen asleep… There was uproar throughout the city and the pontifices suspected that this was because I was no longer chaste. At this accusation I protested, going so far as to run into the aedes, tear the band off the linen garment I was wearing and throw it on the altar. The garment burst into flame, relighting the fire, and the city, to my relief, was no longer in danger. Prompt action must be taken if the sacred fire goes out to expiate this evil omen and ensure the city’s continued existence.[xxxvii] I was terrified because negligence of the flame is punishable by the pontifices, who could have scourged both the trainee and myself to death, as they did to a Vestal who let the fire go out during the Punic Wars.[xxxviii] This punishment may seem severe but as we are held in such high regard by the public it seems fair that the punishment for those who neglect their duties or break their vow of chastity is severe.[xxxix] Breaking our vow of chastity is punishable by a miserable death: the unchaste Vestal is carried in a funeral procession to the Colline Gate where she must climb down into the underground cell that will become her grave, but for which she will not be allowed a monument or funeral rites.[xl] She is given bread, water, milk and oil because it is not thought lawful to actually execute those who have been consecrated to fulfil the religious responsibilities that we have: though once the entrance has been filled in she gradually starves in dark.[xli]. The thought is horrifying, no wonder I was so desperate to refute the suggestion that my virtue had been compromised and so delighted that Vesta vindicated me by relighting her fire.

When people are gathered in the temple we make prayers and blessings on behalf of the state and individual households.[xlii] We make a special prayer to our emperor Augustus because the peace and well-being of the city of Rome is thought to depend, and indeed does depend, very much on the actions of our emperor, which means that the greatest service the gods can perform for the Roman people is to preserve and aid him. Henceforth, the most important aspect of the pax deorum is the gods’ protection and support of the princeps.[xliii]

Banqueting Vestals

Vestals banqueting with a male figure (probably the Pontifex Maximus), possibly from altar inside the Ara Pacis. Museo Montemartini, Rome. © Ann Raia, 1999. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

We then pour libations of wine and oil on the altar of the sacred fire.[xliv] On this day we offer a platter of food to Vesta and sit at long benches so the gods can dine with us.[xlv]

On the last day of the procession of matrons bringing offerings, among the throngs of women, I spot my mother and sister, whose discrete wave I manage to acknowledge with a nod. I don’t see much of them because when I was six my parents passed me into the control of the Pontifex Maximus and now I only see them at festivals when I have duties to perform.[xlvi] After joining the Vestals, I ceased to celebrate the rites of my birth family and instead took part in those associated with Vesta’s cult.[xlvii]

This is a similar process to girls who cease to be a member of their birth family by passing to a new family through marriage.[xlviii] My sister, who is two years older than I, was not chosen to be a Vestal because her stammer made her ineligible but I was chosen over another girl because my parents were not only both alive but were not divorced, which made me a more favourable candidate for selection.[xlix] Now as I carry out my duties as a member of the symbolic family of Rome, I reflect on this nostalgic encounter and my role as both a mother and a daughter to Vesta herself.

As I throw the refuge we have swept from the temple into the River Tiber, I feel satisfaction that we have completed our duties for the Vestalia without error and secured the city’s safety and prosperity for another year.[l]

________________________________

[i] The name of the Vestal Virgin is taken from Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.68.

[ii] Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.67.

[iii] Vesta, daughter of Chronos (Time) and Rhea (The Earth), is the Roman goddess of the hearth fire and was cognate with Greek goddess Hestia (goddess of the hearth). Vesta was worshipped in every Roman household, see P. Harvey, 1984, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford: 446. She encapsulated all the elements: she was the flame itself; Vesta the virgin and Vesta the mother, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, 1998, Religions of Rome: Volume I: A History, Cambridge: 52. For Vesta as representing the domestic hearth of the city, see C.T. Worsfold, 1934, The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, London: 16.

[iv] Plutarch Life of Numa 9.

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus.

