Keeping the Home Fires Burning



In the forum in Rome, at the foot of Palatine hill, is the remains of the Atrium Vestiae.


In front is the Temple of Vesta, to honor the goddess of the hearth.

There, in the cella of the temple is the hearth upon which the Vestal Virgins kept the sacred fire of Rome burning.


The fire was not allowed to go out. It was thought that the security and longevity of Rome and it’s people depended on this flame. Anyone could come and receive fire for their own household needs from this flame.


Initially 2 girls were chosen for the role, at some stage increasing to 4 then finally documented as 6. They would be pre-pubescent when selected, committing to a 30 year period of service. The first 10 years was as a student, the second as a servant and the final decade as a teacher. They had to remain celibate. After their 30 year service they could leave, marry and would receive a pension for life.


Their duties in addition to keeping the flame alive were to collect water from the sacred spring, prepare ritual food and act as guardians of sacred objects and important documents.



The 2 most grievous crimes of a Vestal were to let the fire go out or to not upkeep their chastity. For the first they would be beaten, the second buried alive in an underground chamber.


These were powerful women whose presence was required in all ceremonies. All sorts of magical powers were attributed to them. They were under guard and if injured the perpetrator was put to death. If a criminal or slave encountered a Vestal they could be freed or even pardoned.


King Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome created the order of the Vestals somewhere around 700BC. The sacred fire was extinguished and the order ceased in 394CE. The conversion of Rome to Christianity had sealed their fate after 1000 years of existence.

Numa cult of vestals

In May I will be back in Rome just after one of the ancient rituals of Rome. The Argei ritual was where the Vestals, Praetors and Pontiffs as well as the high priest of Jupiter would visit 27 stations along the Servian walls area near the Tiber collecting straw effigys of men with their hands and feet tied and as an act of purification for the city, be tossed off the Pons Sublicius bridge into the river. This was the earliest known bridge of Rome downstream of the Tiber Island near the forum Boarium. I think I shall take a stroll and try to identify where this would have been.

As an aside, the ritual keeping a flame alive is not unusual in many cultures historically. In New Zealand where I live, the Maori indigenous people have a concept called Ahi Ka. This was where in order to maintain rights to continuous land occupation the home fire must be kept burning both physically and metaphorically.




4 thoughts on “Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s