House of the Vestals

By the Editors of the Madain Project

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The House of the Vestals (Casa delle Vestali) was an ancient residential complex, adjacent to the circular temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum, where the Vestal priestesses resided. The house of the Vestal virgins occupied an area of some three square meters. It was located behind the circular Temple of Vesta at the eastern edge of the Roman Forum, between the Regia and the Palatine Hill. The domus publica, where the Pontifex Maximus resided, near the Atrium until that role was assumed by the emperors.

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The house of the Vestals is located next to the temple of Vesta, along the Via Nova. Together with the adjacent structures of a cult-shrine or aedicula and the round temple of Vesta the house formed a single complex called the Atrium Vestae.

The priestly order of Vestals is thought to date back to the periods of Romulus or Numa (circa eighth - seventh centuries BCE). The priestesses had to be young arisocratic virgins, and were chosen by the Pontifex Maximus when they were between the ages of six and ten. Their service as priestess lasted for thirty years, which brought them wealth and extreme privilage, but also required chastity and observation of rituals. The Vestal Virgins kept the public fire alight that burned in the adjacent temple of Vesta. They also looked after sacred objects and clelebrated annual festivals. On these occasions the vestals prepared a mola salsa, a mixture of flour and salt, which was sprinkled on sacrificial victims.

The Atrium Vestae complex was brought to light during the 1882-1884 CE excavations conducted by Rodolfo Lanciani. In particular, the rooms, now open to the public, were found following the removal of the large outer wall of the Orti Farnesiani (Farnesian Gardens) and the layers of soil, up to twenty meters thick overlying the ancient floor level. Immediately after its discovery, work began on the arrangement of the structures and the stone remains found, some of which, subsequently exhibited in the antiquarium of the Forum, are now on display in the south east sector, after careful conservation work between 2013 and 2020 CE. Recent archaeological investigations ahve made it possible to acquire new information about the events affecting the architectural complex.

The discovery of natural soil immediately below the imperial pavements confirms that the east side of the atrium to the south of the ancient Via Nova, before the renovations during the reign of emperor Nero following the fire of 64 CE, was probably covered by the sacred wood, the Lucus Vestae. Some masonry structures found during the most recent investigations in the south-east sector can be ascrived to the Neronian-Flavian phases of construction, both correspond with the so-called mezzanine level and on the ground floor. These were subsequently incorporated in to the Trajanian structures dating from around 110 until 113 CE. In the Trajanian phase of the reconstructionm the interiors on the ground floor must havehad residential and representative functions. Basically until at least the fourth century CE the lower floor remained almost unchanged.


circa 65-400 CE

Before the 64 CE Fire
Before the great fire of Rome during the reign of emperor Nero the house of the vestals had a different shape, size, floor plan and orientation. The oldest surviving structure dates back to the sixth century BCE. During the third century BCE it was rebuilt in tuff block, and redesigned in the late early Republic Empire period. Recent excavations have revealed a hut dating back to the mid eighth century BCE. This may have been the earliest home of the priestesses.

Here, beneath the imperial paving with its chambers for the heating system, the remains of walls and mosaics of the Republian period House of the Vestal Virgins was discovered during excavations.

After the 64 CE Great Fire of Rome
The current structure dates back to the periods of emperors Nero, Trajan and Septimius Severus, until emperor Theodosius I ordered it to be abandoned. Current plan of the residential rectangular building is the result of various rebuilsings and reconstructions during these periods. The House of the Vestal Virgins was originally reconstructed in brick-face after the great fire of Rome during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 CE.

The House of the Vestals included several bedrooms chamber, reception halls with heating systems and marble paving and service areas such as kitchens and a mill. These were arranged on several levels (floors) around an arcaded courtyard (atrium) which was decorated with fountains, a double pool, and statues [see N1] of the notable vestals of the past.

After the Advent of Christianity
Following the disbandment of the College of the Vestals in the late fourth century CE, the House of the Vestals underwent a transformation into a residence. It became the abode for officials of both the imperial and later, the papal court. Noteworthy archaeological discoveries from this era include a collection of 397 gold coins from the fifth century CE, as well as an additional 830 Anglo-Saxon coins dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries CE. The site fell into disrepaid and was abandoned entirely during the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.

Related Structures

circa 130 CE

Cult or the Street Shrine
Also called the aedicula, it was most likely a "public shrine" situated where the Via Sacra (the Sacred Way) intersects a small road, called the Vicus Vestae. Probably dedicated to the Lares Praestites (the spirits that protected the city of Rome), it was a compitum (a cross-roads shrine), placed at intersections of streets. The Senate ordered the construction of the shrine using public funds during Hadrian's reign, and it is located in the Roman Forum in Rome. This can be inferred from the brick stamps.

circa 191 CE

Temple of Vesta
Partially reconstructed in the twentieth century CE, the temple of Vesta (Tempio di Vesta) is linked to one of the Rome's most ancient and most important cults. Here the Vestals Virgins tended the sacred fire which was to burn perpetually as a symbol of city's life force. Men, with the exception of Pontifex Maximus, were severly prohibited from entering the temple. Today all that remains of the temple is the podium on which the collumns stood; the circular monument was reconstructed on several occassions. The current remains date to the period of Septimius Severus, who restored the building after the fire in 191 CE.

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