Stories in Stone from the Roman Forum - Isabel Lovell

The Story of the Temple of Vesta

"Look once more, I pray thee! Doth no one come?"


"How late is it?"

"The red lights of the sky fade over the farthest hills."

"Hearest aught of fighting?"

"Fighting? Thou foolish woman 1 The Romans fight no longer. They know not how, since Romulus has gone from earth. Now, men but bend the knee, and whisper prayers, and go about like very women. Fighting? no such glad sound. The air is peaceful save for the talk in the market-place. The people are still there, for the king is met with his council on the Comitium and has been there since the sun passed the mid-heaven."

"Ah! that it is then that keeps Orius!" exclaimed the first speaker, coming to the doorway of a hut built at the edge of a deep, dark forest, on the side of a gently sloping hill. Near her, upon a low, flat stone, sat an aged man, leaning forward upon his staff, and gazing down into the valley before him.

Yet I would he came quickly!" sighed the woman. The fagots are laid, the meat hangs ready, the cakes are formed, and I am greatly hungered."

Doubtless the king has bethought him of something new,—would build yet more houses, or perchance, would tell us to worship yet another god," grumbled the old man who had fought under Romulus, and to whom the ways of King Numa seemed both weak and unworthy. Thy husband, Macolnia, is too busy with the foolish plans of Numa to bring thee the fire to cook thy evening meal. Thou and I must starve at his will."

Macolnia's lips parted in quick reply, then she closed them firmly, and a silence fell between the two. She would fain have defended Orius, who was a senator of Rome, had not the words been spoken by Abarus, her father, and a brave warrior of great renown.

So they kept speechless watch amid the deepening dusk, until, upon the path that led up from the valley, there suddenly appeared a tiny, dancing light; and soon the form of a strong man came into sight. He was running, and in one hand waved aloft a blazing brand just taken from the public fire of the market-place.

"Greeting, Macolnia! Hail, Abarus!" cried out the newcomer; "I sorrow that I come late, but much business bath delayed me." And without further word of explanation, Orius hastily entered the hut, approached the hearth, and set fire to the carefully piled up fagots. Then he passed out to the spring near by, and while he refreshed himself with its cooling waters, Macolnia prepared their simple meal. And, wise woman that she was, she did not speak again until the men's hunger had been satisfied.

"And thy business, Orius," asked she, gently. "Is it aught concerning which we may know? or was it but affairs of state?"

"Nay, gladly will I tell thee," replied Orius, "although 'tis naught that will please the ear of Abarus! The good Numa bath opened our eyes to a new wonder, and hath shown us yet again how beloved of the gods are the Roman people. Seest thou the flame of yonder fire? 'Tis sacred! 'Tis the sign of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth; so Numa hath indeed taught us to-day. And the hut in the market-place shall be henceforth holy, and shall be made into a temple."

"Ah! said I not so?" cried old Abarus. "Another god! more priests, less soldiers! more doings of women, less doings of men!"

"This time thou art right, Abarus," laughed Orius, "for the guardians of the sacred fire are to be maidens, four in number. Numa himself hath chosen them from among our best and fairest—Gegania and Verania, Canuleia and Tarpeia."

"Well chosen!" cried Macolnia, "and a noble worship. Let us even now pour out a libation on the hearth, that our home may be among the first to receive Vesta's blessing."

And this they devoutly did, even Abarus bending before the bright flame, leaping up as if in answer to their prayers.

Now Macolnia, Abarus, and Orius were not real persons, being only people in a word-picture, showing somewhat of life in the days of the early kings; but Gegania, Verania, Canuleia, and Tarpeia, according to the writings of the old historians, were the true names of the four first priestesses of Vesta. And thus it was that Numa founded the worship of this goddess among the Romans, and taught these warlike people the ways of peace. So the thatched hut of the market-place became a hallowed spot, and the most sacred of all the shrines of Rome.

Next to the temple, Numa soon built a home for the priestesses of Vesta, and this house was called the Atrium, because in its centre was such a very large, open court, or atrium, that it gave its name to the entire building. And close beside the Atrium, Numa also built the Regia, or the king's house, where he lived, not only as ruler, but as the first Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest. Now the Pontifex Maximus was the chief director in all matters of worship, and under his special care were Vesta's maidens, whose number was increased to six by King Servius Tullius. By a decree of Numa, these priestesses were supported by money from the public treasury, and, that nothing should turn their minds from their duties to the goddess, they were forbidden to marry while in her service; for this reason they were called the Vestal Virgins.

For a term of thirty years the Vestals served their gentle goddess, and a new priestess was chosen only upon the death of one of their number. When it became necessary to elect a Vestal, there was much interest throughout the city, for the Pontifex Maximus, naming twenty little girls, over six yet under ten years of age, summoned them to the Forum, where a choice was made by drawing lots. The young candidate had to be perfect in mind and body, fair to look upon, and sweet in spirit. She was chosen from a family of high rank, her father and mother being both alive at the time of the election, and the record of their days being as honourable as that of their station.

