October Horse Story 6: An Old Army Veteran Comments

Autumn light in a Roman atrium.

September light in the atrium of the House of the Menander in Pompeii. © Matthias Kabel (2012).

The tender autumnal sun gives a dim amber glow to the confines of the atrium. My dented old shield glints proudly on the wall, a well-ingrained habit of mine to keep it buffed to impeccable standards after such a long period of service. It hasn’t seen service in a fair while now, but I’ll be talking tales of war later today when I meet with my old comrades, at least those that are still alive at such a venerable age! I’m especially excited to see Lucius Dacius who’s been so busy of late, relentlessly overseeing the training of his fine horses, which will participate in the chariot race later. I do hope he does well! What an honour it is to enter one’s chariot in such a fiercely contested race. And how everyone’s been looking forward to the Ides of October, I never thought I’d see such enthusiasm! I’d be fibbing if I said that I always look forward to these festivals- they come around so often![i]

A Roman (patrician) child.

Marble statue of a child (Nero) wearing a bulla (the amulet thought to keep children safe and healthy) and holding a scroll. c. 48-50AD. Louvre. © Barbara McManus (1999). Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been to so many festivals over the years that I’m a little tired of them! Before I leave the house I must quickly make an offering to the Lares. They have protected us so well over the years. How my family has prospered! I think my grandson, little Festus, might be better off staying home today though – despite his complaints; it could be more than a little too gruesome for a boy of four - even I may have to bite my lip. If his soldier father hadn’t gone to tidy up Varus’ mess in Germany, maybe he’d think differently about coming to the festival to prove he’s a brave boy and to pray for his father’s safe return. I’ll say that prayer for him.[ii]

Having left the house quietly, I meander down to the Campus Martius – a fair distance for me to go but although it’s October the weather is amenable for walking and it is not so damp as to make my joints ache.[iii]

What a place this is, Augustus really has transformed this whole area, there’s something for everyone. I’m particularly impressed with the Baths of Agrippa and they remind of his generosity to the city. In fact I remember the building programme coming to an end nearly thirty years ago in 19BC. That makes me feel old! What a generous and kind man to leave an endowment in his will in order to keep the baths open to the public and how much fun it is to meet up with friends here. Even when they can’t make it, at least I get some breathing space from my wife! I speak on behalf of all my friends when I say how grateful we are to Augustus for his improvements within the city. With Agrippa at his side, they really have transformed this wonderful place into a worthy capital of the Empire, and how well it serves to demonstrate our greatness and power.

Certainly Augustus’ legacy of love for Rome will live on, this is no short-term fix. Not only does he endeavour to physically improve this city for us, he’s also making efforts to promote religion. Certainly I attribute a degree of religious decline to the troublesome years of civil war, when Romans felt like the good of the city was taking second place to the needs and wants of certain individuals. Harking back to the civil war, the memories are still fresh in my head. It was a harder a period of service than any of today’s soldiers endure, despite this new sixteen-year stretch. But Actium was something else! How happy I was to finally triumph over Anthony under Octavian.[iv] The whole thing was so demoralising – with Roman gods being prayed to (or rather not prayed to) on both sides – that it’s great to see Augustus doing something to revive religion.

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

1st century AD statue of Augustus, with his head covered with his toga, as an officiating Pontifex Maximus. From the Via Labicana now in ther Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums), Rome. © Barbara McManus (2003). Courtesy of VRoma www.vroma.org

 Rome didn’t even have a flamen Dialis for seventy five years until Augustus found an appropriate replacement.[v] Surely that demonstrates what a dire condition religion was in! I’m no scholar but I actually remember old Dacius (who certainly thinks he’s pretty learned, having been a chum of Ovid before he was exiled) trying to explain to me that this vacant position actually could have been a sign of strength: that it showed adaptation within Roman religion, that it questioned the traditions and was an attempt to be more dynamic… Instead, under Augustus, Horace said that we must address the issues of neglecting the gods for so long in order to move on. It’s difficult not to hear Augustus’s own voice resonating in the literary works of Horace, but I guess it was Augustus who motivated Horace to present Augustus’ own voice on religion.[vi] So too, Horace’s personal debt to Augustus would explain such a favourable portrayal of him. We should be particularly grateful to Varro too, who under Julius Caesar clarified and reminded us of divine and human matters, certainly I remember an emotional Cicero expressing the debt of the people of Rome to him.[vii] It was Varro who encouraged us to re-engage with religion and personal participation certainly empowered me. How readily his ideas affected the illiterate I don’t know, but looking out across the throngs of people today, I’m pretty sure he had some impact! The amount of philosophical debate on the matter amongst my friends at dinner last night was remarkable![viii] 

I can see my old friend Dacius nervously pottering around on the other side of the track. His horses are going to be put to the test at any minute! I’m going to try and get a better viewing position. Perhaps I’ll move away from the corner – that’s where all the big crashes and the overtaking happens, so it’s where the crowd likes to stand. I can see the Pontifex Maximus raised up above the crowds at the far end of the track, dressed in his standard toga and capite velo.[ix] The horses line up with their chariots in tow, two horses per chariot, each one with a brave driver waiting anxiously for the starter. So much rests on the driver, if they can get a good line into the first corner and avoid the melee at the first corner they’re in with a chance. Fortunately, Dacius’s charioteer, Tailos, has got bags of experience.

The official raises the flag to start the race and violently dashes it down as a signal for the drivers to lash out at their horses. As they rear up and begin to charge down the straight, it’s a tight race. Carnage ensues at the first corner but Tailos manages to stay clear and pulls into the lead. It’s a close race between him and the two other remaining chariots, whose livery I don’t recognise. After two laps of switching positions, they disappear into a cloud of dust at the last corner. The crowd erupts as the three chariots race to the finishing post. Tailos pulls to the outside, to use the sound of the crowd to urge his horses on. I’m unsure of the finishing positions as they cross the line, it’s just too close to call.

After a short while the winner is announced: “Dacius, owner of Dissuendum and Concidendum, driven by Tailos, may thank the gods for the good fortune they bestowed upon him today!” I never thought he’d do it, but all that time spent in training has paid off. What an honour it is to have your horse sacrificed to Mars on such a special day! Dacius will be pleased. I can see him in the distance, but he looks busy; the flamen Martialis is walking towards him.[x] I will congratulate him later.

The crowds are starting to disperse and move to towards the altar for the sacrifice. I had better start moving soon to get a good place, these old legs can’t move as quickly as they could. There is a good number of people here today, including many young soldiers back from the campaigns.[xi] Ah, here comes Dacius now, I’ve never seen him look more pleased!

Unfortunately, there isn’t much time for two old men to chat, the flamen Martialis and our Pontifex Maximus have arrived along with some other young priest from the Pontifical College. With the togas over their heads it’s hard to make each one out, but I’d recognise Augustus anywhere.

Two Roman hastae (spears).

Two different types of Roman spear (hasta), both suitable for hunting or military use as a non-thrown weapon.

After a few incantations and a blessing to Mars, one of the boy attendants passes a spear to the flamen Martialis. Dacius’ right-hand horse is brought over and with a firm strike the Flamen Martialis drives the spear into side of the horse’s neck.[xii] It’s quite gruesome but the worst is yet to come, even though I’ve seen worse on the battlefield. The flamen Martialis is now collecting the horse’s fresh blood whilst the boy who passed the spear is starting to cut the head free from the body. I thought a saw a tear in old Dacius’ eye in a moment of pride but he staunchly refuses to show his emotion for the warhorse that has served him so well.[xiii] The flamen Martialis now goes to the rear of the horse and cuts the tail clean off and, after quickly raising it high for all to see, passes it to an athletic-looking chap I haven’t seen before. I smile as I remember a few years ago now when the tail was passed to a very old man who didn’t have the legs on him to get the tail to the Regia quickly enough in order for the blood to drip onto the inner hearth of that sacred building. The man sets off smartly followed by many of the young, I’m confident that this year he’ll make it in time.

I can’t help but think of our ancestors today because this event has taken place so many times before. I wonder how many have men have run down the Sacra Via with the tail towards the Regia. I wonder if this festival was celebrated when Numa lived there and how many proud owners have won the chariot race and had their horse sacrificed. I wonder how many times the battle we are about to see for the head of the sacrificed horse has taken place. Certainly it started long ago when this great city was ruled by kings.

I can see the two sides getting ready to fight now, all for the glory of winning the sacrificed horse’s head, which has been garlanded with loaves.[xiv] The two sides are made up of the Suburanenses, residents of the Subura distrct and the Sacravienses who live along the Sacra Via. Each year they fight after the horse has been beheaded to decide where the horse’s head will be displayed. If the Suburanenses win the head will be displayed on the turris Mamilia deep in the Subura.[xv] However, if the Sacravienses win they will display the head on the Regia, the old residence of our kings.

Of course they are not fighting for real, for a start they only have wooden swords like the ones they give to slaves in the amphitheatre or soldiers during training.[xvi] I don’t take part this year because I’m far to old for war games now, instead I watch with some comrades I served with in the Praetorian Guard. We talk fondly of Augustus especially as we receive such a generous pension![xvii] The battle has now finished and the Suburanenses do not hesitate in taking the head back to attach to the turris Mamilia. This seems fair, after all the Regia already has the tail by now. 

It has been a good year and there is much to be thankful for. We have recently had a great harvest which will easily feed the city, so I am told, throughout the winter months.[xviii] This is why we celebrate this day, for the wellbeing of the city and all her citizens, not just the soldiers among us. It is an important day and I shall remember it next year at the Fordicidia and six days later at the Parilia, when the Vestals mix the blood collected today with the ashes of the unborn calf from the Fordicidia, before throwing the mixture on the fire to purify our flocks of sheep.[xix]

That’s the end for me for now, the sun is setting over the Tiber and it’s about time I got home to the wife for some fish and a relaxing cup of wine, or two… 


Roman festival calendar c.60BC.

The Fasti Antiates Maiores — a painting of the Roman calendar for public display of about about 60BC; before the Julian reform of the calendar.

[i] As demonstrated by the density of the Roman festival calendar, e.g. the Fasti Antiates Maiores(right) which dates to about 60BC, before the Julian reform of the calendar.  It contains the month Sextilis (‘SEX’), later renamed ‘Julius’, and the intercalary month (‘INTER’) which was used to  bring the months and the seasons back into alignment as the far righthand column. Further, see D. Feeney, (2007), Caesar’s Calendar: ancient time and the beginnings of history, California and A. Michels, (1967), The Calendar of the Roman Republic, Princeton. 

[ii] Varus was a Roman general who lost three legions against the Germans (under the commander Arminius) during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9. While this heavy defeat spurred Augustus’s desire to conquer Germany beyond the Rhine, as a result the army was withdrawn, see C. Whittaker, (2004), Rome and its frontiers: the dynamics of Empire, London.  

[iii] For an interactive map of Augustan Rome and the Campus Martiuis, see the Digital Augustan Rome project website (University of Arizona). Routes and buildings along the veteran’s way are based on A. Hare, (1883), Walks in Rome, London. On new building and rebuilding in Rome during the late Republic and Augustan periods, including Agrippa’s contribution, see O. Robinson, (1992), Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration, London. 

[iv] Suggested reasons for Octavian changing his name are that:

‘[Augustus] is a name allied to Jupiter on high. The fathers call sacred things “august”. “August” are called the temples duly dedicated by the hand of priests. From the root of this word also comes “augury”, and all such augmentation as Jupiter grants with his power’

(Ovid Fasti 1.607-12).

[v] The position of flamen Dialis was vacant from 96BC to 11BC and stimulated some debate, see J. Liebeschuetz, (1979), Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, Oxford. 

[vi] Suetonius implies that Horace was heavily influenced by Augustus:

‘As to his writings, Augustus rated them so high, and was so convinced that they would be immortal that he not only appointed him to write the Secular Hymn, but also bade him celebrate the victory of his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus over the Vindelici, and so compelled him to add a fourth to his three books of lyrics after a long silence… In this way he forced from Horace the selection which begins with these works’

(Life of Horace 39-43).

Perhaps the reason Horace was so favourable towards Augustus was because Horace fought for the Republican Brutuses (one of Caesar’s murderers) in the 40’s BC. Brutus’ forces were defeated by Antony. Horace survived and managed to switch sides to Octavian and was later commissioned to write for him. An example of Horace’s adulation and flattery of the Imperial family can be found in the early years of Augustus’ reign: ‘Caesar, this age has restored rich crops to the fields, closed the gates of Romulus’s temple, tightened the rein on lawlessness…’ (Odes 4.15).

Portrait bust of Cicero.

Marble bust of Cicero. Capitoline Museum, Rome. © Ann Raia (2005). Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

[vii] Cicero’s comment on Varrro is as follows:

‘Varro: your books have led us as it were home, when we were wandering and going astray like new arrivals, so that we were able to recognise who we were and where we were. You have revealed to us the life of our fatherland, the descriptions of the seasons, the laws of sacred rituals, the disciplines of the priests, the conduct of domestic and military affairs; you have clarified the position of the regions and districts, as well as the names, kinds, functions and causes of all divine and human matters.’ (Cicero Acad. 22).

Further on Varro’s role in the conduct of Roman religious observance, see C. Green, (2002), ‘Varro’s Three Theologies and their Influence on the Fasti’ in G. Herbert-Brown (ed.), (2002), Ovid’s Fasti: historical readings at its bimillennium, Oxford: 71-8. Further on Cicero’s contribution to the debate about religion in Rome, see E. Rawson, (1975), Cicero: a portrait, London. A more general, and fuller, picture is provided by A. Momigliano, (1984), ‘The Theological Efforts of the Roman Upper Classes in the First Century B.C.’, Classical Philology 79: 199-211 and E. Rawson, (1975), Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, London. 

[viii] The main philosophical debate was between Epicureans and Stoics, see P. Brunt, (1989), ‘Philosophy and Religion in the LateRepublic’ in M. Griffin & J. Barnes, eds., (1989), Philosophia togata: essays on philosophy and Roman society, Oxford: 174-98. Epicureanism promoted the idea that the senses are the source of all knowledge and are infallible and should therefore be obeyed in the search for pleasure. Gods exist because we have a mental image of them and they should be worshipped because they benefit us, not because they have any relation to humans or the earth. See, Lucretius On the Nature of Things written in the 60’s BC. Stoicism promoted the idea that the universe was created and controlled by their conception of divine power (pneuma, meaning ‘fiery breath’, the force/soul which animates all matter). They held that everything was predestined and as a result had a strong sense of purpose. 

[ix] The term capite velo (‘with veiled head’) refers to the drawing of the toga over the head by adult Roman males, including pontifices, while performing religious observances.

[x] The flamen Martialis was the chief priest assigned to the god Mars and was one of three chief priests of the priestly college. 

[xi] For the presence of soldiers at a festival dedicated to Mars, god of War, linked to the end of the campaign season, see C. Bennett Pascal ((1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91). G. Wissowa, ((1904), ‘Equus October’ in G. Wissowa, (1904), ‘De ferris anni Romanorum vetastissimi observationes selectae’ in Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur Römischen Religions- und Stadtgeschichte, Munich: 154-174: festivals of Mars: 164-167) says that this festival takes place at the end of the military campaign season in order to ‘cleanse the army of the taint of human blood and of foreign contact’ and suggests that within the Roman religious calendar the festival’s position corresponded with the Equirria, during which another horserace was held on the Campus Martius on the Ides of March. While the festivals are, as Bennett Pascal notes, ‘equidistant from the two ends of the year’ this observation is only germane after 153BC, once the New Year began in January rather than March, but both festivals trace their origin to before that date, suggesting symmetry of that kind was not a motivating factor in their inception. 