1st century AD statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus from the Via Labicana. Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums). © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

[v] Romulus was the joint founder of the city of Rome, which was named after him (Plutarch Life of Romulus 22).

For Numa’s foundation of the cult of Vesta and the Vestal Virgins, see Plutarch Life of Numa 9.

The Pontifex Maximus, who in AD10 was the emperor Augustus, was responsible for the Vestal Virgins and was the chief priest of the College of the Pontiffs. This College comprised of a leader (the Pontifex Maximus, also known as the rex sacrorum (the ‘king of sacred rites’ or leader of the sacrifice), the three major priests devoted to Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (the flamen Dialis, flamen Martialis and flamen Quirini), the twelve minor flamines, three pontifices (the singular form is pontifex, which literally means ‘bridge-builder’ but still survives as a religiously significant title today) and the six Vestal Virgins. Members of the College were consulted on matters of sacred law, games, sacrifices, vows, burial law and the calendar. They also kept public annual records of events (annales maximi).

[vi] The sources supporting Numa’s consecration of the fire are listed by Worsfold, n.[iii]: 19.

[vii] For the fire as Vesta, see Ovid Fasti 6.291- 298.

[viii] For this ritual as part of Roman New Year on 1st March, see Harvey, n.[iii]: 446.

[ix] Plutarch Life of Numa 9.

[x] Arbor felix means ‘lucky tree’. For the bronze sieve, see Ovid Fasti 6.291- 2. For the whole process, see A.J. Boyle & R.D. Woodard (trans.), 2000, Ovid: Fasti, London: 293.

[xi] On the nature of the Vestals, see R.L. Wildfang, 1999, ‘The Vestal Virgin’s Ritual Function in Roman Religion’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227- 234: 228.

[xii] M. Eliade, 1974, Patterns in Comparative Religion, New York: 154.

[xiii] For Vesta at the centre of the universe, see Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 11.66.

[xiv] Beard, North & Price, n.[iii]: 142.

[xv] On the nature of fire, see Lacantius, Divine Institutes 1.12.

[xvi] The term aedes (literally, ‘building’) usually referred specifically to a temple or sanctuary. It does not quite have the same meaning as templum (‘temple’) but because aedes could used of areas found inside a templum the two words often coincide in descriptions.

One of the Penates in the form of a bronze statuette

One of the Penates, the protective spirits in the Roman house particularly concerned with the store cupboard. This figure holds a cornucopia and patera, insuring that the family is well provided with life’s necessities. Bronze figurine, 1st-3rd century AD. British Museum, London. © Ann Raia, 2006. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

[xvii] For the sacred items, see H.H. Scullard, 1981, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 149.

The Palladium was a statue of Minerva (the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena) which Jupiter (the Roman version of the Greek god Zeus) allowed to fall from heaven into the city of Troy. It was considered a sign that Jupiter was pleased at the founding of the city and the Trojans believed that its presence in the city was vital to the city’s safety. According to Roman tradition, Aeneas carried the Palladium out of Troy and it was placed in the temple of Vesta.

The Penates were Roman spirits connected with the inner parts of the house, particularly the store cupboard, and worshipped in Roman homes along with the Lares. For their worship in Vesta’s temple, see S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth, eds, 2003, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: 1135.

[xviii] Ovid Fasti 6.439-40.

[xix] For Lucius Caecilius Metellus, Pontifex Maximus at the time of the fire in 241BC, see Boyle & Woodard, n.[x]: 298.

[xx] Boyle & Woodard, n.[x]: 298.

[xxi] Wildfang, n.[xi]: 241.

[xxii] Mola salsa (‘salted flour’) was a spelt cake prepared by the Vestal Virgins and used for sacrificial purposes, see Harvey, n.[iii]: 277.

[xxiii] Juturna was the Roman goddess of fountains, wells and springs. On the link between the Vestals and Juturna, see Scullard, n.[xvii] 149.

[xxiv] Scullard, n.[xvii] 149.

