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This webpage reproduces part of
The Roman Forum — Its History and Its Monuments

by Christian Hülsen

published by Ermanno Loescher & Co
Publishers to H. M. the Queen of Italy
1906

Text, maps, and black-and‑white images
are in the public domain.
Color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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p192 XXXIII. The House of the Vestals

The dwelling house of the Vestals was roomy and splendid, but shut in like a cloister. It is generally called the Atrium Vestae, after its main feature, the large court surrounded by a portico. It was excavated in great part in 1883‑84, but the west wing not until 1901, after the demolition of S. Maria Liberatrice.


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Fig. 110. The Atrium Vestae.

The college of the Vestals consisted of six (in very late times of seven) priestesses, among whom there were probably always some who were still children. At the time of their admission into the college the Vestals were never younger than six, nor older than ten years of age. The pontifex maximus appointed them subject to the consent of their parents: they were compelled to endure for thirty years the strict convent life of the Atrium Vestae, to perform the wearisome service of guarding the sacred fire and fetching the holy water from the spring of the Camenae outside the Porta Capena (on the Via Appia), and to carry out oftentimes extremely complicated ritualistic acts in connection with many sacrifices and ceremonies. The penalties for the neglect of duty were very heavy: a Vestal who permitted the sacred fire to go out was beaten with rods by the pontifex maximus; if she had offended against the command of chastity, she was buried alive in the campus sceleratus near the Porta Collina (not far from the northern corner of the Ministry of Finance in the Via Venti Settembre). The service was so severe that in the course of time it became steadily more difficult to find the necessary candidates for the six positions — or more properly speaking, parents who offered their children for the task. The conditions of eligibility were accordingly made more and more easy: for example in the old days it is probable that only the daughters of patricians were allowed to serve Vesta, but in later times maidens from plebeian families were admitted, and finally under Augustus even the daughters of freedmen were declared p193eligible. At their reception they often received from the emperor a very considerable dowry: for example even the frugal Tiberius gave the Vestal Cornelia two million sesterces (500,000 fr.). The Vestals were not, like all other women, under the tutelage of the head of the family; instead they were allowed to govern their own property independently, to give testimony in court without the customary oath, etc.; their recommendation had great weight in the civil as well as in the military career; if they accidentally met a criminal being conveyed to his punishment, he was immediately pardoned; they had places of honour at the public games; when they went out into the city they were preceded by a lictor, before whom even the Consul gave way; they enjoyed the privilege, otherwise confined to the empresses, of driving inside the city limits; any injury to their person was punishable by death. — In spite of all this, it was extremely difficult in later times, as the church fathers are fond of telling us, to find the few maidens p194necessary for the service of Vesta, while the Christian cloisters were filled with consecrated virgins. In A.D. 382, Gratianus appropriated the property of the Vestals; the house was then used as a residence first for the imperial and later for the papal officials. After the eleventh century it was abandoned.

That which has been preserved above the surface of the ground belongs to the building of the empire, and even the oldest parts of it do not go back before the first century A.D. Of older constructions only scanty remains have been found, about three feet below the level of the great central court: they consist mostly of pavements of small fragments of white and particoloured marble, with an orientation which corresponds to that of the "old Regia" (see above p185). The older house of the Vestals was naturally of more modest dimensions than that of the empire: near this old house at the foot of the slope of the Palatine and the Nova Via lay a holy grove (lucus Vestae), which gradually disappeared and was covered by the new buildings of the empire.

In the house of the Vestals one can distinguish three groups of rooms, which arose in three different periods. The oldest part (marked in black in figure 113) east of the Atrium, contains offices, and dates probably from the first century A.D.; in the south and west wings (indicated by dark shading in fig. 113), which are probably younger (middle of the II. century A.D.), lie the living rooms; and the north wing (indicated by light shading in fig. 113), which dates probably from the reconstruction of Septimius Severus, contains for the most part rooms of minor importance.


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Fig. 111. The temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestals.

