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]
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]
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.
[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).
[vii] For the fire as Vesta, see Ovid Fasti 6.291- 298.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[xxvi] The siege of Rome by the Gauls was in 390BC. For Vesta’s contribution, see Ovid Fasti 6.379.
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.
[xxxiii] For a mythologizing link between Vesta and donkeys, see Ovid Fasti 6.311-18.
[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.
[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.
[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].
[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.
[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.