In the ancient Roman religion, Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. An important deity*, she was worshiped in every Roman household. Her main public shrine* was a circular temple located in the Roman forum. Vesta was symbolized by fire, which most ancient societies regarded as the source of life. The hearth, or fireplace, became a symbol of the family, and Romans considered Vesta the protector of the home and the nation, or homeland.
Every Roman town had a temple of Vesta built around a sacred fire. Priestesses called Vestal Virgins tended the fire at the temple in Rome. Their main responsibility was watching over the fire day and night to ensure that it never went out. Romans believed that if the sacred fire died, a public disaster would occur. According to legend, the fire in the temple of Vesta had been brought to Rome from Troy by Aeneas, the legendary hero whose descendants were said to have founded the city.
* deity god or goddess
* shrine place that is considered sacred because of its history or the relics it contains
The festival of Vesta, the Vestalia, was celebrated each year on June 9. The temple of Vesta was opened at this time to all married women, who entered barefoot bearing simple offerings of food. The temple remained open until June 15, at which time it was cleaned and purified.
Six Vestal Virgins tended the temple of Vesta in Rome and dedicated their services to the goddess. Chosen when they were young girls, between the ages of 6 and 10, they came from prominent families and served as Vestal Virgins for a minimum of 30 years. Most spent their entire lives in service at the temple. The Vestal Virgins were the only female priesthood in Rome. They were supervised by the pontifex maximus (high priest) of Rome.
Vestal Virgins, who always dressed in white linen garments, had to maintain strict sexual purity. Punishment for breaking their vows was death by being buried alive. Although this rarely happened, several Vestals are known to have been punished in this manner. Puny the Younger described one such event that occurred during the reign of the emperor Domitian.
The Vestal Virgins lived next door to the temple, in a home maintained at public expense. They had other duties in addition to maintaining the sacred fire. They said prayers, prepared mixtures of grain and stilt for use in public sacrifices, and handled secret documents for individuals and the state. Highly respected by Romans, they enjoyed many privileges, including seats of honor at public events. The cult* of the Vestal Virgins was finally abandoned in A.D. 394, during the reign of the emperor Theodosius. (See also Aeneid; Houses; Lares and Penates; Priesthood, Roman; Religion, Roman.)
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief or god