Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, tended to the fire in Zeus’s home.
In this position, the virgin goddess became the keeper of the hearth. In both the home and the city, she was at the center of daily life and all sacrifices were made through her.
This was an important role, but Hestia was almost absent in Greek mythology and art. Her place in the home meant there were few myths about her and she was rarely involved in the affairs of the other gods.
The Romans adopted Hestia under the name Vesta. From the beginning, though, the Roman goddess was a much more visible part of public life.
The cult of Vesta was associated with great power from the time of Rome’s first legendary king. By the time Octavian was made Caesar Augustus, Vesta had a visible position at the heart of a vast empire and in the seat of imperial power.
Hestia was the Greek goddess of the hearth.
Zeus’s eldest sister, she had taken a vow of celibacy. Instead of marrying, she took a place in her brother’s home and kept his fire.
Maintaining the household’s fire was a sacred duty in the Greek world. Not only was the hearth a source of heat for warmth and cooking, but it was also the connection between the people of the home and the gods.
The Greeks honored their gods with burnt offerings of meat and bread. A portion of everything was given to the gods, so at every meal the household hearth became a site of religious devotion.
Because her place was beside the hearth of Olympus, Hestia received the first taste of all offerings sent to the other gods. No matter which god the sacrifice was dedicated to, Hestia received a share.
These sacrifices did not just take place in homes, however. Temples kept their own sacrificial fires burning which were tended just as closely as the fires of the home.
Each city would also have a fire. The center of civic celebrations and rituals, the fire represented the bonds of the citizens being as strong as those of a family.
Hestia presided over all these fires, making her a goddess of both domestic spaces and the city.
Despite her importance, however, Hestia was easily overlooked among the gods of Olympus. Because she stayed by her brother’s fire she featured in very few myths, and her involvement in all sacrifices eliminated the need for any temples specifically in her honor.
Hestia was not often depicted in Greek art or mentioned in mythology, but her cult still spread to Rome. As the people of Italy adopted classical Greek mythology, Hestia found a new place in their culture.
Her Roman name was Vesta, which despite the similarity is probably not linguistically connected to the Greek Hestia.
Her role in the religion was initially very similar. It quickly expanded, however, until the cult of Vesta was one of the most celebrated in all of Rome.
Roman mythology created many links between their own culture and that of Greece. The founders of both Rome itself and the neighboring Italian states were all said to have some connection to famous figures in Greek mythology.
The city of Rome was famously founded by the twins Romulus and Remus. Their father was Mars, the Roman equivalent of Ares, while their mother was a human woman.
Silvia, their mother, had been a priestess of Vesta. She brought the virgin goddess’s cult to the region and taught Romulus, the first king of Rome, to worship the goddess of the hearth.
From the beginning, then, the cult of Vesta was associated not just with the city in general, but with its royal family. The fact that the first king of Rome had been a devotee of Vesta made the goddess immediately more important than her Greek counterpart.
While Vesta remained a virgin goddess, she also became a mother goddess of the state.
Worship of Vesta was largely similar to that of Hestia, with sacrifices taking place in the home. Vesta, however, had her own established cult and temple.
Her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, were seen as successors of Silvia. As such they were held to a high standard of decorum, including a vow of celibacy that mirrored their goddess’s, and were drawn from the highest orders of society.
The vows of the Vestal Virgins were held in such high regard that a priestess who broke them, or a man who tried to force her to, would face a brutal death for violating their oath.
Hestia had been a goddess of the city-state, and Vesta retained that association in Rome. As Roman power spread, however, this made the shrine of Vesta the central hearth of a vast nation rather than a single city.
Vesta’s cult was made even more prominent when Augustus took power as the first Emperor.
Augustus was considered to be not only the head of state, but also the head of the state religion. As pontifex maximus, the high priest was expected to live in a home owned by the public.
Rather than give up his own estate to fulfill this traditional obligation, Augustus gave part of his private house to the temple of Vesta. While her temple in the Forum remained important, the goddess of the hearth was now associated with the home of the Emperor.
The Emperors of Rome were automatically considered not only the head of the state religion as a whole, but specifically priests of Vesta. From her almost invisible beginnings in Greece, the goddess of the hearth had become intertwined with the power of the Roman state and its semi-divine ruler.
The virgin goddess Hestia was associated with both domestic life and that of the polis. As the keeper of Zeus’s fire, she received every sacrifice made to the gods.
This was an important position, but it also kept her removed from the public eye. Because Hestia was worshiped in the home and received the sacrifices of all gods, she had no temples or cult sites in Greece.
Like most Greek deities, Hestia was adopted in to the faith of Rome. There, she was named Vesta.
The first king of Rome, Romulus, was a son of Mars. His mother, Silvia, had been a priestess of Vesta who was violated by the god of war.
Silvia taught her son the rites of Vesta, so the founding king of Rome was associated with the domestic goddess. Vesta came to be seen as a mother to the nation and her temple in the Forum was the center of Roman power.
When Augustus took power as the first Roman emperor he also became the head of the state religion. Tradition held that the high priest lived in a publicly-owned house, so Augustus donated part of his private home to the temple of Vesta.
From then on Vesta was important not only to the state, but to the household of the emperor. Future emperors would be named priests of Vesta when they took power, making the goddess’s cult even more central to the state religion.
While Hestia was easy to overlook in Greek life, Vesta was at the heart of the great Roman Empire. Her temple was central to the Roman concept of authority and cultural identity.