Many persons, doubtless, came into the Forum when a Vestal was to be chosen, for the sight of the winsome children must have made a goodly picture indeed, delighting the eye and gladdening the heart. Sometimes it so happened that a father, of his own accord, offered his daughter as a priestess to Vesta, and, if the maiden satisfied all demands, she was at once accepted; but the usual custom was the selection of one from among the twenty little girls. The choice made, the Pontifex Maximus took the hand of the tiny maiden, and spoke to her a few solemn words concerning the grave duties upon which she was to enter, and at the end he gently said, "I take thee, Beloved." And from that moment she was no longer a member of her own family, but belonged to the sacred sisterhood of Vesta, over whom the High Priest watched with a father's protecting care.

After this simple ceremony the new Vestal was led into the Atrium, and there the childish curls were cut off, and the head of the little priestess was bound with a white fillet, or band of ribbon, which was twisted about a lock of wool, symbol of holy office. The locks of her own hair were hung upon a sacred lotus tree that stood in the Grove of Vesta, a garden belonging to the Atrium, and on the slope of the Palatine Hill. All this was done according to an ancient custom, for the cutting off of the hair was a sign of submission

as when the hair of captives was cut off by their conquerors and now this young maiden belonged to Vesta, to whom she was in all ways to submit herself. Her hair was hung on the lotus tree as a further sign that a change had come into her life, and that she had given herself entirely to the service of the goddess. The little girl was then clothed in the white robe of the Vestal, after which she took a solemn vow to obey Vesta, and to guard faithfully the welfare of Rome. Doubtless the child did not understand the words that her lips uttered, but there was plenty of time to learn their meaning, for the first ten years of the new Vestal's life were spent in gaining the knowledge of her duties and of the form of worship by which the goddess was approached. During the next ten years she practised these duties, and in the last ten she gently taught them to the young priestesses, even as she herself had been carefully instructed. At the end of those thirty years, the Vestal was free to return to her home, to marry, or to lead whatsoever manner of life seemed to her best; but so happy and content were the days spent in Vesta's pure and simple service, that few of her priestesses took advantage of their liberty. They chose the peace and honours of the sisterhood, rather than the trials and uncertainties of the world. For all was calm and lovely in the home of Vesta's virgins, where the child-Vestal was called "Amata," the "Beloved," and where the oldest among them was affectionately revered as the Vestalis Maxima, the greatest or most honourable of the Vestals. It was she whose fillets were the most twisted, for the Vestal's hair was not again cut, and was always bound with the fillets, the number of whose twists marked the degree of dignity to which the priestess had attained.

The first and chief duty of the Vestals was the care of the ever burning fire of the Temple, wherein was no statue of Vesta, but where the bright flame upon the altar alone showed her presence to all faithful worshippers. And when, from want of care, or for any other reason, the sacred fire died out, the hearts of the Romans were sorely troubled; for they believed it to be a sign that the goddess, in displeasure, had deserted them, and that the city was menaced with the greatest danger. Thus Vesta was worshipped as the guardian of Rome's welfare; for was not the city the home of the nation, and her temple the hearth of the entire people? Just outside the Temple, however, there was a beautiful little shrine in which stood the image of Vesta, and here the Virgins offered sacrifices of cakes of salted meal, and poured out libations of oil or wine.

The second duty of the priestesses was the bringing of pure, fresh water for use within the Temple. It was taken from a sacred spring that rose cool and clear, in the depths of green woods just beyond the city's walls. In this shady dell once lived a nymph, named Egeria, whose wisdom was very great; and her story has been told by one of the ancient poets in this wise:

The special guardian of the bubbling springs and flowing fountains was Egeria, an attendant of Diana, the fair goddess of the Moon. Now Diana's most loved earthly homes were in the shades of deep forests, beside sparkling brooks and lakes; therefore she held Egeria in much affection, and when a heavy grief befell the nymph, the goddess used all her power to bring her comfort. For Egeria had been sought in counsel by Numa, the king, and had taught him many things,—how to soften the hearts of the warlike Romans, how to worship the gods, and how to govern the people. Through all his long reign the wise nymph aided Numa, and her heart also went out to him, so that when he died she wept, inconsolable. Throwing herself at the base of a little hill in her deep grove, she dissolved into tears, until, moved by her great sorrow, the pitying Diana formed of her a fountain, from which came ever flowing waters.

And so, according to the fable, the water used in Vesta's Temple came from the pure spring of Wisdom. Be this as it may, the water used by the Vestals was fresh and sweet, and with it the sacred place was daily sprinkled, in token of the cleansing, not only of the Temple, but of the city also.

