Our Little Roman Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles

The Vestal Offering

"Come, little sister, we must hurry, or we will be late at the altar, and you know Father does not allow that."

Terentia took Livia's hand and they ran together to the atrium.

Gaius and Gaia, Marcus and Lucius, and the household slaves, were all in the room, for it was the time of the early morning offering at the family altar.

The Romans did not know the one true God, but believed that there were many gods. They thought that one watched over the household; that another had charge of the fields, and another of the flocks; while still others protected the sailors at sea, and the soldiers in battle.

Vesta was called the goddess of the home, and in every Roman house there was an altar to Vesta at one end of the atrium.

When all the household was together, Gaius laid an offering of salt upon the altar, and prayed that the affairs of the home might be blessed. The ceremony was a very simple one, but it marked the beginning of each day in the Roman home.

"Oh, Mother," said Terentia, After her father and Marcus had gone, "am I to learn to weave to-day? I am so eager to begin."

"Yes," replied Gaia, "I shall begin to-day to teach you how to weave. You have learned to spin so well."

Gaia's loom stood in the atrium, and Terentia felt very proud and happy as she stood before it. Her mother showed her how to wind the wool upon the shuttle, and then how to thrust it back and forth through the warp of the loom. In a little while Terentia was able to manage the shuttle alone.

"Isn't it strange," she said to her mother, "how we can make just these woollen threads into cloth to wear! I shall try to make mine as smooth and even as possible, for then Father will praise me."

Gaia smiled as she said, "That is right, my daughter. It is only by trying that we can do good work, and your father will be pleased if your cloth is smooth and even."

Livia stood by and watched Terentia with a great deal of interest. The shuttle flew back and forth, back and forth, and the bit of cloth in the loom grew steadily.

"Mother," said Terentia, as she worked, "I heard you say yesterday that our cousin, Cornelia, had been chosen to be a Vestal Virgin. Please tell me just what it means."

"I think you have seen the Temple of Vesta, near the Forum," Gaia said, "and, of course, you understand that the goddess, Vesta, cares for our homes. That is why there is an altar to Vesta in every house."

"Yes," replied Terentia, "I understand about that; but what do the Vestal Virgins do?"

"Inside the Temple of Vesta, there is, of course, an altar, and the fire upon this is kept burning day and night. It is never allowed to go out. The Vestal Virgins care for this fire, and although they have other duties connected with the service of the temple, this is their chief care.

"Those who are chosen, as our cousin Cornelia has been, are greatly honored, for no Roman girl can be called to a higher service. Cornelia is not yet ten years old. For the next ten years she will be learning the duties of the temple; after that she will care for the sacred fires upon the altar for ten years; and then for the ten years following she will teach those who have been newly chosen for the service."

"And must she leave her own home for all of that time?" asked Terentia.

"Yes," her mother replied, "she gives up everything else to serve the goddess Vesta. But it is so great an honor that very few of the Vestal Virgins ever return to their homes, even after their time of service is over.

"Your father was telling me yesterday of an interesting incident. A prisoner was being hurried along the street, when he and his guard met one of the Vestal Virgins. The prisoner dropped to his knees, and the Vestal Virgin granted him pardon."

"Can the Vestal Virgins do that?" cried Terentia. "How happy the poor man must have been."

Terentia worked thoughtfully for some time, and then her glance fell upon Livia, who had grown tired of watching the busy shuttle, and was now playing with her beloved clay dolly.

Presently Terentia turned to her mother and said, "Oh, Mother, may I have this first piece of cloth to use as I like?"

"Perhaps," her mother answered with a smile. "What would you choose to make from it?"

"Oh, a dear little tunic for Livia," said Terentia eagerly.

"That will be very nice indeed," Gaia answered. "I could not ask you to put it to better use."

It took many, many days of weaving before the piece of cloth was long enough for even the little tunic, for sometimes there were mistakes which had to be undone. But at last the soft woollen cloth was taken from the loom, and Terentia looked at its pretty folds and held it almost lovingly.

"I can hardly believe that I made it," she said with a happy laugh.