Who Was the Roman Goddess Vesta?
When the Romans adopted Greek mythology, the goddess Hestia was renamed as Vesta.
In Greek culture the goddess of the hearth had a unique position. There were few myths about her, but she was important because she was connected to both household and sacred fires.
The Romans expanded on this tradition, making Vesta a goddess of every aspect of domestic life. Despite being a sworn virgin herself, she took on an important role in marriage, motherhood, and the family.
Due in large part to ties with Rome’s founding legend, the official temple to Vesta was also a central point of the city. It employed some of the few full-time priestesses in the state religion and was a symbolic center of Roman life.
The worship of Vesta was always an important aspect of Roman religious life, but Caesar Augustus would use it as a means of consolidating his own power. Using an ancient title and the goddess’s traditions, he would make his home the center of Rome’s vast empire.
Like her Greek counterpart, Hestia, Vesta was the goddess of the hearth.
The fire was central to domestic life. It was the place where families cooked their meals, but it was also where they paid homage to their gods. The worship of household gods involved offering burnt sacrifices of meat, bread, or wine.
Like in Greece, this meant that the unassuming goddess played a central role in religious devotion. She did not feature prominently in myths, but Vesta was the first to receive the offerings sent to the other gods and goddesses.
Vesta’s early mythology was quite similar to that of Hestia. She was the sister of Jupiter who, after the defeat of the Titans, opted to tend to her brother’s house rather than marry.
This also meant that Vesta took a vow of chastity. The few myths that featured her largely revolved around this vow.
The Romans, unlike the Greeks, did have a few stories about the household goddess interfering directly in the lives of mortals. Virtually all of these concerned her domains of chastity and domesticity.
For example, local legends occurred relatively often in which a great man, identified variously as Romulus or Servius Tullius, was conceived with the help of the goddess. These myths involved a phallus magically appearing in the fireplace, Vesta’s altar.
Thus, while she herself was an avowed virgin, Vesta was sometimes thought of as a mother goddess. Historians believe that this is likely because the mythology of Hestia had been mixed with an earlier Italian domestic goddess who was more closely associated with motherhood.
Both because of these myths and because of her place in the home, she was a goddess of family and domesticity. Although she never married herself, her hearth was a central point of family life.
In both marriage and sacrifices the Romans paired Vesta with the god Janus. The two-headed deity was the god of doorways and passages, while Vesta represented the threshold that separated the home from the outside world.
From this, the Romans developed a tradition that is still sometimes observed today. Because the threshold was the space of the goddess of the hearth, new brides would avoid stepping directly on it to avert bad luck. A woman would carefully step over it or, in a familiar tradition, be carried over by her new husband.
The Romans believed that Vesta was one of the Penates, or household gods. According to tradition, these were the first gods brought to Italy by their legendary ancestry, Aeneas.
They regarded Vesta as a Trojan goddess, one of many that Aeneas had brought with him when he settled their lands.
The Romans may have been somewhat correct in believing that their domestic goddess had deep origins in their country. Her importance, however, would soon expand far beyond the household hearth.
The Penates were associated with Greek gods and goddesses, but were originally native Italian deities. They were worshiped in the home rather than in grand temples.
According to Roman tradition, Vesta’s first temple was in Lavinium. One of that city’s colonies, Alba Longa, would become the headquarters of the Latin League.
As a major goddess of these pre-Roman people, Vesta remained a part of the Roman legends of their founding. They claimed that her temple in Alba Longa played a major role in their history.
A priestess of her temple, Silvia, was the daughter of the king and a descendant of Aeneas. Like all of Vesta’s priestesses, she had taken a vow of chastity.
Silvia, however, was assaulted by Mars. She gave birth to twin sons she named Romulus and Remus.
Vesta was so angered that she caused the sacred fire in her temple to go out and shut the eyes of her image. Earthquakes were felt around Alba Longa signalling the goddess’s displeasure.