[xii] We are told that it is a spear that kills the selected horse by Timaeus ap. Polybus 12.4b. From Cassius Dio we can assume that the flamen Martialis is the person who drives the spear into the horse because he would have been the officiating priest, although there is no real evidence for this.

[xiii] For the horses as warhorses, see F. Jacoby, (1923-58), Die Fragmenter der griechischen Historiker, Berlin and Leiden: vol.3: 612, fragment 566.

[xiv] The garlanding with loaves (the basis of the Roman diet) reinforces the festival’s link with agriculture and is a visual reminder of the sacrifice’s purpose - quia id sacrificium fiebat ob frugum eventum (‘the sacrifice was performed for a successful crop of grain’) – according to Festus (de Lingua Latina 246, s.v. Panibus). 

[xv] We do not know exactly where the Mamilian Tower was, however we do know it was deep in the Subura and named after the family of the Mamilii, see Bennett Pascal, n.[xi]

[xvi] Roman legionaries attack.

[xvii] Augustus is credited with the creation of a new professional army. He increased the pay of the army and created pensions for soldiers who made it to the end of their term of service of about 12,000 sesterces (about fourteen years’ pay). In addition, he extended the term of service required from the duration of a campaign to a single term of sixteen years. These changes made the army into a career for a Roman citizen and made the army more professional because soldiers served more time with each other. See, L. Kepple, (1998), The Making of the Roman Army, London. For an informative short film (10 minutes) showing the clothing, armour and equipment of a Roman legionary stationed in the Rhineland in the first century AD, go to YouTube

[xviii] The garlanding with loaves (the basis of the Roman diet) reinforces the festival’s link with agriculture and is a visual reminder of the sacrifice’s purpose: quia id sacrificium fiebat ob frugum eventum (‘the sacrifice was performed for a successful crop of grain’) according to Festus (de Lingua Latina 246, s.v. Panibus). 

[xix] Ovid (Fasti 4.732ff.) is the source for suggesting that the Vestals mixed the blood of the horse killed at the October Horse festival was mixed with with the ashes of the Fordicidia’s unborn calf at the Parilia.

October Horse Story 1: A Young Farmer and a Retired Soldier Comment

A Young Farmer

A Farmer leading oxen

1st century AD Roman relief in Thasian marble of a farmer and oxen wending their weary way homeward. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. © Mary Harrsch (2009)

Finally, the 15th of October! The hot summer sun has gone from Rome, my crops and fields have been harvested and today I will attend the sacrifice of the Equus October, that most wonderful horse that embodies the corn spirit.[i] For me, and many other of Rome’s farmers I should think, today is the pinnacle of all the harvest festivals of the autumn. It has been a hot and difficult summer but now that the hardest work is out of the way I am keen to celebrate. On this day, the Ides of October, I will give thanks that Mars has given me a more successful harvest than ever before. Who knows, perhaps today’s ceremony will be the best of all my years and maybe even the best in the seven hundred and sixty three years since the foundation of Rome!

There are military men in Rome who suppose that the sacrifice of the October Horse is held in honour of Mars, so that he might purify the army as it returns from the campaigns of the summer. I suppose our Emperor Augustus would count himself among their number, but I pay no heed to this interpretation, not least because of the tradition that has been instilled in me by my father and his father before him; we know that from the beginning of Rome, Mars has been the god of nature.[ii] I do not know when Mars began to be seen as the God of War rather than agriculture and vegetation.[iii] My grandfather says that it in the days before Augustus became our Emperor, farmers were also soldiers,[iv] and many of the gods had functions that encompassed the agricultural and the military life of Rome, so the Equus October became a double celebration for many men.

On the eleventh day before the Kalends of May I attended the festival of the Parilia and I intend to go again next year.[v] The blood of the horse sacrificed today will be mixed by the Vestals,[vi] with the blood of the unborn calves sacrificed at the Fordicidia.[vii] That festival is for the purification of sheep and the men that look after them rather than the crops and harvest, but I like to celebrate it nevertheless.

A Roman chariot race

A 3rd century AD marble relief of a chariot race in the Circus Maximus showing the imperial enclosure (pulvinar) with the emperor holding the mappa in his right hand. Rome, Vatican Museum (Chiaramonti). © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

Today, as always, I plan to leave in good time so that my father, grandfather and I might beat the crowds flocking to the Campus Martius on the banks on the Tiber and be able to stand in a good position to get a clear view of the race and the sacrifice.[viii] I remember that once my father lifted me above his head so that I might get a better view of the chariot race; I hope I might be able to do that for a son of my own one day.

My excitement always builds as the chariots line up to start the race. Although we do not have horses on our farm, my father taught me how to read the signs of a good horse, so I decide which I think is the best and from that deduce which chariot will win the race and provide the sacrifice. The suspense can be felt around the Campus Martius and all of a sudden a strange silence descends upon everyone as the host of the race raises the mappa.[ix] When the mappa is dropped on the ground to signal the beginning of the race, the chariot drivers whip the horses and the noise of the crowd rises again. Traditionally, it is the Emperor who begins the race; I hope I’ll catch a glimpse of Augustus today. The speed of the horses and the ferocity of the drivers always make for a very exciting race. The drivers always hold the reins of the horse in their left hand and a whip in their right and some of them secure a curved knife to their waists so that, in the event of a crash they can cut themselves free.[x] The sacrificial victim is the right-hand horse of the winning chariot. It is the best because it has the harder work of the pair because at every turn it is urged to its fullest speed, while its partner is slowed slightly.[xi] I am embarrassed to admit that I used to wonder why it was the best horse that was sacrificed, I thought it was a waste as, clearly, the horse was very good; it ran the fastest and was the most sure-footed, after all. I know now that we must sacrifice the best of what we have to the gods, so that they give us all of their favour in return, that’s why we sacrifice the horse with the greatest physical strength, which has the strongest blood and the strongest charge of numen.[xii]

Many people dislike the sight of the blood and guts that come from the horse but I prefer to see it as a skill on the part of the attendants rather than a brutal act. After all it is for the good of the agricultural life of the city that the deed is done. Of course, I believe that bloodshed without a reason, such as sacrifice, is socially and ethically unjust. In some ways it is sad to see such a beautiful animal killed and beheaded, but, like I said, it is done in honour of the gods and our livelihoods rely on it. Yesterday I overheard a man saying that he would not attend the festival, he was questioning the killing of an innocent animal and the morals of the priests and the people that watched the killing. I did not understand how he could be saying such things and how he did not feel compelled to take part in praying and giving thanks to the gods. I know other people must have heard him too, but as they did not question him or ask him to keep his mutterings to himself I kept quiet. My father says this must be one of the many new philosophical ideas being talked about around the city but that I should not concern myself with them. I don’t know if this is because he thinks I wouldn’t understand or because he is offended by them… I daren’t think what my grandfather’s opinion of those people would be; he has been attending the Equus October festival, and all the other harvest festivals all his life and I don’t think he would take kindly to someone questioning his beliefs.[xiii]

With the sacrifice over, the Sacravienses and the Suburanenses [xiv] fight over the head of the horse, another gruesome sight! The tail of the horse is taken to the Regia, we always follow the procession and witness the blood being dripped on the sacred hearth of the Vestal Virgins. For me, this is the most important part of the whole festival because of its relationship to the Fordicidia and the Parilia, [xv] I can’t wait to see it and give thanks today.

A Retired Soldier

The bright October sun is glaring at me, the morning dew is wet on my feet, the sky is clear and it is the Ides of October. This can only mean that the Equus October festival is finally upon us once more, signalling the end of the campaign season and the return of our city’s brave warriors.[xvi] Today their bodies and weapons will be purified of human blood and foreign contact, their cleansed swords and spears being stored away until the Ides of March and the Equirria festival, exactly six months from now.[xvii] I put my hand to my face to shield my eyes from some of the light so I can better look around the glorious Campus Martius, used for centuries to train the armies of our great city and now used to celebrate our many military triumphs. [xviii] I have been here many times, but every time it never fails to take my breath away. I look to the North towards the magnificent Theatre of Marcellus and Augustus’ Mausoleum, then West to the Pantheon, but as always my eyes are drawn to the Ara Pacis – the Altar of Peace – the Senate’s recognition that our beloved Augustus and his armies have brought peace and security to our vast empire.

Theatre of Marcellus, Mausoleum of Augustus, Pantheon, and Ara Pacis

Clockwise from top left: Theatre of Marcellus (model), Mausoleum of Augustus (model), Pantheon, Ara Pacis. Composite of images © Eleanor OKell (2012), original images courtesy of www.vroma.org

As I view our surroundings I glance to the opposite side of the Campus Martius and see a large crowd of the agricultural class, a class that I personally have some respect for because they fought for our city before glorious Augustus made the honour of fighting for Rome a paid career! Having said this, however, I am pleased I am far enough away that I can only see and not smell them. Pray Jupiter the blustery October wind doesn’t pick up!

One can also only laugh at their intelligence, or lack of, as they believe the Equus October festival is only to help their crops grow! How can they possibly believe that a chariot race where the right hand horse of the winning chariot, both of which are war horses, is sacrificed to Mars can be have anything other than military significance? If it were an agricultural festival, would not a bull or a cow be sacrificed? And an axe or a mallet used instead of a spear?[xix] Their attitude’s an insult to me, when so many fine soldiers have given their lives so that farmers’ fields are not overrun by foreign savages. Furthermore, would not sacrificing to Mars merely keep enemies from those farmers’ fields rather than make them more fertile?[xx] I often try to comprehend their point of view at this time of the year, but I find it impossible. Mars is the god of War and cares not for bread and crops but for the many brave Roman legions which please him so much. My father always made a point of telling me that if this festival was indeed intended to increase fertility then surely the horse’s head would be surrounded by grain and seed, not loaves of bread.[xxi] He was a wise man; he fought for Julius Caesar instead of Pompey in the Civil War. He died a happy man also, seeing glorious Augustus retrieve Crassus’ lost standards from the Parthians. They had been lost a year before I was born and my father always moaned about what an insult this was to our great city. He always told me the same story to ensure I was well behaved for my dear mother whilst he was away fighting: he said that, when I was six, Julius Caesar sacrificed two badly behaved soldiers instead of a horse at this very festival, and attached their heads and hands to the walls of the Regia![xxii] I still do not know to this day whether it was a true story, but it would be fair to say I never misbehaved and neither did my own children when I was away!

With the chariot race over and the victor celebrated, his right-hand horse is led North to the Tarentum, near the Ciconiae Nixae for the sacrifice to Mars. I always note that the horse is never hesitant nor does it decide to bolt, a testament to the mettle of fine Roman horses bred for war! And this year is no different. The horse is halted in front of the Flamen Martialis, who then moves to the side of the magnificent black creature.[xxiii] As I have done since I was a child, I hold my breath as the Flamen raises the spear above his head and draws it back into a prime striking position. He releases, the crowd gasps, the spear appears to pierce the horse around the base of the neck, but my view is a little obstructed.[xxiv] The crowd applaud whilst the spirit of the horse leaves his body and ascends to the heavens as an offering to almighty Mars. This offering to the god of War will keep our soldiers safe on the battlefield and keep savages from our gates, not ensure that vegetables grow in farmers’ fields!

An artist' reconstruction of the Regia
Reconstruction drawing of the Regia in the Roman Forum from S.B. Platner, (2nd ed., 1911), The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome, Boston: 213: fig. 39.

The tail of the horse is sliced off and carried quickly through the excitable crowds to the Regia, so that the potent blood can fall upon the hearthstone there.[xxv] That blood is saved for the Parilia next April when it is mixed with the ashes of the unborn calf from the Fordicidia.[xxvi] The head is then severed and blood gushes out. Mothers tell their children not to watch, but you can sense the squirming of young boys and girls as they try to see the inside of the horse’s head and neck.

The head is then garlanded with a string of loaves, but this is not the end of its purpose. Suddenly the Sacravienses and Subarnenses emerge from the crowds and fight for possession of the head.[xxvii]. My father told me that this has been going on for centuries, saying that the fighting pleases almighty Mars, the god of War. If the Sacravienses claim the head it is attached to a wall of the Regia, but if the Subarnenses are victorious it will be fastened to the Mamilian Tower. The fighting is fierce and the crowd are split between the two sides, cheering and applauding. The Sacravienses, however, fight harder this year and are victorious in claiming the head. Shortly they will proceed with it back along the Via Sacra and proudly attach it to the Regia, with the Subarnenses cursing their luck and wishing they were attaching it to the Mamillian Tower. My wife and I will follow the procession up the Via Sacra before returning to our insula on the Aventine Hill, to reflect upon another fantastic Equus October festival and to thank Mars for the safe return of so many of our brave soldiers.


[i] In this interpretation the horses’ tail represents the last sheaf of corn to be cut during the harvest.

[ii] T. Ely, (2003), The Gods of Greece and Rome, Mineola: 176.

Statue of Mars Ultor

A statue of Mars Ultor (‘Mars the Avenger’) from the Foro Transitorio dated to the end of the 1st century AD. Capitoline Museums: Palazzo Nuovo, Rome. © Ann Raia, 2005. Courtesy of www.vroma.org

[iii] Mars: a major Roman god, with festivals celebrated in March and October. Mars is a war and warrior god, who exercised his wild function in various contexts. Under Augustus he obtained an important new title, Ultor, ‘avenger’, in recognition of the victory over Caesar’s assassins. For more information see S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (eds), (2004), The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, Oxford: 453.

[iv] M. Beard, J. North &amp S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome, Vol.1: A History, Cambridge: 48.

[v] The Kalends is the first day of the month in the Roman calendar. The Parilia was an ‘ancient Roman festival celebrated annually on April 21 in honour of the god and goddess Pales, the protectors of flocks and herds.’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

[vi] The Vestals were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the (hearth) fire and one of the twelve major deities. Her cult expressed and guaranteed Rome’s permanence. Vesta’s main public shrine was a circular building located to the South East of Augustus’ arch in the Forum Romanum. In the late Republic its form was that of a primitive house, symbolising a connection between public and private cults of the hearth. There was no statue of Vesta within the shrine: it contained only the fire and, in the inner sanctum, the sacred things that may not be divulged.

[vii] The Fordicidia festival is variously called the Fordicidia, Fordicalia, Hordicidia and Hordicalia. Its name derives from horda or forda, a country expression for a pregnant cow. It was celebrated on April 15th in honour of Tellus, a few days before the Parilia, as part of a set of springtime ceremonies designed to provide for the welfare of the people and the fertility of both the earth and animals. The main act of the Fordicidia was the sacrifice of a pregnant cow. The unborn calf was burnt by the Chief Vestal on the hearth of the Regia. The ashes were mixed with the blood of a horse, thought to be that of the October Horse (although no Roman source confirms this, there is no other horse sacrifice which could provide the blood to be found in the Roman religious calendar), and distributed to the people for the celebration of the Parilia.

[viii] The Campus Martius (literally, ‘Field of Mars’) was a floodplain of the Tiber River and the site of the Altar of Mars and the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC. It was originally used as a military exercise ground, but was later drained and, by the 1st century BC, was covered with large public buildings – baths, an amphitheatre, theatres, a gymnasium, a crematorium, and many temples. Livy called the area campus ignifer (‘Field of Fire’) due to the volcanic smoke often seen there.

[ix] The mappa is a handkerchief, which was dropped to signal the start of a chariot race. See further, G. Milani-Santarpia, ‘Ancient Roman Chariot Races‘ for www.mariamilani.com.

[x] See further, Milani-Santarpia, n.[ix].

[xi] G. Dumézil, (1975), 2nd edition, Fêtes romaines d’été archaïque, Paris: 217.

[xii] Dumézil, n.[xi]: 217. Numena are spirits believed to inhabit objects or preside over a place. In the case of the October Horse, the corn spirit manifests in the horse’s tail.

