1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vesta

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VESTA (Gr. Ἑστία), the goddess of fire and the domestic hearth. The cults of the Greek Hestia (q.v.) and the Latin Vesta, both of which involved the guardianship of an ever burning sacred fire, are most probably derived from a very early custom, common to a great variety of races in different ages. Among primitive peoples it became the custom for each village to maintain a constant fire for general use, to avoid the necessity of obtaining a spark by friction in case of the accidental extinction of all the village fires.[1] This fire, the central hearth of the village (focus publicus), became a sacred symbol of home and family life. The form of the primitive house in which the fire was preserved, probably a round hut made of wattled osiers daubed with clay, appears to have survived both in the circular prytaneum of the Greeks and in the Aedes Vestae (Temple of Vesta) in Rome. To Watch this fire would naturally be the duty of unmarried women, and hence may have arisen the Roman order of virgin priestesses, the vestals, whose chief duty it was to tend the sacred fire.

The prehistoric method of getting a spark appears to have survived in the rule that, if ever the sacred fire of Vesta did go out, the negligent Vestal was to be punished by scourging (Livy xxviii. 11), and the fire rekindled either by friction of dry sticks,[2] or, in later times, by the sun’s rays brought to a focus by a concave mirror (Plut. Numa, 9). In the prytaneum (q.v.) which existed in every Greek state, a different form of cult was developed, though the essential point, the sacred fire, was kept up, just as in the Latin worship of Vesta; and in both cases the fire was extinguished annually at the beginning of the new year, and solemnly rekindled by one of the primitive and hence sacred methods.[3] In Rome this was done on the first day of March, the Latin New Year's Day (Ovid, Fasti, iii. .137–45). Among both Greek and early Latin races, at the founding of a new colony, fire was solemnly sent from the prytaneum of the mother colony to kindle a similar sacred fire in the new settlement. Thus we find that, according to tradition, the worship of Vesta in Rome was introduced from Alba Longa (Livy i. 20, and Ovid, Fasti, iii. 46), which appears to have been the oldest of the Latin colonies in Latium. The most generally received Latin legend attributes the founding of the Roman temple of Vesta to Numa, who transferred the centre of the cult from Alba, together with the four vestal virgins, its priestesses (Plut. Numa, 10). One of the later kings, either Tarquin I. or Servius Tullius, is said to have increased the number to six (Dion. Hal. iii. 67, and Plut. Numa, 10), and it is not till the last years of the pagan period that we hear of a seventh vestal having been added (see Ambrose, Epist., ed. Pareus, p. 477; also Plut. Rom; and Cam.).

The election (captio) of the vestal during the early period of Rome was in the hands of the king, and in those of the pontifex maximus under the republic and empire,[4] subject, however, to the following conditions (Aul. Gell. i. 12): (1) the candidate was to be more than six and less than ten years of age; (2) she was to be patrima and matrima, i.e. having both parents alive; (3) free from physical or mental defects; (4) daughter of a free-born resident in Italy. Certain details of the election were arranged subject to the provisions of the Lex Papia, now unknown. The selected child had her hair cut off, and was solemnly admitted by the pontifex maximus, who held her by the hand, and, a.dressing her by the name amata, pronounced an ancient formula of initiation, which is given by Aulus Gellius. In early times there were certain rules by which girls could be excused from serving as vestals, but the honour soon became so eagerly sought that these provisions were practically useless. Vows were taken by the vestal for a period of thirty years, after which she was free to return to private life and even to marry which she very rarely did (Aul. Cell. vi. 7). This period of thirty years was divided into three decades: during the first the vestal learnt her duties; during the second she practised them; and during the third she instructed the young vestals. The special dignity o chief of the vestals (virgo vestalis maxima) was reached in order of seniority. The inscriptions on the pedestals of statues of various vestales maximae show that a number of different grades of honour were passed through before reaching the highest dignity or maximatus.[5]