The Vestals used a branch of laurel wherewith to sprinkle the Temple, which they also kept adorned with the ever green boughs of this tree. The story of the laurel has also been written by the same poet that has told about Egeria, and from his words may, perhaps, be learned why this tree was employed in the service of Vesta.

There was once, so the story runs, a fair virgin, named Daphne, who was beloved by the god Apollo. But as her heart was untouched and she would marry no one, she fled from the god, who, however, followed in hot pursuit. In her swift flight, Daphne reached the bank of a deep river, and as she stood by the water's side, uncertain which way to turn, hope sank within her, for she saw Apollo fast approaching. Then, in despair, she prayed aloud for help to Peneus, the god of that river, and immediately she was turned into a graceful tree of laurel. When Apollo reached the spot, the leaves were still trembling, but Daphne was no longer to be seen. Then the god said, "Since thou canst not be my wife, thou shalt be my tree!" And thus Apollo's hair is crowned with laurel, and his lyre and his bow are made of its wood.

So seems it not meet indeed that the laurel—the "virgin's tree," made sacred by Apollo, the god of celestial fire—should be used in the Temple of Vesta, the virgin-goddess, whose emblem was the never dying flame?

On the first day of March of every year the Vestals gathered fresh laurel, and wreathed the Temple with new foliage. On this day also the sacred fire on the altar was extinguished by the Pontifex Maximus, and then relighted by him with solemn ceremonies. For the first of March was the New Year of the Roman religion; at that time all things began afresh,—the world was wakened by the sunshine of Spring, and man, casting aside his past, prayed for a renewal of strength within his soul. In the early times, the High Priest relighted the fire simply by rubbing two bits of wood together until they glowed; later, however, he used a glass through which the sun's rays were focused to the burning point. Thus Vesta's fires were never lighted from any other, and only flamed by heat obtained directly from earth or from heaven.

At this time fresh laurel was also placed on the Regia, within which were two chapels, one to Mars, the god of War, and one to Ops Consiva, a goddess of Plenty. Before the entrance of the chapel of Mars grew two laurel trees, and it was from these, they say, that the Vestals took the boughs with which their temple was adorned.

Within the Regia, where the pontiffs held meetings on matters pertaining to religion, were kept many priestly records of great value; but in the care of the Vestal Virgins were things far more precious—things on which the fate of the nation itself depended. These most sacred treasures were guarded in a shrine built in the centre of the large court of the Atrium; and this Holy of Holies of the Roman people was called the Penetralia, or innermost sanctuary of Vesta. No man, save the Pontifex Maximus, was permitted to enter this hallowed place; and only once a year, at the Vestalia, or festival of Vesta, were any women, other than the priestesses, allowed to pass the sacred threshold.

The holy objects were guarded with such caution that they were kept in an earthen jar, closely sealed and placed by the side of one exactly like the first, but empty, so that only the Vestals and the High Priest knew which of the two held the "sacred things." Indeed, such deep and awful mystery surrounded these objects that even the Romans themselves did not know what they were. They believed, however, that the most holy of the treasures was a small statue, called the Palladium, and that by its virtues the city in which it was kept could never be conquered.

It was a statue that had fallen from heaven itself, and this, so the old legend goes, happened in the times when men were few upon the earth, and when the gods were mighty upon Olympus, their celestial home. In those days of wonders was born Minerva, Jupiter's wise daughter, who, full-grown and clothed in shining armour, sprang into life from the head of her mighty sire. Her birthplace was near a certain rushing river, where lived Neptune's son Triton, and where for many years she remained in the care of this river-god, enjoying the companionship of his fair daughter Pallas. Now both the maidens, as strong as they were beautiful, delighted to make trial of their power, and one day as they wrestled in friendly contest, Jupiter appeared in the clouds above their heads. Fearful lest his favourite child be overcome, he held forth his glittering shield to attract the attention of Pallas. So bright it gleamed, the maiden could not choose but look, and at that instant Minerva dealt a hard blow that caused fair Pallas to fall dead at her feet. Then the goddess in deep sorrow made an image of Pallas, which she placed beside the statue of Jupiter himself. Not long after, it happened that the god was angry, and that he took up this image and hurled it downward to the earth. It fell at the feet of Ilus, one of the ancient Greeks, just as he was praying for a sign from heaven to show where best to begin the city that he purposed building. Reverently accepting this marvel as an answer to his petition, he enclosed the statue in a shrine, and about that place began to found the city of Troy. From that time men came to believe that the sacred image insured the safety of the city wherein it was kept. Brought by Aeneas into Italy, it was given later into the care of the Vestal Virgins, who kept it as a pledge of the gods for the welfare of Rome. The Romans called the image the Palladium, a word even now used to mean that which is a protection or security. This figure, men say, was of wood, and was that of a woman, whose long draperies reached her feet, whose right hand held aloft a spear, and whose left carried a spindle and a distaff. In time, not content to believe this marvellous statue to be only that of Pallas, the daughter of Triton, men would have it instead that of Minerva herself, who in other lands was often called Pallas—but whether the image was that of the fair maiden, or of the wise goddess, none may know. For the gods have disappeared into the darkness of the Long-Ago, and in the bright light of To-day one can only guess at their faint shadows that flicker and change even as one looks upon them.