The great court (Atrium or Peristylium) probably received its present shape in the alterations carried out in the time of Severus. The various buildings which surrounded the court differed in regard to the height p196of their stories; in order to conceal these differences, the court itself was surrounded by a portico consisting of two rows of columns, one above the other, but without any intermediate flooring. The shafts of the columns in the lower row are of cipollino, those in the upper row of breccia corallina with red veinings. Running lengthwise in the court are several long water-basins (the parts of the walls projecting above the ground are a modern restoration) which probably belong to the restoration by Severus. The largest of these basins (d) must have been already filled in at the time when the octagonal structure in the centre of the court was erected. The foundations of this structure, consisting of great brick tiles, are still clearly visible. It was probably a sort of garden, and served as a reminder of the grove, the Lucus Vestae, which had disappeared. The stamps on the bricks in this octagon show that it dates from the time after Diocletian.

The chief decoration of the court consisted in the statues of the Head-Vestals (virgines Vestales maximae), which stood in the portico and were accompanied by inscriptions on the bases, celebrating the virtues and the merits of each person portrayed. Only one solitary (fragmentary) inscription was found in its original place (at the west-west corner, near e): most of the bases and statues were discovered at the close of 1883, at the west end of the Atrium. They were heaped up in such shape that it is clear they were intended to be thrown into a mediaeval lime-kiln. The stones containing the inscriptions lay flat upon the ground, upon them rested the torsos of the statues, and the arms, hands, feet, and all projecting parts had been hacked off, and the fragments used to fill up the spaces between the statues. On this account it is not possible to connect a single one of the inscriptions with its original statue. With p197one exception (Praetextata Crassi filia, a small base, at present on the north side) the inscriptions belong to the time after Severus. The Head-Vestals whose names we know from these monuments and from those previously found in the Atrium are:

  Numisia Maximilla 201 A.D.

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Fig. 112. Vestal Virgin.
  Terentia Flavola 209, 213, 215
* Campia Severina 240.
* Flavia Mamilia 242.
  Flavia Publicia 247, 257.
  Coelia Claudiana 286.
* Terentia Rufilla 300, 301.
  C . . . . . 364.
* Coelia Concordia 384.

The statues show the Head-Vestals (and apparently they alone, and not the ordinary Vestals, possessed the privilege of having their statues erected) in their official costume. Above the under-garment (stola) is a sort of mantle (pallium), both of white wool; the front of the head is bare, the rest is covered by a square cloth (suffibulum) held together by a brooch (fibula). Under the front border of this cloth may be seen the characteristic arrangement of the hair, the six braids (seni crines): namely a sort of cap of hair (probably not their own) arranged in six braids, each wound with black and red woolen thread. This old-fashioned and uncomfortable coiffure (which however, in connection with the sacred fire, served at least this good purpose, that it protected the hair from the heat) had to be worn by the Vestals as long as they lived, while the rest of women of Rome wore it only on their marriage day "for the sake of the good omen — because the bride p198should keep her vow of good faith toward her husband just as unbroken as the priestess her vow toward the goddess". — The best preserved of the statues in the Atrium shows on the breast marks of a Byzantine necklace (chain and medallion): this was not a part of the official costume proper, but seems to have been an extraordinary decoration given by the Emperor. Among the other statues in the court one is worthy of notice, that of a man (an emperor?) with a beard cut out of a separate piece of marble; other statues, among them those of the Vestals which are most important from the artistic standpoint (see fig. 112), have been taken to the National Museum.


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Fig. 113. Plan of the Atrium Vestae.