The duties of the vestals, besides the chief one of tending the holy fire (Cie. De Leg. ii. 8), consisted in the daily bringing of water from the sacred spring of Egeria, near the Porta Capena, to be used for the ceremonial sweeping and sprinkling of the Aedes Vestae.[6] They also offered sacrifices of salt cakes-muries and mola salsa-and poured on the altar of sacred fire libations of wine and oil, as is represented on the reverses of several first brasses and medallions of the empire. The vestals were bound to offer daily prayers for the welfare of the Roman state, and more especially in times of danger or calamity (Cic. Pro Font. 21). They were also the guardians of the seven sacred objects on which the stability of the Roman power was supposed to depend: the chief of these was the Palladium, a rude archaic statue of Pallas, which was said to have been brought by Aeneas from the burning Troy. This sacred object was never shown to profane eyes, but it is represented on the reverse of a coin struck by Antoninus Pius in honour of his deified wife Faustina. Strict observance of the vow of chastity was one of the chief obligations of the vestals, and its breach was punished by burial alive at a place near the Porta Collina known as the Campus Sceleratus (see Livy viii. 15 and 89; Plin. Ep. iv. II; and Suet. Dom. 8). Cases of unchastity and its punishment were rare; and, as the evidence against the vestal was usually that of slaves, given under torture, it is probable that in many instances an innocent vestal suffered this cruel death.

The privileges of the vestals and their influential position were very remarkable. They were exempt from any patria potestas, except that of the pontifex maximus, their religious father; they could dispose by will of their property, and were in most respects not subject to the Roman laws (“legibus non tenetur,” Servius, on Virg. Aen. xi. 204; cf. Gaius i. 130, and Dio Cass. lvi. 10). This involved freedom from taxes, and the right to drive through the streets of Rome in carriages (plostrum and currus arcuatus). Some bronze plates have been found which were once attached to the carriages of vestals; the inscription on one of them runs thus: Flaviae Publiciae v.v. maximae inmunis in jugo (see C.I.L. vi. 2146–2148; cf. also Prudentius, Contra Symm. ii. 1088). They were preceded by a lictor when appearing on state occasions, and enjoyed other semi-royal honours (Plut. Numa, 10, and Dio Cass. xlvii. 19). At theatres and other places of amusement they occupied the best seats, except at some of the nude athletic contests, from which they were excluded; they also took an important part in all the grand religious and state ceremonies, as when the. pontifex maximus offered sacrifice on the occasion of a triumph before the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. They had power to pardon any criminal they met in the street on his way to execution, provided that the meeting were accidental. The vestals alone shared with the emperors the privilege of intramural burial (Serv. on Virg. Aen. xi. 206). During life they were richly dowered by the state (Suet. Aug. 31), and had public slaves appointed to serve them (see Tac. Hist. 1. 43).' They were also the guardians of the emperor’s will, and of other important documents of state (Suet. J. Caes. 83, and Aug. 101; Tac. Ann. i. 8; Plut. Anton. 58; and Appian, Bell. Civ. v. 73). Their influence in the appointment to many offices, both religious and secular, appears to have been very great. Many of the statues to the 'chief vestals which were found in the Atrium Vestae in 1883–1884 have pedestals inscribed with a dedication recording that benefits had been conferred on the donor by the vestalis maxima. Lastly, they lived in a style of very great splendour; their house, the Atrium Vestae, which stood close by the Aedes Vestae, was very large and exceptionally magnificent both in decoration and material (see Rome, Archaeology, § “Forum Romanum” and map).

The discovery already mentioned of a number of statues of vestales maximae has thrown new light on the dress of the vestals.[7] With one or two exceptions the costume of these statues is much the same they have a long sleeveless tunic (stola), girdled by the zona immediately below the breast. One only wears the diploidion over the upper part of her figure. The outer garment is an ample pallium, wrapped round the body in a great variety of folds, and in some cases brought over the head like a hood. All seem to have long hair, showing that the process of cutting off the hair at initiation was not repeated. One figure wears the suffibulum; a rectangular piece of white cloth bordered by a purple stripe, worn over the head and fastened on the breast by a jibula. According to Festus (ed. Müller, p. 348), this sacred garment was worn by the vestals only. during the act of sacrificing (see also Varro, De Ling. Lat. vi. 21). In all cases the head is closely bound by vittae, rope-like twists of woollen cloth, the ends of which usually fall in loops on each shoulder (see Servius on Virg. Aen. x. 538).