[xxv] Scullard, n.[xvii]: 150.

[xxvi] The siege of Rome by the Gauls was in 390BC. For Vesta’s contribution, see Ovid Fasti 6.379.

[xxvii] On festivals using mola salsa, see Wildfang, n.[xi]: 230.

The Lupercalia festival took place on 15th February. During the festival goats and dogs were sacrificed at the Lupercal (a cave at the foot of the Palatine Hill where the she-wolf had reared Romulus and Remus). Luperci wore girdles of goat skins and ran around the Palatine Hill striking bystanders with goat thongs. For a brief outline of the festival, see Hornblower & Spawforth, n.[xvii] 892.

The Ides of September fell on 13th September. Each month had an Ides, which was linked to the full moon and fell on either the 13th or the 15th of the month, depending upon the month’s length (March, July, October and May have Ides on 15th, in all the others on 13th).

[xxviii] Servius Tullius was a king of Romefrom 578-535BC. His rule was mild and several public works and reforms were attributed to him, including a two-person addition to the number of Vestals, see Plutarch Life of Numa 10. He was said to be the son of a slave-woman and Vulcan (god of smiths), see Harvey, n.[iii]: 391.

[xix] The Vestalia itself takes place of the 9th June but the festival starts on the 7th June and continues through to the 15th June, ending with the expulsion of the purgamina from the storehouse. Ovid (Fasti 6.249–468) provides a detailed account of the festivities of the 9th June, including the detail of the barefoot matrons with offerings. During the period of the festival 7th-15th June no marriages could take place, as this was a particularly inauspicious period, despite June being otherwise the month for weddings.

[xxx] See, W. Wade Fowler, 1969, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic: an introduction to the study of the religion of the Romans, New York: 146-48.

[xxxi] See, M. York, 1986, The Roman Festival Calendar of Numa Pomilius, New York: 130.

[xxxii] Scullard, n.[xvii]: 77.

[xxxiii] For a mythologizing link between Vesta and donkeys, see Ovid Fasti 6.311-18.

[xxxiv] Further, see Harvey, n.[iii]: 446.

[xxxv] For Vesta’s fire going out as the direst omen, see Livy 28.11.6.

[xxxvi] On expiation of this omen, see ee, Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.68.

[xxxvii] Wildfang, n.[xi]: 238.

[xxxviii] On Vestal chastity during the Punic Wars (264-146BC), see Livy 28.2. A brief discussion appears in N. Bagnall, The Punic Wars, New York: 9.

[xxxix] On Vestals’ punishments and privileges, see Worsfold, n.[iii]: 59.

[xl] For the burial alive of Vestal Virgins, including details of the procedure, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.67. The Colline Gate was located at the north end of the Servian Wall, which was thought to have been built by Servius Tullius. The location of the underground chamber suggests it too was part of the Servian improvements. For Servius and the Vestals, see n.[xxviii].

[xli] On the difficulty of executing consecrated persons, see Worsfold, n.[iii]: 61. On the provisions provided and the technical avoidance thereby of execution, see Worsford, n.[iii]: 66.

[xlii] York, n.[xxxi]: 130.

[xliii] For changes to the definition of the pax deorum (‘peace of the gods’) under Augustus, see J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, 1979, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, Oxford: 64-5. The title princeps (‘leader’/'chief’/'first man’) was adopted by Augustus himself and was never an official title, although Augustus’ successors also used it, see Harvey, n.[i]: 345.

[xliv] On the libations, see York, n.[xxxi]: 130.

[xlv] For dining arrangements at the Vestalia, see Ovid Fasti 6.305-6.

[xlvi] On the age of potential Vestal Virgins, see V.A. Warrior, 2006, Roman Religion, Cambridge: 45.

[xlvii] For a full summary of the public rites engaged in by the Vestals, see R.L. Wildfang, 2001, ‘The Vestals and Annual Public Rites’, Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-255: 229.

