By Lesley Laws - Museum Volunteer

The festival of Vestalia, an important day in the Roman holidays’ calendar, was celebrated on June 9th in the temple Vesta, a small round temple in the forum of Rome. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth fire and of the home. The goddess, amongst other roles, also symbolized the city and people of Rome. Inside her temple there was no statue: instead, a sacred flame was kept burning constantly, tended by the Vestal Virgins. It was believed that if the flames were extinguished, Rome would fall (for modern analogy think ravens and the Tower of London)! Horace (65-8 BCE) said Rome would stand " for as long as the Pontifex Maximus climb the Capitoline beside the silent Virgin".

The Vestal Virgins were chosen by lot from candidates selected by the Pontifex Maximus. They were young girls aged between 6 and 10, with no bodily ‘defects’, and living parents. Each Vestal was required to serve for 30 years and lived in the Hall of Vesta (atrium vestae). On one hand, one could say the Vestals had a hard life. Sworn to chastity and hard work from a tender age until past the average marrying age, and almost trapped in their Halls, they were however maintained at public expense and had several social and legal privileges. They wore the distinctive dress and hairstyle which was only worn by brides on their wedding day. Their chastity votes were very important and Suetonius reports that in 83CE the emperor Domitian had three Vestals executed for immorality and in 90CE he condemned the chief Vestal, Cornelia, to be buried alive.

Among the duties of the Vestal Virgins was the preparation of bread used in Roman rituals and so Vestalia, June 9th, became a festival and holiday for bakers and millers. The millstones and asses used in grinding were garlanded with flowers and hung with small loaves. On June 7th the inner sanctum of the temple was opened to women and closed again on June 15th. Men could not enter the temple at any time. The temple was finally closed by the emperor Theodosius in 394CE after Christianity became the official religion of Rome.


Dictionary of Roman Religion

Holy N Parker, American Journal of Philology,2004, Vol.125

Suetonius, Twelve Caesars