Ancient History

Ancient History

The spark of Vesta’s sacred fire was lit well over a million years ago, when our ancestor hominids first marvelled at the mystery of fire and learned to rely upon it for life itself. They built stones around it. Then they built their homes around it.  And eventually, they would build their temples and civilizations around it.

Fire worship is the earliest form of “religion” known to humankind, and it gave birth to the beloved goddess the  earliest Romans named Vesta. Represented by an Eternal Flame, Vesta burned in the household hearth.  Her divine flame was the spiritual focus of the home and made it a sacred space within which to live. When the fire cracked in the hearth, it was believed to be the voice of Vesta herself, speaking or singing.

Vesta was a virgin goddess – pure as fire itself – who never required a living sacrifice. Instead, an offering of salted flour or a libation of olive oil, wine or milk was sprinkled into her flame at meal-time.

People also honored Vesta by burning a candle or oil lamp on their family shrine or lararium. The lararium was at the entrance to each home, so that Vesta could bless the comings and goings of family members. It might also hold a small statue of Vesta as well as the other household gods and meaningful items.

Source: Author’s collection.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Lararium, Pompei.

Although the Vesta tradition began as a private household spirituality, it soon expanded into the public sphere. In the 7th century BCE, Vesta’s fire was lit in what would become the great Roman Forum and a circular temple was built to house her sacred flame.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Illustration Roman Forum.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Illustration Roman Forum.

This was done in honor of the goddess Vesta, but also in honor of the Vestal priestess, Rhea Silvia, whom the god Mars had chosen to bear his sons, Romulus and Remus.

But the divine twins were taken from their mother and left for dead. Not wanting his sons to die, Mars sent a she-wolf to protect and nurse his twins by the Vestal.  One of them – Romulus – went on to found Rome itself, naming the city after himself.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Mars and Rhea Silvia.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Rhea Silvia with twins, Romulus and Remus.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Capitoline She-Wolf.

The ancient Romans believed that as long as Vesta’s sacred fire burned in her temple, the Roman way of life would go on. And so to keep the flame going, they deemed that six Vestal priestesses would tend to it, night and day, in the temple. Vestals would be selected as young girls from the best families in Rome.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Dedication of New Vestal.

They would take a thirty-year vow of chaste service to Rome. It was believed their virginal nature helped them commune with the virgin goddess to better ensure the protection of Rome and her people.

Vestals enjoyed luxurious lives. They resided in the palatial house of the Vestals, which was adjacent to the temple, thus allowing them to perform their sacred duties day and night.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Aedes Vestae.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

At any one time, two Vestals, often accompanied by novices, would tend to Vesta’s fire while the other Vestals performed the wide range of their own duties.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. School of the Vestals.

One of their most important duties involved safeguarding items of great importance. One of these was the Palladium. This was a statue of Athena that the Romans believed their hero Aeneas had brought to Rome after the Fall of Troy.

Vestals were also tasked with safekeeping some of Rome’s most vital documents, including the last wills and testaments of its emperors, generals and senators. Vesta’s temple was considered the holiest site in Rome – anyone who violated the temple’s sanctity would suffer the anger of the gods. It was an effective deterrent.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Vestals reading the Emperor’s will.

Yet the greatest duty of a priestess, of course, was to keep Vesta’s sacred fire burning in the temple’s hearth. It was also to spread Vesta’s fire by giving embers from the temple’s fire to other women who would take them home and burn them in their own household hearth. In this way, the Vestals continued to honor the inherently private, personal nature of their public religion.

Vestals were educated, very wealthy and often owned the finest properties. Unlike other Roman women who lived under the legal control of a male family member, Vestals were independent and enjoyed rights and privileges that few women in the ancient world did. They were celebrated and revered by the people of Rome.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Passing of the Vestals.

They were also respected, and often relied upon, by many of Rome’s emperors. The Emperor Augustus, for example, extolled the virtues of the Vestal order and contributed vast sums of money to the order. This was considered important enough that he mentioned it in his memoir, the Res Gestae.

Source: Author. Res Gestae, Ara Pacis.

It was common for Emperors and other people of influence to mint either the Vesta temple or an image of Vesta herself on their coins. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet despite her powerful religious position, wealth and the political and social influence she wielded, a Vestal’s privileged life was balanced by the threat of severe punishment should she break – or be accused of breaking – her vow of chastity. 

The Romans feared that angering the gods would lead to Rome’s ruin.  Therefore, a Vestal who had broken her vow to the goddess was made to descend into a pit under the ground.  A lid was sealed and she was essentially buried alive.  This was a morbid yet very rare event, with only a handful of recorded cases during the many centuries the Vestal order was active.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Once a Vestal finished her thirty-years of service to Rome, she was free to leave the order if she wished. Because of her significant wealth and political influence, a Vestal would have no trouble finding a husband. And considering the fact that many were in their mid-thirties when their thirty-years were finished, they were still young enough to have children if they chose to.

However, most Vestals chose to stay with the order. The Vestal lifestyle and status may simply have been too appealing to part with, especially in a world where one in three women died in childbirth and women were expected to defer to their husbands.

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And so it was with the official Vestal order. While ancient Rome had always been polytheistic (that is, it honored many gods and goddesses), the first Christian emperors practiced a brutal form of monotheism and forced conversions. They criminalized the worship of Vesta and other indigenous deities of Rome, and forcibly closed all temples. It was illegal, upon pain of death, to honor Vesta, even in the privacy of one’s home. The world moved from the classical age to the dark ages.

Of course, this is only a superficial look at the long, complicated history of the Vestal religion and order. It was – and still is – a beautiful spiritual system, and fragments of its ancient past still exist in the present.

Restorations are always underway in the Roman Forum and you can visit the ruins of Vesta’s temple. It’s a remarkable experience to stand in front of the temple and try to imagine the sacred fire burning inside, the flames crackling and the smoke billowing out the hole in the roof.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

You can also visit the ruins of the House of the Vestals, just a few steps away from the temple.

Here, you can also see statues of the Vestal priestesses that once lived within these walls.

Source: Shutterstock.com

Source: Shutterstock.com

Want to see more?

Like this? Share it