[xlviii] For the similarities between the position of selected Vestals and of brides, see Wildfang, n.[xlvii]: 229.

[xlix] On stammers, see Worsfold, n.[iii]: 23. On the preference for living, non-divorced, parents, see Tacitus Annals 11.86.

[l] On disposal of the purgamina from the aedes Vestae at the end of the festival, see Warde Fowler, n.[xxx]: 148.

Vestalia Story 7: A Thoughtful Mother and Daughter

 

Statues of Vestals in the courtyard of the House of the Vestals

The House of the Vestals was rebuilt as a three storey, fifty room palace after the great fire of Rome in AD64, with these statues of Vestal Virgins arranged in its courtyard. The original building had a different axis of orientation and only six rooms. © Nickbigd, 1987

Mother:

It is the 9th June and the Vestalia is upon us![i] I have looked forward to this day every year since I became a married woman, as this is one of the few days in our religious calendar where women, rather than men, play the central role.[ii]

Even before I was old enough to enter the sacred Temple of Vesta, I enjoyed this joyous festival and the celebration of the sacred goddess of the hearth more than any other holiday – it is always a wonderful day, and the weather is always beautiful in early June.[iii]

This year, for the first time, I will be accompanying my youngest daughter, Claudia, to the festival. Claudia, like most young girls, is excited to be out on a festival day. Ahead she is strolling down the busy street with her father, who looks so proud of her. My heart soars to see the two of them walking together, Claudia asking him questions and my husband pointing out the festival sights. Everyone seems so happy but my good mood is tainted with the thought that within the year my little girl may be one of the Vestals performing the rituals of this ancient festival. On the day Claudia was born, my husband informed me of his decision to offer our child to the cult of Vesta.[iv] He assures me that his intentions are to praise and honour the sacred goddess, but in my bitter mind I question his altruistic motives. After twenty long years of marriage and three daughters, I know him well enough to suspect that his motives are less about piety and more about finance: Claudia’s inauguration into the cult of Vesta would mean one less dowry to pay![v]

Claudia:

I know I irritate Father when I talk too much, but there are so many things I want to know and understand about the Vestalia. As we pass Pompey’s Theatre, I ask him if I can go too the next time he visits and Father tells me that I must be patient and that maybe one day I will be lucky enough to sit in the best seats![vi] Imagine me, Claudia, a Vestal! I would have to fulfil all the sacred duties that the Vestals perform, such as sweeping out the storehouse and attending to the sacred flame, but I am sure I would be good at it and I know that I would never let the fire go out![vii]

Marble statue of King Numa

2nd century AD marble statue of Numa Pompilius, second king of Rome, from the Basilica Aemilia. © Eve Andersson, 2010, eve@eveandersson.com; http://www.eveandersson.com/

As we walk through the busy streets towards the Forum Romanum, my father explains to me the ancient origins of the Vestalia.[viii] The cult of Vesta dates back to the old days when men and women worshipped the spirit of the hearth in their huts. As time went by the cult became public and priestesses were needed to attend to Vesta’s flame. Our second King, Numa, selected virgin priestesses from among his own daughters to attend the sacred hearth. There are now six Vestal Virgins who serve Vesta, but in days gone by there were only four.[ix]

We round the corner and can finally see the busy Forum Romanum at the end of the street. My father tells me that our great Romulus built the first temple dedicated to Vesta and that Romulus’ mother, Rhea Silvia, was an early priestess of Vesta.[x] This makes perfect sense to me. The round shape of Vesta’s temple makes it stand out from all the other rectangular temples and that is because Romulus built it as a house for Vesta to live in, just like the hut he lived in.[xi]

I have always wondered what exactly takes place inside, hopefully one day I will find out either as a Vestal or once I am married…

Mother:

This morning, I took special care to prepare plain food on our most unsophisticated plates.[xii] Every year I bring these offerings to Vesta to pray for a blessing on our household. Many of the religious festivals throughout the year seem to act as a way for the elite of our city to display their wealth. However, today, perhaps due to the antiquity of the Vestalia, all thoughts of pomp are forgotten as we remove our shoes and forget our status at the door of the temple.[xiii]

Since Augustus became Pontifex Maximus he has been dedicated to reviving religious traditions. While this has been beneficial to Rome, I sometimes think he has no thought for how these ancient traditions will fit into our modern world. With parents unwilling to offer their daughters to the cult, Augustus has famously said that if his granddaughters had been old enough he would have offered them to Vesta.[xiv] I challenge him to swap positions with me and then perhaps his hypothetical determination would collapse – although as Pontifex Maximus he would still get to see them… O gosh, I am such a pessimist! On a positive note, it is better to have a Pontifex Maximus living here in the city fulfilling all of his priestly duties, than one who was absent for as long as Lepidus![xv]

All around me the street bustles with people, and I fear that, having slowed while thinking these sorry thoughts, I will lose sight of my husband and daughter!

Claudia:

The crowd bustles all around us and I anxiously grab onto my father’s arm as we enter the Forum Romanum from the Via Nova. A barefooted matron stops in front of us to prepare her offerings and I can’t help but stare – she must be preparing to enter the aedes Vestae, oh, how I wish I could go with her![xiii]

As we push through the crowds I am startled by the loud braying of a baker’s donkey, wedged between two large and merry millers happily celebrating their annual holiday – the 9th June is a day on which they must let their millstones rest. I catch glimpses through the crowds of other garlanded donkeys and millstones covered with holiday flowers.[xvi] The donkeys must feel relieved to have a holiday too, as they work so hard driving the millstones. I know that donkeys are very special to Vesta and am glad that today they are honoured for their part in grinding the wheat to make the flour that makes our bread. I giggle to myself at the sight of seeing tiny loaves dangling around their hairy necks.

Some of the donkeys must be uncomfortable in the hustle and bustle of the crowd because they are making the most alarming noises… I once overheard my mother talking to a friend about an ancient legend in which a donkey somehow warned the goddess Vesta of danger, I hope she doesn’t think their braying means that there is any danger now. Maybe that is why the donkeys are adorned with garlands, as a sign of Vesta’s gratitude?[xvii] The donkeys add to the spectacle but, I have to say, they do smell funny.

The smell of the donkeys is softened by the salty and warm smell of something being cooked on the sacred hearth, which Father says is mola salsa.[xviii] I have never seen the mola salsa, but I know it is not a cake for eating, I am curious about what it’s actually for. I think the cakes are sacrificed to the goddess Vesta but I’m not sure how you sacrifice a cake. Perhaps they are given to the goddess at the same time as the food my mother has brought?

My Father senses my curiosity, and tells me that only the Vestals can make mola salsa and they make the mola salsa with their own hands from the first ears of corn plucked in the early days of May. What a privilege it must be to do something so important! The water used to prepare the cakes also has significance and he stresses that this water is different from the water that we have piped in to our domus from the aqueduct. It is special holy water drawn from the sacred spring of Juturna, which has its own temple near the aedes Vestae.[xix]

Marble bas relief with the Temple of Vesta. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Marble bas relief with the Temple of Vesta. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

I remember once seeing two Vestals carrying water towards the temple in very odd looking vessels. My slave-girl, Larisa, told me that the reason for their narrow bases is to prevent them from being placed on the ground. I guess the water might lose its special qualities and become unclean and impure if it touches the ground, which would be no good for making mola salsa, or anything else, for the goddess.