[xiii] Other Harvest Festivals include the Ambarvalia, Vestalia, Consus and Ops Consiva, see W. Warde Fowler, (1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London: 243.

[xiv] The Sacravienses are the inhabitants of the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Street’), which is the oldest and best-known street in Rome, being the main route from the Palatine Hill to the Forum Romanum. Its route and level changed drastically over time but its name and significance have endured. The Suburavienses are the inhabitants of the Subura district. Further on the fight, see L. Adkins &amp R.A. Adkins, (2001), Dictionary of Roman Religion, Oxford: 168.

[xv] For the Parilia, see n.[v]. For the Fordicidia, see n.[vii].

[xvi] Beard et al. n.[iv]: 47.

[xvii] C. Bennett Pascal, (1981), ‘October Horse’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 85: 261-91: 264.

[xviii] The Campus Martius (literally, ‘Field of Mars’) was a floodplain of the Tiber River and the site of the Altar of Mars and the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC. It was originally used as a military exercise ground, but was later drained and, by the 1st century BC, was covered with large public buildings – baths, an amphitheatre, theatres, a gymnasium, a crematorium, and many temples. Livy called the area campus ignifer (‘Field of Fire’) due to the volcanic smoke often seen there.

[xix] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 263.

[xx] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 266.

[xxi] Pascal, n.[xvii]: 266.

[xxii] Cassius Dio (Roman History, 43.24.4, tr. E. Cary) reports that Julius Caesar had three men sacrificed on the Campus Martius by the pontifices and the flamen Martialis (see n.[xxiii]), and that their heads were set up near the Regia.

The Regia (‘King’s House’) situated at the east end of the Forum Romanum, between the Via Sacra and the precinct of Vesta, was traditionally the home of King Numa, which he had passed on to the Pontifex Maximus. During the Republic it was the seat of authority of the Pontifex Maximus and contained his archives, in addition to shrines dedicated to Mars (which held the sacred shields carried in procession by the Salii) and Ops. The external walls, after 36BC were decorated with lists of consuls and triumphators going back to Romulus. For a description of the Regia, its history, function, destruction and excavation, see Ch. Heulsen, (2nd ed., 1909), tr. J. B. Carter, The Roman Forum: its history and monuments, New York: 192-197.

[xxiii] The flamen Martialis is the flamen (priest) who served the cult of Mars. He was usually a patrician and, having been chosen by the Pontifex Maximus, served for life. See, Adkins et al. n.[xiv] and Pascal n.[xvii]: 262.

[xxiv] Pascal (n.[xvii]: 267) suggests that it may have been considered a bad omen not to kill the horse in one blow due to Polybius describing the action in only one word, translated as ‘to spear him down’. See Polybius, Roman Histories 12.4b, tr. R. Waterfield, (2010), Oxford.

[xxv] Festus, On the Meaning of Words 295. For the Regia, see n.[xxii].

[xxvi] For the Parilia, see n.[v]. For the Fordicidia, including the question of the origin of the horse blood used in that festival, see n.[vii].

[xxvii] The Sacravienses are the inhabitants of the Via Sacra (‘Sacred Street’), which is the oldest and best-known street in Rome, being the main route from the Palatine Hill to the Forum Romanum. Its route and level changed drastically over time but its name and significance have endured. The Suburavienses are the inhabitants of the Subura district. Further on the fight, see Adkins et al. n.[xiv]: 168.

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 6: A Miller’s Wife

It’s five days before the Ides of June, a day my family and I celebrate each year, because today is the Vestalia.[i] I’ve made the effort to visit the city this year, in the consulship of Dolabella and Silanus. My sister, Clodia, lives in an insula with her family.[ii] As my husband and I live in a mill just outside Rome, it’s rare that I have time to see her but for the period between the seventh day before the Ides of June and seventeenth day before the Kalends of July, which have been declared religiosi, work is not allowed to be done, so I am free to visit her.[iii]

We always celebrate the Vestalia because Vesta is the goddess of the hearth and also the patron goddess of bakers.[iv] It is through her blessing that our families prosper and that we are able to produce the bread which supplies us with our livelihood.

Relief of a C3rd AD horse-driven mill.

Relief showing horses turning Roman mills, C3rd AD, found outside the Porta Giovanni in Rome, Vatican Museum.

Usually, I stay at home with my family and our donkey, Ovidius, is freed from his work at the millstone. My children collect violets to weave into wreathes to place around dear Ovidius’ neck and, of course, over the millstone.[v] They beg me for loaves of bread to add to their garlands for Ovidus too. It’s traditional to decorate the donkey with bread during the Vestalia. Today they will parade him in his finery, before turning him loose in the field.

This year, however, I am actually here, in the city of Rome. This year I will not be decorating our donkey, instead my sister and I are going to do something else to celebrate the Vestalia. We’re going to visit the temple of Vesta in the forum Romanum![vi]

Reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum

Reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum by C. Huelsen, 1909, The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, trans. J.B. Carter (2nd ed.), fig. 120 Courtesy of www.vroma.org

As Clodia and I walk through the streets to the forum Romanum, I am surprised at the extent to which Rome has changed. My grandmother used to tell me stories about how Rome was built of bricks, now it is an explosion of colour and there is marble everywhere.[vii] Even in the short time since my last visit, I can see how much it has changed. As we approach the Forum, I notice a new temple, next to that of Vesta. Clodia says it is the aedes of Castor and Pollux, and next to it I recognise the fountain of Juturna.[viii] But my eyes are drawn to the throng of women crowding into the Forum. It seems as if every matrona in Rome has congregated here. There is an air of infectious excitement as the married women push against one another, trying to get closer to the aedes of Vesta. Unlike many of the other temples in Rome, nobody, save for the Vestal Virgins, is allowed to enter it, except during the Vestalia. Seven days before the Ides of June each year the huge wooden doors are opened and the married women of Rome are allowed to enter. Clodia and I join the queue, almost breathless with excitement. I am so looking forward to seeing the treasures I have heard are kept in the temple.

While we wait as patiently as we can with the other women, I gaze up at the temple. Its round shape reminds me of the hut of Romulus which the Emperor Augustus has had constructed. I’ve been told that these round shapes copy the buildings our ancestors used to inhabit, long ago.[ix]

At last! We’ve reached the door! An attendant bids us take off our shoes before we enter the temple and as soon as we do, we are allowed in.[x]

Statue of Vestal with flame.

Statue of Vestal with flame, Uffizi Museum, Florence. © Barbara McManus (1990). Courtesy of VRoma www.vroma.org

The temple itself is dark, as there’s only the door and an opening in the roof to let in light. In the very centre of the temple is the hearth of Vesta and on it her flame, burning brightly.[xi] The Vestal Virgins attend the flame quietly, muttering prayers and offering mola salsa to the goddess.[xii] We approach with our own offerings of small loaves of bread on clean plates, and kneel at the flame, saying our own prayer of thanks to Vesta.[xiii] I am glad that the only sacrifices involved in the Vestalia are those of bread because I loathe the animal sacrifices which occur at other times of the year because the smell of blood makes me feel sick. I wish all gods could be placated with Vesta’s simple, homely, ceremonies.

Once our prayers are said, we move back from the flame, so that other women may enjoy the privilege of seeing it too. I look around the temple, hoping to spy the Palladium and the statues of the Penates which Aeneas is said to have brought with him from Troy. Alas, I cannot see them![xiv] Though I do spot a part of the temple which is closed off with rush mats. The treasures must be behind them; out of sight…

Seated Vestals Dining

Vestals seated at a banquet 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

In front of the closed off space sit three of the Vestals. [xv] They are working hard preparing the mola salsa.[xvi] I wish my daughter could have been a Vestal, with all the privileges and special status they have, but she is too old, even though Augustus has changed the requirements so that not only girls of the patrician class can be considered as Vestals – today even the daughters of freedmen are eligible.[xvii] My gaze lingers on the Vestals and one smiles at me. She is old, much older than the rest. It’s Occia, the virgo vestalis maxima, or Chief Vestal. She is known and respected throughout Rome and the surrounding area as the longest serving Vestal.[xviii] I feel really special to have her acknowledge my presence!

We are ushered out of the small temple rather quickly, but there are many women who must be given an equal chance to come and pray to Vesta in her temple, rather than in their home as usual, so we can’t really complain. Clodia and I put our shoes back on and wander around the Forum, taking in the sights of the Regia and other buildings at our leisure and in silence. A solemn mood has settled on us. I feel somehow cleaner and more pure now that I have been in the Vestals’ presence.[xix] I like the feeling. Perhaps we could come with another small offering tomorrow? We shall definitely come back on the seventeenth day before the Kalends of July to watch as the Vestals sweep the temple clean and carry the purgamina to the River Tiber, where it will be carried away from the city.[xx] I simply love the Vestalia. Such a lovely, relaxing festival.


[i] The Ides of June is 13th June. The actual day of the Vestalia is confirmed as 9th June by both Ovid (Fasti 6) and the public calendars inscribed in contemporary Rome. However, there is some disagreement about the date upon which the temple was opened to matronae. Ovid and contemporary calendars mark 7th June as ‘Vesta aperitur’, i.e. ‘[The Temple of] Vesta is opened’, suggesting that the temple was opened to matronae on this day, but some historians have contested this, considering that the temple was first opened two days later on the Vestalia itself, see, for example, R.L. Wildfang (2006, Rome’s Vestal Virgins: a study of Rome’s priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, Abingdon: 28) though his sources for advancing this view are unclear.

[ii]  An insula (plural insulae), literally ‘an island’, is a block of flats. This was the accommodation for Rome’s poor. These flat blocks were vulnerable to fire and their apartments frequently did not have kitchens. The ban on cooking supported not only bakers but also hot food stands, giving rise to the ‘take away’.

[iii] Religiosi is a term used to describe something which is sacred.and is applied to the days from the 7th -15th June, as well as other religious holidays throughout the year, when neither public nor private work could be done and when long journeys and military activity were, whenever possible, avoided (R.M. Ogilvie, 1969, The Romans and their Gods in the Age of Augustus, London: 90). During the Vestalia the days were so sacred that the Flaminica Dialis (the wife of the high priest of Jupiter) was not allowed to cut her hair, pare her nails, or have intercourse with her husband (Ovid Fasti, 6). Ovid also tells us that marriages during this period were considered to be ill-omened and thus avoided (Fasti6).

Roman bread

A carbonised loaf of Roman bread from Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum, Naples. © Beatrice (2006).

[iv] Vesta was linked to bakers and millers in antiquity. She was the goddess of the hearth which was used by women to cook bread. Bread was an invaluable foodstuff for the Romans. The Vestals also carried out the tasks of grinding grain into flour and baking when preparing the mola salsa which was used as an offering at this and other festivals. The rites of the Vestalia were ‘meant as a celebration of the power of the hearth fire and oven’ (R.L. Wildfang, 2001,The Vestals and Annual Public Rites’, Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-55: 245).

[v] At the Vestalia the mill is decorated by hanging bread and garlands of flowers from the millstones and the asses (Ovid Fasti 6.310-18). Ovid supplements his account of the Vestalia rituals with the myth Vesta being saved from being raped by Priapus (a deity linked with the fertility of plant life) by a donkey, which both she and her followers celebrate by decorating donkeys with bread and garlands of flowers (Fasti 6.319-48). It has been suggested that the Vestalia also celebrated fertility because donkeys represented fertile potency, see S.A. Takacs, 2008, Vestal Virgins, Sibyls and Matrons: women in Roman religion, Texas: 49.

[vi] During this period, the temple of Vesta was opened to the women of Rome, see Ovid (Fasti 6.436-54), Wildfang n.[i]: 28 and Ogilvie n.[iii]: 90. For the dates of the opening of the temple, see n.[i].

[vii] During his reign, Augustus focused on building projects in Rome. He commissioned new buildings and temples and was very proud of his achievements in this area, to the extent that he included them in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Suetonius records Augustus as saying: ‘I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble’ (Suetonius, Augustus 28).

[viii] Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins, were brothers of Helen of Troy. They and Juturna were minor deities who were believed to aid in the preservation of Rome. The Romans placed their protective spirits close to one another architecturally. The Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum was dedicated in 484BC.

It was from the spring of Juturna that the water used in the preparation of mola salsa was collected by the Vestal Virgins.

[ix] The Temple of Vesta is described particularly well by Ovid (Fasti 6.261-81). Augustus was interested in cultivating Rome but at the same time wished to promote the city’s humble origins. His restoration of Vesta’s temple was in keeping with this aim, see H.H. Scullard, 1981, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 149. Archeological exploration has revealed evidence of an older temple than the one restored under Augustus, which Plutarch attributes to Numa, the second king of Rome and the founder of the Vestal order (Life of Numa 11.1), see further n.[xv]. For further information on the archaeology of the temple, see Ch. Huelson, 1928, trans. H.H. Tanzer, The Forum and the Palentine, New York.

[x] Ovid describes how: ‘It chanced that at the festival of Vesta [ …] I saw a matron coming down [from the temple] barefoot …’ (Fasti 6.396-99) and from this evidence most historians accept that women went barefoot into the temple, though the reason why they should do so, like so much else concerning the Vestalia, is unknown. Scullard, on the other hand, argues that the women may not have been bare-footed though he does not provide any evidence to support this view, see Scullard, n.[ix]: 150.

[xi] As Vesta was the goddess of the flame, the main duty of the Vestal Virgins was to keep the sacred fire in the temple alight. This was a very important duty because it was believed that if the flame was allowed to go out it was a bad omen for Rome. If the flame went out the Vestal on duty was punished. The only time when the fire was permitted to go out was on the last day of February and it was re-kindled on the first day of March to bring in the New Year, see C. Bailey, 1975, Phases in the Religion of Augustan Rome, Conneticut: 159.

[xii] Mola Salsa was special bread that was made by the Vestal Virgins for Roman festivals. Mola salsa literally means ‘spelt and salt’ (R.L. Wildfang, 1999, ‘The Vestal Virgin’s Ritual Function in Roman Religion’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227-34: 232). Further on the preparation of mola salsa, see n.[xvi].

[xiii] ‘A bit of archaic custom has come down to the present age: A clean little dish brings the food offered to Vesta.’ (Ovid Fasti 6.309-10). Little is known about public aspects of the festival and this could easily be a fictitious anecdote, as suggested by Scullard, n.[ix]: 150.

[xiv] Festus claims that the whole temple was open for the matronae: ‘The innermost place in the temple of Vesta, surrounded with screens, is called the Penus, which is open on certain days around the Vestalia.’ (266L) However, no other ancient source reports this and Festus is widely considered to be mistaken because if the temple was open only to women, he could not have experienced this first hand and may have misinterpreted the opening of the temple in general to have included the opening of its innermost sanctum.

[xv] The appointment of the Vestals has long been accredited to the second King of Rome, Numa (Livy 1.20), although it is unclear whether the first Vestals were his wives or daughters, see M. Beard, 1981, ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins’, The Journal of Roman Studies 70:  2-27: 13. The chastity of the Vestal Virgins was  believed to be vital for the safety of Rome and if the city was threatened then the Vestals could be held accountable, see e.g. Plutarch Life of Numa 9.6. Vestals were required to serve for thirty years (ten years to learn the duties, ten years to perform them and ten years to teach them), after this time they were free to leave the service of Vesta and marry (Plutarch Life of Numa 10.1-2), although there is little evidence of any doing so.

[xvi] The flour for mola salsa was made from the first ears of corn from the harvest; it was crushed, milled and stored by three senior Vestals between 7th-14th May (Wildfang, n.[xii]: 233). The flour was then mixed with water from the nearby fountain of Juturna and two types of salt and baked in order to create the mola salsa. According to Servius, mola salsa was made three times a year for the Lupercalia, the Vestalia and the Ides of September and also used for purification purposes, see discussion by J. Sheid, 1992, ‘The Religious  Roles of Roman Women’ in P. Schmitt Pantel (ed.), 1992, A History of Women in the West: Vol.1 – From ancient goddesses to Christian saints, Cambridge: 381-84: 382. Scullard, on the other hand, contests this and presents the opinion that the year’s worth of mola salsa (presumably in its dry form of flour mixed with salt but without the water and before baking) was produced at the Vestalia, though his sources for this are unclear, see Scullard, n.[ix]: 149-50.

[xvii] Originally only daughters of patrician families were eligible to become Vestals. In AD5 Augustus addressed the fact that late-Republic patrician families had been unwilling to give up their daughters (who could make advantageous marriages) by changing the rule to allow for the admission of daughters of freedmen, see J.P.V.D. Balsdon, 1962, Roman Women, their History and Habits, London: 236.

[xviii] Occia was a Vestal Virgin from 38BC to AD19 (fifty-seven years) and was one of the longest serving Vestals ever, on which see Balsdon, n.[xvii]: 236. The length of her service indicates that at this time she would have been the virgo vestalis maxima, the title awarded to the most senior Vestal giving her ‘undisputed power and prestige’ (Balsdon, n.[xvii]: 236-7).

[xix] Purification and the Vestal Virgins ‘were linked in the Roman mind’ (R.L. Wildfang, 2006, Rome’s Vestal Virgins: a study of Rome’s Vestal priestesses in the late Republic and early Empire, Abingdon & New York: 28). The Vestalia itself was linked with purity because after the impurities in the sweepings from the temple had been cast into the Tiber work could be resumed. Thus, ‘it seems probable that the visit of the matrons may have focused on the goddess’ purity as the source of Rome’s prosperity’ (R.J. Littlewood, 2006, A Commentary on Ovid: Fasti Book 6, Oxford: 72).

[xx] On the 15th June the Vestals swept the dirt from the temple and carried it in a procession to the river Tiber to be discarded, see Wildfang, n.[iv]: 245. This was a purification ritual. This only evidence we have of the actual route is provided by Festus, who describes the route as going ‘along a narrow alley leading past the clivus capitolinus and through a gateway known as the porta stercoraria’, see Littlewood, n.[xix]: 72.

Vestalia Story 5: An Officiating Vestal

Statue of a Vestal called Flavia Publicia.

Statue of Flavia Publicia near the south-eastern corner of the House of the Vestals (begun by Domitian and completed by Trajan about AD113) in the Forum Romanum in Rome. © Wknight94, 2008.

It is now five days from the Ides of Junius and today is an important day for me as a Vestal because today is the beginning of the Vestalia which lasts until two days after the Ides of Junius. Early this morning, before I tended to the hearth of Vesta, I put on my stola, which is the same as that worn by a Roman matron and then arranged my hair in the required Vestal way, which seems strange to me because it is the same way a Roman bride wears her hair on her wedding day, yet we are unmarried.[i] I am not entirely sure why we do this, but some say it is due to Vestals of the distant past, long before the great days of Augustus, way back when Rome was a monarchy.[ii]

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, from the Via Labicana, C1st BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Museums), Rome. © Barbara McManus, 2003. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Two days ago the gates of the Temple of Vesta were opened to the married women of Rome so that they were able to bring food offerings on clean plates to Vesta, the goddess of the Hearth.Two days ago the gates of the Temple of Vesta were opened to the married women of Rome so that they were able to bring food offerings on clean plates to Vesta, the goddess of the Hearth.[iii] She is my goddess to whom I have dedicated my life so far. Although I am only twenty-five years old, my parents offered me to Vesta’s service at the age of ten. They told me it was a great honour and made me more special than the other girls of Rome.

I remember that day as if it were yesterday. The ceremony resembled a marriage with the Pontifex Maximus as bridegroom, which is strange considering that I was about to become a Vestal Virgin and not a wife.[iv] For the first ten years of my life as a Vestal I was taught the duties that we must carry out in Vesta’s honour. The main one of these is tending to the hearth of Rome which burns in the middle of the temple and its fire must be continually kept burning because to the Roman citizens it represents the safety of Rome.[v] I am now in the second ten-year term as a Vestal and it is the fifth year I have been able to carry out these duties, having spent the first ten years being trained. After five more years I will move on to teaching new Vestals the same duties that I once learnt and now carry out.

We Vestals are not used to having so many people present in the Temple at one time, it is usually only the five other Vestals and I, along with the Pontifex Maximus, the Great Augustus, who are permitted to enter the sacred temple.[vi] Even though they maintain a respectful hush, the Temple is bustling. In contrast it is unusually quiet outside in the Forum Romanum today, which is usually filled with noise and activity. This is because we are in a period of religiosi, which began three days after the nones of Junius.[vii]

As I unbolt the doors of the temple with my fellow Vestals, we allow the first of the queue of women to proceed barefoot through the temple.

Roman coin with temple of Vesta

The Temple of Vesta, with statue of Vesta within, on the reverse of a denarius of Nero (AD64-68). Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome. © Barbara McManus, 2004. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Amidst the throng of women I am overjoyed to see my mother, Amata, accompanied by my newly married sister, Cornelia. It upsets me that my sister gets to spend so much time with my mother, especially now that she has a beautiful baby boy:  Marcus, named after the nephew of Augustus.[viii] It makes me wonder whether I could continue with my service to Vesta privately after my thirty-year term of public office has come to an end, by which time I will be forty and too old to have children of my own. Although I should be above jealousy of the average woman, I cannot help but feel envious of my sister, who gets to live a normal life and have a family.

My fellow Vestals and I lead the women to the altar of Vesta where we lead them in prayer and they offer their sacrifices.[ix] It is during this part of ritual that my status as a Vestal becomes important because it is here that I sprinkle the Mola Salsa, which my fellow Vestals and I made earlier in the year in preparation for this festival.[x] It is this aspect of the festival that the bakers of Rome have claimed for themselves as well as a celebration of Vesta.[xi] I personally think that this day should be for Vesta only, after all the festival has always been dedicated to Vesta and I wouldn’t have risked offending her! But so long as the bakers show her respect and add elements to the festival rather than supplant any aspect of the established ritual, I suspect she will not be displeased.

The whole process is starting to tire me now and there are still another six days of the festival to go… I am looking forward to the conclusion of the festival when I can go to see a play at the theatre and take advantage of one of my privileges as a Vestal to get the best view from the VIP seats in the orchestra.[xii] My mother always says she wishes her seats were as good as mine. There is still a long way to go yet with regard to my duties during this festival. It is days until the Ides of Junius before my fellow Vestals and I will undertake the annual task of purgamina, sweeping out the penus in the temple and taking our sweepings to the River Tiber, to empty them into it and have them carried away.[xiii]

Two of my fellow Vestals, Lavinia and Camilla, both enjoy the purgamina, however, I feel as though I cannot enjoy it as much as last year because my friend and fellow Vestal, Poppea, was executed just over two months ago. This was because a portent was seen, which made the people of Rome fearful that something bad may happen. It so happened that during this bad time, Poppea’s headband slipped when she was performing the Vestal rites at the Fordicidia.[xiv] This scandalised the people watching and was seen as evidence of her lack of chastity, which is what she was charged with. Poppea was brought to court, but she – like all women – had never been trained in public speaking and was very nervous when asked to defend herself. I knew that she would not be able to prove her innocence and her distress and incoherence presented an appearance of guilt. She was found guilty and sentenced to execution. Poppea was publicly punished; she had to descend the stairs to the chamber where she was then locked in and left to starve to death.[xv] What is the point of having the privilege of being able to save people from execution when you can’t use it to save your best friend?[xvi] I am certain she was innocent. Why did Vesta not intervene to save Poppea?  After Poppea’s trial the Roman people were much happier because they believed something had been done to appease the gods and expiate the bad omen that they had sent to us in Rome. By now I suspect most people have completely forgotten about it. Was it all for show, merely a way to please and settle the public, rather than punishment for a real crime?[xvii]

Finally, all the women have gone for today, they will be back again tomorrow when we will do it all over again.  I just have to tend to the fire to make sure that the hearth will not go out. I am glad to speak to the Chief Vestal and be reminded how significant our purpose is and that I am not alone. She reminds me that while other women, like my sister, may have different lives from us, their lives are not necessarily better than ours. We have a purpose and should feel honoured to be one of the select few who will serve under the great Augustus. She feels blessed to be Chief Vestal under him, because he has reinvigorated Roman society and Roman religion, especially the Vestalia. Rome itself, she said, is glowing and impressive with all its new building works and repaired temples.[xviii] It is, after all, the survival and prosperity of Rome that is most important and we have a key role in ensuring that.

I think about her words as I go to sleep. I can’t really imagine my life being any different because this life is all I’ve known as an adult and although I sometimes envy my sister’s life, the thought of the outside world scares me. I feel safe knowing that I am protected by Vesta and I take comfort from knowing that I can pass my knowledge on to the next generation of Vestals, who I suppose will then be in some way my children.


[i] M. Beard (1980, ‘The Sexual Status of the Vestal Virgins’, Journal of Roman Studies 70: 12-27: 13-17) notes how the matronly style of dress and bridal hair indicates the ambiguity of the Vestals’ status with regard to their origins with either the wives or daughters of Roman kings. The arguments for their origin being the wives focus on the Vestals’ tasks (particularly tending the fire), which are similar to those of an early Roman wife, together with both their matronly dress and bridal hairstyle. The arguments for their origin being the daughters focus on their status as virgins, which is more in line with daughters than wives, and their number.

[ii] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.67-69) considered that the origins of the Vestal Virgins dated back to the early kings of Rome. This suggests an awareness of how the role of the Vestal Virgins was embedded in Roman history. However, J. Scheid (2003, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Edinburgh) states that recent studies have shown that Roman historians, when they reconstructed the history of Rome, rather than base their arguments on reliable knowledge that had been handed down to them relied more on deductions and guesswork based on place names, religious functions, rituals and a few written documents.

[iii] From Ovid (Fasti 6) we learn that the women of Rome proceeded through the temple barefoot, bearing food offerings on clean plates, as discussed by R.L. Wildfang, 2001, ‘The Vestals and Annual Public Rites’, Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-55: 244. Ovid (Fasti 6.291-298) emphasises the importance of Vesta’s identification with fire: ‘Vesta’s identified with Earth: in them both’s unsleeping fire: / Earth and the hearth are both symbols of home.’. R.L. Wildfang (1999, ‘The Vestal Virgins’ Ritual Function in Roman Religion’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227-34: 228) draws attention to how Vesta was seen as an embodiment of the flame itself and therefore why tending to the hearth was the Vestals’ most significant duty.

[iv] Beard (n.[i]: 14) notes how the process of captio, the ceremony whereby the girl was taken by the Pontifex Maximus into the Vestals’ college, resembled a Roman marriage.

[v] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.67-69) draws attention to the importance of the Vestals’ fire burning in Rome. He describes how the Vestals’ most important duty is preventing ‘the extinction of the fire, which the Romans dread above all other misfortunes’.

[vi] Augustus became Pontifex Maximus on 6th March 12BC. Previous holders of the office would have been elected for this position, but after Augustus the role immediately went to the Emperor. Augustus lists his role of Pontifex Maximus in Res Gestae 7 (trans. T. Bushnell, 1998).

[vii] The nones of Junius fell eight days before the Ides of Junius, which fell on 13th June (i.e. the nones fell on 5th June). Religiosi were periods during which no public or private business could be carried out and possible military activity was suspended. It is not clear why this was so, but it is thought of as being crucial in the early life of Rome and thus retaining a strong sentimental interest in the Augustan period, on which, see R.M. Ogilvie, 1969, The Romans and their Gods, London: 90.

[viii] Marcus Claudius Marcellus was the eldest son of Augustus’s sister, Octavia. He died, aged nineteen, in 23BC and his death is acknowledged by Virgil, who has Anchises say, to his son, Aeneas, while including Marcellus in his list of famous future Romans: ‘This [Marcellus’ death] is the greatest grief that you and yours will ever suffer’ (Virgil Aeneid 6.869-70).

[ix] Due to the fact that little can be reconstructed about the actual Vestals’ role within the Vestalia, this is what we imagine may have happened during this part of the festival. It seems plausible that there would have been prayers by individual women and/or by the women (including the Vestals themselves) collectively, hence it is not implausible that the Vestals would lead the women in these prayers.

Mola Salsa "cakes"

Mola Salsa “cakes” from a recipe by Nourished Kitchen (2010) http://www.feastie.com/recipe/nourished-kitchen/homemade-yogurt-spelt-crackers

[x] Servius (Ecologue 8.82) describes how the Vestals made the Mola Salsa (literally ‘salted flour’). Three of the Vestals participated in making Mola Salsa on every other day between 7th-14th May. It was used during the festivals of the Lupercalia, Vestalia and the Ides of September. It was also sprinkled on the heads of the victims before sacrifice. The purifying function of the Mola Salsa leads Wildfang (1999, n.[iii]: 233) to see the Vestals’ main role as purificatory.

[xi] By Ovid’s time, the festival of the Vestalia was also celebrated as a bakers’ holiday, this may be due to the fact that the Vestals made the Mola Salsa by hand, which may be a survival from an earlier time when each family in Rome made their own bread (Fasti 6.317-18).

[xii] Beard (n.[i]) notes the privileges to which the Vestals were entitled and to which Augustus added to during his term as Pontifex Maximus.

Vesta with sacrificial ladle and the Palladium on a Roman coin

Reverse of a sestertius of Lucilla (AD164-164) showing Vesta standing by an altar with a burning flame holding a simpulum (a long-handled ladle used by a pontifex) for pouring wine at sacrifices and the Palladium, the city- protecting wooden statue of Athena from Troy that was deposited in the Temple of Vesta by Aeneas (Pergamum Museum, Berlin. © Barbara McManus, 2005).

[xiii] The penus is the storehouse (a room or possibly a niche) of the temple. Many ancient sources discuss the identity of the items kept in the penus. However, none know for certain because the storehouse was closed to all but the Vestals and the Pontifex Maximus, none of whom seem to have spoken about its contents. It is rumoured to contain sacred elements used in rituals throughout the year and precious objects, such as the statue of Athene said to have been rescued from Troy (e.g. Ovid Tristia 3.1.29; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.66). Livy writes about a pleading Camillus, who appeals to ‘the undying flames of Vesta and the statue that is kept in Vesta’s temple as a guarantee of success’ (Livy 5.52.7). See also, Ogilvie, n.[vii]: 90.

[xiv] The Fordicidia was on 15th April, when pregnant cows were sacrificed and the Vestals extracted the unborn calf, burned it and kept the ashes to be used at a later festival. See Scheid, n.[ii]: 383.

[xv] Executions of Vestals were always on the grounds of compromised chastity. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 2.67-69) recounts how ‘[t]hose [Vestals] who have suffered defilement, they [the Romans] deliver up to the most shameful and miserable death’, as detailed by Plutarch (The Life of Numa 10).

[xvi] Plutarch (The Life of Numa 10) writes of a Vestal, ‘[i]f in their walks they chance to meet a criminal on his way to execution, it saves his life, upon oath made that the meeting was an accidental one’.

[xvii] Cicero considered that religion was a way of controlling the Roman people, stating that religion was used ‘out of respect for the opinion of the masses’ (On Divination 2.70-75).

[xviii] Augustus’ Res Gestae (trans. T. Bushnell, 1998) includes an account of all his building work on the temples of Rome.

