By Alex Hugman - Volunteer Guide

"Fire, the untamed element, oldest of man's mysteries, giver of warmth, destroyer of forests. Right now, this building is on fire!" Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

In our modern societies we often view fire as the enemy, a beautiful monster full of destruction. Fire takes our homes; it is a horror of war. In media, it is wielded as a weapon by superheroes and demons. For most of us the positive uses of fire are relegated to candles for mood lighting, perhaps cooking with gas or whilst camping. However, our language still holds some reverence for the element, remembering it as a purifier, as a test from which people can emerge from hardship refined and strengthened. The further we go back in history the greater the influence of fire can be. Before becoming a by-product of exothermic chemical reactions, fire was the sun captured, the spirit of God, lightning's wrath and man's best means to advance above our base nature - and sometimes we worshipped it.

To the ancient Romans Vulcan embodied fire.

The ancient world's respect for fire lies in what it represented - power, not power in terms of control, but power as we treat electricity. For every task in which  a person needed to utilize energy, they were allowed the limited options of gravity, muscle power or flames. Fire gave us light when the sun was blocked, cooked our food, heated water for drinking and for cleaning. Fire allowed heated baths to spread across the Roman empire without a requirement of geothermal access. It transformed life allowing humans to easily harness huge amounts of energy thousands of years before electricity.

The greatest example of this is in metal working. Dating back before the foundation of Rome Vulcan was a fire god. As time went on, he was associated and melded with Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge. Fire helped our species rise to the use of metals. Weapons and armour spring most readily to mind - especially regarding the Romans - but the same is true for all metallic items. Every nail in a house came from a forge, brooches, tools, medical implements to help you live long and prosper and eating utensils. Vulcan was the ultimate source of knowledge and power to create the crudest and most refined metallic items that kept society running at all levels.

Remembering these gifts of Vulcan can help with understanding why he was worshipped and loved by the Roman people. Of course, as a species it must be said that kindness does not motivate us as well as it perhaps should; so, on a more selfish note, we should bear in mind that the ancient gods tended towards petty, brutal and equally egoistic behaviour as their worshippers.

His temples were kept outside of the cities for fear that they would become focal points for grand conflagrations if he were to become displeased. One temple did exist within Rome's walls. It was originally constructed outside of the city, but as Rome expanded it was absorbed into the city proper. All the area around it was kept clear of flammable goods so as to create a firebreak, for even as they worshipped Vulcan the Romans feared the unpredictability and raw power of their all too human gods.

Fire was a great threat to the in habitants of Rome: their city was overcrowded with wooden buildings ready to burn. People lived in cramped conditions using fire in their homes to see by, warm themselves and to prepare food. Streets were so narrow that neighbours could reach from a window on one side to shake hands with the someone across the road. Fire would leap clear across the narrow lanes setting ablaze insulae (apartment buildings) where many families would live together. Fires trapped the poorest residents in the upper reaches before they even heard the alarmed warnings of those below them. There are repeated accounts from Romans about the startlingly common fires that destroyed these buildings, which were vastly more common than villas and larger, more sturdy accommodation.

Some of the fires threatened the entire city. Without adequate city planning or strong building regulations fires could - if unchecked - raze the entirety of Rome; a point well illustrated by the Great Fire of Rome in 64AD when two thirds of the city was destroyed during nine days of immolation. Some emperors tried to restrict the height of buildings, widen the streets and arrange platforms to fight fires from.  Over time there were slaves or freedmen who fought fires with buckets and water pumps. Fire was difficult to fight without modern conveniences. A common tactic was the use of axes, ropes and even siege weaponry in the demolition of homes and businesses to create firebreaks before the flames reached them.

Fire built civilizations and at times it seemed that it was barely restrained from consuming it. Sacrifices were made to Vulcan prior to works of creation for better results, and sacrifices were made after disastrous blazes to placate him and ward off more suffering. If the ancient beliefs of the Roman people were still held today Vulcan could perhaps be partially credited with the MRI scanner, the internal combustion engine and the disaster of Chernobyl's power plant.


There are many reasons why the Romans revered Vulcan and he deserved a festival in his name: that festival is the Vulcanalia. On the 23rd of August across the Roman empire, Vulcan would be celebrated with large fires. Bonfires set up outside of settlements were set ablaze and the citizens would visit them to make offerings of fish and other small animals by throwing them into the flames alive. The hope was to appease Vulcan and to stop him from sending fires, particularly at this time of the year.

August was relevant to Vulcan's worship because it was associated with heat, a lack of precipitation and strong winds, all things which increase the risk of fires starting and spreading wildly out of control. Further this was a time where the crops were being gathered into granaries, while several other festivals neighbour the Vulcanalia concerning agriculture, harvest and food. Not only was this a dangerous time for fires in general, but it coincided with the period when the upcoming year's food for the empire and profit for the farmers was at the most vulnerable. The central concern birthing this festival can be interpreted to be the protection of these stores.

Pliny the Younger - a first century author and lawyer - relates that the Vulcanalia was the time that people started to work by candlelight. It was considered an auspicious day to increase the use of fire in the home, given that it was when the lord of fire would be most contented. The festival made it safe to begin this practice allowing working late into the evening before the nights grew dark with winter's approach.

The most notable event tied to Vulcan's festival happened in 79AD, where according to the eyewitness accounts of Pliny the Younger, on the 24th of August*, the day following Vulcanalia, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius began. He details in his first letter to Tacitus the death of his uncle; who led a rescue attempt going to the aid of his friends and anyone else whom his ships could evacuate from the coast at the foot of the erupting mountain.

His second letter recounted his own 'adventures' as ash clouds and earthquakes rocked his home. Volcanoes are as you may have surmised named after the god Vulcan and there is an irony in the second most deadly volcanic eruption in European history occurring the day after a festival to placate him. One can only imagine how badly they screwed up the ceremonies.

Vulcan and Vindolanda

Found on site during some drainage works in 1914, an altar set up by the vicani Vindolandesses (the people of Vindolanda) is dedicated to the god Vulcan. It is not surprising that Vulcan was one of the many gods that was worshiped at the site. There is also evidence from the excavations of metalworking including numerous iron and bronze tools, weapons and armour as well as a number of crucibles and fragments of waste and slag. As stated earlier, no doubt the people of Vindolanda would also look to him for protection from fire and its destructive force. There is evidence from the site of buildings being destroyed by fires. Possibly one of the more famous Vindolanda fires would be the bonfire site excavated in 1992-1993 which was set alight by the 9th cohort of Batavians as they left the site in c. 105AD. The reason for its fame is that many wooden writing tablets were recovered from this site after the bonfire did not take light (possibly due to the sometimes-variable levels of precipitation in Northern England) including the numerous tablets from the archive of the prefect Flavius Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina. We can be thankful that on this occasion Vulcan did not do his job properly leaving us with a wealth of knowledge about the site, Vindolanda and Roman Britain.


* This is the traditional date, but it is strongly believed today that it is incorrect. 30th October, 1st November and 23rd November are more likely due to archaeological finds indicating autumnal harvests. This confusion is due to Roman dating conventions and fragmented texts.


This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.  


Vindolanda by Robin Birley