Temple of Vesta
Shown within Rome
|Location||Regio VIII Forum Romanum|
|Type||Roman Old kingdom|
|Founded||unknown old Kingdom era|
The Temple of Vesta, or the aedes (Latin Aedes Vestae; Italian: Tempio di Vesta), is an ancient edifice in Rome, Italy. The temple is located in the Roman Forum near the Regia and the House of the Vestal Virgins. The Temple of Vesta housed Vesta's holy fire, which was a symbol of Rome's safety and prosperity. The temple's most recognizable feature is its circular footprint. Since the worship of Vesta began in private homes, the architecture seems to pay homage to the architecture of early Roman homes. The temple used Greek architecture with Corinthian columns, marble, and had a central cella. The surviving structure indicates that there were twenty Corinthian columns built on a podium fifteen meters in diameter. The roof probably had a vent at the apex to allow smoke to release.
The Temple of Vesta was first built by Numa Pompilius, who was Rome's second king. During his time in power he also built the original Regia and House of the Vestal Virgins and founded the order of the Vestals. Vesta was the patron goddess of the domestic hearth. In honor of Vesta, the Vestals would grow sacred grain to burn in the sacred hearth of the temple. The Romans believed that the sacred fire of Vesta was closely tied to the fortunes of the city. They believed that the extinction of the fire would lead to disaster falling on Rome.
The Temple of Vesta was tended by the Vestal Virgins. The Vestal Virgins were freeborn, aristocratic women who had been sworn to celibacy in their service to Vesta. The Vestal oath of virginity during their 30-year tenure was what set them apart from other Roman women. While chastity until marriage was considered proper in Rome, long-term celibacy was not typical, as women were generally expected to give birth to heirs for their husbands. Should a Vestal virgin become unchaste, it was seen as a disruption between Rome and its gods. The Romans believed that such a disconnect between its gods would lead to pestilence, tragedy, or military defeats. The Vestals were also bound to serve the goddess Vesta and tended to the sacred fire of Vesta from childhood until maturity. A Vestal Virgin had a tenure that typically lasted from the age of 6 to 36 years, at which point a Vestal virgin had the ability to leave the priesthood and marry. Most women chose to remain within the priesthood after their tenure ended. This choice to remain in the priesthood may have been a result of the respect and social privileges that came from their position. Most chose to spend their entire lives as a priestess.
The Vestal Virgins were bound by strict rules and harsh punishments. For minor misdeeds, the Vestals were subject to being whipped with rods. For more serious offences, such as having sexual relations or allowing the sacred fire to go out, the Vestals were sentenced to being interred in a subterranean cell and left to die with little food or water. Vestal Virgins could also be punished if something bad happened to Rome. If a Vestal Virgin broke her oath of celibacy, Rome's connection to the gods was considered broken, which resulted in Rome being punished by the gods. The belief that a Vestal's purity was connected to Rome's fate caused some Vestal Virgins to be accused of breaking their oaths and punished when tragedy struck Rome. One such example took place in 114 BC, when Helvia, the Virgin daughter of L. Helvius, was killed by lightning. Helvia's death was interpreted as a sign that there was trouble in the Temple of Vesta. Three Vestal Virgins were sentenced to death for breaking their oath and being unchaste. The Vestal Virgins were closely watched and harshly punished when they broke their oaths, or suspected of breaking their oaths. However, respect and social privileges that came from their position encouraged many to remain in the priesthood.
The temple of Vesta was unique in its design, as it was round as opposed to rectangular like many other temples. The circular shape of the Vesta temples were based on the primitive round hut. Some researchers argue that the circular footprint of the Temple of Vesta was meant to symbolize the earth and the domed roof symbolized the heavens. All temples to Vesta were round, and had entrances facing east to enhance the connection between Vesta's fire and the sun as sources of life. The Temple of Vesta represents the site of ancient religious activity as far back as the 7th century BCE.
Archaeologists have found that the Temple of Vesta was built on a circular foundation. Circling the exterior of the temple were twenty fluted columns. Each column was 0.52 meters in diameter, with a base 1.6 meters in circumference. The columns were topped with a Corinthian capital. The radius of the temple was about 6.19 meters. This measured from the outer line of the architrave to the middle of the temple. The interior wall is 0.60 meters thick and the diameter of the inside of the temple is 8.6 meters. The Temple was on a high platform and wide steps lead up to the entrance.
It was one of the earliest structures located in the Roman Forum, although its final reincarnation was the result of subsequent rebuilding. Instead of a cult statue in the cella, there was a hearth which held the sacred flame. The temple was the storehouse for the legal wills and documents of Roman Senators and cult objects such as the Palladium. The Palladium was a statue of Athena (Roman Minerva) believed to have been brought by Aeneas from Troy; the statue was felt to be one of the Pignora Imperii, or pledges of imperium, of Ancient Rome. The temple was closed during the persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire in the 4th-century. The Temple of Vesta, the Atrium of the Vestal Virgins (House of the Vestal Virgins), and the Regia are the earliest evidence of the Cult of Vesta. The original Temple of Vesta stood on the east end of the forum near the house of the Vestal Virgins and the Regia. Beyond that cluster of buildings is the Via Sacra (Sacred Way) which ran uphill. This cluster of buildings was destroyed in the fire of Nero. In 575 BC, the temple was rebuilt in its current location.
The temple was rebuilt many times because it was destroyed many times. The first destruction of the temple was by the Gauls in 390 BC. Livy records that after the Gauls burned down the temple, they soon returned to find that the Vestals had rekindled their sacred fire among the ruins of the temple. According to Ovid, the second destruction in 241 BC may have started because of the fire in the temple itself. During the fire, the Vestals were unable to collect the cult objects, and they were destroyed along with the Temple of Vesta. Lucius Caecilius Metellus, the Pontifex Maximus at the time, went into the burning temple to save the palladium. Lucius Caecilius was blinded by the flames, and it was believed that this was the result of him breaking the tradition of the temple which barres men from entering. Fires also occurred again in 210 BC and again in the early first century BC. The temple was rebuilt again during the reigns of Augustus and Nero. Finally, it burned down in 191 AD and was rebuilt for the last time during the reign of Septimius Severus by his wife, Julia Domna.
The sacred flame would finally be extinguished in 394 AD by Theodosius I, on account of the rise of Christianity in the empire.
The Temple of Vesta remained reasonably intact until the Renaissance. However, in 1549 AD, the temple was demolished, and its marble was repurposed to build churches and papal palaces. Most of our knowledge about what the original Temple of Vesta looked like come from its depictions on coins and art. One piece of art that depicts the Temple of Vesta is a marble relief in the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. These depictions and others like it allow us to understand what the temple looked like in antiquity.
Modern archaeological investigation began on the site of the Temple of Vesta in the late nineteenth century. The exploration began in 1877 with archaeologist R. Lanciani's excavation of the Temple of Vesta and the publishing of his findings. During his exploration he was able to uncover many parts of the Temple of Vesta, including parts of the entablature and ceiling. Exploration continued from 1898 to 1900 when Giaccomo Boni, director of the Roman Forum, embarked on a new round of excavations. His works were published in 1900 and included measurements and sections of the temple's foundation, photos and drawings of the principal architectural elements, and a restored plan of the building. Finally, in 1930-1931 Alfonso Bartoli reconstructed two and a half of the Temple of Vesta's bays, which can still be seen in the forum today.
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