Vestalia Story 4: A Disillusioned Manual Worker and a Retired Vestal

“Ah, the Vestalia, the day that compounds my misery!”[i] As I stand here, where the Forum is joined by the Via Nova, looking west towards Capitoline Hill,[ii] I proclaim vehemently to anyone within earshot my indignation at the madness before my eyes.[iii] “You, yourself, among my audience, you will hear what I have to say, whether you like it or not!

“For a whole week now, women have been flocking to the temple of the goddess, barefoot and shameless in their excitement.[iv] They proceed to the temple in droves, kicking up a cloud of dust that in the early summer heat clings to bodies already caked in sweat. The whole thing stinks!

“You are to bring an offering of food when you attend the Vestalia. How can you, when you’re living hand to mouth, hard pressed by your lack of a family in these Augustan times? My household cannot afford the food for the goddess’ blessing, and even so, praying for a blessing on your house is all well and good if you’ve got one![v] Vesta seems to reserve her blessings for the propertied. Those of us who rent receive no such favour, and why would we, when we have nothing to offer the great goddess in return? I had best look out for myself since she seems to have made it clear that she’s no goddess of mine!

“I’m looking forward to the end of the Vestalia! As soon as those temple doors shut, I can start earning a living again! My workshop is hounded by thieves. Earning a living is hard enough without having to shut up shop constantly for festivals to gods and goddesses who do nothing for you!

“At least it’s a decent day off for the asses. Otherwise they’d be walking themselves into the ground in the mills.[vi] There they go, covered head to foot in – loaves of bread…[vii] Look! There they go among the procession from the temple, favoured more by the gods than I! If I cannot even supplant the animal most hated by Isis, it’s high time I upped and left this city![viii]

Roman coin with religious implements, including a sescepita

A denarius minted in Rome by P. Galba (69BC), shows the secespita (sacrificial knife), simplum (blood-catching vessel) and secures (axe) used in Roman sacrificial ritual. The obverse has a veiled head of Vesta. © Joe Geranio.

“How can these priestesses be honoured so highly for being unmarried? And, in addition, make a virtue of their chastity? If they were like me, they would never be rewarded for this: in fact, they’d even be punished! For thirty years now, since the introduction of those laws championing marriage and encouraging childbearing and rewarding it with cash, those of us who remain childless find our business opportunities squeezed and our reputations in tatters.[ix] But just look at how these noble-born unmarried girls are honoured, given the secespita and allowed to butcher animals at sacrifices, joining in the communal feast with the gods that is closed to the rest of us.[x]

“Close contact with Vesta herself is forbidden me, no-one will let me near the ritual. All I did was visit a ‘less reputable’ part of town last night! I’m ‘polluted’, looked down on by a disapproving Pontifex Maximus. I bet he’d indulge himself in ‘polluting acts’ too if he’d not been born into the more noble rank! It will take at least two to three days to wear off, or so I’ve been told…[xi] Just long enough to keep me away from the sacrifices… And any chance of a free meal!

“Yet more girls dressed all in white – the favourite colour of this city’s numerous festivals – scatter flowers in front of this pageant and check that the garlands of the animals have not come loose. Oh, Vesta! How I wish such attention was paid to me! Even the idle millstones are garlanded in flowers, looking better than ever I shall![xii] Ignore my house and my business if you will, but at least accord me more honour than an animal! Even sacrificial victims get more respect than I…

Obverse and reverse of Roman coin with Vesta and her Temple.

Denarius minted in Rome by Quintus Cassius Longinus (55BC) with a veiled head of Vesta and a representation of the Temple of Vesta with a magistrate’s chair inside it, flanked by a voting urn and a voting tablet inscribed AC for “Absolvo” (not guilty) and “Condemno” (guilty).

“Oh, Vesta, you are supposed to be the bread-maker’s goddess![xiii] The only way in which this festival really benefits us is that the Vestals clean and purify the storehouses and barns.[xiv] But, I’m just part of the mob, expected to stand by and accept the will of the gods… Well, I’ll have you know, I have my own will and you shall see it soon enough when I depart this city of Rome!

“In the old days, Vesta was content with an uncomplicated procession of wreathed asses.[xv] Wreathed asses?!?! I ask you! Madness! Yet there was some sense behind it, we’re told: these animals’ braying saved Vesta from the unwanted attentions of Priapus.[xvi] Vile Priapus! The exact same Priapus we honour as the protector of our gardens. It makes you wonder whether religion is yet another way of controlling the mob. Doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it?”

At that a barefoot woman, who’d been eyeballing me for some time, cried out, “Sit down and be quiet. You should not, even through ignorance, insult the goddess!”

Who does she think she is to order me around? Is she a better Roman than I? A mere woman should not have the audacity to tell me to pipe down![xvii] The look she fixed me with was sufficient to silence me, but only for a moment. Really, who does she think she is…

“All is well,” I thought as I set out from my house on this special day that will be so different from those of previous years. I suppose it will get easier for me but it has not been long since I was a Vestal myself and it is easy to feel disconnected from my old patterns of behaviour, especially today when Vesta’s temple is opened for the Vestalia, for women to make offerings. I feel almost as if I am going home. Especially as I will be able to enter the penus – the innermost sanctum – which contains sacred items used for the various rituals conducted throughout the year. During the dies religious, the few days before and after the Vestalia, we were always in and out, but I have to remember now that it is forbidden to anyone other than the Vestal Virgins and the Pontifex Maximus, except for Rome’s women on these few days of the year.

The cult of Vesta is very old, going back to the time of the early Roman kings, long before our glorious Empire and even before the Republic; Vestals are educated about our primitive beginnings during our service.[xviii] Many years ago Vesta was only worshipped privately, at the household hearth, but then she was brought into public worship at a hearth protected by the Vestals, as if the whole community was one big household.[xix]

Two days after the Vestals began preparing for the Vestalia, on the morning of June 9th, I prayed to the Lares and Penates at home to bless my household. Today, on the day the festival begins for the rest of Rome, I, like other Roman women, am making my way barefoot to the Forum to celebrate the Vestalia. I have many offerings of simple food with me for this purpose.[xx]

On my way to the Forum, I see many girls of all ages on their way to the temple. Upon reaching the Forum, I see one of my friends, Cynthia, whom I met during my time as a Vestal Virgin, standing near the entrance with her husband of two years. Unlike myself and many others, Cynthia chose to get married to a charming miller from just outside Rome when she retired. The dowry given to us by the state following our service allows us to do this. However, I chose to remain unwed as most of us do.[xxi] Cynthia has told me that since leaving Vesta’s service her life has not been so very different because she still spends her days cleaning and looking after the house!

I join Cynthia and her husband and we walk together to the southwest corner of the Forum. This has been the first year since leaving Vesta’s service that I have attended the Vestalia and I find I am excited to see some new faces, as well as the old ones. Upon arriving, I place my offerings of bread on the altar.

I can see the procession of Vestals leave the Atrium Vestae and the Chief Vestal, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, is leading the way.[xxii]

Relief of the six Vestals processing behind the Pontifex Maximus

Procession of the six Vestal Virgins, walking according to height and age, led by the Pontifex Maximus. Ara Pacis Museum, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

I presume that the girls will be relieved to leave the hearth for a while and attend the ceremony outside, just as I was. Of course I respected, and still do respect, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima but it was a lovely change to be outside and not have to worry about accidentally putting out the sacred fire. If the fire was accidentally extinguished, we were whipped and then had to undertake the laborious task of rekindling the fire. I can still remember such a terrible day ten years ago, when another Vestal Virgin accidentally let the fire go out. It was a horrible sight and she was severely chastised by the Pontifex Maximus![xxiii] It is only on March 1st every year that the sacred flame is ceremonially put out and then rekindled by rubbing two sticks together, using tinder carried in a bronze sieve…[xxiv]

I can still remember my first day as a Vestal, when my father gave me away to the then Pontifex Maximus. Now Emperor Augustus is the high priest and I am watching in delight as a girl of about seven is being initiated into the temple of Vesta through the process known as captae. The rite of passage is going very well. Augustus takes her by the hand and calls her “Amata”.[xxv] Then she enters the Atrium Vestae, at the South East end of the Forum.[xxvi] I can still remember the words said to me by the high priest, just as they are being said today to the young girl:

“In celebration of the sacred rites prescribed for a Vestal on behalf of the Roman people and Quirites, I take thee, Beloved, as a candidate chosen in keeping with the purest of laws, as a Vestal priestess.”[xxvii]

I was of plebeian status before being handed over to the state; the women that enter Vesta’s service can be plebeian or patrician, as long as they are unblemished.[xxviii] I have heard talk around the city that it is becoming increasingly hard to find suitable, willing, candidates. It would seem that Roman women these days are reluctant to spend thirty years unmarried, probably due to the recent privileges given by Augustus to women who are married and have children![xxix] Regardless of those privileges, I would much rather stay chaste and virtuous in order to stay loyal to Vesta.

Roman coin showing a carpentum

Obverse of a brass sestertius of Tiberius, minted in Rome (22-23 AD), with the covered mule cart, called a carpentum. The coin may commemorate the Senate and People of Rome (SPQR) granting Livia (Iulia Augusta) the right to sit with the Vestals at public games; she may also have been granted the right to ride in a carpentum. Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

The Vestals ride through Rome in a carpentum and sit in sacred chairs, which no one dare touch; Vestals are the only women in Rome permitted to ride on two-wheeled carriages, an example of just one of the privileges allowed to those who enter into Vesta’s service.![xxx] Through the streets of Rome, the Vestals are accompanied by lictors and the fasces are carried in front of them.[xxxi] Throughout the service, the Vestals wear the beautiful flammeum and sex crines, which I enjoyed wearing during my thirty years service![xxxii] I always thought the veil was very beautiful and each Vestal today looks just as wonderful in it, along with her stola and the vittae that they are wearing today.[xxxiii]

Relief with a lictor, Roma and a Vestal

Cancelleria Relief B (93-95 AD) shows a lictor curiatus (representing religious rather than political power) standing behind a young Vestal, who wears the distinctive headdress made up of an infula (band of wool wrapped several times around the head) and vittae (the long looped side pieces). The female figure behind them is a personification of Rome herself. Vatican Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

I have many enjoyable memories of being a Vestal which have all been brought back by this day. However, there were many activities that we took part in that the public did not see. From March 7th until March 15th, we cleaned the aedes Vestae which I greatly enjoyed as I loved knowing that through my efforts I was pleasing the goddess Vesta.[xxxiv] From May 7th until May 14th, two other Vestal Virgins and I used to make the mola salsa, which I greatly enjoyed as well. We would collect water from the sacred spring, then roast, pound and grind the spelt, which was collected on the 7th, 9th and 11th May, into flour. Today the mola salsa I helped to make is sprinkled on the animals ready for sacrifice and baked in the cakes offered to Vesta. It will also be used to be used for the Ides of September and the Lupercalia, but after that there will no longer be a part of me in the festivals, I will just watch.[xxxv]During my time as a Vestal, I had a direct role during the animal sacrifices, just as the Vestal Virgins have today. Upon entering the temple of Vesta at such a young age, we were given a sescepita, which meant we could take part in animal sacrifices. The Vestals also participate in the sacrifice by word and deed.[xxxvi] The festival is such a beautiful sight and there are so many people as it is such a special day; even the donkeys are decorated with wreaths and cakes.[xxxvii] It is amusing to see the beasts decked with garlands, marching in triumphal pomp.[xxxviii] A donkey, which is led by the Chief Vestal, is being sacrificed by the Vestals. It is such a joyful moment as we all pray to the goddess.

There are six main stages in the ritual; firstly, the pompa of victims to the altar, then the prayer and offerings of wine and incense at the altar. This is followed by the pouring of wine and mola salsa over the animal’s head by the main sacrificant. The animal is then killed and then its entrails are examined. Finally, parts of the animal are burned on the altar.[xxxix] As a Vestal, I also had the privilege of being involved in sacrificial rites during other festivals, like the Fordicia and the Bona Dea.[xl]

Roman altar with sacrificial scene

An Augustan-period altar from Cervetari dedicated to Gaius Manlius shows a male figure with his toga pulled over his head pouring wine onto an altar before which two kneeling victimarii hold the head of a bull while another prepares to swing the sacrificial axe. Behind the bull another victimarius holds the hammer used to stun the bull in his right hand and a plate with mola salsa in his left. In front of him stand a flute player and a camillus (boy sacrificial attendant). Vatican Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus (2007). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

Watching the Vestals today, it brings back the memory of what I had to say and do during the Vestalia when I was one of the Vestals. As much as I enjoyed my time as a Vestal, I hated walking barefoot during my early years serving Vesta. The young girls today seem happy enough, but as a child my feet always got burned by the sun during the festival! However, I am used to walking barefoot now, so today’s walk has been no discomfort to me, unlike some of the other women gathered here! All the women form a procession and we pace barefoot to the temple of Vesta and to the altar of Jupiter Pistor.[xli]

She is such a kind a gentle goddess, but some people cannot truly appreciate this! An incredibly rude man, who does not seem to be honouring the festival or the goddess, is shouting blasphemous and disrespectful remarks, causing a terrible distraction from this important occasion! I tell him in no uncertain terms to sit down and learn some manners, but he simply ignores me. At that moment I miss the days where my accompanying lictors could strike such impudent man down! Who does he think he is? What will Vesta think?

There is no statue of her on display during this festival, but there is one outside the House of the Vestals.[xlii] The statue of her is beautiful: she’s draped in a long robe with a veil on her head, carrying an awe-inspiring javelin and a lamp.[xliii] I pray, as I have done every year, to the sacred flame of the hearth, to thank Vesta for a blessed life.