My attention is drawn towards the curved steps of the glistening round aedes Vestae. I strain to see our great Emperor Augustus, who is here in his role of Pontifex Maximus. My father picks me up and places me on his shoulders. Now, sitting so high, I can see Augustus standing with the Head Vestal. How elegant she looks in her long white robes with her hair neatly tied back in plaits. She has a white linen hair band tied around her head and I notice that no other matron in the crowd is wearing one.[xx] I always find it strange to see the Vestal Virgins – their dress is just like the stola that my mother wears but their hair is plaited in the sex crines – the hair style that both my elder sisters wore on their wedding days.[xxi] Perhaps instead of dressing up just for my wedding day I will become a Vestal Virgin and be allowed to wear wedding-day hair every day!

I know that some people think that the Vestals represent King Numa’s daughters but others the wives of his family because I’ve overheard snippets of arguments on the subject, but I like to think of them as daughters. If I were to become a Vestal, Father would no longer be my guardian, I would pass into the authority of the Pontifex Maximus – just as my sisters passed into the care of their husbands on their wedding days, but not exactly like them: Augustus is a father than a husband to the Vestals.

Mother:

On the southern-side of the Via Sacra, I see a young Vestal leaving the atrium Vestae[xxii] She can’t be more than two years older than my Claudia. The Vestal only has to walk a very short distance between her home and the temple but her long and heavy stola appears to be too big for her and she almost treads on the hem as she scurries along. Poor thing, I do hope she is not late for the ceremonial offering of the sacred cakes! As I look up at the large atrium Vestae my thoughts turn to my young Claudia again. Perhaps this will be her home in a matter of months! I wince at the thought of the punishments meted out here. What if she makes a silly mistake and lets the sacred flame die out? She may be flogged by the Pontifex Maximus or even worse she may put to death if she is accused of losing her virtue…[xxiii] I must try to stop my mind from turning to such dark thoughts! I must focus on the joyous events of the day.

Fortunately, I see a group of chattering matrons gathered outside the Regia, the home of the Pontifex Maximus as it used to be. Augustus has instead chosen to live in his own house on the Palatine but, in order to keep the connection with the Vestals, he has built a shrine to Vesta in his palace.[xxiv] The sacred flame and the secret articles, I know for sure, still remain in the aedes vestae, as the fire of Vesta is so vital to our history and continued prosperity. The flame is believed to have been brought from Troy, by Aeneas, our great ancestor, who also brought with him our precious household gods.[xxv] With this thought in mind, I must prepare myself to enter the temple and worship our sacred goddess, a symbol of sterility and fertility so integral to our great city’s strength and safety.[xxvi]

Claudia:

A Vestal who seems only a little bit older than me emerges from the crowd. She looks very nervous. Perhaps this is her first time taking part in the Vestalia? I wonder if she has participated in many other festivals in our religious calendar yet. The Vestals often have roles in other festivals, but nothing as important as the Vestalia. The older Vestals on the temple steps appear calm and in control but this young Vestal looks terrified as she goes to stand by them. I think that if I were in her honourable position I would hold my head far higher.

Suddenly I see my mother, stepping carefully up the steps to the temple. I imagine I can hear a calm descending over the raucous festive atmosphere as she removes her shoes and steps into the flame-lit dark. I do wish I could go with her…
__________________________

[i] Ovid (Fasti 6.249 – 468) provides an account of the proceedings of the 9th June including the nature of Vesta’s cult and rituals. The Vestalia itself takes place of the 9th June but the festival starts on the 7th June and continues through to the 15th June, ending with the expulsion of the purgamina from the storehouse.

[ii] Only married women are permitted to enter the temple during this period. For the rest of the year the temple is only accessed by the Vestal Virgins (and the Pontifex Maximus): ‘No man may have gazed upon you, Goddess’ (Ovid Fasti 6.254).

[iii] A characteristic trait of Vesta is that she is not represented in physical form within the temple: ‘there is no image of Vesta herself nor her fire.’ (Ovid Fasti 6.298-299).

[iv] Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights 1.12) discusses the Papian law, under which the Pontifex Maximus selected one girl from a group of twenty, but a girl can be offered to Vesta and the law bypassed if this is ‘done in keeping with the religious observations’. When enrolled into the cult the Vestal passes from her father’s authority into the patriae potestas (‘paternal power/control’) of the Pontifex Maximus.