The north wing of the house is so badly destroyed that nothing definite can be ascertained in regard to the use of the rooms individually. In the room at the east end (f), a square altar was found under the surface of the ground; it was built of ashes and the remains of sacrifices, and its orientation agrees with that of the older constructions already referred to. The adjacent room (g), with niches in the walls, seems to have been an open court (a summer triclinium?). In front of the entrance (near h) stands a marble base with the inscription: Flaviae L(uci) f(iliae) Publiciae, religiosae sanctitatis v(irgini) V(estali) max(imae), cuius egregiam morum disciplinam et in sacris peritissimam operationem merito in dies respublica feliciter sentit, Ulpius Verus et Aur(elius) Titus (centuriones) deputati ob eximiam eius erga se benivolentiam g(rati) p(osuerunt). According to this the statue was erected in honour of the Head-Vestal, Flavia Publicia, whose conspicuous morality and great knowledge of all holy rites had been constantly of benefit to the State (the same priestess is mentioned in another inscription, where we read that "she well deserved to arrive at her high position, because she p199had passed through all the stages in the priesthood, serving at the altars of all the gods, and piously watching night and day by the holy fire"). The statue was dedicated by two centuriones deputati (officials, not unlike the couriers of modern embassies, who served as the means of communication between the governors of provinces and the central power at Rome), and was a token p200of their gratitude for her favour, because of which they had received an advancement or some honorable recognition (petito eius ornatus is the phrase used in a similar inscription dedicated to Campia Severina by a tribunus cohortis).

The east wing dates possibly from the time before the fire in the reign of Nero: no stamped bricks have been found in the walls. We ascend four steps into a room (the so‑called tablinum) which was originally roofed over by a barrel-vault; the pavement of variegated marble has been roughly patched up at a late period. On each side of this room three small rooms (i, fig. 113, at present used as a storehouse for fragments of sculpture etc.), open off. These rooms have been wrongly explained as the bedrooms of the six priestesses. Since however their number six is scarcely accidental, the suggestion may be made that these little rooms formed a sort of sacristy, and that one of them was assigned to each Vestal that she might keep here her sacred implements etc. Near these rooms is an open court (k, with a fountain adorned with niches, which was probably used for house-keeping purposes (it is shut at present). In the cellar-like vault in the north wall many pottery vases, some of them of archaic form, have been dug up.

In the south wing a corridor runs in front of the rooms. The first rooms have been very much altered by walls which were built into them at a late period. It has been suggested that the first of the rooms (l) was a bakery; the second (m) contains a well-preserved mill of lava. In both these rooms the floor is elevated about 30 inches above the level of the corridor. A similar construction is to be seen in the fourth room (n), where on top of the original pavement a later one supported on small brick pillars has been laid, to keep out the dampness. A brick pavement at a similar height p202existed until 1899 in the fifth room (o) too: when it was removed a beautiful mosaicº pavement of marble, dating from about the second century, was discovered underneath.

Near this room a stairway leads to the upper parts of the house (mostly shut off), which contained chiefly the dwelling rooms. We enter a corridor with several bathrooms on the right. The heating apparatus is plainly visible; the openings of the stoves are to be seen in a small corridor to the rear. Proceeding farther, past a fountain covered with marble, we reach several rooms near and behind the tablinum, and enjoy a good view of the house itself, as well as of the Sacra Via and the Basilica of Constantine. A staircase which led up to the story above is still partly preserved: inasmuch as we are now on the third floor (including the mezzanino above the ground floor), the house had certainly four stories, and probably, at least on the side toward the Palatine, five. It afforded accommodation accordingly not only for the six priestesses but also for a large body of servants. Returning to the staircase (to the left, near p fig. 113, is an exit onto the Nova Via), we descend to the ground-floor.

Proceeding further in the south wing (through the door q) we again reach the corridor at a point where there are remains of a beautiful marble pavement; adjacent is a room (r) with a raised pavement and a wall built in parallel to the rear wall, both for the purpose of keeping out the dampness; near the wall opposite the entrance is a hexagonal base with a honorary inscription for Flavia Publicia. Farther on is a room in which under the ugly brick pavement of a late period a beautiful floor of giallo, Portasanta, pavonazzetto etc. was found. A door in the farther corner of this room (near s) leads into a corridor, beneath the pavement of which, p203in a drain, in 1899, 397 gold coins of the late empire were found. The great majority of these coins come from the time of the emperor Anthemius (467‑472; 345 of the coins bear his portrait, 10 of them the portrait of his wife Euphemia): accordingly the treasure was probably buried by some official of the imperial court who was living in the house of the Vestals in A.D. 472, when the hordes of Ricimer conquered and plundered Rome. The coins are now in the National Museum.