The Vestalia will continue for eight days, during which many women and I will go to the temple to worship, as well as worshipping the household gods at home. For these eight sacred days, we will dress simply and take off our shoes before entering the beautiful, round temple of Vesta.[xliv] The last day of the Vestalia is the vesta clauditur, which will fall on June 15th. On that day, quando stercum delatum fas, the dirt will be swept from the temple of Vesta and its doors will be closed. Only then will it be lawful to transact public business.[xlv] However, the Vestalia will not end for me until I know that the Vestals have disposed of the dirt by taking it along an alley halfway up the Capitoline slope, through the portica stercoria and down to the River Tiber. Only then can the Vestals return to their usual routine and duties, just as I did during my time in service.[xlvi]

Since leaving the Temple of Vesta, I am aware of how important Vesta is outside because I see her face everywhere, on coins and even notices![xlvii] Vesta can be seen all around the city and in its homes; she is important to households because she is kind to human beings. She is dear to me and, despite the evidence of that outspoken man, to the simple folk of Rome.[xlviii]


[i] For a similarly disgruntled Roman, who lives in an insula, see Juvenal’s classic example in Satire III, tr. P. Green, (2004), Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires, St. Ives.
[ii] Based on Ovid, Fasti, 6.395 ff., where he describes where he stands during the Vestalia.
[iii] This characteristic is displayed by the satirist Juvenal, see W. Kupersmith, (1976), ‘Juvenal as Sublime Satirist’, Publications of the Modern Language Association 87: 508-511: 508.
[iv] C. Di Leonardo & L. Hadley, (1947), ‘Vestalia’, Classical Journal 42 (1947): 356-368: 356
[v] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[vi] T. Worsfold, (1934), The History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, London: 44.
[vii] Ovid, Fasti, 311 ff., tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.
[viii] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 11.6, tr. P. Walsh (2008), Apuleius: Metamorphoses, Oxford.
[ix] S.Hornblower & A. Spawforth, eds, (2003), Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford: 549.
[x] On the sescepita and the role of Vestals in sacrifices, see J. Scheid, (1994), ‘The Religious Roles of Roman Women’ in P. Pantel, A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, vol. 1, Cambridge: 383.The comment from our disgruntled Roman about the pretence that everyone who is involved in the festival feasts with the gods symbolises the character’s feeling of detachment from the community.
[xi] Augustus became Pontifex Maximus following the death of Lepidus in 16BC. On pollution and proximity to the Vestals, see M. Beard, (1980), ‘The Sexual Status of Vestal Virgins’, The Journal of Roman Studies 70: 12-27: 12.
[xii] Ovid, Fasti, 3.11 ff., tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.
[xiii] Following F. Bennett, (1913), ‘A Theory concerning the Origin and the Affiliations of the Cult of Vesta’, Classical Weekly 7: 35-37: 36.
[xiv] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xv] Propertius V, i, 21, tr. V. Katz, (2004), Propertius: Elegies, Princeton.
[xvi] Worsfold, n.[vi]: 44.
[xvii] Based on comments in Ovid, Fasti, 6.395 (tr. A. Boyle, (2000), Ovid: Fasti, St. Ives.) where the author is reprimanded.
[xviii] Bennett, n.[xiii]: 35
[xix] H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 148-150.
[xx] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xxi] S. Pomeroy, (1976), Goddesses, Whores, Wives & Slaves, London: 210-214
[xxii] M. Imber, (2011), ‘Vestalia’ in Roman Civilisation: CMS 206/History 206 (online course support at http://abacus.bates.edu/~mimber/Rciv/vestalia.htm viewable through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine).
[xxiii] Bennett, n.[xiii]: 36.
[xxiv] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 149.
[xxv] Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.12.L, reproduced in M. Lefkowitz & M. Fant, (1992), Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, as edited for Diotima by Suzanne Bonefas and Ross Scaife.
[xxvi] Beard, n.[xi]: 21.
[xxvii] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xxviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xxix] Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214.
[xxx] Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214.
[xxxi] On lictors accompanying Vestals, see Pomeroy, n.[xxi]: 210-214. On the fasces preceding Vestals, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 2 – A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 203.
[xxxii] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xxxiii] Beard, n.[xi]: 16.
[xxxiv] Beard, n.[xi]: 14.
[xxxv] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 150. The Lupercalia is held in February.
[xxxvi] Scheid, n.[x]: 383.
[xxxvii] Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xxxviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xxxix] Beard et al., n.[xxxii]: 148.
[xl] Scheid, n.[x]: 382.
[xli] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xlii] Imber, n.[xxii].
[xliii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xliv] Imber, n.[xxii].
[xlv] The entire duration of the Vestalia is declared as fastus, meaning that no business may be transacted, Di Leonardo & Hadley, n.[iv]: 356.
[xlvi] Scullard, n.[xviii]: 153.
[xlvii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 35.
[xlviii] Bennett, n.[xi]: 36.

Vestalia Story 3: A Barefoot Matrona

As I awaken on the 9th of June, I prepare myself to attend the Vestalia, as I have done for many years. As Roman citizens we are fully aware of the importance of our duty to worship Vesta properly and honour her annually on this day.[i] I always try to do my best to perform religio all year round but as a woman I feel a special connection to the Vestalia.[ii]

Reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum

Reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum by C. Huelsen, 1909, The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, trans. J.B. Carter (2nd ed.), fig. 120 Courtesy of www.vroma.org

The aedes of Vesta has been open to worshiping women of Rome for two days now, but I have chosen to go and worship today because this day is specifically dedicated to our goddess Vesta.[iii] I wish to worship at the temple on this day, a day devoted to Vesta, in order to ensure that I am doing all I can to safeguard my family.

It suddenly occurs to me that it is only two weeks from today that my son will be married. My son and my future daughter-in-law wanted to marry in June, so we were positive that they should wait until after the 15th June because that is deemed most suitable for marriage. Presently it is a time of dies nefasti and ill-omened because Vesta’s temple is not properly purified until the Ides of June after the purgamina of the aedes will have been thrown into the Tiber making the temple pure.[iv] I am eagerly awaiting the day of my son’s wedding and I will dedicate my worship of Vesta today to the well-being of all my family, my new daughter-in-law included.

View of the Tiber at Tevere, Rome.

The Tiber at Tevere, Rome. © benoitnewton, 2005.

A modern re-enactor dressed as a Roman legionary.

A modern re-enactor dressed as a Roman legionary in Chester, England. © Susan Bonvallet, 2000. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

As I carefully prepare myself for this day, my slave girl looks at me in confusion. She seems unable to fully understand why this day is of such importance, much like some other women in Rome who do not share the appreciation that I have for this day. My husband and son are both soldiers, which means that Rome’s safety is also theirs. I fully believe that Vesta ensures the protection of our city and all its inhabitants, therefore it is essential that I worship Vesta properly.[v]

I am unsure of the exact origins of this festival.[vi] As far as I am aware the Vestalia originates from the beginning of Rome when the Vestals were chosen to protect the sacred fire of Vesta’s symbolic hearth, ensuring the safety of the city.[vii] I am assuming, as with most of our deities, a day each year was then devoted to Vesta in her honour.

I step out of my house without my sandals on, which feels very strange. I do this because it is an old religious belief that this allows one to feel closer to Vesta. It is believed that Vesta is part of the terra (earth) and by placing the soles of our feet directly on the ground we can feel a distinct bond with her on this special day. For me, this is a novel idea – the greatest connection to be had with Vesta, I think, is to be within her temple looking into the sacred fire.[viii] As I make my way to the Vestalia I think about the previous festivals I have attended at which the Vestal Virgins have been present.

I think about how rewarding it must be for the Vestals to devote their lives to the worship of Vesta and enhance the safety of our great city. I have great respect for how they endure the pressures they are placed under by our nation. They must protect their sacred virginity as well as ensuring the fire of Vesta burns continually.[ix] This is a heavy burden and they are aware of the punishment that could befall them and the impact their failure would have on our city.[x] We all know the story of the disastrous battle at Cannae. Lives were lost not when our army failed, but they failed because two Vestals failed to protect their chastity and that weakened our armies’ strength.[xi]

As I enter the temple a feeling of awe and tranquillity comes over me. I am immediately drawn towards the hearth of Vesta where the fire burns a deep orange. Around the hearth I see other barefooted women making their offerings to Vesta. I consider what the other women surrounding the fire are praying for. I have heard that some women come to the aedes of Vesta to pray not only for protection but also fertility. I find this strange as I have never thought it right to pray for fertility. For me the worship of Vesta is about protection and purification.[xii] Each of us has brought the same kind of simple food to offer. I bend down and place my humble offerings on a clean platter that is then placed next to the hearth.[xiii]

Marble togate statue of the genius of Augustus.
Marble togate statue of the genius of Augustus (with restored right arm). Vatican Museums 259. © Jastrow, 2003.

As usual there are no Vestals to be seen, however I feel their presence within the temple. Most likely they will be working hard in the curtained off inner sanctuary of the penus.[xiv] Despite the curtains I am still able to make out a few of the Vestals’ shadows from inside the penus where I imagine they are preparing the sacred substance mola salsa.[xv] Strangely, thinking about the Vestals working hard in the penus reminds me of my domestic role at home.

Knowing that I will not be here again for another year, I take a moment to fully appreciate the sacred fire of Vesta. For me and the Roman people the fire is the only symbol we have of Vesta.[xvi] This has always struck me as being odd because we have many images of our other deities and guardian spirits, indeed, just on my way here I passed the togate statue of the genius of Augustus.

Anyway, the fire is of monumental importance for the city of Rome. We Romans firmly believe that the continuous burning of the fire will ensure the salus (safety) of Rome and its people.[xvii] The fire is essential to our city, the thought of any accidental extinguishment horrifies me. I look into the fire and pray to Vesta to protect our city and its people, especially my family. I thank Vesta for her influence in our lives and ask for her continued presence and that of the Vestals as both are crucial in safeguarding Rome. I hope that the Vestals will find the strength to carry on fulfilling their duty.

Much like the duty the Vestals have to tend to the hearth, it is my responsibility to make sure the fire in my house remains strong. As the lady of the house I must ensure the continual burning of our fire as this enhances our prosperity. While my husband has to make religious sacrifices throughout the year for our family, it is my job to make sure the fire is tended to properly. I do this because I want to completely perform my worship of Vesta, because the fire is the symbol of Vesta in our home. I can sleep better at night knowing that I have done everything in my power to ensure the salus of my son and husband.[xviii] Feeling that I have revered Vesta and dutifully conducted religio, I take my leave.

Walking down the steps of the temple I am amused by the decorated asses, they are surrounded by bakers and millers who look very happy to be enjoying their public holiday.[xix] I like the tradition of flowery garlands, loaves and wreaths being hung round the asses’ necks.[xx]

Millstones in a bakery in Ostia.

Millstones, which would have been turned by asses, in a bakery in Ostia (the port of Rome). © Ann Raia, date. Courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

Heading homewards I consider what a lovely day this has been. I feel content in the knowledge that the Vestals will continue to work hard over the next few days during the purification of the temple. This may sound odd, but each year after this festival I also have a feeling of purification, it is almost as though by attending the Vestalia the purgamina of my soul is also taken to the Tiber. The whole day has the ability to fill me with intense religious purpose. This feeling allows me to carry out correct religious worship at other festivals and throughout the year, as I feel continually pure within the religious sphere. I am excited for the approaching nuptials of my son and I feel prepared for the days ahead. I have great appreciation for the Vestal Virgins protecting the sacred fire, honouring Vesta who helps to ensure the protection of Rome and its inhabitants.

Thank you Vesta and happy Vestalia everyone!


[i] Vesta gained new importance during Augustus’s reign when measures were taken to restructure Roman religion. For example, ‘when Augustus became Pontifex Maximus in 12BC, he circumvented the requirement of an official residence near the Aedes Vestae by establishing a new shrine to Vesta within his Palatine house’ (R.J. Littlewood, 2006, A Commentary on Ovid: Fasti book VI, Oxford: 81). The Emperor placing such importance on a particular deity would encourage Roman citizens to emulate his behaviour.

[ii] Performance of religio (religious observation) included proper worship/traditional honours paid to the Gods, restraint in behaviour during and commitment to ritual and service to the state/city. This would be important for a Roman matrona to consider on days of worship.

[iii] The aedes Vestae is the ‘Temple of Vesta’. There is some ambiguity concerning the exact dates of the Vestalia. Some scholars believe the festival begins on the 7th of June (e.g. R.L. Wildfang, 1999, ‘The Vestals and Annual Public Rights’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 241) but others suggest that the festival begins on the 9th of June (e.g. M.C. Howatson, 1989, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford: 593). All scholars agree that the festival concludes on the 15th June. In this narrative the festival runs from the 7th-15th June with the Vestalia itself taking place on the 9th June.

[iv] On the purgamina, see Ovid Fasti 6.226-234, as discussed by Wildfang, n.[iii]: 243.

[v] The fire that burns within the temple of Vesta is considered to symbolise Vesta herself and the protective power she provides for Rome: e.g. ‘Vesta’s hearth and flame symbolised a generative fire which was thought to maintain prosperity of the Roman state’ (Littlewood, n.[i]: 80). This is shown in Ovid’s Fasti 6.625, where Ovid describes the protective and generative power of Vesta’s fire in his story of Servius Tullius’ birth.

[vi] The origins of the Vestalia are unclear.

[vii] Plutarch appears uncertain about whether the Vestals first originated with Romulus or Numa: he states that Romulus introduced the ‘consecration of fire, and appointed holy virgins to guard it, called Vestals’ but also that Numa ‘built the temple of Vesta where the perpetual fire was kept.’ While the precise origins may be uncertain, it can be assumed that the Vestalia grew from the worship of Vesta.

[viii] Littlewood comments on Ovid’s description of an encounter with a ‘barefooted’ matron going to the Vestalia, from which scholars have deduced that all Roman matronae attended the Vestalia barefooted, suggesting that this custom may originate from the ancient religious belief that close contact with the earth helped maintain a woman’s fecundity (n.[i]: 123). Despite our character associating Vesta with protection more than fertility (see, n.[xii]) this would have been a relevant motivation for others.

[ix] Ovid (Fasti 6.289) describes how Vesta, being nothing but the living flame, would rightly be a virgin. It would therefore follow that her priestesses (the Vestals) should also be virgins, and it would be integral to their role as her representatives that they maintained their chastity.

[x] The extreme importance of the fire is demonstrated through examples in literature of the fear of its extinguishment and the punishments befalling the Vestals who allowed this to happen. Livy describes the ‘terrifying experience’ of the extinction of the fire in Vesta’s temple, recording that ‘the Vestal who was in charge of the fire that night was severely flogged by order of Publius Licinius, the Pontifex Maximus.’ (Livy The History of Rome 4.28.11).

[xi] Livy writes about the defeat at Cannae in 216BC and records that two Vestals ‘Opimia and Floronia were found guilty of unchastity. One was buried alive [the other] was scourged…so severely that she died.’ (The History of Rome 3.22.57).

[xii] There is debate over whether Vesta’s fire can represent Rome’s fertility or not. Indeed, it is suggested that the flame symbolises both fertility and sterility (M. Beard, 1980, ‘The Sexual Status of The Vestal Virgins’, Journal of Roman Studies 70: 2-27: 24). Alternatively, it is suggested that the flame should be viewed as sterile due to the fact that Vesta herself (see n.[ix]) is a virgin (R.F. Wildfang, 1999, ‘The Vestal Virgins’ Ritual Function in Roman Religion’, Classica et Mediaevalia 50: 227-232: 229). Arguably, the flame, due to the widespread emphasis on the safety provided by its continual burning and the deep fear of its extinction, could predominantly signify the notion of protection.

[xiii] Ovid Fasti 6.310. Although Ovid briefly describes what occurs in the temple during the Vestalia, it is important to note the difficulty dealing with male sources that reconstruct female experiences: e.g. ‘…our description of these festivals depends on the literary testimony of male authors who…often had their own complex agendas in portraying women’s rites.’ (R.S. Kraemer, 1992, Her Share of the Blessings, Oxford: 52). We know that men (other than the Pontifex Maximus) were forbidden to enter the temple, so in this case male authors, unless women described their experiences to them (which they may not have done or have been forbidden from doing), were reliant on their imaginations to reconstruct an exclusively female experience and hence their evidence is unreliable.

[xiv] On the penus Vestae, see H.H. Scullard, 1981, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 149.

[xv] The nature and production of mola salsa is outlined by Wildfang, n.[xii]: 232.

[xvi] There are no statues of Vesta; the fire is the sole representation of the goddess. Ovid Fasti 6.295, ‘long did I foolishly think there were images of Vesta’ is cited by Littlewood (n.[i]: 95), who states nevertheless that there does not seem to be any prohibition against making an image of Vesta because ‘several coins show a statue dressed in the garb of a Vestal Virgin on the roof of the Tholus temple.’ In addition, there are various examples of coins depicting Vesta herself.

Images of the reverse sides of Roman coins depicting the goddess Vesta or her temple.

Clockwise from top left: reverse of a denarius of Nero (AD64-68) showing the Temple of Vesta with her statue inside (National Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus, 2004); reverse of a gold aureus of Vespasian (AD73) showing the Temple of Vesta with her statue inside and two further statues outside (National Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus, 2007); reverse of a sestertius of Lucilla (Ad164-164) showing Vesta standing by an altar with a burning flame holding a simpulum (a long-handled ladle used by a pontifex) for pouring wine at sacrifices and the Palladium, the city- protecting wooden statue of Athena from Troy that was deposited in the Temple of Vesta by Aeneas (Pergamum Museum, Berlin. © Barbara McManus, 2005); reverse of a copper as of Caligula (AD37-38) showing Vesta, veiled, sitting on a throne, holding a patera (shallow libation bowl) and a long sceptre (Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. © Ann Raia, 2009). All images courtesy of VRoma, www.vroma.org

[xvii] ‘[T]hroughout the history of pagan Rome any suggestion of irregularity involving the Vestals or their rituals implied a threat to the city itself’ (M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, 1998, Religions of Rome: vol. 1: A History, Cambridge: 54).