[v] Young girls were enrolled in the cult of Vesta between the ages of six and ten and served Vesta for thirty years.  The Vestals were given dowries at the end of their period of service, when they ‘were free to marry’, see S. Pomeroy, 1975, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, London: 211.

[vi] The Vestals enjoyed certain privileges: one of them was the right to sit in reserved seats at the games, another is the ‘right to make a will during the life time of their fathers’ (Plutarch, Numa 10.3).

[vii] The fire of Vesta was never allowed to go out, other than once a year when it was ritually extinguished and then relit on 1st March.

[viii] The worship of Vesta is the most ancient religious cult in Rome. It was traced back to the old Latin community of the regal period in Alba Longa, see Dionysus of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.64-65 and Livy History of Rome 1.20.

[ix] There were originally four Vestals appointed by the second king of Rome (Dionysus of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.67), but the number was increased to six by a later king of Rome (either Servius Tullius or Tarquinius Priscus).

[x] Rhea Silvia is the mythological mother of Romulus (Plutarch Romulus 3.2-3).

[xi] The aedes Vestae resembled the oval huts of the Roman regal period. Ovid also ascribes a scientific purpose for the shape: ‘Vesta['s temple] resembles the earth’ (Fasti 6.265). For further discussion, see R.J. Littlewood, 2006, A Commentary on Ovid’s Fasti: Book 6, Oxford: 89 and A.J. Boyle & R.D. Woodard (trans.), 2000, Ovid: Fasti, London: 291.

[xii] Plain offerings of food or grain were brought to Vesta on the 9th June (Ovid Fasti 6.310).

[xiii] Ovid records a meeting with a ‘barefoot lady’ at the Vestalia (Fasti 6. 395) suggesting that the matrons entered the aedes Vestae barefoot. The significance of going barefoot during the Vestalia may be linked to the belief that contact with the earth promotes fertility, for discussion see Littlewood, n.[xi]: 123, but other explanations are possible.

[xiv] In relation to the issue of enrolling young girls in to the cult of Vesta, Augustus was quoted to have said: “If either of my own grand-daughters were old enough, I would have proposed her” (Suetonius Divus Augustus 31).

[xv] Augustus correctly waited until the death of Lepidus in 12BC before he appropriated the title of Pontifex Maximus, the only title retained by Lepidus after his exile in 36BC, see W. Eck, 1998, The Age of Augustus, Oxford: 28. Augustus modified the role into a hereditary position that only subsequent emperors could inherit. This created a permanent head of Roman religion who was in ‘…control [of] all sacred and religious matters’ (Cassius Dio Roman History 44.5.3).

[xvi] ‘Loaves of bread hang from garlanded donkeys and chains of flowers veil rough millstones’ (Ovid Fasti 6.311-312). Ovid explains the link between the Vestalia and the millers’ holiday: ‘The Hearth baked the bread which was buried in its ash…hence the baker respects the Hearth and the Hearth’s mistress and the donkey turning the pumice millstones’ (Ovid Fasti 6.316-318). This is detailed in a wall painting from a Lararium (household shrine) in Pompeii, see Littlewood, n.[xi]: 58 (fig.8).

[xvii] Ovid introduces a light-hearted tale detailing the attempted rape of Vesta by Priapus (a minor fertility deity), whereby the bray of a donkey alerted Vesta to the danger. Ovid maintains that it is this favour which causes the Vestal Virgins to ‘necklace [the donkey] with bread’ by way of thanks. Poetic license suggests that this is probably just a myth, included for effect, in the absence of any other account of the reason for garlanding the donkeys during the festival.

[xviii] Mola salsa (literally ‘salted flour’) was a cake made from spelt and salt, see R.L. Wildfang, 1999, ‘The Vestal Virgin’s Ritual Function in Roman Religion’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227-234: 232. Wildfang quotes Servius’s account of the making of the mola salsa: ‘The senior Vestal Virgins harvest the first ears of corn between the 7th and the 14th of May and the Virgins dry, crush and grind these ears’ (Servius ad Eclogues 8.82). Vestal Virgins made mola salsa three times a year, including the Vestalia, but the cakes were only offered to Vesta during the Vestalia.

[xix] All water used by the Vestals for sacred purposes was drawn from the sacred spring of Juturna, see H.H. Scullard, 1981, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 150.

[xx] The white linen hairband was a symbol of a Vestal’s status and chastity so, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus notes (Roman Antiquities, 2.68), this was torn off when a Vestal was executed for violating her vows, see also n.[xxiii].

[xxi] Whether the Vestals represent wives or daughters is ambiguous. Uncertainty derives from their role in performing virginal duties such as protecting the hearth while participating in agricultural fertility festivals such as the Fordicidia and wearing a hairstyle usually worn only on a virgin’s wedding day at the same time as clothing suited to married women (the stola). The Vestals held a liminal position in Roman religion due to the ambiguity of their sexual status: ‘the key to the Vestal’s sacred status is precisely in its ambiguity’ (M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, 1998, Religions of Rome: Volume I: A History, Cambridge: 52). For further, in-depth, discussion, see M. Beard, 1980, ‘The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins’, Journal of Roman Studies 70: 12-27.

[xxii] For the topography of the Roman Forum and the complex of Vestal buildings see F. Coarelli, 2007, Rome and Environs: an archaeological guide, London 2007.

[xxiii] Vestals were subject to the severe punishment of being buried alive if accused of breaking their vow of chastity (Plutarch Life of Numa 10.4-7). Vestals were a symbol of state security, hence, a crime in the Vestals’ domestic sphere affected the whole community. For the importance of their chastity in relation to Rome’s security and military success, see the specific cases in Pliny Epistles 4.11 and Livy Histories 2.42.9-1 with the further discussion of H.N. Parker, 2004, ‘Why were the Vestals Virgins? The Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State’, American Journal of Philology 125; 563-601 and of R.A Bauman, 2000, Human Rights in Ancient Rome, London.

[xxiv] Instead of living in the traditional house of the Pontifex Maximus, the Regia (in the Forum Romanum near the Temple of Vesta), Augustus remained in his house on the Palatine but he afforded considerable importance to Vesta by dedicating a shrine to the goddess in that house. While ‘Numa is remembered on the Vestalia for receiving into his house the flame of Vesta’ (G. Herbert-Brown, 1994, Ovid and the Fasti: a historical study, Oxford: 194), likewise Augustus symbolically received the flame into his own house by dedicating this shrine, thereby effectively strengthening the ties between him and the ancient cult of Vesta.

Bernin's statue of Aeneas fleeing Troy with his father on his shoulders and son at his heels

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque statue of ‘Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius’ (1618-1619), Borghese Gallery, Rome. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, who in turn carries thheir household gods, the Penates, while Aeneas’ son, Ascanius, follows behind. Photomontage by Kiley, 2001, ‘Aeneas and I’ in My Life Abroad, November (http://kileygilmore.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/aeneas-and-i).

[xxv] It was an important part of the cult that the sacred flame and the Penates, guardians of the store-cupboard, brought from Troy, were protected. For reference to Vesta in relation to the household gods, see Vergil Aeneid 2.508-14.

[xxvi] For the purificatory and generative properties of Vesta’s flame, see the discussion by R.L. Wildfang, 2001, ‘The Vestals and Annual Public Rites’, Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-255, which argues against Beard’s (n.[xxi]) hypothesis that the fire of Vesta was both fertile and sterile. This tension in the nature of fire is apparent in the ancient sources, for example: ‘…do not imagine that Vesta is anything more than a living flame’ (Ovid Fasti 6.291) but ‘fire is male’ Varro (de Lingua Latina 5.61).