If you’ve ever had the good fortune to visit the ruins of the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, you’ll know that you can get fairly close to this beauty; however, there is a barrier that prevents you from getting too close. You can’t really see, and you certainly can’t enter, the circular area that was inside the temple – that is, the area where the eternal fire burned for some thousand years. It’s strictly off-limits.
Yet as part of an official research project in the Forum, I was permitted to enter and study this deeply religious space. I was interested in the stratigraphy of the structure from within: specifically, the various building materials that record the temple’s history, from the Republican era to the last rebuild by the Emperor Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna in the late second century CE.
But that’s not what tends to interest most people the most…including me. What most people who honor Vesta or who have read my books want to know is, “What does it look like close up, from the spot where the sacred fire used to burn?” So I’ll tell you.
These days, the “floor” of the temple is gone so that one stands on a round, grassy space. When I visited (a lovely summer day), a patch of green clover was growing in the precise area where the sacred fire used to burn.
When I stood in the centre of this space and looked up at the remaining temple enclosure from within, I was struck by a strong sense of smooth circularity, despite the relatively small amount of the temple’s round enclosure that still stands. For me, it felt very much like an embrace.
I could imagine the entire circular temple existing around me, complete with its twenty Corinthian columns. I could visualize the marble floor and the sacred fire crackling in the centre of the temple, the smoke escaping through the hole in the ceiling. The design of the space, and the emotional impact of standing in its core, made it surprisingly easy for me to see and to feel the temple as it was in ancient times.
My visit was “officially” a research-based one and I was granted special access thanks to the sort of project that Forum officials (who act as vigilant custodians of these invaluable ruins) deem worthy. But let’s face it. The most worthy reason to visit the temple’s ruins is fascination, and a desire to pass on that fascination to other people.
If I am going to continue to write about the Vestals and life inside the temple, I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to that experience. I wanted to stand in the exact spot where the Vestals stood when they performed their most sacred of duties. And when I did that – I’ll be honest – the emotion of it did take me off guard.
I’ve been writing about Vesta and the Vestals for years, but there’s no doubt this experience has reignited my fascination with them and my passion for telling their stories. Seeing the temple from a distance, especially a short distance, is a lovely experience and I encourage everyone who feels drawn to this ancient faith, or to ancient Rome in general, to visit. You will not be disappointed.
Yet as someone who’s been truly blessed enough to see the temple in a more intimate way, I wanted to share a couple images of what that looked like. Whether it’s to satisfy a passing curiosity or to get a little closer to something you hold dear, I hope you will enjoy them.