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House of the Vestal Virgins

Vesta was the virgin goddess of home, hearth and family. The Romans did not portray Vesta at her altar, as she plays no part in myths. Rather, her presence was symbolised by the sacred flame that burned inside the Temple of Vesta. The cult of Vesta goes all the way back to the birth of Rome and possibly beyond. It lasted until the fourth century AD.

In 20 BC if you were walking through downtown Rome you would have seen the Temple to the Goddess Vesta and therein caught a glimpse of six young women, between 16 and twenty years old, gathered around the flame of the hearth. They were dressed in distinctive and expensive robes and their hair was done in the ritual style of a Roman bride on the day of her wedding. They were the Vestal Virgins, devoted to Vesta, supervising her worship. If the fire went out, they would have been required to rekindle it by rubbing twigs together and been whipped by the Pontifex Maximus for their failure.

Now you can still see the ruins of the temple which have been partially reconstructed.

Next to the temple of Vesta lies the house of the Vestal Virgins. The administrative centre of Rome's religious rites in pagan times and the house where the Vestals lived for thirty years ruled over by a head Vestal and above her the Pontifex Maximus who was charged with their care. Though there were only six Vestals in active service there would also be Vestal girls in training living here. The girls were ritually chosen by the Pontifex Maximus from highborn families, they were selected for physical perfection and they had to have two living parents. The Pontifex would point to the girl and say "I seize you beloved" and the girl would be taken to the temple to have her head shaved.

Once in the girls were in for a thirty-year stretch. Ten years as a trainee, ten years active service and ten years as a teacher. Apart from keeping the Vestal flame lit they had various other roles to play in festivals such as preparing sacred biscuits and attending the games.

If a Vestal was found to have lost her virginity the punishments were extreme. She would be buried alive in an underground room with a bed and some food. The man in question would be publicly whipped to death.

But even so the Vestals had high status among Roman women. They lived in luxurious apartments and dined on such fine foods as stuffed dormice and boiled ostriches. They were the only women in the city who could privately own property or vote. They had seats of honour at the games and the theatre and they even had right of way on the roads.

People often gave the Vestals documents for safe keeping, as they were the very symbol of incorruptibility. They were also untouchable by law. Any injury upon them however slight would be punishable by death.

When the Vestals finally finished their duty to Vesta, when most were in their early forties, they were allowed to marry. Most didn't see the point as it would have meant giving up all their privelages and becoming the property of a husband.

The eternal flame of Vesta was eventually quenched by Christianity. If you get the chance to wander through the atrium you can see that the statues of the Vestal Virgins were destroyed after the Christian emperor banned all forms of pagan worship in the city. Ironic then that only a few hundred yards away St. Peter was kept imprisoned before his execution in the early days of the Church.

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