The twins were set adrift on the Tiber but survived and eventually founded the city of Rome. Rhea Silvia, motivated both by shame and the threat of punishment from her usurper uncle, took her own life.
While Vesta was angry over Silvia’s children, she nonetheless became a major figure in the story of Rome’s founding. Romulus and Remus brought her cult to Rome and established a temple there in honor of their mother.
Because of this, Vesta’s temple in Rome was a far more significant place than Hestia’s had been in Greece. She was, according to legend, among the first deities to have a major place in public life.
This position only increased in later eras due to the prominence of her priesthood.
The temple of Vesta was staffed by a group of priestesses who are commonly called the Vestal Virgins. They are one of the most prominent religious groups in Roman literature.
The Vestal Virgins modelled not only their goddess but also Rhea Silvia, the mother of Rome’s founding king. Because of this, they were chosen from prominent members of Rome’s patrician families.
Vesta’s priestesses served for thirty years. During this time they took vows of strict celibacy and moral behavior. Breaking these vows, or causing a Vestal Virgin to do so, was punishable by death.
Because of their nobility, strict vows, and place in public life, the Vestal Virgins were romanticized in art and literature. While they were holy women, stories of illicit affairs were always popular.
As prominent as the Vestal Virgins were, however, the head of their temple was the most powerful man in the city.
Roman temples all had their own priests, but one man was considered to be the head of the state religion. The pontifex maximus was not officially ranked as the highest religious authority, but in practice had control over almost all matters of religion.
While not officially a political appointment, the office of pontifex maximus was a coveted position among Rome’s patrician families. He wielded enormous power over affairs of state.
Roman law required that the pontifex maximus resided in a publicly-owned house, however, to keep control from being too firmly held by a family. In the Republican era this house was next to that of the Vestal Virgins.
While Caesar Augustus became emperor, he also took the position of pontifex maximus. Residing in his own villa, however, contradicted the law governing the priest’s home.
To comply with the law, Augustus donated part of his private estate to the Vestal Virgins and their temple. This was considered publicly-owned property once a new shrine to the goddess was established within it.
While the old temple remained, the new shrine placed Rome’s household goddess firmly within Augustus’s own home. The tradition began that the emperor was not only pontifex maximum but also distinctly connected to the worship of Vesta.
Both Vesta and her Greek counterpart, Hestia, had a long tradition of being connected to both private life and the state. Their fires were the center of the home, but they were also the public fires of all other temples and meeting places.
By placing Vesta’s hearth in his own home, the Emperor became tied to this idea. Just as Vesta’s fire was a center of religious life in the home, her new shrine on the Palatine became the center of state life.
By linking himself so closely with Vesta, the Emperor became more than an honorary priest. He was tied to all other religious offerings and fires and, symbolically, the father figure in the vast home of the Roman state.
The Roman goddess Vesta was adopted from the Greek goddess Hestia. She blended the Greek goddess of the hearth with an Italian domestic goddess.
As the goddess of the hearth, Vesta was a central figure in religious devotion. She was not only invoked at household fires, but also in the sacrificial fires of all other temples.
The Romans also saw her as a patroness of marriage and family. Although Vesta was herself a virgin goddess, her position in the home made her a figure of domesticity.
In Rome, her centrality, nobility, and chastity were embodied by her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. These women were some of the most prominent and frequently-referenced religious figures in ancient Rome.
Despite harsh punishments, the priestesses of Vesta did sometimes break their vows of chastity. The most famous instance of this was Rhea Silvia, who was the mother of Romulus and Remus by Mars.
This connection to Vesta linked the goddess to the power of the state. While she was never a prominent figure in mythology, her temple became a center of Roman religion.
This became even more pronounced when Augustus became Rome’s first emperor. He was also named the high priest of the state religion and chose to link his own household to Vesta.
By placing a prominent shrine to Vesta within his own household, Augustus became more than a political figure. His house became the symbolic hearth of the nation, the center of all life in Rome.