Temple of Vesta



Übersicht

  • Vestatempel in flavischer Zeit (um 96 n.Chr.), topographischer Kontext
  • Königszeitlicher Vestatempel (6. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Republikanischer Vestatempel (2. Hälfte 3. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Frühkaiserzeitlicher Vestatempel (wohl nach 64 n.Chr.)
  • Severischer Vestatempel (nach 191 n.Chr.)

Constructed: the beginnings of the cult site date back to late 8th / 7th century B.C.

Alterations: several alteration and reconstruction phases in the Republican, early Imperial and Severan period

Function: archive, cult building

Historical Context: Antonine Augustus II Flavian Late Republic I Late Republic II Severan Tetrarchic


At the present-day excavation site the Temple of Vesta gives one the impression of an artificial ruin on the east side of the Forum. The small round temple belongs to the oldest cult sites in the Forum area; its beginnings date back to the initial settlement in this area in the later 8th / 7th century B.C.

Architecture

Compared with the towering architecture of the surrounding the temple attracted attention due to its smallness structures (this holds especially true for the late Republic and the Imperial Period). We know from ancient literary sources that the ancients explained the small and round architecture of the temple through its old age: its round form was traced back to the simple straw huts of the early Roman settlement and it was assumed that such a hut served as the first cult site – a story which modern scholarship has endorsed.

Its appearance as a round temple, surrounded by columns and in the ancient Greek style (tholos), was first captured by the imagery on coins in the 1st century B.C., but can also be observed at the present day. The temple probably acquired its Greek architecture in the late 3rd or 2nd century B.C., when the appearance of different kinds of structures on the Forum was assimilated to the Greek-Hellenic architecture (hellenisation). In subsequent centuries a number of structural modifications were made. Due to its central significance the temple was decorated more and more magnificently, although it always retained its original distinctive physiognomy (for the individual phases, see below).

Function

The Temple of Vesta illustrates nicely how numerous functions can determine the architectural configuration of a building. The temple was dedicated first and foremost to the cult of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. The vestal virgins, a group of six or seven virgin priestesses, maintained the eternal holy hearth of the city of Rome. Accordingly, an opening was installed in the roof so that the smoke could get out of the building; images on coins depict this. It was also necessary to close off the cella on all sides in order to protect the fire from wind, rain and other environmental phenomena. Furthermore, the Temple of Vesta was also used to store sacred objects: As long as these objects were kept safe, so a prophecy proclaimed, Rome would remain safe – thus the protection of these objects was taken very seriously. Among them the statues of the Penates, the tutelary deities of the home, were very important as well as the Palladion, a cult image of Pallas Athena. According to the legend of Aeneas, the mythical ancestor of Rome, both the statues and the cult image were rescued out of Troy, when it burnt down, and brought to Rome. A cavity in the podium of the temple might have served as a storage area for these cultic objects. Essential for the protection of these sacred objects was the secluded interior of and restricted access to the temple; only the highest priest in Rome, the Pontifex Maximus, and the vestal virgins were allowed in the temple. The temple was also used as an archive to store important documents, such as wills and contracts – especially when the content of such documents was not supposed to attract the public’s attention all too quickly.

The vestal virgins, who practiced the cult of the Vesta within the temple, were the most highly esteemed priestesses in Rome. They lived in the so-called Atrium Vestae (house of the virgin vestals), which was situated directly next to the temple. Several honorary statues of former vestals were located in the inner courtyard of the house. As priestesses a big responsibility rested on them: The sacred hearth was not allowed to go out, because it was regarded as a bad omen. The Pontifex Maximus, who was superior to them, had the power to punish them severely. He exercised this power, if e.g. the vestal virgins had sexual intercourse with men and lost their virginity. One such case is described by the literary sources. It occurred during the Imperial Period, prompting Emperor Domitian to order that the vestal virgin in question be buried alive and her lover whipped to death in the Comitium.

Ruin and Reconstruction

The modern presentation of the Temple of Vesta, with its partly rebuilt marble cella wall and the columns standing in front of it, gives us a good impression of the former glory of this building. At first glance it is not easy to distinguish which structural elements are original and which are modern additions; the additions can be identified primarily by differences in the colour of the material. Once one is aware of this fact, then it becomes evident that the actual temple has only survived in a very bad condition. Merely some of the columns, part of the entablature with a frieze of cultic objects, and elements of the cella wall are original; the majority of what can be seen at the present day is a product of the partial rebuilding of the temple in the 30ies of the 20th century. One gets a good impression of the overall dimensions of the temple by looking at the foundation (still visible today), which is composed of opus caementicium and has a diameter of around 15 m. A podium-like substructure rested on the foundation. On top of the foundation the the actual round temple stood, which was surrounded by columns and had a conical roof (for images of the ruin at the present day, see below).

What we can see here is a comparably new and rebuilt version of the Temple of Vesta, which was constructed during the Severan dynasty in the late 2nd century A.D. This was preceded by numerous modifications and reconstruction procedures – the eternal hearth posed a constant threat to the temple and damaged it on multiple occasions. However, these early phases cannot be reconstructed based on the archaeological remains due to the Severan temple that was built over them. Our information primarily rests on literary sources and depictions on coins, which only provide us with a rough idea of the temple and only enable us to come up with very general reconstructions.

(JB)

Phase 1

  • Königszeitlicher Vestatempel (6. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Königszeitlicher Vestatempel (6. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Königszeitlicher Vestatempel (6. Jh. v.Chr.)


The temple from the Regal Period

Literary sources from the early Imperial Period inform us that the establishment of the cult was either ascribed to Romulus, the mythical founder of the city of Rome, or one of the later kings of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who came from Etruria. Archaeologists have not been able to identify any of the remains of the early cult site; merely votive offerings that were discovered underneath the temple indicate the existence of an old cult site at this place. The appearance of the old Temple of Vesta can only be reconstructed on the basis of the literary sources and evidenced cult functions. So the Augustan poet Ovid states that the tholos-form of the temple derived from the outer appearance of a simple hut from the Regal Period. Archaeologists have ascribed such round huts, which had one single room and were covered with straw, to the early Roman settlement of the 8th and early 7th century B.C. In the middle of these huts there always was a fire place – fire was paramount for the survival of the community and therefore was subject to cultic worship; an opening in the roof enabled the smoke to get out. If one reflects on the function of the Temple of Vesta as a protected place for the sacred fire, then it seems highly probably that the first cult site must have consisted in such a simple archaic hut. When in the late 7th and 6th century B.C. the simple huts were being abandoned and more and more stone buildings were being erected, the cult site of Vesta must also have also been slowly converted into a stone structure. It is unknown whether the new cult site preserved the outer appearance of the old round hut to a large extent or adapted to the popular architecture of time with its rectangular houses and small temples. What is highly remarkable is that in the Augustan period the round form of the temple was associated with the huts from the early period, even though this was a type of structural form that stood entirely in the Greek-Hellenic tradition.

Phase 2

  • Republikanischer Vestatempel (2. Hälfte 3. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Republikanischer Vestatempel (2. Hälfte 3. Jh. v.Chr.)
  • Republikanischer Vestatempel (2. Hälfte 3. Jh. v.Chr.)


The temple in the Republic

It is also extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact phases in which the temple was altered and rebuilt as well as reconstruct its physiognomy. Furthermore, we are completely dependent on the literary sources; for the late Republican phase we can base our reconstruction on the depictions of the temple on coins and comparisons to other contemporary round temples.

Based on ceramics findings in the interior of the temple, which can be dated to the 3rd century B.C., it is plausible to assume that this period marks the rebuilding of the temple. It is plausible to connect this process of rebuilding with a fire which damaged the temple in 241 B.C. and is mentioned by the literary sources: Supposedly the Pontifex Maximus Caelius Metellus carried the Palladium and sacred objects into safety, while the temple was burning down, and thereby lost his eyesight. However, during another fire in 210 B.C., which destroyed large areas of the Forum, the Temple of Vesta was saved from more severe damage.

It is unknown when the temple received its characteristic tholos-form, thereby assimilating its appearance to the Greek-Hellenic temple architecture which was popular at the time. On a coin dated to 57 B.C. the round Temple of Vesta is depicted with such a form: It shows the temple with columns that have Ionic capitals and a roof with snake antefixes, giving it a venerable appearance. In light of the comprehensive hellenisation of the Forum’s architecture, which wholly transformed the physiognomy of the Forum in the 2nd century B.C., it is conceivable that the Temple of Vesta was rebuilt this time in the Greek style. However, no evidence of such a construction phase can be elicited from the literary sources. Parts of the core made of opus caementicium, which were later built over, are supposed to originate from this phase.

Phase 3

  • Frühkaiserzeitlicher Vestatempel (wohl nach 64 n.Chr.)
  • Frühkaiserzeitlicher Vestatempel (wohl nach 64 n.Chr.)
  • Frühkaiserzeitlicher Vestatempel (wohl nach 64 n.Chr.)
  • Frühkaiserzeitlicher Vestatempel, topographischer Kontext (um 96 n.Chr.)


The early Imperial temple

In the Res Gestae the Princeps Augustus names 82 temples which he had actively helped to restore and rebuild during his reign. However, he does not mention the Temple of Vesta, which was so important to Rome and also possessed ideological value for Augusts, who had once been Pontifex Maximus himself. Thus, the Temple of Vesta belongs to the small group of structures that were left “untouched”, when Augustus began reshaping the entire Forum. Perhaps it was the archaic aspect of the temple that prevented Augustus from modernising it and convinced him to preserve its venerable appearance.

We have better evidence of a structural alteration carried out under Nero. This alteration can be connected to the devastating fire in 64 A.D., which (supposedly) resulted in the temple being rebuilt from the ground up. This can be inferred from contemporary coins and a relief that was manufactured some time afterwards: both depict the temple’s architecture as closely resembling the subsequent Severan building much more closely than the image on the coin from 57 B.C.

Phase 4

  • Severischer Vestatempel (nach 191 n.Chr.)
  • Severischer Vestatempel (nach 191 n.Chr.)
  • Severischer Vestatempel (nach 191 n.Chr.)


The Severan temple

After the Temple of Vesta was destroyed in 191 A.D. by yet another fire, Julia Domna, the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, took on the responsibility of rebuilding the temple – a constructional measure whose celebration was captured in the imagery on contemporary coins. The numerous architectural fragments of the temple which have survived to the present day belong to this Severan construction, which is why the actual appearance and scale of the temple can be observed here best. The structure of the newly constructed temple was strongly guided by the architectural composition of the preceding temple. However, this by no means implies that the resulting building should be seen as a faithful reconstruction of its predecessor: For instance, the Ionic order of the original pillars was not maintained, but pillars with Corinthian capitals were employed. Up until the 4th century A.D. the temple was continually used; we have no information about further construction measures. In 394 A.D. the temple was finally closed down by Emperor Theodosius and then fell into ruin, until it was rediscovered by the excavators in the late 19th century and partly re-erected in the 1930ies.

Phase 5

  • Vestatempel, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Vestatempel, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Vestatempel, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Vestatempel, heutiges Erscheinungsbild
  • Vestatempel im Kontext der heutigen Ausgrabungsstätte
  • Vestatempel im Kontext der heutigen Ausgrabungsstätte


Ruine

A more detailed discussion and scholarly reconstruction can be found in the wiki of the digital Forum Romanum (Jessica Bartz, Henriette Engels, Sophie Horacek).

 

Selected Bibliography

N. Arvanitis, Il Santuario di Vesta. La casa delle vestali e il Tempio di Vesta, VIII sec. a.C.- 64 d.C. Rapporto preliminare, Workshop di archeologia classica. Quaderni 3 (Pisa 2010).

F. Caprioli, Vesta aeterna. L’Aedes Vestae e la sua decorazione architettonica, Studia archaeologica 154 (Rom 2007).

J. M. Cody, New Evidence for the Republican Aedes Vestae, American Journal of Archaeology 77, 1973, 43–50.

Digital Roman Forum, Vesta, Aedes, http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Forum/reconstructions/VestaAedes_1

G. Fuchs, Architekturdarstellungen auf römischen Münzen der Republik und der frühen Kaiserzeit. Antike Münzen und geschnittene Steine 1 (Berlin 1969).

A. Greifenhagen, Das Vestarelief aus Wilton House. Winckelmannsprogramm der Archäologischen Gesellschaft zu Berlin 121/122 (Berlin 1967).

H. Jordan, Der Tempel der Vesta und das Haus der Vestalinnen (Berlin 1886).

L. Richardson Jr., A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Baltimore 1992).

R. T. Scott, Vesta, aedes, in: E. M. Steinby (Hrsg.), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae 5 (Rom 1999) 125–128.

R. T. Scott, Excavations in the Area Sacra of Vesta (1987-1996), Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 8 (Ann Arbor 2009).

B. Steinmann – R. Nawracala – M. Boss, Im Zentrum der Macht. Das Forum Romanum im Modell (Erlangen-Nürnberg 2011) 54-58.