#25: House of the Vestal Virgins

Ok still standing in this small entrance Atrium, turn and face Palatine Hill. See the Shrine (aedicula); its inscription dates to the time of Hadrian (117-138 AD) and reads "This monument was built with public money by the will of the Senate and the people of Rome". There is a pedestal for a statue within it but no one knows for certain what statue occupied it. Some think it was a statue of Vesta others think it was a 'Compitum' which was a sanctuary placed at crossroads which the Romans considered exposed to the influence of underworld Gods and in need of protection and the 'Vicus Vestae' intersects the 'Via Sacra' in front of this House.

Ok now go through the entrance to the left of the Shrine and into the Large courtyard (Atrium) of the House of the Vestal Virgins, shown here.

Originally it's likely the House was just at this end but the left half XX[H] had some Vestal structures and its believed the Vestals Sacred Grove was also located here? The first X's lower part possibly had some property of the Domus Publica the Pontifex Maximus' House? Anyway when Augustus give that Domus to the Vestals they could really expand their House's property (sometime after 12 BC). After Nero's 64 AD Fire this whole complex got its present layout but what you see today from the House's reconstruction in 191 AD after the 'Fire of Commodus'.

Notice the three large pools in the courtyard [`][```]space[`] there was a fourth pool in that space but it was covered over in about 300 AD with a low brick structure (a circle within an octagon) which was made into a flower bed possibly to represent the Vestals Sacred Grove. This Courtyard was surrounded by a two-story Colonnade (one on top of the other) and you can still see many of the columns bases.

The House was at least two stories or higher and possibly four or five stories on the south side. On the short end to the right (west) under the modern roof was the Vestals dining room. On the long side in front of you (south) on the ground floor was a bath, kitchen, bakery, ovens and a grindstone mill. And also a rear stepped entrance/exit whose door opened onto the higher Via Nova that ran alongside the House (opened in 2011 for the public to use). And on the second floor above the Vestal's bedrooms and bathrooms which were heated with hot-air flues (tubes) in the floor and walls.

What is also cool about this section was that during the excavations two large coin hordes were found long after the Vestals were disbanded. In 472 AD when Ricimer conquered and looted Rome some government official living here hid 397 gold coins in a corridor drain. Also later a Medieval house was built atop these ruins and under the brick floor of one of the rooms was found 835 coins were found in a vase along with a silver pin with the inscription 'Domno Marino papa' this would have been an official in the court of Pope MarinusII (942-946). 830 of those coins were Anglo-Saxon and were very likely offerings called 'Peter's Pence' sent to the Church. Well whatever happened neither person ever returned to retrieve their treasure.

If you look down the far end of the courtyard you will see a Vestal statue facing you, it's a statue of Flavia Publicia (247-257 AD). The base inscription reads: "Whose conspicuous morality and great knowledge of all holy rites had been constantly of benefit to the State". This statue was dedicated by two Centuriones Deputati (official couriers) whose careers were helped by some sort of favor this Vestal did for them.

And to the right of this statue is a large room with four steps. The front was always open to the courtyard and it once had a barrel-vaulted roof. The room was something special likely for ceremonies and/or a shrine and it possibly held a statue of the second King of Rome who founded Rome's Vestal cult. Rich Roman homes always had an Atrium (courtyard) with the entrance at one end and a Tablinum (an impressive/fancy room with the owner's cool stuff) at the other end. Also on each side of this large room are three small rooms possibly where the six VIP Vestals (those in their last ten years) kept their religious stuff for ceremonies?

Ok now on the left (north) long side is a row of statue bases with the remains of some Vestal statues on them. They were all found broken and mixed up in a pile at the west end of the courtyard in 1883. just waiting to be thrown into a mediaeval lime-kiln. So they are a bit mixed up as to who is who. They date from 201-384 AD and they are all the statues of the Head Priestess of the Vestals and they are all inscribed 'Virgo Vestalis Maxima'.

They are also inscribed with their names and accomplishments. Except one has been erased! (eighth one down with the head still attached) It's highly believed to be that of the Head Vestal Claudia who became a Christian and left the Pagan Vestals to became a Nun (this pedestal has the date June 9, 365 AD and still the 'C' of her name on it). This statue also shows marks on her gown for a medallion necklace. Remember no vanity so this is an exception but it's believed to be a rare award/gift given to his Head Vestal by the Emperor And this *might* be the necklace I mention later.

Ok now look to the area behind this statue, see the modern roof. It's covering a small man-made water pool called an Impluvium == that was in the center of the Domus Publica's Atrium (courtyard) [```==```] which was center of the house with the rooms of the house surrounding it. So roughly where you are standing were rooms with other rooms on the other side of that roof and a large fancy room on the right end the Tablinum.

The front entrance was on the left in that group of trees, so through the front door into a short hallway with likely a service-type room on each side and then into the Atrium. But when Augustus give the Vestals the House of the Pontifex Maximus they eventually built something over it at least two stories or higher. And those are the remains you see. We don't know what it was, but how about a wild guess? The Vestals had horses and carriages so perhaps it was a fancy barn for them? Before they filled-in the excavation of the below ground level Domus Publica a few years ago a wide ramp (like a short driveway) was visible that opened on to the Via Sacra from this section at the correct level?

It's 394 AD, the Christians have closed all the Pagan Temples and cults and the Vestals are the last ones left. Then it is decreed that the Vestal's House is to be taken over as imperial offices, its Temple closed and their religion is officially banned. Did these last Vestals stand around their Sacred Fire which has burned for eleven centuries and wept as the flame slowly died out and the last wisp of its smoke rose to the Heavens? And then leave and enter a city that they have been sheltered from since they were little children into an alien World with a single God? The House and Temple always off-limits is now open for the Christians to visit and gawk at.

Princess Serena whose father was the General Stilicon remember I mentioned that an inscription across from the Curia had his name erased. He was executed in 408 AD because he was the wrong kind of Christian, he was also the General who fought Alaric and the Visigoths in the past and beat them. Now 1-2 years later in 409 AD Alaric has besieged Rome and on August 24, 410 AD they enter somehow through an opened City Gate and loot and burn Rome for three days.

[But years earlier] The Historian Zosimus tells us that the young Princess Serena in or after 394 AD with her own hands took a beautiful necklace off one of the Vestal Statues here and placed it around her own neck. And an old woman who was once a Vestal Virgin who just by chance was there saw this. She cursed the Princess for her irreverent profane act and predicted that someday she would have to atone for her Sins. The Princess paid the old Pagan woman no mind and who knows she possibly even retold this funny story to friends while wearing this same necklace over the years.

Now years later in 409-410 AD Rome is surrounded and besieged by Alaric and his Visigoths. Now for some reason the Senate and even the Emperor's sister believe Princess Serena is secretly allied with these Barbarians surrounding Rome. But she isn't and is innocent of this rumor. But she is found guilty and sentenced to death. Being a noblewoman her execution would be as it has been for centuries for people of her rank. I wonder if she remembered those words from that old Vestal Virgin years before as the executioner slipped his cord necklace around her neck. Her sentence, death by strangulation!

For more information and photos, please see House of the Vestal Virgins in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #26: Domus Publica
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