The Regia, the official fanum of the pontifex maximus, was adjacent to the vestals’ house:—

“ Hic locus est Vestae, qui Pallada servat et ignem;
Hic fuxt antiqui Regia parva Numae.”[8]

When Augustus, after his election to the office of pontifex maximus in 12 B.C., moved his place of residence from the Regia to the Palatine, he built a new Aedes Vestae near his palace, in the magnificent Area Apollinis. This appears to have been a copy of the older temple of Vesta. No traces of it now exist; but Pirro Ligorio, in the latter part of the 16th century, made some sketches of what then existed of this second temple, to illustrate his great MS. on Roman antiquities, which is now preserved in the royal library at Turin (see Ovid, Fasti, iv. 949–954, and Metam. xv. 864). The original course of the Sacra Via passed close to the temple of Vesta; but the road was clumsily built over in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The chief festival in honour of Vesta, the Vestalia, was held on the 9th of June (Ovid, Fasti, vi. 249), after which the temple was closed for five days for a ceremonial cleansing. In private houses the feast was celebrated by a meal of fish, bread and herbs, eaten, not on the usual triclinium, but by the domestic hearth, in front of the effigies of the Dii Penates (Ovid, Fasti, vi. 309–310). The feast, inaugurated by Augustus in honour of Vesta Palatina, was held on the 28th of April, the anniversary of its consecration.

With regard to statues of the goddess, though the Greek Hestia was frequently represented in plastic art, yet among the Romans Vesta appears to have been rarely so treated. The Athenian prytaneum contained a statue of Hestia. But there was no effigy in the Roman temple of Vesta, although one is commonly shown on reverses of coins which have a representation of the temple, and it appears to have been commonly thought in Rome that a statue of Vesta did exist inside her shrine—a mistake which Ovid corrects (Fasti, vi. 297–300). No Roman statue now known can be certainly considered to represent Vesta, though a very beautiful standing figure of a female with veiled head (in the Torlonia collection) has, with some probability, had this name given to it.

The worship of Vesta appears to have died out slowly in the 4th century, after the adoption of Christianity as the state religion by Constantine, and in 382 Gratian confiscated the Atrium Vestae. Zosimus (Hist. Nov. v. 38) tells an interesting story of a visit made to it at the end of the 4th century by Serena, the wife of the Vandal Stilicho, who took a valuable necklace from one of the statues, in spite of the remonstrances of an aged woman, the last survivor of the vestal virgins. Soon after that time the building appears to have fallen into decay, its valuable marble linings and other ornaments having been stripped from its walls.

Authorities.—For the Atrium and the Aedes Vestae see Rome, Archaeology (footnote ad loc.). See also Wissowa, Relig. und Kultus der Römer (1902) and authorities under Hestia.  (J. H. M.; X.) 

  1. J. G. Frazer in the Journal of Philology (vol. xiv. pp. 145–72), “The Worship of Vesta and its Connexion with the Greek Prytaneum,” gives many examples of a similar custom still surviving among various savage races.
  2. An allusion to the earliest method of obtaining fire by rubbing two sticks together is probably contained in the myth of Prometheus, who brought fire to mortals hidden in a hollow wand.
  3. Fire obtained in this way, that is, “pure elemental fire,” was commonly thought to possess a special sanctity. Even throughout the middle ages in Catholic countries, at Easter, when the new year began. The old pagan rite survived (see Lights, Ceremonial Use of.)
  4. From the time of Augustus the emperors themselves held the office of chief pontiff, and with it the privilege of electing the vestals.
  5. These inscriptions are printed in Middleton, Ancient Rome in 1885, pp. 200–6, and in Archaeologia, xlix. 414–22.
  6. The shrine of Vesta was not a templum, in the strict Roman sense, as it was not consecrated by the augurs, its sanctity being far above the necessity of any such ceremony. Other natural springs might be used for the daily sprinkling, but it was forbidden to use water brought in a pipe or other artificial conduit (Tac. Hitt. iv. 53); see also Guhl and Koner, Das Leben der Griechen und Römer (Eng. trans. by F. Huetier, 1875).
  7. These statues appear to have been the work of a privileged class of sculptors, who enjoyed the title of “fictores virginum vestalium”—an honour which is recorded in some of the dedicatory inscriptions on the pedestals.
  8. Ovid, Tristia, iii. 29.