Originally written on June 2021, updated 2023
Vesta was an ancient Roman goddess of the domestic and civic hearth whose annual festival, the Vestalia, was celebrated in this period, between the 7th and 15th of June.
The Vestalia marked a pause in everyday life as the Romans honoured Vesta and purified her shrine. It was also a time to commemorate the benefits the goddess had brought to the city, and to ensure the continued safety and well-being of Rome and her people.
Vesta was an Italic deity whose cult was popular in Pompeii and Latium before either Romulus or the legendary King Numa introduced her to archaic Rome.
According to Roman mythology, she was the third daughter of the god Saturnus and, unlike her sisters Juno and Ceres, she did not marry but remained a virgin.
Along with the Penates, Vesta was one of the guardians of the home. Such was Vesta’s domestic importance that, according to the poet Ovid she leant her name to the vestibule, or entrance of the Roman house.
By Ovid’s time, the vestibule was a hinterland between the domus’s front door and the atrium. But originally, it was much more important, as It was at the front of the house and the location of the domestic hearth fire, the centre of all domestic activity, being the primary source of heat and light for the household, and the Roman’s believed Vesta was its guardian.
It was the place where the family cooked, worked and socialised and, even when these functions moved elsewhere in the Roman house, it remained traditional to leave an offering to Vesta on a special plate on a low altar in the atrium.
Vesta later became associated with the Greek goddess Hestia. Hestia was also a goddess of the hearth.
But Vesta was more than just a domestic goddess: she was one of the twelve Di Consentes, the state gods whose statues stood in the forum.
She was also the guardian of the ‘vital force‘ of Rome, its undying flame, and this made Vesta the protector of the Roman state.
Her priestesses, the Vestals, were tasked never to let the sacred fire extinguish and, if one of them let the sacred flame go out, she would pay with her life. They swore thirty-year vows of chastity, and It was considered a great honor to be chosen as one of the Vestales, a privilege reserved for young girls of patrician birth. One of the best known Vestales was Rhea Silvia, who broke her vows and conceived twins Romulus and Remus with the god Mars.
Eithey way, the sacred flame had, from the earliest times, burnt in the heart of the city of Rome, in the shrine of Vesta which occupied the southeast corner of the Forum Romanum. Its existence guaranteed the stability of the Empire, the very life of Rome and of the Roman cult.
Built and rebuilt several times, It was always a circular building, according to Ovid, to emulate the earth. There was no statue of Vesta in her sanctuary, but in its inner sanctum, along with the sacred flame were particular archaic sacred objects.
One was the palladium, “the pledge of Rome’s fate” which, according to legend, Aeneas had rescued from Troy.
The second was the fascinum, an erect phallus that averted evil.
Rome’s only female priesthood, or the Vestal Virgins, guarded and protected the sacred flame and sacred objects until the abandonment of the shrine in 394 AD when Vesta’s rites, along with other pre-Christian religions, were banned by Theodosius I who put out the Sacred Fire forever, amid the incredulity of the Vestals and the despair of a large part of the people.
During this period, the Romans honoured Vesta as the guardian of Rome with ceremonies and processions before purifying her shrine on the last day of the festival.
They conducted no public business and celebrated no marriages until the festival was over.
From the 7th June onwards, women were allowed to enter the inner sanctum of Vesta to make offerings to her.
9th June was a day of holiday and celebration.
For one of only three times in the year, the vestal virgins would prepare mola salsa, a sacred bread used as an offering to their goddess. They made mola from spelt, gathered on specific days in May, and mixed with salt and water from the sacred spring of Juturna near to Vesta’s shrine. The vessels containing this water were not allowed to touch the ground, to preserve the sanctity of the liquid.
This bread was then taken to Vesta’s innermost shrine and offered to the goddess along with oil and wine.
In Rome itself, the day was a holiday, at least for Rome’s millers and bakers.
Donkeys garlanded with violets and loaves of bread headed the processions in honour of the goddess, while chains of flowers adorned their mill wheels.
The donkey was a favourite animal of Vesta’s and, according to the legend, a donkey’s braying saved her from ravishment by the god Priapus.
Eventually, on the final day of the Vestalia, the Ides of June, the shrine of the goddess was ritually swept out and cleansed.
The resulting waste were carefully collected and deposited in the River Tiber so they would be carried away from the city and out to sea.
This cleansing was also symbolic, as a spiritual cleansing of the city, with the resulting impurities, removed and neutralised by a fast flowing body of water.