Temple of Vesta


Christian Hulsen, 1906.

The Temple of Vesta. The round concrete core, surrounded at its base by several layers of tufa blocks, opposite the Regia is the foundation of the famous temple of Vesta.

Vesta as the goddess of the domestic hearth is one of the most important figures in the oldest circle of the Roman gods. In the private worship of later times, especially of the empire, her cult was to be sure entirely overshadowed by that of the Penates: but in the public worship of the state at the ‘state-hearth’, as Vesta publica populi Romani Quiritium, her cult continued to be one of the most important in Rome down into the latest times of the empire, even after the victory of Christianity.

In the temple – which contained no statue of the goddess – the Vestal virgins tended the sacred fire which was renewed every first of March, the new-year’s day of the oldest Roman year (the year of Numa). Besides the hearth the temple contained a holy of holies, the penus Vestae, a space, possibly merely a niche in the wall, screened off by tapestries. Here were kept certain mysterious symbols and pledges of the power of Rome, especially the palladium, which Aeneas was thought to have rescued from the burning city of Troy. Men, with the exception of the pontifex maximus, were never allowed to enter the temple, and women were admitted only during the festival of the Vestalia (June 7-15). The temple was several times destroyed by fire, for example in 241 and 210 BCE. At that time its fashion of construction – plaited reeds and a straw roof, in imitation of the ancient round hut of the Roman peasant – must have afforded bountiful food for the flames. But even in the time of the empire, when it was built entirely of stone and metal, it suffered severely, for example in the great fire in the reign of Commodus (191 CE). Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna restored the building, and it is from this restoration that most of the architectural fragments come. In 394 CE Theodosius closed the temple: in the vm.-ix. centuries it must have been in ruins, for many pieces of it were found built into the mediaeval wall between the Lacus Juturnae and the temple of Castor. In the time of the Renaissance the knowledge of the site of the temple was so entirely lost that some scholars called the church of S. Teodoro at the foot of the Palatine the temple of Vesta, while others identified the temple with the little round temple near the Ponte Rotto. Not until the recent excavations (1872, 1884, 1901) were the site and the manner of construction clearly known.

The temple stood upon a circular substructure 46 ft. in diameter and ornamented by pilasters. The entrance door faced exactly east: a few steps, the foundations of which may still be seen, led up to the portico which surrounded the cella. This portico was extremely narrow, and served merely a decorative purpose: the spaces between the columns were screened by a metal grill-work. The ancient representations on coins and reliefs show this grill-work, and on many fragments of the columns holes for fastening the metal rods may be seen. The space between the columns of the entrance was filled by wooden doors; the framework of the doorway was fastened to the columns by projecting bands which are still to be seen on the columns at various points. The columns supported an entablature the frieze of which was decorated with sacrificial instruments and the insignia of the priests. The cornice, the coffers of the portico, and the frieze inside the cella were one single piece of marble. By means of these huge blocks (over 9 ft. long), no one of which has been preserved whole, but many in fragments, the columns were joined with the wall of the cella to form a united support for the roof with its great span. It is generally assumed that in the centre of the cupola there was a circular opening to admit the light; according to the representations on coins it is not improbable that this opening crowned by a sort of bronze chimney, possibly shaped like a large flower, which thus protected the interior from wind and rain.

From the back (opposite the entrance to the kitchen of the house of the Vestals) one can enter inside the concrete core of the foundation of the temple; recent excavations have discovered here in the middle a trapezoidal pit (the so-called favissa), the existence of which proves that the sacred hearth did not lie exactly in the centre of the cella. The pit served probably for the temporary storage of the ashes and other rubbish, which it was lawful to remove only once in the year: on June 15th, the last day of the Vestalia, they were carried to a particular spot on the Clivus Capitolinus and from there taken and thrown into the Tiber. In as much as in the temple itself it was unlawful to have a statue of the goddess, a chapel (aedicula) for such a statue was built near the temple in later times. The aedicula was supported by two marble columns (the shaft of travertine to the left is modern, as well as the brick pillar to the right). The inscription on the architrave records that the building was restored (at the beginning of the IT. century CE) by the senate and the people, at the expense of the state. Beside the aedicula several steps of travertine lead up to the entrance to the house of the Vestals.

Hulsen, Christian. The Roman Forum, its history and its monuments. Rome: Loescher; New York, G. E. Stechert, 1906.

Back to JW Bailly Lectures

AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE Stephanie Sepúlveda &John William Bailly  14 April 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: