The discovery of the House of the Vestals, at the foot of the Palatine hill, has supplied the friends and admirers of old Rome with a new and fascinating subject of inquiry. After toiling so long over ground searched and pillaged many a time before, with no prospect or hope of surprising discoveries, our perseverance in excavating the Roman forum and its vicinity has at last been splendidly rewarded. The discovery of the Atrium Vestae (the official denomination of the convent) settles at once all controversy concerning the topography of this famous district of ancient Rome; and this scientific achievement has been accompanied by no less important material results. Between the middle of December, 1883, and the end of the following January, we brought to light fifteen marble pedestals, with eulogistic inscriptions describing the life of the Vestales Maximae (the official title of the elder Vestals, or high-priestesses of Vesta); five inscriptions relating to historical subjects; eleven life-size statues; nine important fragments of statues; twenty-seven busts and portrait heads; eight hundred and thirty-four silver coins; one gold coin; two pieces of jewelry; several columns of breccia coralina and of breccia di Egitto, which rank among the finest specimens of antique marbles; besides many other fragments, which, in a less promising land, would be regarded as a treasure by themselves.
In my long experience and practice of archaeological research
p135 and literature, never have I met with a subject more delightful and interesting. Historical accounts of this lovely sisterhood have a charm of their own, which we fail to recognize in other Roman religious corporations. In speaking of the Vestal Virgins, in describing their house, — the secrets of which, from the foundation of Rome to the fall of the Empire, were never revealed to mankind, — it is impossible not to give the reins to imagination and sentiment. Let us recall to life the silent ruins; let us vivify these halls, these porticoes, with the presence of maidens clad in snow-white garments, which reflected, as it were, the purity of their minds and souls; in the very prime of beauty, youth, and strength; daughters of the noblest families; depositaries of state secrets, confidants of the imperial household, and faithful keepers of the sacred tokens of the Roman Commonwealth. The very faults committed by a few Vestals in the lapse of eleven centuries, and the penalties they underwent to expiate their shame, quivering under the bloody rod of the high-priest, or breathing their last breath in the solitude of the tomb, in which they had been buried alive, — these sins and these expiations, I say, deeply affect the minds of those who have selected it as a special subject of investigation.
The origin of the worship of Vesta is very simple. In prehistoric times, when fire could be obtained only from the friction of two sticks of dry wood, or from sparks of flint, every village kept a public fire burning day and night, in a central hut, at the disposition of each family. The care of watching the precious element was intrusted to young girls, but girls, as a rule, did not follow their parents and brothers to the far-away pasture-grounds, and p136 did not share with them the fatigues of hunting or fishing expeditions. In course of time, however, this simple practice became a kind of sacred institution, especially at Alba Longa, the mother country of Rome; and when a large party of Alban shepherds fled from the volcanic eruptions of the Alban craters into the plain below, and settled on the marshy banks of the Tiber, they followed, naturally, the institutions of the mother country, and the worship of Vesta — represented by the public fire and the girls attending to it — was duly organized at the foot of the Palatine hill, on the borders of the market-place (forum).
We possess many models of prehistoric huts and temples, made by the very people who inhabited or built them. I speak of the terra-cotta hand-made and sun-dried cinerary urns (called by Lubbock hut-urns), discovered for the first time in 1817, in the cemetery of Alba Longa. On page 29 is the drawing of one, from the Vatican collections, which may be taken as representing exactly the shape and appearance of the original temple of Vesta.
No girl under six, no girl above ten, years of age could be chosen as a priestess of the sacred fire. It was necessary, besides, that both her parents should be living, both of free condition, both irreproachable in public and in private life. In the election described by Tacitus (Ann. II. 86), which took place in A.D. 19, and in which the noble daughters of Domitius Pollio and Fonteius Agrippa stood as candidates, the Senate gave the preference to the former, because there had been some kind of misunderstanding between Fonteius Agrippa and his wife, and this misunderstanding of the parents was thought by the Senators to make the little girl less acceptable to the goddess.
The number of the Vestals was limited to six; no new election could take place, unless a vacancy was caused by the death of one of the sisters. Among the many documents which certify this particular, I cite one only, the well-known medallion of Julia Domna, showing the six Vestals sacrificing before the shrine of their goddess, which had just been rebuilt at the private expense of the empress.
As soon as the election was duly sanctioned, the virgin was shown into The Atrium Vestae, water the ceremony of inauguration took place. It began by cutting her hair, which was appended, as a votive offering, to the Lotus capillata, a tree which, when Pliny wrote his "Natural History," was more than five hundred years old. Next, the girl was clothed in white garments, and duly sworn to her sacred duties. And as everything was sweet and gentle in this worship of Vesta, the novice exchanged, for the time being, her own name for that of Amata, the beloved. The legal term of service was thirty years; after which, the Vestal, being between thirty-six and forty years of age, was free to return home, and even to marry. The trentennial service was divided into three periods of ten years each: in the first decade the novice was initiated into the mysteries of the place, and instructed by the senior sisters; in the second decade she practised her duties; in the third she taught the novices. The eldest among them was called p138 Maxima, and presided over the institution. On page 141 is the portrait-bust of an abbess, discovered in the Atrium on December 12, 1883, which gives a perfect idea of the monastic dress of that age.
Very few Vestals, however, took advantage of the permission given by law to leave the Atrium and reënter the wicked world, because the honors, the privileges, and the riches they enjoyed as Vestals far exceeded any conceivable advantage of worldly or married life.
In the first place, they were exceedingly wealthy: wealthy from the revenues of the order, which possessed a large amount of landed property; and also from special allowances made to each one of them by their families, or by the head of the state. When Cornelia was elected in Scantia's place, A.D. 24, Tiberius presented her with a sum corresponding to $87,705 (438,525 francs of our money). The same emperor gave 2,192,625 francs ($438,525) to the daughter of Fonteius Agrippa, as a consolation for the preference shown by the Senate for her successful rival, the daughter of Domitius Pollio.
The Vestals did not come under the dominion of the common law; they were not even subject to the authority of the censor. By the simple fact of their adoption into the order, they were at once delivered from the patria potestas, the paternal authority, and obtained the right of making their will (jus testamenti). The only annoyance they could encounter was that of being summoned as witnesses in state trials. Their presence made the wrong right, of course within certain limits. We are told by Suetonius of a curious instance of this wonderful power of a Vestal. One of Tiberius's ancestors, Appius Claudius, was possessed by the most violent desire of celebrating a triumph. His application having been negatived by the p139 majority of voters, instead of yielding to the popular decree, he induced his daughter, a member of the sisterhood, to take a seat in the triumphal chariot, and, under her protection, he succeeded in driving, undisturbed, up to the Capitol.
The seats of honor were reserved for the Vestals in the theatres, in the amphitheatre, and in the circus. The empress herself was obliged, by a decree of the Senate, dated A.D. 24, to sit among the Vestals, whenever se wished to appear in these public places of resort.
The right of driving in the streets of Rome must also be ranked among their most extraordinary privileges. Ladies generally used the lectica, or sedan-chair. The Vestals, on the contrary, had two kinds of carriages: the state carriage, called plostrum, or currus arcuatus, a heavy old-fashioned sort of vehicle, and the daily carriage, called by Prudentius molle pilentum. They drove out preceded by a lictor, and every one, even the consuls, was obliged to make room for them in their passage.
They owned a stable of their own, and therefore were not obliged to hire horses or carriages. This particular was revealed by a curious discovery. Every citizen, according to the Roman law, was subject to the collatio equorum, or compulsory seizure of horses, whenever the state was in need of them. Exceptions were made in favor of the imperial family, of high officers, of high priests, of diplomatic "couriers," and of the Vestals. In 1735, a bronze tablet was discovered in the farm of Prata-porcia, near Frascati, with the inscription: "[This horse belongs to] Calpurnia Praetextata, Abbess of the Vestals. [This horse is] exempt from compulsory drafting." Two more such tablets, from the stables of Flavia Publicia and Sossia, both Vestales Maximae, have been seen and described. The one found at p140 "Prata-porcia" proves that the farm belonged to the order, unless it was a private property of Calpurnia.
In state ceremonies, in the most solemn civil or religious moments, they performed important duties. On June 21, A.D. 71, when the first stone of the temple of Jupiter was laid by Vespasian on the Capitoline hill, the Vestals led the procession, surrounded by the sons and daughters of the aristocracy, and sprinkled with pure water the foundations of the new building.
Wills of emperors, secrets and documents of state, were intrusted to their care. Augustus, a few months before his death, placed in the hands of the abbess four documents, namely: his will, the directions for his funeral, the account of his life, and a description of the newly organized Empire.
In troubled times, in civil wars, in supreme emergencies of the Commonwealth, they were selected as ambassadresses, and even as umpires, to restore peace and tranquillity between the contending parties. During the terror of Sulla's proscriptions the life of Caesar was spared, tanks to the powerful request of the Vestals. When Messalina's infamies were discovered by Claudius, Vibidia, the venerable abbess, was asked to intercede in favor of the profligate culprit. On the approach of Vespasian's armies, Vitellius begged for a suspension on hostilities; the Vestal messengers did not succeed in stopping bloodshed, but were treated by the generals assembled in a council of war with special marks of consideration. The same mission was accomplished by them under Didius Julianus.
Any offence against their person was punished with death. Again, if a Vestal met by chance a criminal led to the scaffold, he was reprieved at once. Their influence in every branch of state administration is made evident by the p141 legends engraved on the pedestals discovered in the Atrium, which are shown on page 134. They are described in these marbles as women to whom no request could be denied. Aemilius Pardalus offered a statue to Campia Severina, an abbess of the third century, as a token of gratitude for having been knighted. Q. Veturius Callistratus was made superintendent of the imperial libraries, on the recommendation of the same lady. Ulpius Verus and Aurelius Titus were made captains of the army, thanks to Flavia Publicia, abbess A.D. 247. It appears from these and other instances, which it would be superfluous to quote, that all state departments, including that of war, were to a certain extent subject to these virgins.
The highest distinction conferred upon the Vestals was the right of interment within the walls of the city. The site of their burial-place is unknown; it will remain unknown, I presume, forever. This supposition is founded on the following fact. Among the thirty thousand p142 inscriptions discovered in Rome since the Renaissance, only one tombstone with the name of a Vestal (Clodia, the niece of C. Claudius, praetor •A.U.C. 698) has been found, and it was not found in situ. This dearth is at least singular, as the order is known to have flourished for more than eleven centuries. The Vestals, perhaps, like the nuns and the monks of the present day, had a common place of rest, a crypt, a columbaria, furnished with hundreds of loculi. With a magnificent event would be the discovery of such a place!
I have hitherto described the privileges of the Vestals, to prove how their moral, social, and material condition was far superior to that of married ladies, of matrons, or of maidens, even of the highest aristocracy. And what were the duties and obligations imposed upon them in exchange for so many advantages? Two only: to remain pure for thirty years, and to fulfil the rules of the order with the utmost care. The least deviation from the rules was punished with the rod; a breach of the vows was punished with death by starvation and strangulation.
Many and careful precautions were taken to prevent the virgins from falling into temptation. No man was allowed to approach the temple of Vesta at night; no man was allowed to step over the threshold of the Atrium upon any pretence. Even physicians were excluded, however urgent and needful their presence might be. In fact, no case of sickness was permitted to develop itself within this strongly protected citadel of chastity. As soon as the first symptom of a serious case of sickness made its appearance, the patient was removed from the Atrium, and put under the care of her parents, or else of a distinguished matron. The behavior of the attendant doctors was in each case closely watched.
p143 Although a place of honor was reserved for them in dramatic, gladiatorial, or racing performances, they were not admitted to the athletic fights, lest perchance the sight of those admirable plastic forms should cast a shade over the serene purity of their minds. Nero, according to Suetonius, broke this rule, and the Vestals were officially invited by him, in his double capacity of emperor and high-priest, to come and look at the athletes. The excuse he gave for this freak was that the Grecian priestesses of Ceres could freely taste of this forbidden fruit in the Olympian games. We know not whether Nero's invitation was accepted or refused by the Vestals; but we do know, as an actual fact, that from the time of Nero to the time of Domitian their conduct did not escape blame and suspicion. But this must be considered as an exception, as a passing shadow over the brilliant, pure fame of the sisterhood.
The pontifex maximus, to whose paternal care the sisterhood was subject, kept a vigilant eye over it, watching the slightest suspicious sign. Every detail of their life was reported to him by secret informers, chosen evidently among the female servants of the house. The Vestal Minucia was denounced to the pontiff (329 B.C.) by one of these spies, because she had been noticed to have a special regard for her personal appearance, propter mundiorem justo cultum.
One door only seems to have been left open to attack, — the door which afforded direct communication between the house of the Vestals and the house of the high-priests themselves. Through this opening the enemy appears, at very rare intervals, to have entered and stormed the place.
The fall of a Vestal was regarded as incest. The expiation was terrible. The unfortunate girl, as soon as the trial was over and the condemnation pronounced, was divested of the distinctive garments of the order, and p144 flogged by the judges themselves. Then the funeral procession was organized. The culprit, covered by a pall and lying the hearse, was brought through the Forum, the Long Street (Vicus longus), and the High Street (Alta Semita), to the Porta Collina, amidst the mourning and dejected crowd of her friends and relatives. Let us quote the thrilling account of an execution given by Plutarch: "The Vestal convicted of incest is buried alive in the neighborhood of the Porta Collina, under the Agger of Servius Tullius. Here is a crypt, small in size, with an opening in the vault, through which the ladder is lowered; it is furnished with a bed, an oil lamp, and a few scanty provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil. These provisions (in fact, a refinement of cruelty) are prepared because it would appear a sacrilege to condemn to starvation women formerly consecrated to the gods. The unfortunate culprit is brought here in a covered hearse, to which she is tied with leather straps, so that it is impossible that her sighs and lamentations should be heard by the attendant mourners. The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse; not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the while city is shaken with terror and sorrow. The hearse being brought to the edge of the opening, the executioner cuts the bands, and the high-priest mutters an inaudible prayer, and lifts up his arms towards the gods, before bidding the culprit good-bye. He follows and assists her to the top of the ladder, and turns back at the fatal instant of her disappearance. As soon as she reaches the bottom, the ladder is removed, p145 opening is sealed, and a large mass of earth is heaped upon the stone that seals it, until the top of the embankment is reached, and every trace of the execution made to disappear."
The exact spot of the crypt is described by Livy, near the gate (ad portam Collinam) on the paved road on the right (dextra via strata), and the place was called Campus Sceleratus. Comparing these precise indications with the present state of that quarter, the crypt must lie under the street named Via Goito, within a radius of some fifty yards from the east door of the Palazzo delle Finanze.
How many touching inspirations this sad end of the fallen Vestal has suggested to the poet, to the artist! I believe, however, that no creation of the pencil or of the p146 lyric pen can be compared with the splendid letter addressed by Pliny to Minucianus (IV. 11), in which he describes the last moments of one of Domitian's victims. This tyrant was determined to make his reign illustrious by the sacrifice of a Vestal. He found an accomplice named Celer, who impudently confessed a pretended crime with Cornelia, the very abbess of the Atrium. Whether there was any foundation for such an abominable accusation, one thing is certain: the trial directed and presided over by Domitian was just as great a crime as that imputed to Cornelia. The judges were not summoned to the Regia, the official seat of the ecclesiastical court of law, but to Domitian's private grounds at Albanum; and here the unfortunate abbess, without being heard, without being allowed to exculpate herself, was sentenced to death. "The priests and the executioner were despatched in great haste to drag their victim to the Campus Sceleratus. Raising her hands to Vesta and the immortal gods, she protested her innocence, and kept exclaiming, 'The emperor declares me guilty of incest, knowing that my prayers alone have given him victory, triumph, and an immortal name!' I do not know whether this was said sincerely or ironically; to mitigate the fury of the tyrant or to ridicule and abuse him. At any rate, she was heard repeating these words until she reached the fatal spot. In descending the ladder, the folds of her veil being caught somewhere, she stepped back to adjust it; and as the executioner offered her the help of his hand, and attempted to escort her down, she was horrified, and shrank from his impure contact. She met her fate, certainly, as the purest and noblest of women." The fate of the accomplice was not less cruel. According to the ancient custom, he was flogged to death in the Comitium, a small square between the Forum and the Senate-Hall.
p147 We come now to a rather difficult and mysterious point of inquiry: we must discover the secret of the order; we must find out what were the sacred tokens of the Roman Commonwealth intrusted to the care of the Vestals. Within the sacred enclosure there was an innermost sanctuary, in which some wonderful relics were concealed. According to the general belief, the safety, the prosperity of the Empire, depended upon the preservation of these relics; but nobody knows what they were. One of the most learned men of the present age, Francesco Cancellieri, has published a volume on the subject, entitled "Le Sette Cose Fatali di Roma Antica," but in spite of his prodigious erudition Cancellieri has not solved the mystery. He depends entirely upon the well-known words of Servius (Aen., vii. 188): There were seven pledges of the prosperity of the Roman Empire, namely: the meteoric stone from Pessinus; the terra-cotta quadriga from Veii; the ashes of Orestes; the sceptre of Priam; the veil of Iliona; the Palladium; the shields named Ancilia." Surely all this trash was not kept by the Vestals. Ancient writers use the general and indefinite expression sacra quaedam, or sacra fatalia, "some sacred things," "some fatal things," and when they specify they only mention the Palladium. Cicero distinctly affirms that in Vesta's penetralia is kept the statue fallen from heaven," and nothing else.
When the Atrium was burned down, in the great conflagration of 191, described by Herodianus, the Vestals fled to the Palatine across the Sacra Via, carrying with them, of course, the mysterious relics. "On this occasion," the historian says, "the Palladium was seen for the first time by profane eyes." Of one particular we are sure: p148 these things were of small size, and could be concealed inside a terra-cotta jar. When the Gauls stormed Rome, in 364 B.C., the Vestals, before escaping to Veii, buried between the Cloaca Maxima and the house of the Flamen Quirinalis,• a jug containing the relics. Hence the name of the spot, Doliola; and hence the superstition which forbade any one spitting upon it. The same feeling of curiosity which impels us to inquire into this subject scientifically was the cause of one of the most daring attempts against the privileges of the Vestals. The author of it was Helagabalus, and it is described by his biographer, Lampridius.
Let us follow the mad prince into the Atrium; let us share with him the sacrilege; violence may help us more than science, perhaps, to solve the problem.
"Helagabalus" (I quote the words of the historian) was determined to substitute by main force the worship of his own god, Helagabalus, for that of Roman gods. Vesta was not spared in the persecution, and he tried repeatedly to extinguish the perpetual fire. Disappointed in his attempts, he resorted to violence. Contaminated as he was with every excess of immorality, he broke into the innermost sanctuary of the convent penetralia, the approach to which is permitted only to the Vestals and to the high-priests, and actually stole the jar containing (as he was led to believe) the pledges of the Empire. Finding it empty, he smashed it to pieces. Religion, however, lost nothing from the sacrilege, because many such jars are kept in the sanctuary, and nobody knows which is the right one. After renewed attempts, he finally succeeded in obtaining the Palladium, and placed it in his own temple, fastened with chains of gold."
The account of Lampridius is rather obscure. At any p149 rate, if the real Palladium (the only relic mentioned by him) was actually stolen, there is no doubt that the successor of the crazy prince must have restored it to its legitimate keepers.
When the Atrium was discovered, in December, 1883, we had a faint hope of tracing the exact place of the penetralia; but the hope was to a certain extent frustrated. In the very centre of the cloisters we cam upon the foundations of an octagonal shrine, purposely and deliberately destroyed to the level of the ground.
As the house itself stands in a tolerably good state of preservation, and still contains many valuable works of art, who could have taken such a special interest in the disappearance of this central shrine? Not the men of the Middle Ages, certainly: they knew little about the Vestals, nothing about the penetralia and its relics; there was no reason, besides, why they should destroy the shrine, built of bricks as it was, more than other, richer portions of the house, which were left undisturbed. We believe that the destruction of this innermost sanctuary was accomplished p150 by the Vestals themselves in the last days preceding their banishment from the cloisters and the suppression of their order (A.D. 394); we believe the secret to have been buried with the last Vestal.
The house of the Vestals is a rectangular building, 345 feet long and 171 feet wide, bounded by public streets on every side. The street skirting the house on the east, along the Porticus Margaritaria, is the famous Sacra Via; the one on the west side is the not less famous Nova Via; the name of that on the south is unknown; the name of that on the north has been quite recently discovered under the following curious circumstances. The architects of the basilica of S. Paul-outside-the‑walls, in digging the foundations of the portico in front of the basilica itself, found at a considerable depth many Christian tombs of the sixth century, made up of every kind of material, and particularly of slabs and blocks of marble removed from older buildings.
One of these slabs, discovered in 1878, contained the following inscription: — "Under the consulship of L. Marius Maximus and of L. Roscius Aelianus" (A.D. 223), "the shrine or chapel which stood at the corner of the street of Vesta, and which had been allowed to fall almost into ruin, has been rebuilt by the magistrates of the (ward or) district, and dedicated to the domestic gods of the imperial family, and to the Genius of our emperor, Severus Alexander, the Pious, the Fortunate," etc., etc.
Six years later, in the spring of 1882, not only did we succeed in laying bare the pavement of the lane running between the temple of the Dioscuri and the north side of p151 the house of the Vestals, which evidently must be the one mentioned in the inscription, but we brought to light the very shrine or chapel to which the marble slab above described was originally affixed. This shrine is a bijou of Greco-Roman architecture; and although its various members and marble decorations lay scattered far and wide, all over the valley of the Forum, we have picked them out one by one, and expect to restore them soon to their proper places, and to reconstruct the whole shrine.
Many of my readers may have been struck by the remarkable instance, which I have quoted, of a marble slab of great dimensions, removed from the Roman Forum in the sixth century after Christ, — that is to say, at a period in which old imperial Rome ad still a certain amount of vitality left, — and employed by an obscure Christian as a cover to a humble tomb, fully three miles distant from the Forum. This instance is by no means remarkable or extraordinary; the amount of dispersion which the inscribed marbles and stones of Rome have undergone is simply wonderful. This is the reason which impels us to be always exceedingly carefully in drawing conclusions from the discovery of an inscription. Unless found in its original place, or unless we can prove beyond doubt, by other means of comparison, that although somehow out of place, it belongs to the building among the ruins of which it happens to be brought to light, an inscription has no topographical value. I shall explain better this important rule in the study of Roman topography by instancing one or two cases, which prove how easily one can be misled in this branch of archaeological research by trusting too confidently to appearances.
Not many years ago, the old marble pavement of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere was demolished, in order that a mosaic one might be substituted in its place. It was p152 ascertained, in the progress of the work, that nearly one fifth of the marble slabs with which the old floor was pave were nothing but ancient inscriptions laid upside down; that is to say, with the letters embedded in cement, and the plain back exposed to view. One of these epigraphic fragments of a monumental character spoke of a forum built, or rather reconstructed, by the emperors Valens and Gratianus, for the benefit of the citizens of Rome. The discovery led some to believe that in ancient times there must have been a forum or square in the neighborhood of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, within the limits of the fourteenth ward or region, and that this forum must have been restored in the fifth century by the emperors above named. The deduction was utterly groundless: the monumental inscription set in the pavement of the church had travelled all the way down from the Esquiline hill, a distance of about two miles; it had been seen and copied in its original place, near the church of S. Vito, by the so‑called "Anonymus" of Einsiedlen, eleven centuries before. This copy enables us to fill up the lacunae in the fragments dug up at S. Maria in Trastevere, and shows that the forum in question was officially called Forum Esquilinum, the square of the Esquiline, and at the same time Macellum Liviae, the market of Livia.
Not less extraordinary in this respect is the discovery of the fragments of the acta fratrum Arvalium (annals of the Fratres Arvales), a brotherhood which closely resembled, in organization and in religious character, the sisterhood of the Vestals. From fragments of the annals discovered, we know not where, in the Middle Ages, it was evident that the Arvales held their meetings in a wood five miles distant from Rome, and worshipped in a temple dedicated to the dea Dia; but where the temple stood, and how far and p153 in what direction the adjoining woods extended, it was impossible to ascertain. Many more fragments of the annals, that is to say, of the marble slabs on which they are engraved, have come to light during the last three centuries, but from such widely separated, out‑of-the‑way, incongruous places that the problem was considered, until late years, as utterly insoluble. Some have been found in the foundation of the sacristy of S. Peter's, some in the catacombs of S. Agnes on the Via Nomentana, some on the Esquiline, some under the foundations of a house near the Jewish quarter, some on the road to Fiumicino, five miles and a quarter outside the Porta Portese. This last place, the fifth mile-stone of the ancient Via Campana, has been finally ascertained to be the true one. The magnificent work of exploration carried on in this spot for two consecutive years by the late Dr. Wilhelm Henzen, under the auspices and with the help of Empress Augusta of Germany, brought to light not only the remains of the temple of the dea Da, the place of worship of the Arvales, but also their banqueting-hall, called the tetrastylum, and about one thousand lines of the annals, or yearly records of the brotherhood. After the instances I have related, which I could multiply ad libitum, we shall not wonder any more at the curious fate of the Farnese Hercules, that colossal masterpiece of Greco-Roman sculpture, now in the Museo Nazionale in Naples, the torso of which was discovered in the baths of Caracalla, the legs in the farm of "le Frattocchie," ten miles from Rome. At all events, these instances of dispersions of ancient marbles in Rome and its suburbs will not surprise any one acquainted with the history of the decline and fall of the city, and of its subsequent vicissitudes in the Middle Ages, and even in modern times. As Thomas p154 remarks in the seventeenth chapter of his History: "To the use and abuse of building and ornamental materials the destruction of the Roman monuments must principally be referred. . . . The process of spoliation, conversion, and destruction was pursued by the emperors, by the popes, by noblemen and prelates, and by private individuals. . . . The Romans were thus the principal demolishers of their own city."
If it were in our power to snatch the secret of the origin and former purpose and use of the marbles, stones, and bricks with which our palaces, our cloisters, and our villas have been built and embellished, or to recall to life the masterpieces of Greek and Roman statuary, hammered and ground into dust or burnt into lime, our knowledge of the city of the Caesars would be almost perfect. The rebuilding of S. Peter's alone, from the pontificate of Martin V to that of Pius VII, caused more destruction, did more injury to ancient classic remains, than ten centuries of so‑called barbarism. Of the huge and almost incredible mass of marbles, of every nature, color, value, and description, used in building S. Peter's, until the beginning of the present century, not an inch, not an atom, comes from modern quarries; they were all removed from classic buildings, many of which were levelled to the ground for the sake of one or two pieces only.
In order not to wander too far from the main subject, I will cite one item only of these annals of destruction: I will mention what happened in the valley of the Forum between 1540 and 1549. In less than ten years' time, the men employed by the contractors of S. Peter's to search for building materials crossed the valley of the Forum from end p155 to end, like an appalling meteor, destroying, dismantling, splitting into fragments, burning into lime, the temples, the arches, the basilicas most famous in Roman history, in the history of the Old World, together with the inscriptions which indicated their former use or design, and the statues and bas-reliefs which ornamented them. In 1540, the podium, step, and pediment of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina were removed to S. Peter's or otherwise made use of. Between 1541 and 1545 the same fate befell the triumphal arch raised in honor of Fabius Maximus, the conqueror of Savoy; the triumphal arch raised in honor of Augustus after the battle of Actium; the temple of Romulus, son of Maxentius; and a portion of the Cloaca Maxima. In 1546 the temple of Julius Caesar was levelled to the ground, together with the Fasti Consulares and Triumphales engraved on its marble basement; in 1547 the temple of Castor and Pollux was dismantled; in 1549 the temple of Vesta, the temple of Augustus, and the shrine of Vortumnus.
I have not mentioned this sad page of the history of Roman monuments to vituperate or condemn to excess the memory of the authors of so great a destruction, — popes, princes, artists, who, after all, in lieu of the ruins destroyed by them, raised and left to us monuments and edifices which, in beauty and perfection, will bear comparison with the old ones. I have mentioned the subject because it strikes me as one of the most curious and inexplicable problems in the history of art, — the fact that the great masters of the Renaissance and the cinquecento, ardent admirers as they were of ancient architectural and plastic works, should have taken willingly their share in that abominable crusade. One must examine carefully, sheet by sheet, the note-books and studies p156 left by such men as Michael Angelo, Baldassarre Peruzzi, Silvestro Peruzzi, Antonio di Sangallo, Sangallo il Gobbo, Bramante Lazzari, Antonio Dosio, Piero Santo Bartoli, Giovanni da Udine, as I have done myself, to get the true idea, to fathom with the right line their immense love and admiration for ancient art. Even the most obscure and uninteresting bits and fragments of mouldings were taken up by them as subjects of study and investigation. However, all this love, all this admiration, was purely platonic and material: they all considered ancient remains and architectural masterpieces not as things of beauty in themselves, worth being respected and cared for, as we do now; they looked upon them as a simple means of learning art, and of perfecting themselves in the practice of their profession. When they had got from the original all the advantage which they thought it capable of affording, they abandoned it to its fate, as an altogether useless thing.
I am sure that if I were to make up my mind to publish the documents which I have collected by the thousands, on the share which every one of the great cinquecento masters took in the destruction of ancient Rome, my book would be read and regarded as a startling revelation. They all shared in the sacrilege. Let me quote a few instances. The pedestal of the equestrian statue of M. Aurelius on the Capitol was cut by Michael Angelo out of one of the columns belonging to the temple of Castor and Pollux; another fragment of the same columns was transformed by Raphael and Lorenzetto into the admirable statue of Jonah in the Chigi chapel in the church of S. Maria del Popolo. The coat of arms of Pius IV, on the top of the Porta Pia, was cut by the same Michael Angelo out of a marble capital of colossal size, discovered under the palace of Piero della Valle. The temple of the Sun, on the p157 Quirinal, furnished the materials for the Cesi chapel in S. Maria Maggiore, for the fountain of the Piazza del Popolo, for the fountain in the Piazza Giudea, for the Pope's palace on the Quirinal, and so forth. The materials for the church of S. Maria dell' Anima and for some portions of the Villa Medici were quarried from the ruins of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; those for the Sixtine column, in the Vatican, from Hadrian's mausoleum. The columns of verde antico which adorn the Farnese palace and the villa of Julius III, on the Via Flaminia, come from Zenobia's bath-house, at the sulphur springs near Tivoli. The house of Lorenzo Bernini, near S. Andrea delle Fratte, is built with the materials of the baths of Licinius Sura, on the Aventine.
Strange to say, even the work of restoration and preservation of ancient monuments was accompanied with destruction: one monument paid the ransom for another. Thus, for instance, the obelisk raised by Augustus as a sun-dial, in the Campus Martius, was restored by Innocent XII with the granite of the monumental column of Antoninus Pius, discovered in the garden of the "Casa della Missione." Thus, also, the arch of Constantine was restored by Clement XII with the large blocks of marble belonging to the temple of Neptune, near the Pantheon. The Pantheon itself, or rather its portico, was restored by Alexander II with columns from the baths of Severus Alexander, and with marbles from a triumphal arch called in the Middle Ages the "arch of Piety."
There is no longer any doubt that the Romans have done more harm to their own city than all invading hosts put together. The action of centuries and of natural phenomena, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and inundations, p158 could not have accompanied what men have, willingly and deliberately. As regards the barbarians, the damage inflicted by them to our monuments in comparatively small, because they had at their disposal less powerful means of destruction. We know that the gardens and palace of Sallust were destroyed by Alaric; that the bronze roof of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was dismantled by Genseric; that the aqueducts were cut down by Vitiges. These deeds, however, are nothing in comparison with the robberies and spoliations committed by the Emperor Constans during his short visit to the Eternal City in the spring of the year 663. For many centuries private individuals had an unrestricted right over the ruins existing in their own lands; and when, finally, state or municipal authorities determined to take or to show an interest in this matter, their actions were inspired, not by love of art, but by material and pecuniary considerations. The apostolic chamber, or treasury, would sell this or that ruin as a quarry (petraia), reserving to itself thirty-three per cent. of the product of the work of destruction. An official document, discovered by Eugène Müntz in the state archives of Rome, certifies that in the year 1452 one of the treasury contractors, named Giovanni Foglia, from Como, removed from the Colosseum alone two thousand five hundred and twenty-two cart-loads of travertine!
But it is time that I should come back to the house of the Vestals, and to the description of its different apartments. In order to obtain the necessary degree of clearness, I will lay before the eyes of the reader a map of the house, and lead him, as it were, by the hand during the interesting excursion.
The extensive building, covering an area of 58,995 square feet, has but one entrance, that marked with the letter A. p159 Here began, in ancient times, the monastic clausura. Next to it, on the right, are to be seen (B) the remains of the shrine restored under Severus Alexander, a description of which has been given above.
The foundations of the round temple of Vesta are marked C. This lovely structure, rebuilt for the last time by Julia Domna, after the great fire of Commodus, was discovered first in 1489, in an excellent state of preservation. Rediscovered in 1549, it was completely demolished, and levelled to the ground. Only thirty-six marble fragments belonging to its architecture by a great chance escaped destruction. These were found by us in 1883 scattered far and wide. With their help we have been able to reconstruct most carefully the architecture of the temple, as shown in the following cuts.
D. Three marble pedestals, dedicated one, A.D. 364, to an abbess whose memory was afterwards condemned (see page 170); the second, A.D. 286, to Caelia Claudiana; the p160 third, A.D. 247, to Flavia Publicia. These three pedestals are not in their original places; they were put here during the Middle Ages, and built into the foundations of a small house belonging to an officer of Pope Marinus II, whose name is not known. We have been able to ascertain this fact from the discovery of a small terra-cotta jar buried under the pavement of the house, containing, first, the insignia of the officer, in niello work, with the legend DOMNO MARINO PAPA; secondly, a collection of 835 coins, one of gold, the others of silver. The gold coin is of Theophilus, emperor between 829 and 842. All but four of the silver coins are Anglo-Saxon. Following is the catalogue of them: —
|Alfred the Great||3|
|Edward the First||217|
|Edmund the First||195|
|Sitric, King of Northumbria||1|
|Sitric, King of Northumbria||6|
|Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury||4|
|Mint of Pavia||2|
|Mint of Limoges||1|
|Mint of Ratisbon||1|
p161 The remains of the mediaeval house were unwisely destroyed in the course of the recent excavations.
We have now entered the cloisters, the Atrium itself, the size of which is so extraordinary in comparison to that of the house that it is no wonder the whole building was named from it. We find in the plan of the building itself the prototype of all the convents and nunneries of the world, the characteristics of which are a large court-yard surrounded with porticoes, both necessary to give air, light, and the possibility of a little exercise to women condemned for life to almost solitary confinement. The portico surrounding this Atrium Vestae was ornamented with columns of cipollino on the ground floor, with columns of breccia corallina on the floor above. Near the southern extremity of the court there is a basin, or tank, for the supply of water, which the Vestals drew from one of the neighboring sacred springs, as the use of water running through pipes was against the rules of the order. The basin is marked with the letter F.
G. Tablinum, state, or reception hall of the Vestals, with traces of marble pavement and marble incrustations. Six small rooms open on this apartment, three on each side, the pavements of which are raised in a peculiar way to avoid dampness, namely, by laying the new floor on amphorae, through the interstices of which the dry air could circulate.
H. A small court-yard containing the furnaces for the heating of the whole house.
I. A mill used by the Vestals to grind meal, with which the mola salsa (the most primitive kind of a cake) was prepared on February 15th of each year, during the celebration of the Lupercalia.
K. Small staircase leading to bedrooms on upper floor. Remains of these bedrooms have been found only on the p162 west side; that is to say, on the side facing the Nova Via. These cells are exceedingly small and simple, and are separated from the bath-room which belongs to them by a small corridor.
Apartments not marked on the plan have not been identified.
The second half of the fourth century of our era was one of the most exciting periods in Roman history, on account of the stupendous fight between the Christian majority and the minority of those who still clung to polytheism in is decrepitude. Both parties were determined to put an end to a state of things which had become intolerable to each; both were determined to strike the final blow; and although the emperors themselves were disposed personally to gain the victory with time and persuasion, the impatience of the pagan leaders in Rome caused the catastrophe to be violent and marked by bloodshed.
It is rather difficult to describe the character, the feelings, the behavior, of those who distinguished themselves during the fight, because contemporary writers are not impartial; they judge of men and things from their own point of view, from the interest of their party. This discrepancy of appreciation is noticeable even in points of supreme importance, in events which had been seen and shared by thousands and thousands of witnesses. Christian writers, as a rule, attribute to their antagonists any amount of depravity, even in private life and affections; pagan writers reproach their opponents with conspiring to destroy the Empire, with being determined to open the gates of the Eternal City to the barbarians, provided the triumph of their new faith could be secured. The author of the libel against Virius p163 Nicomachus Flavianus, the leader of the pagan aristocracy in the Senate, describes him as being polluted by unmentionable vices; whereas Theodosius II and Valentinian III, in their official messages to the Senate, A.D. 431, proclaim him nominis illustris, et sanctissimae apud omnes recordationis, an illustrious name, a man whose character was as pure as gold. Another instance of this more or less sincere discrepancy of opinions is supplied by the well-known quarrel about the statue of Victory in the Curia or Senate-hall, which statue for centuries had been considered as the personification of the power and destinies of imperial Rome. This statue, formerly worshipped at Tarentum, had been placed by Augustus himself on the tribune of the Curia, and ornamented with the rarest kind of jewelry, which he had collected in Egypt. An altar stood before it, to receive the votive offerings of the patres conscripti. From the day of Constantine's conversion to Christianity to the year 382, the statue and the altar had been left undisturbed. In 382, however, they gave rise to the memorable duel fought between S. Ambrose on the Christian and Symmachus on the pagan side before Valentinian II and Theodosius. Symmachus accused his rivals, not toward the statue of Victory, but toward the symbol of the fortune of the Roman armies, just then engaged in trying to check the invasion of the barbarians. S. Ambrose, on the other hand, never mentions the statue, venerated by every one because of its glorious origin, wonderful p164 beauty, and great age; he contends simply that the altar and the official worship of the goddess should no longer be imposed on the Christian senators, or offend their feelings and trouble their consciences. The want of trustworthy contemporary documents is compensated to a certain extent by the admirable series of inscriptions collected in class five of the sixth volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, which refers to Roman patrician magistrates of the fourth century, from the time of Diocletian to the fall of the Empire. These inscriptions derive their importance from the fact that, in describing the political, religious, and military career of each statesman and senator, they reveal at the same time absolutely authentic particulars otherwise unknown and events and names concerning which contemporary writers have not spoken, or have spoken with passion and prejudice. These marbles tell us the names and exploits of the last champions of polytheism in the Senate. They describe how, during the last outburst of fanaticism, the most absurd superstitions, the most mysterious and contemptible ceremonies, were revived, — those especially which bore a certain analogy with the ceremonies of Christian worship. They throw a new light on the catastrophe which brought to an end the worship of Vesta, and the life, eleven centuries old, of the sisterhood of the Vestal Virgins.
The leaders of the pagan faction in the Curia were Clodius Hermogenianus, Caelius Hilarianus, Clodius Flavianus, Petronius Apollodorus, Sextilius Agesilaus, the two Rufii Ceionii, Nonius Victor, Aurelius Victor, and other representatives of the old aristocracy. But, alas! how miserably they represented the former conquerors of the world! The whole party was initiated into the mysteries of p165 secret Eastern sects, and their religious fanaticism stood in contrast to the original purity and simplicity of Roman religion as did their civil and military virtues to the wisdom and valor of the statesmen and generals of the Republic, and also of the Empire, in its first three centuries of glorious life.
They had selected as the scene of their grand exploits, as a place for confidential meetings, two sanctuaries, both of recent construction, — the shrine of Cybele and Atys on the Vatican hill, and the grotto of Mithras in the Campus Martius. The shrine of Cybele is mentioned by ancient writers among the buildings of the fourteenth region, Transtiberim, under the name Phrygianum. Although there was no doubt that such a name belonged to a place of worship of the Phrygian goddess, and that such a place was in the neighborhood of the Vatican, still no positive notice of its history and exact situation was obtained until the reign of Pope Paul V, Borghese. In laying the foundations of the southeast corner of the new façade of S. Peter's, between 1608 and 1609, at a depth of thirty feet below the level of the ground, several altars and pedestals were discovered, on which the history of the shrine was engraved. These marbles apparently had been hammered and split into fragments at some unknown period; perhaps after the great religious catastrophe of 394, p166 of which I shall presently speak. The sacred grotto of Mithras, in the Campus Martius, was within the limits of the seventh region, on the east side of the Via Lata, between the modern Corso and the general post-office in the Piazza of S. Silvestro in Capite, and, more precisely, in the plot of ground which is now occupied by the Marignoli palace. It was discovered at the end of the fifteenth century, but no satisfactory account of the discovery has come down to us. Fra Giovanni Giocondo and Pietro Sabino, who seem to have witnessed the event, only copied the inscriptions of the sanctuary, without describing any details of its architecture and disposition. Both places, the Vatican Metroon and the Mithraeum Campense, as they were officially named, had been filled with numberless altars and pedestals, as was said above, to commemorate the initiation of eminent men, mostly senators of the Empire, into those horrid mysteries and into the various degrees of the sect. And do the records engraved upon these marbles enumerate according to the p167 ancient custom, the civil, military, and diplomatic offices honorably discharged in the interest of their sovereigns and country? Not in the least. These men pride themselves upon titles and names which would have made their noble and gallant ancestors blush with shame and burst with indignation. They call themselves pater sacrorum, father of mysteries; hierocorax invicti Mithrae, sacred crow of Mithras the omnipotent; archibucolus dei Liberi, great shepherd of Bacchus; hierofantes Hecatarum, high-priest of Hecate, and so forth. And they make use of a peculiar kind of phraseology, unknown in classic times, and evidently copied in a ridiculous manner from Christian models. One speaks of the gods animae suae mentisque custodes; another proclaims himself delibutus sacratissimis mysteriis, or else in aeternum renatus, after the baptism of blood; all of them, likewise, testify with unbounded pride to having received this bloody baptism, under the form of criobolium or taurobolium, or to having renewed the ceremony after a lapse of twenty years, because it appears that the abominable sacrament was thought to lose its redeeming power after a certain time, like some our cutaneous injections.
Two senators, Nonius Victor Olympius and Aurelius Victor Augentius, presided over the Mithraeum Campense, and were the grand-masters of this kind of Free-masonry. In p168 the tablets discovered there nearly four centuries ago, we can follow step by step the career of many illustrious adepts. Between A.D. 357 and 377 Nonius and Aurelius administered right and left the degrees of corax (crow), cryphius (griffin), leo, Perses, Heliodromos, and pater. In 377, however, the practice was stopped, probably, by the prefect of the town, Gracchus, who attempted to destroy all the Mythraicº grottoes in Rome.
The worship of Vesta was not forgotten in this last outbreak, in this last revival of pagan superstitions. We are glad to acknowledge, however, that our virgins did not contaminate the last days of their life by altering the ancient purity and simplicity of the institution; they fell nobly and gallantly, faithful to the rules of the order eleven centuries old, free from any suspicion, and respected even by their enemies, in whose diatribes we are happy to find a certain sense of kindness and respect every time the Vestals are mentioned. We are also glad to testify that their name is not profaned in the records of the Phrygian and Mythraic sects; the senators, who caused those records to be engraved on marble, only occasionally call themselves pontifices Vestae and pontifices Vestales.
The infidel majority in the Senate fought the last battles under two able and determined leaders: Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the senior (with his relatives the Symmachi), p169 and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus. Flavianus took little or no interest in the Vestals, perhaps because the simplicity of their worship did not sufficiently excite a soul vitiated by the violent mysteries of the Phrygian and Persian rites. The author of the libel discovered by Delille, and mentioned above, ridicules Flavianus for his performances of Amburbalia, of the Isia, of the Megalesia, of the Floralia; but he never speaks of the Vestalia, of the perennial fire, or of the Palladium. Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, on the contrary, was intensely devoted to the Virgins, as was also his wife, Fabia Aconia Paullina. Their palace stood at the corner of the Via Merulana and the Via delle sette Sale, on the site of the new palazzo Brancaccio. It was surrounded by a garden, which extended as far as the present railway station. Many monuments concerning the history of their family have been discovered within these limits. I shall mention, however, one only, on account of its connection with the events which I am relating. When the house of Praetextatus was excavated for the first time in 1591, there were found a pedestal and a statue in honor of Caelia Concordia, the last (or next to the last) abbess of the Atrium Vestae. The pedestal bore the following dedication: "Fabia Aconia Paullina sets up (in her own palace) this portrait-statue of Caelia Concordia, the Abbess of the Vestals, not only as a testimonial to her virtues, her chastity and her devotion to the gods, but also as a token of gratitude for the honor conferred by the Vestals upon her husband Praetextatus, to whom they have dedicated a statue in their own convent." By a remarkable chance, this last-named statue has been discovered in our excavations. Its head, at first missing, was found by accident two years later. It is represented in the accompanying illustration. There seems p170 to be no doubt of its being the very one alluded to by Fabia Aconia Paullina. It represents a senator in the official robe of the fourth century, and it is the only male statue found in the Atrium Vestae; its presence there would have remained almost inexplicable, had we not heard of it before, from the above-quoted inscription.
I must now mention a pedestal discovered near the northeast corner of the Atrium on November 5, 1883, dedicated to one of the abbesses, A.D. 364, from which the name of the lady appears to have been erased purposely. Here is the text of the remarkable inscription: —
OB MERITVM CASTITATIS
PVDICITIAE ADQ · IN SACRIS.
C. . . . . . E · V · V · MAX ·
PONTIFICES · V · V · C · C ·
PROMAG · MACRINIO ·
SOSSIANO · V · C · P · M ·
"[This statue and this pedestal have been raised] in honor of C——— [name erased], abbess of the Vestals, by the college of the high-priests, under the vice-presidency of Macrinius Sossianus, as a testimonial to her chastity and to her profound knowledge in religious matters."
p171 It would be very interesting in connection with the history of the last years of the priesthood to ascertain why the name of the abbess of the lady was condemned by the pagan faction, after it had bestowed so many praises upon her. The memoriae damnatio must have taken place between 364, which is the date written on the right side of the marble, and 394, the date of the abolition of the order. Three causes only can be suggested: first, the conversion of the priestess to Christianity; secondly, an offence against the rules; and lastly, a secession from the order. It is quite probable that she became a Christian. Prudentius, in the hymn to S. Lawrence, says, Aedemque Laurenti tuam Vestalis intrat Claudia, — "Claudia, the Vestal Virgin, enters thy shrine"; and these words have been interpreted by some, not as a general and impersonal indication of the conquests made by the gospel in the most famous strongholds of polytheism, but as positive evidence of a special conquest made in the Atrium itself. We must observe, however, that the conversion of an abbess would have been considered such an enormous victory for the faithful that it is remarkable that it is not mentioned and extolled by other, more serious writers than a poet.
No less extraordinary an event would have been the incest of a Vestal; above all, the incest of an abbess. Here, again, we can produce the testimony of a man above suspicion, that such a crime was actually committed by a Vestal Virgin towards the end of the fourth century. Symmachus, the great pagan orator, describes the fall of a Vestal named Primigenia, and insists that she be punished according to the ancient rules. The culprit, however, did not belong to the Roman house of the order; she belonged to the house at Albanum. This explains why the crime of the p172 priestess did not create more sensation in Rome. A secession from the order is mentioned by the same authority, Symmachus. One of his letters has come down to us, addressed to a Vestal, whose name is not given, in which he inquires anxiously whether he must believe the rumor, spread far and wide, of her intended secession from the order. Of course, such an act was perfectly legal after thirty years of service, and the lady whose name was erased from the pedestal being a Vestalis Maxima, had surely gone far beyond the legal term. But the anxiety of Symmachus is very natural. A leader of the infidel party could not help feeling the wrong done to its interests by the desertion from the battle-field of a woman of such high standing and consideration as a Vestalis Maxima. And as her behavior was not punishable in any way, Symmachus and his colleagues, the Pontifices majores, resorted to the only possible revenge, — erasure of her name from the pedestal which they had dedicated some time before in the Atrium, and covered with her praises.
