Evidence for the building history of the home of the Vestal Virgins exists today principally in the remains of its final restoration in the early 3rd century CE under the Emperor Septimius Severus and the Empress Julia Domna (c. 170-218 CE); a rare aureus coin commemorates Julia Domna for the reconstruction of the Vestal residence which was destroyed by fire in 191 CE during the reign of the Emperor Commodus. Excavation of the site suggests six stages in the development of the building (Platner 204-6). Although the oldest foundation stones date from the 6th century BCE (the original tufa blocks were reused in the reconstruction after a fire in the 3rd century BCE), recent excavations have revealed traces of a wood and straw hut dating to the mid-8th century BCE, perhaps the earliest home of the priestesses (see model of an early Latin house on the Palatine). After the destruction of the Vestal's residence in the great fire of 64 BCE under the Emperor Nero, it was redesigned and reoriented against the Palatine hillside. This building was also damaged by fire and restored by the Emperor Domitian. In their role as Pontifex Maximus, succeessive emperors enhanced the Atrium: the Emperor Hadrian added rooms and the Antonine emperors erected at least one additional floor. Despite its size (building footprint: approx. 377 feet x 174 feet), heated walls and floors, and once-luxurious decorations, the House of the Vestals was a damp and sunless home, set as it was against the Palatine Hill and 30 feet below the Via Nova, facing north and shadowed by the lofty imperial palace above.
The Area Vestae is located in the heart of the Roman Forum, between the Via Sacra on the north and the upper Via Nova on the south, the Vicus Vestae on the west and a lane on the east side leading up to the Palatine. The complex faced the Via Sacra with an attached portico and shops (see drawing and Atrium Plan, #13 and 14). The residence seems large for only six priestesses, but it included reception rooms, storerooms, a bath complex and workrooms, as well as apartments for each Vestal, her slaves and servants (see Atrium key). In addition, until Augustus moved the home of the Pontifex Maximus to his palace on the Palatine hill in 12 BCE after his election to the office, his living quarters, the Domus Publica, were traditionally part of the Vestal residence (the Regia, a nearby dedicated sacred space from the time of the Kings, remained his official headquarters as chief priest of the pontifical colleges).
Aedicula: the small (approx. 10 feet x 6.5 feet) two-columned structure at the corner of the Vicus Vestae behind the Temple of Vesta and to the right of the entrance to the Vestal Residence (#2 on the Atrium Plan) may have been a shrine of the Lares Compitales in which there was a statue (Lanciani, 224-6 suggests Mercury; others, the goddess Vesta). The entablature frieze contains a two-line inscription in Roman capitals of the Hadrianic period (c. 120 CE) that testifies to its maintenance at public expense: SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANV[s] / PECVNIA PVBLICA FACIENDAM CVRAVIT.
Aedes Vestae: The Temple of Vesta (virtual recreation; 1st century CE marble relief) is situated in the northeast corner of the Area Vestae, where the earliest traces of building are to be found. Originally built by Numa as a round wood hut with a thatched straw roof (see Ovid, Fasti 6.257-268), it was destroyed by the Gallic invasion of 390 BCE and again by fire in 241 BCE when L. Caecilius Metellus was Pontifex Maximus (see Ovid, June 9: the Vestalia, in Fasti 6.349-394 and 437-458). Despite the evidence on coins (denarius of Nero, 64-68 CE, aureus of Vespasian, 73 CE), the Temple contained no image of the goddess Vesta (see Ovid, Fasti 6.295-298). By tradition the temple was the repository, among other sacred objects, of the Palladium, the ancient statue of Athena that Aeneas brought from Troy along with his household gods (see Fasti 6.417-458). Sharing its re-building history with the Atrium (see historical events), the Temple's last recorded reconstruction was carried out under the Emperor Septimius Severus by his wife Julia Domna (commemorative sestertius). In 394 CE Theodosius I closed the gates and extinguished its sacred fire, but the building survived almost intact until its discovery in 1489, not long after which it came to be dismantled for its materials.
Sources: S. B. Platner (1911), Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome 204-210, R. Lanciani (1897), The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome 224-232, A. Claridge (1998), Oxford Archaeological Guides, 100-104, F. Coarelli (2007), Rome and Environs, 84-89; see also Vesta, Aedes and Atrium Vestae in Digital Roman Forum and Rome Reborn.
