After twenty years, Rome has reopened the House of the Vestal Virgins, remains of an ancient Roman palace flanking ruins of the imperial seat of government in the Roman Forum.
In the picture above: The Courtyard of the House of the Vestal Virgins (Roman Forum, Rome) as it appears today and in an imaginary reconstruction.
(ANSA) - Rome, January 27 - After twenty years, Rome has reopened the House of the Vestal Virgins, the remains of an ancient Roman palace flanking ruins of the imperial seat of government in the Roman Forum. On Thursday, a ceremony was held to reveal the major renovations to the structure, with the opening of a new visitors' route through the ruins called Via Nova, which traverses the northwest slope of the Palatine Hill and overlooks the Forum and ends at the Atrium Vestae, or ancient palace.
The configuration of Via Nova is believed to date back to urban planning made in the wake of a blaze that razed much of Rome in 64 AD, but may be older. More than 4,000 meters were refurbished along the route, of which the Atrium Vestae occupies 1,568 square meters.
Work focused on restoring the structural stability and integrity of the ruins. The Atrium Vestae was once a 50-room palace built around an elegant, rectangular garden, decorated with statues and two pools. It housed the priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, who were entrusted with keeping a flame eternally lit in the Temple of Vesta, located next door. The high priestess selected six initiates between the ages of six and 10 from Roman patrician families.
Physical perfection was an important criterion.
The girls took vows of chastity and served the Cult of Vesta for 30 years.
Vestal priestesses were revered, lived in luxury and relative independence, and were free from obligations to marry and rear children.
At the end of their 30-year service, they could choose whether to marry or remain with the cult.
The renovation and reopening of the House of the Vestal Virgins was conducted as part of a larger program for the rehabilitation of the Roman Forum, funded with 19 million Euros from private and public funds, according to Rome councilor Dino Gasperini.
Gasperini called the opening of Via Nova and the House of the Vestal Virgins "a goal that waited too many years."
"It is another place that has been returned to the city and to tourists who come to Rome to admire the archeology," said Culture Undersecretary Francesco Giro.
THE HOUSE OF THE VESTAL VIRGINS
(WIKIPEDIA) The House of the Vestal Virgins (Latin: Atrium Vestae) was the place where Vestal Virgins lived. It was located just behind their circular Temple of Vesta at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum, between the Regia and thePalatine Hill, in Rome. The domus publicae where the Pontifex Maximus dwelled, was located near the Atrium until that role was taken up by the emperors.
The Atrium Vestae was a three-story 50-room palace in the ancient Roman Forum built around an elegant elongated atrium or court with a double pool. To the very east is an open vaulted hall with a statue of Numa Pompilius, the mythological founder of the cult. Today, remains of the statues of the Vestals can be seen in theAtrium Vestae.
The complex lay at the foot of the Palatine Hill, where a sacred grove that was slowly encroached upon lingered into Imperial times, when all was swept away by the Fire of Rome in 64. The House of the Vestals was rebuilt several times in the course of the Empire.
The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum as it appears today
and in a ancient bas-relief
THE VESTAL VIRGINS
(UNRV) The priestesses of the goddess Vesta were known as the Vestal Virgins. They were responsible for maintaining the sacred fire within the Temple of Vesta on the Forum Romanum. Other duties included performing rituals in regards to the Goddess Vesta, and baking the sacred salt cake to be used at numerous ceremonies in the year. They were the only female priests within the roman religious system. The head of the college of Vesta was called the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, and she was under the direct authority of the Pontifex Maximus.
The college of Vesta had 18 members, though 6 were considered actual Vestal Virgins at any given time. They were selected from distinguished patrician families at an age from three to ten, and such appointments were considered a top honor for any family to receive. They each served thirty years, the first ten years as novices, then ten years as actual vestal virgins, and finally ten years as supervisors responsible for training the novices. After the thirty years of duty they were released from their duties and could then maintain a private life, including the right to marry. For men, arranging a marriage with a former vestal virgin was highly prestigious, regardless of age or the ability to have children.
The vestals vowed to live in chastity for the thirty years their tenure lasted. In return they were allowed many privileges not given to ordinary Roman women. As one example, the vestals were not subject to the pater potestas of their fathers. Essentially they were allowed to handle their own properties and engage in legal contracts, they were allowed to travel around the city in a carriage and they had special seats in the front row at the various games, where, in contrast women were normally relegated to the back seats. They were considered inviolable and sacred and their blood could not be spilt without fear of terrible repercussion from the gods. So sacred and divine-like were these priestesses, that if a person sentenced to death met a vestal virgin on his way to the execution, he would be automatically pardoned. Of course, special care would be taken to prevent or to make sure this would happen, depending on the circumstances.
While enjoying many benefits, including a rather luxurious life in the House of Vestal Virgins, punishment for breaking the rules were severe. The punishment for breaking the vow of chastity was death by burial alive as this was the adopted to kill a vestal without shedding her blood. Such executions would take place in the "Evil Fields", or Campus Sceleratus, just outside the Servian Wall. Their lover would be flogged to death on the Comitium. While these executions took place several times, it was obviously a rare event that carried all sorts of negative omens with it.
While the Pontifex Maximus continues to the present day as an office of the higher order in the Catholic Church, the order of the vestals was disbanded in 394 AD, when non-Christian cults were banned by Theodosius. The Church, wisely trying to keep the general population with a sense of familiarity, readily adopted the use of convents and position of nuns that held many of the same rules and customs as the Vestals.