[xviii] ‘There is an obvious parallel between Vesta the hearth of the city and the hearth of the houses of individual families- the priestesses of the state apparently representing women of the household’ (Beard, North & Price, n.[xvii]: 52).

[xix] It has been suggested that the custom of garlanding asses can be interpreted ‘as an indication of their freedom of daily toil’ (Littlewood, n.[i]: 99), indicating that the asses shared the public holiday, as well as the bakers and millers.

[xx] For the asses’ garlands, see Ovid Fasti 6.321.

Vestalia Story 2: A Hard-working Vestal Virgin and her Observant Father

Full-length statue of Vestal Virgin

Statue of a Vestal Virgin. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A Hard-working Vestal Virgin

I understand the importance of my role; I am, after all, part of one of the most religious organisations of my city. I am a virginal Vestal Priestess and have been so for the past eleven years – ever since my eighth birthday, when I left my family.(i) My connections now are with the other Vestals and the Pontifex Maximus, our gracious leader, Augustus.(ii) Although I am not in any way related to the imperial family, the importance of my status removes me from mundane life and confirms my role in our society as sacrosanct. It is for the citizens of Rome that I dedicate my life to Vesta and keep alight her flame on the only official hearth of Vesta, here in the Forum Romanum. As virginal Vestals we belong to no man, we belong to the city of Rome. If I fail in this most virtuous task and allow the flame on the hearth of Vesta to perish, the whole ofRome will suffer from the consequences – her people’s fertility and their protection by the gods will be at risk. I’ll admit that it is a heavy burden for a young woman like me to carry, but I consider my duty an honour.

Even so, when I see the families attending the festival, I cannot help but be overwhelmed with jealousy despite my privileges.(iii) I can barely remember the years I spent with my parents and siblings. My father is somewhere among the crowd today preparing for the festival celebrations. I hope I make him proud. I still wish him to think of me as his beloved daughter despite the fact I am no longer under him as my pater familias.

For eight special days of the year, during the month of Iunis, gracious Vesta’s home is opened up to outsiders.(iv) Usually her home is kept private; however from VI Id. Iun our temple welcomes the citizens of Rome.(v) Women come in their masses to worship their domestic deity. They must, of course, respect our Goddess, the first ritual sign of respect is removing their shoes as they enter the Aedes of Vesta and the next prostrating themselves before the hearth. After that, they may stand before the altar and place their offerings of cereal, fruit and other fresh produce. This is overseen by my dear friend and fellow Vestal, Aulia. The offerings are given through one so virtuous as a merit-making activity: the women hope that their offerings will result in good fortune for them. Then the women take a step back and pay their respects to the Goddess in words. I was especially pleased to see Julia, my own mother, and her friends within the outer penus vestae.(vi) I look at them standing together as they recite the traditional chorus:

“We come to you as matrons of pure and good character to ask you, Vesta, to bless our households.”

To which we dutifully respond:

“Oh Vesta, hear them. Oh Gods, hear them.” (vii)

Reconstruction drawing of the circular Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum

Reconstruction drawing of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum by Ch. Huelsen, 1909, The Roman Forum: Its History and Its Monuments, trans. J.B. Carter (2nd ed.), Rome: 202, fig. 120.

Citizens of Rome are often surprised to find no statue of the goddess within our home to whom pay their respects. Instead the flame of the hearth symbolises Vesta’s presence, its eternal burning is a reflection of the eternal help she gives us.(viii)

The penus vestae is, of course, prohibited; its contents are known only to myself, the other Vestals and the Ponitfex Maximus.(ix) Quando stercum delatum fas, once the Aedes of Vesta has closed to the public, it will be our duty to sweep the Aedes clear.(x) Unlike the Gods of the Pantheon, Vesta is worshipped within an Aedes, this is not a temple but her home, it takes the shape of a round dwelling much like our Latin ancestors’ huts.(xi) The purgamina is swept up.(xii) Then, as an act of cleansing, it will be carried to the Tiber River which will carry it out to sea, signifying the end of the celebrations.(xiii) This day is fastus and as such judicial and civic business may be transacted. The XV Kal. Iul is also the day I go back to my daily routine with the other priestesses.(xiv)

I like that the women of Rome get to see how beautiful Vesta’s home is, and it is only fair they get to publicly worship their goddess, who helps us in so many ways. I wish my father could come inside, so that he could be more involved in my life as a Vestal priestess. However, this is not possible, because men are banned from entering Vesta’s home; apart that is from the Pontifex Maximus, of course. Despite what many plebeian women may think about our simple duties, we Vestals work hard and have important religious responsibilities. We guard the storehouse and ritually clean, we gather the first ears of the corn from the years harvest and grind it and bake mola salsa.(xv) In order to prepare for the Vestalia the other Vestals and I have made a fresh batch of mola salsa. We prepare these three times a year for the Lupercalia, the Vestalia and Ides of September.(xvi) This time it was my turn to fetch the water from the sacred spring. I had to ensure at all times that I did not set the water down – as contact with the earth would have destroyed its virtuous properties. Aulia then prepared the salt by mixing it with brine, before pounding it and baking it in a jar.(xvii)

Statue of a Vestal tending the sacred flame

Marble statue of a Vestal tending the sacred flame. Florence, Uffizi Museum. © Barbara McManus (1990). Courtesy of www.vroma.org

The most important of all our responsibilities is to tend to the sacred fire on the sacred hearth of the temple, which stands at the Southwest corner of the Forum Romanum.(xviii) Were we ever to let the sacred flame die, the Pontifex Maximus would chastise those who have failed to take their responsibility seriously. By way of punishment for such a disgraceful failure we would be scourged, sometimes naked, with nothing but a curtain between ourselves and the Pontifex Maximus.(xix) I hope in my time that I never have to endure such a shameful punishment. I shiver to even think of the consequences I would face if I were to ever break my vow of chastity, not that I would ever dare commit such a crime. I understand how important my virginity is to preserving Vesta’s goodwill for Rome.(xx)

Enough about my duties, let me tell you about the celebrations. People often mistake the Vestalia as being on VI Id. Iun., but the procession is actually on IV Id. Iun..(xxi) From VI Id. Iun to XV Kal. Iul the days are consecrated to Vesta and declared dies religiosi and nefasti.(xxii) On these particular days of nefasti bakeries and mills close and the workers keep this as a holiday.(xxiii) Bakers and millers are relieved from their duties because Vesta is the bread makers’ goddess, she is the giver of food to hungry mouths.(xxiv)

As to the afternoon, once all offerings have been made, the other Vestals and I can enjoy a break. At this time the procession takes place throughout the city. It starts at the Palatine Hill but as the procession proceeds the hustle and bustle gradually attracts more people.(xxv) Women proceed separately behind the male procession. Due to the fact that bakeries and mills are closed, the various beasts of burden are used in the procession. They are garlanded with flowers and loaves are hung around their necks, representing not only Vesta’s sacred animal but also the fertility of our harvest. The procession comes towards the sacrificial altar in the Forum Romanum, where a donkey gives its life for the sake of the city, to show our appreciation of Vesta. In terms of the animal sacrifice our participation is indirect, through our baking of the mola salsa. Due to our pure and sacred status, represented by our white clothing and veils covering our styled hair, we are kept at a distance from bloodshed.(xxvi) The meat from the sacrifice is then offered to Vesta through the sacred flame – a communal symbol of the individual domestic offerings that are given daily by the citizens ofRome.(xxvii) Daily offerings include placing a small piece of cake or bread on the natural altar of the dwelling room of man and the home of Vesta.(xxviii) We then all make our way back home to bed, were the doors are closed for the night at sundown.

The Vestalia is the one time of the year when the people of Rome can come together and publicly worship their goddess. We are all united in our love and respect for what Vesta does for our humble city; above all, Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the son of a Vestal Virgin.(xxix) This public worship plays homage to the humble roots whence all the citizens of Rome came and makes me feel even more privileged to be here emulating the role of the mother of our city. We Vestals represent a tradition that stretches back to the time of the kings when the unmarried daughters of the Latin families had simple yet vital duties to uphold. I am so proud that I am a Vestal priestess!

Fresco showing Numa (right) establishing the cult of Vesta

“Numa Pompilius Establishing Worship of the Vestals” (1636-40) in a fresco by Guiseppe Cesari, aka the Cavalier d’Arpino. Capitoline Museums, Rome. © Barbara McManus, 2003. Courtesy of Vroma, www.vroma.org



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.

An Observant Father

The Vestalia is a day that has mixed emotions for me. It is a day to honour the goddess Vesta and the Vestals who guard her sacred flame, but is also the one day of the year that I see my daughter, who I have not spoken to in eleven years, not since the day she was selected.

At the time, all those years ago, my wife Julia and I had three wonderful children: our sons Lucius and Proclus, aged eleven and three respectively, and our beautiful daughter Lucia. She was eight years old and already many of my colleagues were talking about how she would be the perfect wife and would be more beautiful than any woman in Romewhen it was time for her to marry. This all changed when we received a message from Augustus himself, who was serving as the Pontifex Maximus,(xxx) that he wished me to bring my daughter to the selection of a new Vestal. We arrived at his house and for the first time met the man who had rebuiltRome after so many years of turmoil. Nineteen other fathers had also brought their daughters along to the selection. Augustus placed the names of all those present in a jar and spoke to us about the virtues that Vesta was looking for in her new priestess.

The girl was to be of noble birth and live inItaly. She must have a clean face, free from disfigurement, and have no disability. All the girls present were between the ages of six and ten years and I knew all of them through association with their fathers. Augustus said that none of them could be orphans and to my knowledge all those present had living, healthy mothers. Augustus then placed his hand in the jar and selected a tablet. He read it and smiled, before looking at me with kind eyes. He approached me and placed his hand on my shoulder and informed me that our Lucia would be the new Vestal.(xxxi)

I was honoured at the time and still am now. It was hard to let her go, never to truly see her again, but she was selected by Augustus himself to serve Romeand Romeshe serves. I must admit that since that day our lives have greatly improved. Augustus himself endorsed me as a senator when I was eligible, my dignitas grew from the prestige not only of having a Vestal daughter, who are highly respected in Rome, but also from having Augustus’ favour.

On the day of the festival itself, the year that Cornelius Dolabella and Janius Silanus are serving as consuls, we follow the same traditions as all previous years, but this year is far more significant.(xxxii) It is this year that my daughter will be taking part in the festival as a full Vestal, now her ten years of training are complete.(xxxiii)

After our family breakfast my wife, Julia, takes the female servants and heads to the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum.(xxxiv) They all leave their shoes at home because it is seen as disrespectful to wear them in the temple. The servants carry various dishes of fruit and cereals so that my wife can make an offering. As members ofRome’s elite we must be seen to be making large offerings. While they are gone I retreat to my office to finish off some tedious paperwork before lunch. While I have no meetings with my various clients, today being a festival day, I still have time to fill before lunch and paperwork is not forbidden.

A Roman horse working to drive a millstone in a C3rd AD marble relief.

A Roman horse working to drive a millstone in a C3rd AD marble relief.

I glance out of my window and see the bakers and millers taking a herd of asses up to the Palatine Hill, where they will be prepared for the procession that will take place after lunch.(xxxv) I can also see crowds of other women heading towards the temple and many men heading towards the houses of others. I stamp my seal on one last letter before instructing my slave to prepare my toga. As all our wives and daughters were at the temple for the morning I had made plans to visit my friend and business partner Sextus Pompilius Vulso for lunch. For many years now the two of us have made a fair amount of gold importing exotic foods toRomeas well as from the prosperous farming land we own to the south.

After a delicious lunch Pompilius brings his sons over and I can’t help but think of mine. Proculus, now fourteen, is currently studying in Greece. As my heir he is expected to know both the law and the Greek language. My eldest son, Lucius, would be twenty-two now but he was unfortunate enough to have been under the command of that fool Varus who led three legions, some fifteen thousand men, to slaughter in a German Forest.(xxxvi) If he hadn’t  killed himself I would have killed him for the death of my eldest son.

I walk with Pompilius to the Palatine and we meet up with our wives. Together we take our places. I take my place with the other senators near the front, our wives behind and then our slaves between them and the poorer citizens. We can clearly see the garlands and loaves that the bakers and millers have used to decorate the asses, to represent the importance of Vesta to the creation of the basic foodstuff of Rome.(xxxvii)

We are then led on a parade around the city, with people joining in the parade as we go. Cheers and shouts rise from the crowd behind us. I can’t help but smile, thinking of the role my daughter is playing in today’s festivities. The people are happy and, for today at least, forget about any troubles they have.

We arrive in the Forum Romanum and the crowd gathers as the lead ass is led up to the altar, where the appointed priest conducts the sacrifices to the cheers of the rabble behind. I look up and to the side I see my daughter standing there proudly with her fellow Vestals. I couldn’t be more proud of her. I watch as she takes the plate of meat from the priest and heads into the temple to offer it to the flame of Vesta itself, the others following her.

On the walk back to Pompilius’ for dinner I think about my daughter. It will be another year until I see her. I hope she remembers me and knows how proud I am of her, and her service toRome.


(i) M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, 1998, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 – A History, Cambridge: 51.

(ii) The Pontifex Maximus was the ‘king of sacred rites’ (rex sacrorum), i.e. the leader of the sacrifice from among the members of the College of Pontiffs (‘priests’).

(iii) Vestal privileges also included the right to: make a will; not be bound by oaths; drive through city in a carpetum (similar to a litter); be proceeded by a lictor (an attendant who accompanied priests and holders of political office, symbolising their powers) to clear their way; have reserved seats in prime positions at the Games. See S. Pomeroy, (1976), Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, London: 212.

(iv) Iunius (‘June’) was the month sacred to Juno and thought to be especially lucky for weddings.

(v) Six days before the Ides of Iunis is 7th June.

(vi) The penus Vestae was the curtained inner sanctum of Vesta’s temple.

(vii) C. DiLeonardo & L. Hadley, (1947), ‘Vestalia’, Classical Journal 42: 361.

(viii) M. Imber, (2011), ‘Roman Civilisation’, History 206 (online resource: accessed on 13/03/2011 – archive page link thanks to the Internet Archive WayBackMachine)

(ix) H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, New York: 149.

(x) The Latin phrase and the act of sweeping is discussed in Scullard, n.(ix): 153.

(xi) W. Fowler, (2008), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, Gloucester: 72.

(xii) The dirt from inside the penus Vestae, the curtained inner sanctum of Vesta’s temple.

(xiii) R.L. Wildfang, (2001),The Vestals and Annual Public Rites’, Classica et Mediaevalia 52: 223-55: 241.

(xiv) Fifteen days before the Kalends of Iulius is 15th June.

(xv) Salted bread.

(xvi) J. Scheid, (2003), An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana: 50.

(xvii) P. Pantel, (2000), A History of Women: from ancient Goddess to Christian saints,Boston: 282.

(xviii) Pantel, n.(xvii): 381.

(xix) Plutarch, Life of Numa 10, written c. AD 75.

(xx) Vestals violating their vow of chastity were buried alive because they were too sacred to touch or inflict direct pain upon. If they were innocent it was assumed that Vesta would intervene to rescue them. Calamities of the state were often associated with Vestals’ misconduct and the sexual virtue of these women was directly connected to the state’s welfare.

(xxi) Four days before the Ides of Iunius is 9th June.

(xxii) Dies religiosi are religious/festival days in the Roman calendar on which neither public nor private business could be enacted. Nefasti are days on which it was not lawful to work.

(xxiii) Wildfang, n.(xiii): 244

(xxiv) F. Bennett, (1913), ‘A Theory Concerning the Origin and the Affiliations of the Cult of Vesta’, The Classical Weekly 7: 35-37: 35.

(xxv) Augustus dedicated an altar to Vesta in his house on the Palatinein 12 BC according to Fowler, n.(xii): 73. That Augustus opened a shrine to Vesta in his home on the Palatine Hill in 12 BC, upon his ascension to the role of Pontifex Maximus, is recorded by the Preneste Calendar which can be read in M.G.L. Cooley, (2008), The Age of Augustus, London: 49.

(xxvi) Bennett, n.(xxiv): 35.

(xxvii) Bennett, n.(xxiv): 37.

(xxviii) The ‘altar of the dwelling place’ would be the fireplace in the house. It is possible that a small piece of bread or cake was put in the fire after the main meal to show respect to Vesta.

(xxix) Bennett, n.(xxiv): 36.

(xxx) Augustus became Pontifex Maximus in 12 BC after the death of Lepidus. His ascension to the role is described in Res Gestae 10. See, S. Takacs, (2009), ‘The Res Gestae of Augustus’ in W. Eck, The Age of Augustus, Munich: 172-190.

(xxxi) The selection of the Vestal Virgins is recorded in Aulus Gelius’ Attic Nights 1.12. See, J.C. Rolfe (trans.), (1927), Aulus Gellius: Attic Nights, Cambridge MA & London.

(xxxii) The Romans did not use the same way of measuring years as we do today. When we say an event happened in AD 10 the Romans would say it happened in the Consulship of Cornelius Dolabella and Janius Silanus. A list of Roman Consuls from the reign of Augustus can be found in J. Ruebel, (2000), Consuls in the Reign of Augustus (online resource, accessed 20/03/2011).

(xxxiii) The origin and training of the Vestal Virgins is recorded in Pultarch, Life of Numa 10. See, B. Perrin (trans.), 1923, Plutarch Parallel Lives, Cambridge MA & London.

(xxxiv) The Templeof Vestais located in the Forum Romanum.

(xxxv) Augustus dedicated an altar to Vesta in his house on the Palatinein 12 BC according to Fowler, n.(xii): 73. That Augustus opened a shrine to Vesta in his home on the Palatine Hill in 12 BC, upon his ascension to the role of Pontifex Maximus, is recorded by the Preneste Calendar which can be read in M.G.L. Cooley, 2008, The Age of Augustus, London: 49.

(xxxvi) In AD 9 Varus, a Roman general, led three legions intoGermanyand they were slaughtered by natives. This is known as ‘The Varus Disaster’.

(xxxvii) Wildfang, n.(xiii): 244.

Vestalia Story 1: An Opinionated Roman Matrona

1835 water colour of the aedes Vestae (‘Temple of Vesta’).

Water colour of the aedes Vestae (‘Temple of Vesta’) by Alessandro Castelli (1835).

It is 15th June and the summer sun beats down on my back as I make my way to the Forum and the Temple of Vesta in order to give my offerings to the goddess. We pass some asses on our way towards the temple and my daughter, Clodia, wanted to reach out and touch their heads, which were garlanded with violets and hung with small loaves. I pulled her back and reminded her that the reason she had gone without bread this morning was due to the annual bakers’ and millers’ holiday, and the donkey’s decoration was symbolic of this.(i) Her tummy rumbled loudly and she scowled at the passing donkeys.

Marble head of a Vestal showing her characteristic hairstyle, headdress and veil (flammaeum).

Marble head of a Vestal showing her characteristic hairstyle, headdress and veil (flammaeum). Hadrianic era (117-138 AD). Palatine Museum, Rome. © Ann Raia (2009). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

In the distance I caught a glimpse of the Pontifex Maximus with his instantly identifiable Vestals, all wearing the flammeum and with their sex crines, and all busy sweeping dung from the penus vestae.(ii) I know we have to hurry to make the offerings in time before the penus is closed again for the year. It has been open for eight days, since the 7th June, but I just haven’t had the time to get here until now, especially since I have to make the visit without the company of my husband because men are forbidden to enter this part of the temple, except, of course, for the Pontifex Maximus.(iii)

Head and shoulders of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, with a fold of his toga draw up over his head.

The Via Labicana Augustus (c. 20 BC): Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, with his head veiled for a sacrifice. National Museums, Rome.

There are six Vestal Virgins, who are said to have been originally ordained by Numa. Nowadays they are appointed by the Pontifex Maximus when they are between the ages of six and ten. Daughters of patrician families are volunteered by their fathers to remain under the paternal authority of the Pontifex Maximus for thirty years.(iv) I’ve heard that Caesar Augustus announced that if he had a granddaughter of the suitable age, he would gladly put her forward for this sacred honour. However, in their thirty years of service they are only permitted to leave the aedes vestae to perform their sacred duties and I am not sure I would want to give up my daughter at such a young age, knowing that I may never see her again. It’s not the same for Augustus! I can still remember twenty-two springs ago, when I was six years old, and everyone celebrated when he took the position of Pontifex Maximus, so he would be able to see his granddaughter every day!(v)

On the other hand, the privileges bestowed on the Vestals are the highest honours a woman can hope to receive in our great city. Only last night my husband recounted the tale of a day in the Forum when a Vestal crossed paths with a criminal sentenced to death; he was immediately pardoned of all charges to reflect the magnitude of this good omen.(vi) Even their legal power matches that given to a free matron with three children!(vii)

The most important duty of the Vestals is to tend to the holy fire of Vesta and I can see the flame burning brightly as I pass through towards the penus. One of the worst omens for the safety of our city is the extinction of this flame, which means that the Vestals are whipped for their negligence if they allow it to go out.(viii) Some people think that, so long as the fire burns, we will have a good, substantial harvest. The only exception to this is on the last day of the year, when the fire is deliberately put out and rekindled again on New Year’s day, 1st March, by rubbing sticks together.(ix) My mother told me, and I will tell my daughter, that the continued security of the state is reliant on Vesta’s satisfaction with the priestess’ ongoing chastity. She can remember two young Vestals being dragged from the city, accused of breaking their vow of virginity, and being buried alive to appease Vesta. I have also heard that many years ago a defiled priestess was scourged with rods and thrown into the Tiber, but I feel that immurement is a far more humane form of execution for such an important public figure.

Head of Vesta and a citizen wearing a toga dropping a voting tablet into a voting urn on a bronze Roman coin.

Denarius minted by Lucius Cassius Longinus (63 BC). The obverse has a head of the goddess Vesta and the reverse shows a citizen wearing a toga dropping a voting tablet into a voting urn. The tablet records a “yes” vote (V for vti rogas, meaning “as you ask”), referring to the 113 BC plebiscite that established Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla’s prosecution of three Vestal Virgins charged with lack of chastity. Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo. © Barbara McManus (2009). Courtesy of www.vroma.org.

Our city’s grain supply also relies heavily on the Vestals. By maintaining their chastity, Rome’s fertility is ensured and they protect the state’s annual grain supply within the penus vestae.(x) Some of the more excitable gossips amongst my friends have been saying that rumour reports that there are holy objects hidden within the temple which no man (or woman for that matter) may see except the Vestals themselves. A common suggestion is that the Trojan Palladium brought to Italy by Aeneas is kept there, whilst others claim that it houses his Samothracian gods. My neighbour claims to know the truth and says that there are two jars, one open and empty and one full and closed. However, I think she has confused these ‘unseen holy objects’ with the jars in which the earliest Vestals sealed their sacred possessions, which they buried under the Temple of Quirinus.(xi)

Anyway, the important thing is that all the proper rituals are followed throughout the festival, so, when I arrive, I will make sure I remember to leave my shoes at the threshold and pray to Vesta whilst making my offerings on two clean plates.(xii) Today is the last day the penus vestae will be open and before it closes the primary concern of the Vestals is to ensure that it is carefully cleansed of purgamina in preparation for the reception for new grain. The unclean substances are swept half way up the Capitoline Hill, whereupon it is carried off by slaves and thrown into the Tiber.(xiii) No wonder people complain of the stench from the river!

So far as I know, the festival has been held ever since the earliest settlement that began the city of Rome was founded. The hearth has always been sacred and Vesta acknowledged as its protector. Families are said to have eaten around the hearth and mola salsa, a mixture of spelt flour and salt, was baked into bread by the daughters of the family. The Vestals now do this for our state, as living symbols of these ancient daughters. Each day, after the first course of the mid-day meal, an offering was made to Vesta, from a dish called a patera, of mola salsa. This is why the offering is made to the goddess during the Vestalia nowadays. This is my opinion but, as with anything as ancient as the Vestalia, there are many conflicting ideas about how it began.

The Vestals are present at most of the large public festivals. I find it strange that the Vestals are permitted direct involvement in these sacrifices, since usually women, including priestesses, are forbidden to have any part in this kind of religious ritual. However, Vestals can often even be seen at the altar with their sescepitae, running the blade along the spine of the victims, although a pontifex always completes the act of spilling the animal’s blood.(xiv) Today two of the younger Vestals sprinkle mola salsa on the heads of all the sacrificial victims, causing them to nod in assent to the sacrifice.(xv) Each year for a week, beginning on the 7th of May, the three most senior Vestals collect grain from the new harvest, roast, crush and grind it, add salt and then bake the mola salsa for use in all public sacrifices.(xvi) Most importantly, they collect water from the sacred spring of Juturna, near the temple, in a pot that cannot be set down because touching the earth destroys the holiness of the water.(xvii)

Today is, for me, the focal point of the Vestalia because today the Vestals pray for the state and for individual households. I can see them pouring libations of wine and oil on the altar of Vesta and now the first offering of mola salsa will be made. Usually the ritual proceedings include the slaughter of willing sacrificial animals and that’s not something I like to watch. I particularly enjoy taking part in this festival because it has no live sacrifices.(xviii)

Last year, one of the plates containing mola salsa fell to the floor and the Pontifex Maximus deemed this to be a bad omen, so the entire ritual was repeated because we cannot risk a grain shortage. Since the libations have been poured and prayers made in accordance with Jupiter’s ancient commands, Vesta should now ensure that we have enough grain to last the city until the next harvest, which means that my Clodia’s stomach will not need to rumble in earnest, unlike this morning!


(i) Ovid mentions the bakers and millers holiday on 15th June, in which the millstones and donkeys used in milling were garlanded with small decorative loaves and violets (Fasti 6.311-18). That this symbolised their freedom from their usual daily toil, see R. Littlewood, (2006), A Commentary on Ovid: Fasti Book VI, Oxford: 99.

(ii) The sex crines (‘six locks’) was the hairstyle worn by the Vestals (L. Adkins & R.A. Adkins, (1996), Dictionary of Roman Religion, New York) and the flammeum was the red veil worn as part of their headdress throughout their service. These were both otherwise only worn by brides on their wedding day, see J Scheid, (1992), ‘The Religious Roles of Roman Women’ in P. Schmitt-Pantel (ed.), A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, Cambridge: 377-408.

(iii) The Vestalia ran from the 7th to the 15th of June according to the fasti anni Romana, which was Numa’s calendar of the Roman’s festivals and was inscribed in stone, see W.W. Fowler, (1911), The Religious Experience of the Roman People, London.

The Vestals lived in the atrium of the Temple of Vesta, and were only permitted to go outside the confines of the aedes vestae to perform their public duties. Livy refers to the Vestals’ life within the aedes vestae when he says: ‘There is only one place for Vestals, and nothing save the capture of the city has ever moved them from it.’ (5.52). The temple was particularly unusual because it was round in shape. The holy fire was tended in the aedes vestae and citizens were permitted to enter this area. The penus vestae, however, was a symbolic representation of the grainstore of the state and was closed to the public for the entirety of the year, with the exception of the week of the Vestalia. Even then, men were still refused entry, and only women would come, barefoot, to give offerings to the goddess. It is not clear what was actually contained within the penus vestae. Details taken from Fowler, n.(iii): 101.

(iv) During the first ten years of a woman’s life as a Vestal she would be taught the duties which needed to be performed. For the next ten she would perform them and for the final ten she would instruct the novices. The women were then permitted to take a large dowry and marry as their period of civic duty was over, but many appear to have chosen to continue their life as a priestess rather than entering society. Dionysius of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 2.67-69.

(v) Augustus took the position of Pontifex Maximus on 6th March 12 BC and held it until his death in 31 AD.

(vi) Plutarch (Life of Numa X) specifies that criminals were only pardoned if it could be proved the crossing of their paths with a Vestal was accidental.

(vii) In recognition of the commitment made by these girls, who often chose to continue to serve as a Vestal for the remainder of their lives after their compulsory thirty years (see n.(iv)), Numa declared that they should be given certain privileges. They were permitted to make a will, whilst their father was still living, and had full control of their own affairs, without supervision from a guardian. This was usually a privilege reserved for matrons with three or more children in recognition of their service to the state in providing citizen children. See, Plutarch Life of Numa X.

(viii) Livy’s statement: ‘I do not need to mention the everlasting flame of Vesta and the image which is housed in her temple as guarantor of Rome’s empire’ (5.52) indicates that the fire was viewed as preserving the safety of Rome.

(ix) The fire was relit by the time-consuming method of friction. The cult seems to have changed very little over time. See, Fowler, n.(iii): 136.

(x) Most secondary sources consider the fire to be responsible for the fertility of Rome. However, Ovid refers to the fire as ‘sterile’ (Fasti 6.291-4) and the chastity of the Vestals can be seen to reflect the purity of the fire, see Scheid, n.(ii): 382.

(xi) Plutarch speaks of holy objects, supposedly buried under the Temple of Quirinus, and suggests that the Vestals were rumoured to have other pastimes: ‘Some say the only duty of the Vestal Virgins is to watch that eternal fire, but others say they perform secret rites.’ (Life of Numa X).

(xii) ‘I observed a lady, climbing down this way, barefoot’ (Ovid Fasti 6.397).

(xiii) Following the feriae on 9th June, three days of revelry commenced by the Tibicina. The end of this jubilant worship was marked by the focal point of the festival, the closing of the penus vestae on 15th June. See, M. York, (1986), The Roman Festival Calender of Numa Pompilius, New York: 133.

(xiv) Vestals were presented with a sacrificial knife to symbolise their permission to be involved in public sacrifices. However, there is no evidence to suggest that they ever took an active role in the ritual slaughter of the sacrificial victims, see Scheid, n.(iii):377-408.

(xv) The salt used in mola salsa was brought from a salt pan and pounded in a mortar. It was then baked and the resultant hard lump was cut with an iron saw when salt was needed for use in the preparation of the cake. See, H. Scullard, (1981), Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, London: 149.

(xvi) The oldest and longest serving Vestal Virgin was known as the Virgo Vestalis Maxima (‘Chief Vestal’). See C. Bailey, (1932), Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome, California: 159.

(xvii) It is thought that originally the water for the mola salsa had to be collected from the spring of Egeria, which was outside the Capena gate but that later on the Vestals were permitted to use the spring of Juturna, which was much closer to the temple. See Scullard, n.(xv): 149.

(xviii) Other than the events within the temple, very little is known of the public aspect of this festival, see Scullard, n.(xv): 150. As most festivals include animal sacrifices, it is likely that the Vestalia did too, but as no record of the appropriate animals remains, it is possible that it did not. The Roman legionary calendar shows that the Vestalia merited a supplicatio (decoration of military standards and their presentation at an altar) rather than a sacrifice, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price, (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 2 – A Sourcebook, Cambridge: 71-74, especially 73. For the relation of the city and army calendars to each other and to the Augustan religious calendar, see M. Beard, J. North & S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome: Vol. 1 – A History, Cambridge: 324-5.