During the late 1st century CE the interior courtyard was enlarged with a roofed two-story portico. It was surrounded on four sides by rooms: on the south side by the residence building, on the north side by tabernae facing outward onto the Via Sacra, on the west side by rooms associated with the Temple of Vesta, and on the east side by a great hall (see image above and Atrium Plan). The large barrel-vaulted hall (approx. 39 feet x 26 feet) whose function is unclear interrupted the eastern portico and was raised three steps above the court yard, its entry flanked by two columns; it contained three small rooms on each side, tempting scholars to conjecture they were for each of the six Vestals. The open central area (approx. 197 feet x 49 feet) contained three paved basins and plantings. The surrounding portico consisted of a colonnade of 48 Corinthian columns on each floor, only two of which remain from the upper floor. The corridor formed by the roofed colonnade on the ground floor, of which only fragments and Travertine marble bases remain, contained along its back wall life-size portrait statues of the Virgines Vestales Maximae on inscribed pedestals .
The statues now placed around the perimeter of the courtyard were discovered in the late 19th century, in a pile at the west end of the courtyard, where they had been placed for ultimate destruction by stonecutters and lime makers. Not all the surviving statues of the Virgines Vestales Maximae that once stood in the the Atrium courtyard are to be found there today; several are no longer on display anywhere (a notable example is this elegant sculpture once exhibited in the Baths of Diocletian museum). These statues give evidence of aspects of dress attributed to the Vestals, but with no indication of color. In her 1908 article "The Value of the Vestal Statues as Originals" (American Journal of Archaeology 12.3324-342), Esther Boise van Deman observes that there are four "insignia of their priestly office" --not all present in every extant statue -- that are proof of Vestal identity: seni crines, infula and vittae, veil, and suffibulum (341). While their distinctive hairstyle, the seni crines, which we are told they share with brides, set the Vestals apart, extant images of brides and Vestals do not give a clear picture of this arrangement (see a video interpretation). The Vestal headdress is indeed distinctive: her head is wrapped in an infula, a strand of white wool, with at least five turns, its ends hanging in loops (vittae) to her shoulders. She is covered in a voluminous palla, which is sometimes drawn up over her head. She wears a floor-length tunic (some see evidence of the matronal jumper, the stola) that is belted, like the bride's, with a Hercules knot. One statue of a Chief Vestal, no longer in the Atrium, displays over her headress the suffibulum, a short white veil with a purple border, fastened with a fibula, that Vestals wore during rituals. See Deman's article for an analysis of the statues as copies of various Greek originals.
Placed in a dump in the courtyard near the Temple of Vesta, the inscribed marble statue bases were destined for the same fate as the Vestal statues. Although they no longer identify the chief priestesses with which they are now paired, they are valuable in that they name and sometimes preserve the dates and associations of late classical women who attained the eminence of Virgo Vestalis Maxima. The originals or copies of 36 bases survive (28 were found in the Atrium, 2 on the Palatine, and 6 elsewhere in Rome); it is not known how many monuments once stood here, as several Maximae received more than one.
Scroll down to view images and transcriptions of five monuments from the Atrium courtyard, chosen for their straightforward testimony.
PRAETEXTATAE CRASSI FIL[iae]
V[irgini] V[estali] MAXIMAE
C[aius] IVLIVS CRETICVS
NVMISIAE L[uci] F[iliae]
V[irgini] V[estali] MAXIMAE
C[aius] HELVIDIVS MYSTICVS
DEVOTVS BENEFICIIS EIVS
V[irgini] V[estali] MAXIMA[e]
[ / / / / / /]
TERENTIAE / FLAVOLAE
V[irgini] V[estali] MAX[imae]
T[itus] FL[avius] APRONIVS
FICTOR V[irginum] V[estalium]
For additional Companion texts about the Vestals, see Occia (Tacitus'Annales), Postumia and Tarpeia (Livy's Ab Urbe Condita), Virgo Vestae (Gellius' Noctes Atticae). For further information on the cult, consult Parker (2004), Staples (1998), Takacs (2008), and Wildfang (2006) in the Bibliography.
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