Beside the sacred things, the Vestals had also in their care some holy objects that were used in the great festivals of other deities; for these priestesses were highly reverenced, and whatsoever passed through their pure hands was held doubly sacred. Thus they took part in all important religious ceremonies, and it was also one of their duties to prepare the mola salsa, or salted cake, so often used as a sacrifice. Everything concerning the making of these cakes was exceedingly fresh and clean, and it was done in a simple manner, after very strict rules. The Vestals prepared the salt in a special way, pounding it to powder in a mortar; and in the springtime they themselves plucked the first tars of the early corn, which they dried and ground to finest flour, carefully kept within the Penetralia. So the worship of Vesta sanctified the flour of daily use, and for this reason all the millers and bakers kept holiday at the time of the Vestalia. This festival began on the seventh of June, and lasted seven days. The work of the mills was stopped, and all the patient beasts that turned them were allowed to rest; the donkeys were gayly dressed with wreaths of flowers, and around their shaggy necks were hung necklaces of pretty cakes and of loaves of bread. The millers placed garlands on their mills; the bakers ornamented their shops with flowers; and offerings of food were taken to the Temple of Vesta, where the Vestals themselves placed upon the altar some of the sacred cakes that they had made. But the most solemn of all the rites of the Vestalia was the opening of the Penetralia, into which, during these seven days, the matrons of Rome were permitted to enter freely. There, in this most sacred of places, they prayed for that which their hearts held dearest—the happiness of their homes. In deep humility, their hair down, their feet bare, the Roman mothers came to Vesta's temple, and, kneeling before her most holy treasures, entreated her blessing upon that which was most precious in their lives—the welfare of those they loved. Then, the seven holy days of the festival having passed, the doors of the Penetralia were again closed, and the priestesses with the greatest care cleansed the sacred place from the least impurity, and threw the sweepings into the Tiber.

Although their time of special prayer was now over, the Vestals did not cease their daily petitions for the people and the government. And their prayers were thought to be of great avail, for whenever trouble or danger darkened the fortunes of Rome, it was Vesta's pure Virgins that were called upon to beseech the gods to cease their anger and to accept the atoning sacrifices offered by the people. In truth, so venerated were these priestesses, that their simple word was believed by all men, and it carried much weight when spoken in behalf of any one in difficulty. Thus, if on their way through the city they chanced to meet a criminal being led to punishment, they could cause him to be set at liberty, should righteous pity so prompt them.

If their duties were many and very strict, the Vestals had many honours also, and their estate was one of much dignity. Among other privileges, they had the right of driving through the streets of Rome, of possessing two kinds of carriages, and also of owning a stable for their special use. A lictor always went before them,, and even the consuls moved aside to let them pass, ordering their own fasces lowered as if to a higher power. Any one who injured a Vestal was punished with death, for their persons were looked upon as sacred; and one of their greatest honours was that of being buried within the city's walls, a privilege that they shared only with the emperors.

Thus Vesta's maidens were much honoured and were very powerful, but—they were also human! Even a Roman Vestal could do wrong, and when she erred her punishment was most severe. She had taken two solemn vows—one, to faithfully guard the sacred fire within the temple; the other, never to be turned aside from her holy duties by the love of man—and, either of these vows broken, she atoned her fault with great suffering. If, from lack of care, the sacred fire went out, the priestess that had it in charge was brought before the Pontifex Maximus, who governed the household of the Vestals even as the father does the family. He not only judged the wrong-doer, but he also punished her, and the careless Vestal was beaten with rods until the blood ran. If, however, the Vestal had broken the second of her vows, the sacred fire died out of its own accord, for Vesta could dwell with no impurity. At such a time the whole nation was believed to be in danger, and a great trouble overshadowed the people. The guilty priestess herself met the most horrible of punishments, for she was buried alive. Strapped to a closely covered litter, the erring Vestal was carried to the Campus Sceleratus, or Field of Wickedness, that was near one of the city's gates. Following the litter came her mourning kindred, the Pontifex Maximus, and the common executioners. In great silence the crowd separated to let the solemn procession pass, not a murmur being heard among all the throng, for Rome was stricken dumb with grief because of the wrong-doing of Vesta's priestess. Before a cell that had been dug in the ground, the litter was set down, and the High Priest, raising his hands toward heaven, prayed that the anger of the gods might be turned away. Then he unfastened the litter, and led forth the unfortunate Vestal, who was given into the hands of the executioners. She was made to descend by a ladder into the cell, wherein had been placed a couch, a lamb, and a little food, for it was thought sinful to starve those whose lives had been set aside for the service of the gods. The ladder was then drawn up, the cell closed, and so covered with earth that the ground was level, in order that none might remember the burial-place of the Vestal that had so heavily sinned against the goddess and the nation. But it sometimes happened that a mistake was made, and that the Vestal had not done the wrong of which she was accused. Then the goddess did not permit the faithful priestess to be unjustly condemned, but with marvellous power proved her innocence.

Thus it came to pass that when the Vestal Aemilia was in charge of the Temple, the flame on the altar was extinguished through the carelessness of a Vestal but just learning her duties. Nevertheless, the whole city was alarmed, and an evil rumour accused Aemilia of wrong-doing. Then this priestess, whose hands were clean, whose heart was pure, stood forth beside the altar of her goddess, in the presence of the pontiffs and of the other Virgins. Stretching out her arms in supplication, she besought Vesta to protect her, and to prove her not unworthy her holy trust. O Vesta!" she prayed, "if in all thy ways I have served thee faithfully, assist thy priestess, I beseech thee!" And having said these words, she tore off a piece of her garment of white linen, and threw it upon the altar. Then from the cold ashes came a flame of dazzling brightness that shone through the linen and consumed it, and, untouched by human hand, the fire burned again in token that Vesta herself declared her maiden innocent.

A still more wonderful sign of the goddess's favour was given to Tuccia, another Vestal whose fair fame was blackened by false accusation. Having called upon Vesta to guide and to protect her, this priestess gained the consent of the pontiffs to prove her innocence in whatsoever way she would. Followed by an anxious throng, she went to the banks of the Tiber, and there, bending over the swiftly flowing river, she filled an empty sieve with water. And, marvel of marvels, no single drop fell through! Then, holding the miraculous sieve high above her head, Tuccia led the rejoicing people back to the Temple of Vesta, where she poured out the water at the feet of the pontiffs. And after this, they say, he who had spoken evil against her could never be found, either dead or alive.

But the Pontifex Maximus did not always have to mete out severe punishment to the Vestals; there were times when a stern reproof was sufficient. For after all, Vesta's maidens were much like other women, who, if they are fair, would be made more fair by adornment, and who, if they be not fair at all, would have adornment make them seem so. And it was this very feminine ambition that brought trouble to the Vestal Postumia. Whether she was fair or not the old writers do not tell us, but they do say that because of the gayety of her dress, and the lightness of her manner, she was brought before the pontiffs. As nothing more serious could be proved against her, she was allowed to go unpunished, but, by the advice of all the pontiffs, the Pontifex Maximus severely reproved her. At the end of a long talk, he ordered her to refrain from indiscreet mirth, and in her dress to pay more attention to the holiness of her office than to the fashion of the day.

So before they reached the honours of the Vestalis Maxima, the young Vestals had much to learn. However, although some were faulty, and some were foolish, the priestesses of Vesta proved themselves worthy, for the most part, of the trust of the Roman people, and even in times of greatest danger did not fail in their sacred duty to the nation.

Thus when the Romans met their first great defeat—when the dreaded Gauls entered their city as conquerors—it was the Vestal Virgins that saved the nation's holy treasures from falling into the unclean hands of the barbarians. In this they were aided by the Flamen Quirinalis, or chief priest of Quirinus, a god of War, and none other, so some say, than Romulus himself. For, according to the legend, Romulus went from earth in a fiery chariot, and was taken by his father, Mars, to dwell forever among the gods. Now while the people were rushing hither and thither in wild distress, and were gathering their belongings for flight from the doomed city, the Vestals and this Flamen were consulting together as to the best manner of saving the sacred things of Rome. Without a thought for their own safety, they sought only to protect the holy objects, and at last they decided to put some of the sacred things in a certain dolium, or large earthen jar, which was in the cellar of the chapel next to the house of the Flamen. For in many cellars these big jars were sunk halfway into the ground, and were used as a place of storage. If then such a jar were to be completely buried, any treasure within it would surely be safe from the plundering hands of the enemy. Accordingly, some of the sacred things were buried in this dolium, and hence the place round about was called Doliola, and became hallowed from that day. When this had been accomplished, the Vestals, carrying the fire and the most precious of the holy objects, made all haste to leave Rome. Reaching the Tiber, they crossed the Pons Sublicius, and began to mount the Janiculum Hill. Hundreds of men and women were hurrying along this same road, and among the anxious, frightened throng was Lucius Albinius, a rich Plebeian. He, his wife, and young children were being conveyed in a wagon, and, with the rest of the citizens, were seeking a refuge from the expected onslaught of Rome's fierce enemy. But when Albinius saw the holy Vestals toiling up the hill, the sacred things held closely in their arms, he would not suffer them to proceed. For he thought it not fit that the guardians of the nation's welfare should go thus laden, while he and his family rode at ease. Descending, he ordered his wife and children to alight also, and offered their places to the weary priestesses, who gladly availed themselves of his kindness. Nor did he leave them until they and their sacred burdens were conducted to a place of safety. And for this act of reverent self-denial, Albinius gained the thanks, not only of the Vestals, but of all the people; and in aftertimes, when the story of the coming of the Gauls was told to other generations, this Plebeian was still spoken of as among the heroes of that day.