At the end of the south wing two stairways lead to the upper story: in the wall of the little vestibule at the foot of the stairs (near t) is a small niche for the statue of a god. Adjacent is a room with an apse (u), the marble pavement of which has been very roughly patched together at a late period.

In the north-west corner of the court (near v) are three large marble bases which were excavated here in 1883. They were built into a little mediaeval house; under the brick pavement of a room a terracotta vase was found containing 835 coins, 830 of which were Anglo-Saxon (King Alfred the Great, 871‑000; Edward I, 900‑924; Athelstan, 924‑940 [most of the coins were of these three kings]; Edmund I, 940‑946; besides some archbishops of Canterbury etc.) — in other words a "Peter's pence", such as was often sent to Rome in the eighth century by the converted Britons. Together with the coins lay a silver pin with the inscription Domno Marino papa: the badge of an official in the court of Pope Marinus II (942‑946) who, possibly at the time of one of the numerous inroads of the Saracens,a had buried in his house the treasure entrusted to him. These coins too are now in the National Museum.

According to its inscription, the marble base which is near the exit originally supported a statue erected by the college of the p204Pontifices, under the direction of the Pontifex Maximus Macrinius Sossianus, in honour of a Head-Vestal "on account of her marvellous knowledge of sacrifices and holy usages". The name of the priestess has been carefully erased so that only the first letter C can be recognized. The question arises what can have been the reason for this memoriae damnatio. The date of the erection of the statue, marked on the right side of the stone (June 9, A.D. 365 "in the consulship of Divus Jovianus [the successor of Julian the Apostate; reigned eight months] and Varronianus"), brings us into a period when the followers of Paganism were trying energetically to quicken into life again the worship of the old gods (see above p24), and when the battle between the Pagan party and the Christian party was waged with especial fierceness. It is quite unthinkable that at this time a Vestal should have been condemned on account of some serious immorality, and that the matter should have been passed over in absolute silence in our abundant contemporary sources. It is accordingly much more likely that the Vestal of her own will withdrew from the college. The poet Prudentius (in the time of Theodosius), extolling the triumph of Christianity, says:º "the pontifex lays aside his fillet and takes the cross, and the Vestal Claudia enters thy sanctuary, Laurentius (vittatus olim pontifex adscitur in signum crucis aedemque Laurenti tuam Vestalis intrat Claudia). It is a very plausible suggestion therefore that this Claudia later became a Christian, possibly a nun in a cloister near S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura. This would naturally cause the pontifices to erase her name from the honorary statue.

Returning through the door c (at the right near the stairway are the remains of a room with heating apparatus under the floor) we pass to the left behind the temple, where near w is the entrance to the kitchen, store-closet etc., which at present are not directly accessible from the court. We pass through a vestibule into the kitchen with its large hearth; behind it is a storage-vault y (shut), in which numerous amphorae, plates, cooking and storage-vessels, and a large water-can p205of lead were found. In one of the pots was a charred but well-preserved piece of pastry.

The rooms at the rear of the north wing (zzz), belong to the house of the Vestals in so far as their ground-plan and their manner of construction are concerned; they are how entirely shut off from the other rooms. Possibly they were rented, at least the lower floor, as shops (tabernae), like the others on the Sacra Via. Under the brick walls of the time of the empire have been found numerous remains of older constructions of tufa and travertine (walls with remains of frescoes, pavements of small bits of white marble, engaged columns with bases, a large gutter-drain of tufa etc.). The orientation of these remains corresponds to that of the Regia and of the older ruins under the courtyard of the house of the Vestals.


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