The signs of an approaching catastrophe were first noticed in 383, with joy on one side, with ill-concealed rage on the other. By an imperial decree of that year, singed by Gratianus, the privileges and patrimonies of all pagan places of worship were abolished and confiscated, on the ground that it was not becoming a Christian government and a Christian state to supply unbelievers and infidels with the means of persevering in their errors and of opposing the conquests of the gospel; that it was unjust and intolerable that profane and offensive sacrifices should be offered, as it were, in the name and with the money of the Christian government. At the same time the pagans were left entirely free to keep their temples and shrines in good p173 good order, and to perform their ceremonies even in public, provided this was done at their own cost.
The pagan senators, who still commanded a majority in that body, not, perhaps, because there were so many pagans among the populace, but owing rather to the glorious traditions which clustered around many of the pagan family names, did the best they could to obtain a revocation of the decree; but Valentinian II was inexorable in demanding the accomplishment of the edict of his brother Gratianus. He went even a step further. By a second decree, dated 391, superstitious sacrifices were prohibited in Rome and throughout Italy, even if offered under a private name. Then, as happens generally in such momentous circumstances, when a disaffected party as the good or bad fortune to find an energetic, unscrupulous, daring leader, well known to the populace for his social position, for riches, or for nobility of descent, — then the infidels resorted to their last chance, that of open rebellion. Their flag was hoisted by Nicomachus Flavianus himself.
In 392, Valentinian II, upon whom the hatred of the rebels was concentrated, was brutally murdered by Arbogastes, the Gallic commander-in‑chief of the Western armies, and Eugenius was elected in his place. Eugenius, although brought up as a Christian, was a feeble, superstitious, vacillating man; and placed, as he found himself, at the head of a revolution, political and religious at the same time, did not at once repudiate his former persuasion. Twice the Senate sent him embassies to obtain the revocation of the decrees of 383 and 391; twice he refused to restore to the pagan faction the property of its temples, the privileges of its priests. The third embassy was more successful. Eugenius made a kind of compromise between his conscience and his duty: he made a personal gift to Flavianus and his colleagues of the property seized in 383.
p174 Furnished with such powerful means, the victorious faction indulged at once in an outburst of fanaticism. Every long-forgotten exhibition of pagan ceremonies was conducted, as it were, in the name of the Empire, with gorgeous and triumphal mise en scène. They began by the lustrum or sacrificium amburbale of Rome, a ceremony which had never been held since the time of Aurelian, when the fear of the invasion of the Marcomanni caused him to fortify the capital, materially with the walls which are still in existence, morally and religiously with the amburbium.
Next came the Isia. During four days Rome enjoyed the ridiculous sight of Flavianus and his partisans mourning over the death of Osiris, and marching in procession, with the hair shaved, in long white woollen clothes, carrying cynocephali in their hands. Next, they resorted to the Megalesia, the mysterious worship of Cybele. After being baptized in blood, they carried through the principal thoroughfares the chariot of the goddess, with lions of solid silver. The last celebration mentioned by contemporary writers is that of the Floralia, which in ancient times was considered the most profligate and indecent of all festivals.
Against the army of the avenger, Theodosius I, provisions were made worthy of the faction. Images of Hercules Invictus were substituted for the glorious Labarum of Constantine, and hundreds of statues of Jupiter, with golden thunderbolts in his hand, were set up on the Alpine passes and military roads through which the army of Theodosius was expected to advance.
The exact spot at which the decisive battle took place in upper Italy is not known; we are ignorant also of its date. Socrates, the historian, mentions the 6th of September, 394; perhaps it was fought two or three days later. One p175 thing is certain: the people of Rome, on the 17th of that month, were still ignorant of the result of the battle. In 1864, while the central crypts of Priscilla's catacombs were being excavated, a tombstone was found, erected in memory of Urania Aurelia by her servant Leontius, and dated xv kalendas Octobres Nicomaco Flabiano consule (the 17th of September under the consulship of Flavianus). Now Flavianus had lost his life in battle, and if the event had been known in Rome, when the city was trembling from fear of reaction and revenge, no one would have dared to engrave on marble the name of the leader of polytheism, who had just paid within his life, and with the life of his emperor the year rebellion.
Who could properly describe the hopes, the anxieties, the despair of our Vestals during these terrible days of uncertainty? See them kneeling before the statue of the goddess, as any hour they expected it would be mutilated by the populace; see them trying to screen and protect behind the rampart of their chaste bodies the fire which, after burning with no interruption for eleven centuries, was in peril of being extinguished forever! And when the fatal tidings of the defeat of Eugenius came to their knowledge, when the order for their banishment from Vesta's Atrium was issued, did they find time to conceal the sacred tokens of the Roman Empire (as they had done on the occasion of the Gallic war), to save the Palladium from profanation, to destroy every trace, every sign, which could reveal to the outside world the mysteries of their house, the secrets of their institution? We believe they did; we believe, as we have said, that the secret was buried with the corpse of the last Vestal. We have no doubt that the destruction of the penetralia, or innermost sanctuary in which the relics were kept, was accomplished by the Vestals p176 themselves, during the few days that elapsed between the defeat of Eugenius and the suppression of their order.
The reaction of the victorious party was not violent. Theodosius named as commissaire extraordinaire for Rome and the Peninsula (agens vicem praefectorum praetorio et urbi) a gentleman of moderate ideas, Fabius Passifilus Paolinus. He enforced, no doubt, absolute obedience to imperial decrees concerning paganism, but did not resort to violence or persecution. One thing is absolutely certain: when the gates of the Atrium were thrown open to public curiosity, and the crowd entered the cloisters (confiscated as the property of the state) and stepped over the threshold which no man had crossed before without danger of death, no damage whatever was committed, no injury done either to the building or to its artistic treasures. In spite of mediaeval lime-burners, in spite of natural decay, in spite of the excavations of 1497, 1549, and 1785, we have discovered statues and busts, pedestals and inscriptions, bronzes, glass, and jewelry, of which some were still in their ancient places.
We are informed by Zosimus, the historian, that some time after the secularization of the building the young Princess Serena took possession of a precious necklace which still ornamented the statue of the goddess; a daring attempt, indeed, which the lady expiated soon after in a horrible manner. The circumstance is thus described by the historian: "Rome being surrounded and besieged by Alaric, the senators began to suspect Serena of secret connivance with the barbarians. The whole assembly, and even Claudia, the sister of the emperor, were determined to put her to death, hoping that her execution to withdraw. The suspicion, nevertheless, was unjust and groundless, Serena having never dreamed of p177 opening the gates to the enemy; but she was doomed to expiate her sacrilege against the gods, as I shall relate presently. When Theodosius I entered Rome, after the defeat of Eugenius, and priests and priestesses were expelled from temples, and the temples were manifested a desire to enter and examine one of the temples, the shrine of Rhea [Vesta]. Here she was so captivated by the beauty of a necklace that she took it with her own hands from the shoulders of the goddess, and fixed it on her own neck. An old woman, the last surviving Vestal, having witnessed by chance the profanation, cursed the princess, and predicted that sooner or later she would sadly expiate her crime. Serena, at first, took no notice of the awful malediction; but the old Vestal had told the truth, — Serena died by strangulation!"
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House of the Vestals
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