#24: Temple of Vesta

Ok with your back to the Regia you are standing on the street called Vicus Vestae. Now look at the partial white marble TEMPLE OF VESTA, shown here.

That is a *total* major 1930's reconstruction that used a few original fragments but its mostly modern replacements. Look closely and you can see the different shades of white that are the original pieces.

It is round because that is how the original Iron Age Roman huts were built and that is what it represents. Tradition claims that the second King of Rome (715+ BC) built the first Temple to this cult around here and installed the first Vestals to keep the 'Sacred Fire' burning 24/7/365. And it continued to burn (except for accidental flame-outs or major destructive Fires that burned the Temple down) until 394 AD when the Christians closed this cult down (theoretically 1100 years).

The original Hut/Temple was made of waddle and daub (interwoven reeds daubed with clay) and a thatched reed roof and was still like that even in 241 BC to sometime later when it finally became a stone structure. The remains we see today date from Augustus (foundation) and later rebuildings (a major one after Nero's 64 AD Fire).

The 'Sacred Fire' was the focus of worship and no statues of the Goddess Vesta were in there.

But inside there was a (wall?) niche called the 'Penus Vestae' where sacred objects were kept but screened-off from view. The most important object in that niche was the Palladium (a small wooden statue of Athene/Minerva) which legend claims was rescued by Aeneas from the burning city of Troy. And it was never to be seen by anyone except the Vestals but once when it was rescued from a major fire (about 190 AD) it was accidently seen by others.

Now in front of you 2000 years ago is a Virgin Fortress :-) with a high wall and locked door which no man can enter except the Pontifex Maximus. And actually a man couldn't even approach near the Temple at night so it's possible even this Street was off-limits after dark? Walk over into that area imagining a door that opened into a small Atrium with the Temple on the right and the House of the Vestals in the rear.

Walk over to the Temple ruins and picture the reconstructed standing remains enclosing this entire structure in a 46-foot circle. In the reconstructed Temple section the area between the columns that surrounded the temple are marble stone blocks but actually there was a metal grill between the columns (short column fragment on left has holes where metal grill was attached). Large curved marble blocks (9 feet) with a decorated frieze were placed on top of the columns and this supported the bronze (Pliny) conical ^ roof. There was an opening in the roof to allow the smoke to escape and was likely covered with a decorative bronze cap above it to keep out the rain, some wind and allow some light to enter.

The entrance faced east (so you are looking at the entrance) and had wooden doors and a few marble steps leading up to it from ground level. It must have also been very beautiful inside but sparse as the only thing inside was the central hearth for the Sacred Fire. As you can visualize this was a very beautiful Temple and the most important Temple in the Forum if not in all of Rome itself.

Also imagine a young woman in her 20's dressed in white with braided and banded hair (a style only worn by women on their wedding day) silently tending the Sacred Fire as the sounds of the outside World drift through the metal grates of the Temple. Like a bird in a gilded cage she is very safe and well taken care of but not free.

Now back to reality and take-away the partial temple reconstruction and the brick base its built on and what you see is what was actually excavated over 100 years ago. The concrete foundation dates to Augustus and the marble fragments used in the reconstruction to Emperor Septimius Severus' wife's rebuilding in 193+ AD. In the center of the foundation there was a deep pit about 8 x 8 x 16 feet which was beneath the floor of the temple, this is where the ashes from the Sacred Fire were stored. Once a year these sacred ashes were removed in a ceremony, paraded through the Forum up to the Clivus Capitolinus where there was a special gate (Porta Stercoraria) halfway up the Clivus Capitolinus that was only opened on June 15 to allow these ashes to be carried down to the Tiber River to be thrown in. In 394 AD the Christians kick the Vestals to the curb and the Sacred Flame is extinguished Forever.

For more information and photos, please see Temple of Vesta in A Tourist in Rome.

Next: #25: House of the Vestal Virgins
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