“Do not understand Vesta as anything other than a living flame”
Ovid, the famous Roman poet
Anne Maria Clarke – blog transcript - September 2015
Saluti da Roma!
Welcome and warm greetings from the Roman Forum, in the heart of the Eternal City.
I am here with my husband for a special celebration and to explore the sites and locations of my upcoming book. Set in Ancient Rome it tells the story of the life of Lucia, a young girl taken from her family to serve the goddess Vesta as one of a small group of Vestal Virgins who cared for her sanctuary and tended the sacred flame that burned continually on her alter. While ever the flame lived - it was believed - the great city and all its citizens would thrive – without it Rome would surely fall.
It’s not the first time I’ve visited The Eternal City nor indeed the sites of the new book, in fact the idea for the story was born here you might say, on a previous trip with a friend who has since sadly died. On our final evening she brought me here, to the heart of the Forum and showed me the Casa delle Vestali, the ancient home of the Vestal Virgins and the elegant ruins of the circular Temple of Vesta.
We sat together on the warm stone steps as the sun was starting to set, listening to the birds performing their evening songs and watching the light change around us as sun dipped down onto the horizon.
It was the first time I’d really heard the story of the Vestal Virgins. I knew of them of course but not in any detail – yet the way my friend told it ignited my imagination and I determined to one day write a story about them.
“They were brought here when they were about eight or nine years old,” she explained, for a period of thirty years service.
“Ten years as a student. Ten years in practice. Ten years as a teacher.
No one really knows the spiritual practices of the order – yet many believe the Vestals observed the traditions of the Western Mystery Schools but this has never been conclusively verified.
It was a huge honour for the families, but traumatising for the girl’s, being taken I mean. But it meant they were guaranteed a safe and comfortable life with huge privileges unknown to women across the classical world - and of course they were greatly revered and respected by all - and when their days of service were over they were provided with handsome inheritances.”
Vesta was the Virgin Goddess of hearth, home, and family. No statues were ever made of her here, for her presence was symbolized by the great sacred fire that burned in her hearth in this exquisite circular temple. All temples to Vesta were this shape with entrances facing east to symbolize the connection between her sacred flame and the sun as sources of life.
The Goddess was adored in ordinary households too where she was a very popular diety. Her shrines were frequently located near the door so that family members could be blessed when entering and leaving the home. The hymns sung in these dwellings were very likely the same as those sung by the Vestals in the great central temple. Homer’s Hymn To Vesta: is the most well known to have come down to us from antiquity.
To live in this beautiful home.
Come with warm feelings of friendship.
Bring your intelligence,
Your energy and your passion
To join us with your goodwill.
Burn brightly at my hearth.
Burn always in my soul.
You are welcome here.
I remember you.
The Goddess’s great festival, the Vestalia was celebrated from June 7 – 15. It was always eagerly awaited for on the first day, the heavy drapes that surrounded the penus Vestae, the inner sanctum of the temple that was kept strictly closed for the rest of the year, were drawn back and the temple was briefly opened to the women of Rome who bare-footed, were allowed to enter with offerings of flowers, prayers and libations. After the Vestalia the temple was closed and ritually cleansed, and the dust was thrown into the great RiverTiber.
As part of the Vestalia the vestals made special sacred cakes, with holy water, sacred salt and specially prepared brine which when baked were offered to Vesta.
Every spring on 1st of March which was the start of the Roman year, the sacred fire was briefly extinguished and renewed. Apart from this one day, the goddesses flame burned continually for over 1000 years until the 4th century AD when the Christian emperor Graziano ordered it to be finally extinguished. The temple was immediately closed and the sacred practices of the Vestals were outlawed.
The story goes that the very last Vestal to survive eventually converted to Christianity and that as a final act of submission to the new faith she was asked to erase her name from the base upon which her statue stood in the courtyard of the casa delle vestali.
In researching for the new book I came across the comments of Tara L. Reynolds, who remarked upon visiting the temple ruins in 2012,
“What I’ve learned about the goddess Vesta and her priestesses is that Vesta represented the vital life-source of Rome. Her sacred flame was the life of the city, and she was the guardian of the city. When I visited Rome and the Temple of Vesta along with the house of the Vestals, I noted that the sacred energy of that central point of power is palpable. You can really feel the importance and center of life that the Goddess Vesta and her priestesses represented.”
Being here now in the stillness of the evening after the crowds have dispersed, as I was the first time, watching the sun setting over the elegant ruins, it’s not difficult to imagine the young priestesses emerging from the casa delle vestali in their pure white robes, their diaphanous veils catching the evening breeze as they walk the short distance to the temple to tend the sacred flame.
And - if I am very, very quiet, I can sense something too – the accretions of dedication, love and devotion that have somehow left a trace - and in noticing I unwittingly join a stream of previous travellers who coming to this place agree – that yes - even after all this time, even after all these many hundreds of years – the sacred energy of Vesta and her young priestesses lives on!
Anne Maria Clarke
x x x
Roma: settembra 2015