When the Vestals returned to Rome, a sad sight met their eyes, for the Temple, the Atrium, and the Regia were all destroyed. The sacred things were without a sanctuary, the priestesses without a home. However, it was not long before each of these buildings was rebuilt, for the hearts of the Romans were not quieted until Vesta's pure fire was again alight upon the nation's hearth.

In all their long history, the Vestals were only once known to desert their goddess. This was when a great fire swept over the Forum, and, among other buildings, laid the Atrium and the Temple of Vesta in ashes. As the flames attacked the buildings nearest them, the Vestals, weeping, rending their, hair, and standing transfixed in very terror, were as those distraught; then, as the fire reached the Atrium itself, they rushed wildly out, fleeing for their lives. The High Priest, Metellus, who was with them at the time, called upon them to stop, or at least to give him the sacred contents of the Penetralia, which none save their virgin hands were permitted to touch. But unheeding his entreaties, the terrified Vestals made only greater haste. And in despair Metellus, already surrounded by the flames, rushed into the Penetralia, crying:

"Forgive me, Vesta! for I am about to lay hold on that which is forbidden to man's touch. If this be a crime, then full upon me fall the penalty of my sin; and though it cost my life, let Rome be redeemed!"

Whereupon he seized the jar in which were the Palladium and the other sacred things, and, staggering through the raging fire, he escaped from the falling building. When the anxious crowd came near him, he saw them not, for his sight was lost, and although one of his arms still held the holy jar, the other was forever gone. The pledges of the gods were saved, but at a costly sacrifice indeed! In their desire to pay this hero the highest honours, the people of Rome granted him a privilege permitted to no one since the foundation of the city, for whenever he attended the meetings of the Senate, Metellus was driven to the Curia in a chariot. And all men extolled his devotion to the gods, and hailed him as the rescuer of Rome's greatest treasure.

This fire, although it greatly injured the Temple and the Atrium, spared the Regia, which, however, was entirely destroyed in another fire that raged in the Forum a few years later. But in the midst of these unholy flames of destruction, the sacred flame upon Vesta's altar burned unwaveringly; for the holy place was saved by the devoted efforts of thirteen slaves. During the day and night that this awful fire lasted, these brave men did not cease their endeavours to protect the Temple; and, as a reward for their noble act, the public at once purchased them, and gave them their freedom.

Although rebuilt, it was not long before the Regia again suffered from the flames, but this time it escaped complete ruin, for the chapel of Mars and the laurel trees in front of the doors were untouched. The round Temple of Vesta was also unharmed; and about its bronze roof the row of dragons' heads, which, according to a Roman custom, had been placed there as a protection from evil, appeared to be still watching out for the safety of the goddess and her priestesses.

The Vestals' lives were spent, for the most part, in performing daily rites in the Temple and the Atrium, and in attending other solemn ceremonies, yet their wonderful influence was felt far and near, for their mere presence made even wrong seem right, and whatever they approved no man dared gainsay. Thus a certain ambitious consul, Claudius Pulcher, claimed the right to ride in triumph through the streets of Rome, and, despite the refusal of the honour by the Senate on the ground that his victory was unworthy such high reward, he did not abandon his design. For still persisting, although a tribune tried to drag him from his chariot, he persuaded his sister, Claudia, one of the Vestal Virgins, to stand beside him as he drove, and, guarded by her revered presence, rode in safety to the Capitol.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


In truth, all concerning the worship of Vesta was so shielded from anything impure or unholy, and men held her temple in such reverence, that hardly did it seem possible for evil to approach the sacred spot. But during the days when Marius was Rome's cruel master, many forgot the honour due the gods, and ceased to respect even this holiest of shrines. And here a horrible crime was done, for Scaevola, the Pontifex Maximus himself, was murdered at the very feet of Vesta's image. Ruffians, hired by Marius to rid him of his enemies, attacked the High Priest in the Forum, and dealt him grievous blows. Managing to escape from his assassins, the wounded Scaevola ran toward the Temple of Vesta, where he threw himself down before the shrine of the goddess. Here his murderers fell upon him with such fury, that the statue of Vesta was sprinkled with the blood of her High Priest.

It was also during the time of Marius that Clodius, a tribune of bad repute, ventured into the Regia while solemn rites, forbidden to men, were being performed in honour of the Bona Dea, or of Maia, the goddess of Spring, who guards all newly grown things. They say that once Hercules, much athirst, would have drunk from a certain fountain sacred to the Bona Dea, but that the goddess forbade him to approach. Upon this a quarrel arose between them, and from that time women were not allowed to join in the festival of Hercules, nor men to be present at the rites of the Bona Dea. The chief festival of this goddess took place at night, and the Vestal Virgins themselves conducted the sacred ceremonies. Clodius, however, had respect neither for the gods nor for man, and donning a woman's attire, he easily gained entrance to the Regia. But his voice betrayed him, and he was soon discovered. The offended Vestals and the indignant matrons turned him out with loud cries; and he was accused before the Senate of having insulted the gods of Rome. But, so corrupt were the men of that day, that he was permitted to go unpunished, and he lived to commit many other and even greater crimes.

Those were indeed times of unhindered wickedness when crime, quickly following wrong; brought on the day on which Julius Caesar, the founder of Rome's empire, was treacherously murdered. His envious enemies, their dread plot arranged, waited only his next coming to the Senate to accomplish their evil work. In the meantime, both heaven and earth seemed to give warning of the approach of danger; for lightning was seen, and thunder heard in unclouded skies, and the sacrifices offered by the dictator himself were unfavourable.

The augurs, who read signs of fate in the actions of birds, announced that now the sacred fowls would neither fly nor eat; men of flames were seen fighting in the heavens; and in the night before the death of Caesar, his wife, Calpurnia, had a most troubled dream. Now among his other honours Caesar was Pontifex Maximus, and therefore had his dwelling in the Regia, to which the Senate, that further dignity might be given to the house of the dictator, had just added a new pointed roof, and a portico like that of a temple. As she slept, Calpurnia, in a vision, saw this roof fall in, while before her lay her husband, stricken with many wounds. Whereupon she awoke, and cried aloud in fright, for the windows and doors of the Regia were opening of their own accord with a great noise.

Moreover, in the midst of this disturbance was heard another and more dreadful sound—a loud clashing of the sacred spears in the chapel of Mars, where those holy weapons were reverently guarded. For in the very early times, when there were no images of the gods, men had bowed down instead before their symbols, and these sharp-pointed spears, the emblems of the god of War, had hung in this chapel, so men say, ever since the days of good King Numa. Whenever they moved, danger threatened, and on that direful night they clashed so loudly that all within the Regia heard and trembled. All save Caesar, who, in dreams, thought that he rode on clouds until he reached the highest heavens and touched the hand of great Jupiter himself. So when the morning was come, unheeding these evil omens, he prepared to go forth to the Senate, where he was expected, alas! not by the senators, but by his cowardly assassins. Then Calpurnia, mindful of all the warning wonders of the night, entreated him with tears to remain at home. At this, however, the great Conqueror only smiled, and said

"'The things that threatened me ne'er looked but on my back; when they shall see the face of Caesar, they are vanished. Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he.'"

And with these brave words he went forth—never to return. For on that day was foully murdered the greatest man Rome ever called her son.

To each citizen of Rome, Julius Caesar left a sum of money, and to the public he gave all his pleasure gardens on the banks of the Tiber. This was found stated in his will, obtained from the Vestal Virgins, who not only had charge of the wills of important men, but kept in their care many other deeds of value.

In the reign of Augustus the Regia was burned for the third time, but it was soon rebuilt in solid marble, and was ornamented with many statues. Under this same emperor fire again attacked the Temple and the Atrium, and the waters of a great flood damaged them. Augustus, however, restored the Temple and beautified it with many spoils from foreign lands, and he also made a gift of the Regia to the Vestals. Although Pontifex Maximus, as were all the emperors, he preferred to live in his new palace on the Palatine Hill; and from his day the Regia ceased to be the abode of the High Priest, the other emperors also dwelling elsewhere, in houses of their own.

Nero's fire did much harm to each of these three buildings,—the Temple, the Atrium, and the Regia,—but they were all restored by that wicked emperor. Then in the reign of the Emperor Commodus, these buildings suffered for the last time from fire. The priestesses fled for safety to the Palatine Hill, carrying the sacred things with them. In their haste the Palladium became uncovered, and thus, for the first time since the day when Aeneas brought the heaven-sent statue to Italy, it was seen by other than the chosen guardians of Rome's treasures. The Regia and the Atrium were restored by the Emperor Severus, whose wife, Julia Domma, rebuilt the Temple.

During the Empire, the honours and privileges of the Vestals became greater, for more money was given them, some of the best seats at the Circus and the theatre were reserved for them, and their power in affairs of state was yearly increased. Thus in the large court of the Atrium, where were many statues erected in memory of famous priestesses, there were also some of Vestals that had aided men to high positions in the government; this honour had been gratefully paid them by those that had received their timely assistance. For the Vestals often used their influence to help those they considered worthy, and fortunate indeed was he that could boast their goodwill. So it happened that several of the Atrium statues, of which there were over a hundred, were to the same Vestal. Strangely enough, among all these images of priestesses there was one of a man, for the Vestals, in their turn, gratefully erected a statue to Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, a magistrate that had used all his power in a stanch defence of the ancient gods against the ever growing strength of Christianity.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


But the Christians were not the only ones that strove to stay the rites of Vesta, for under the mad and wicked Emperor Heliogabalus, the gentle goddess suffered great insult. When this ruler came into power, he decreed that all the gods in Rome were to be but as the servants of a certain Syrian god of the sun, Heliogabalus, whose name he bore, and whose devoted worshipper he was. Moreover, as all fire was sacred to this deity, the order went forth that the flame on Vesta's altar be extinguished. But as the Vestals refused to obey the Emperor's command, he became violently angry, and, forcing his way into the Penetralia, stole the jar containing, as he believed, the holy pledges of the nation. The jar, however, was found to be empty, and in helpless rage, he dashed it in pieces to the ground. After many attempts the Emperor at last succeeded in carrying off the Palladium, which he fastened with chains of gold and placed in the temple he had built to the Syrian god. This caused vast indignation throughout the city, and later the sacred statue was restored to the care of the Vestal Virgins.

Notwithstanding the opposition of Heliogabalus, the faithful priestesses continued their sacred rites; but even after the death of that emperor, they were not left in peace. The strength of Christianity became ever greater and greater, until they could no longer battle against it. An inscription on one of the pedestals of the statues in the Atrium would seem to show that the power of this religion was felt within the very Temple itself, and that an honoured Vestalis Maxima left the service of Vesta to join the new faith. For beneath the statue were placed words of high praise, but the name of the priestess was hammered out, as a sign perhaps that although virtue should always be remembered, the Vestal was to be forgotten and as if she had never been. The doors of the Temple of Vesta were the last closed by the Emperor Theodosius, who also banished the Vestals from the Atrium. Before they left the sacred place, the priestesses, in deep sorrow, watched the holy flame die out upon Vesta's altar, the hearth of the Roman people, where it had burned for eleven centuries. And with their own hands they destroyed the Penetralia; but what was done with the sacred things no man can tell.

In later times much of the marble of the Temple, the Atrium, and the Regia was taken away for the building of the great church of St. Peter, and to-day only their sad ruins are to be seen. Of the Temple there is little besides the foundation, and of the Regia there are only a few fragments of its walls, but enough remains of the Atrium to show at least the plan of the Vestals' home. One can see that the building was not only large, but elegant, and that the private rooms of the priestesses, as well as the apartments of state, were lined with marble. There were also bathrooms, a cistern to hold the water brought from the sacred spring, rooms for servants, a kitchen, and a mill. This mill was large, and was turned by a slave, but was not the one used by the Vestals for the holy flour, which was always ground in a simple hand-mill by the priestesses themselves. As the Atrium was built into the side of the Palatine Hill, little sun reached it, and it was very damp; for this reason it was heated by hot-air furnaces, many of the pipes of which are still to be seen. But, unlike other Roman houses of the time of the Emperor Severus, from whose reign these ruins date, no pipes for water are found in the Atrium. For the rites of Vesta forbade the use of any save running water, such as that of rivers or of springs, and to their last days that used by the Vestals was carried to the Temple and the Atrium even as in the early times.

[Illustration] from Stories from the Roman Forum by Isabel Lovell


And through all those centuries, Vesta's temple kept the shape of the round hut of the market place in which the public fire was ever burning; and her worship was always the same as directed by Numa, who first taught the Romans the sacredness of the home. For surely the glowing hearth is the centre of the home—without fire, how can man cook? and without cooking, how can he live? Thus the hearth must be alight, the house clean, the stores well kept, and the housekeepers good. The very name of the goddess means to "inhabit "or to "dwell in "; and the vestibule "was the entrance to the place—either the Temple or the home—where Vesta's fire was burning. The Penetralia of the Temple was but a symbol of the storeroom of the home, and in all the rites of this gentle goddess, three great lessons were continually taught the Roman people—those of simplicity, of cleanliness, and of purity.

There were times in Rome's history when these lessons were of little profit, and during the last days of the Empire, they were not heard at all; but looking back beyond those dark years, the meaning of Vesta's worship may still be seen. Brightly and clearly burned her fire, showing the sacredness of all that makes, in hearts and in life, the light and the warmth of home.