House of the Vestal Virgins Rome
The address of the Casa delle Vestali is that of the Roman Forum, namely Via della Salara Vecchia, 5/6. For the opening hours and entrance fee for this and other attractions in the Roman Forum, the information on the Colosseum applies. On the first Sunday of the month, the Roman Forum is free.
The House of the Vestal Virgins had about fifty rooms spread out over three floors. Only some of the rooms around the central courtyard have survived.
Together with the Temple of Vesta, the House formed the Atrium Vestae.
The Atrium Vestae was originally much smaller than what can be seen today and was also located on a lower level. After the famous fire of the year 64, it was reconstructed. Several renovations followed later.
The house was the residence and official seat of the six high priestesses whose job it was to keep the fire burning. They were also responsible for other important rites related to domestic life.
Before the Vestal Virgins were charged with this task, it was performed by the daughters of the kings.
As soon as a girl was admitted to the order, she had to leave her family, to go and live in the House of the Vestal Virgins.
The virgins came from the families of wealthy Romans and were between 6 and 10 years old at the time they were chosen. They had to stay there for 30 years and were not allowed to lose their virginity during that time.
If they did, the death penalty followed. A Vestal Virgin condemned to this was buried alive in an underground chamber near today’s Piazza dell’Indipendenza. (Her companion was merely flogged to death).
A Vestal Virgin did have many privileges. She was richly rewarded and had much prestige. She got the best spots at events and was buried in a tomb within the city walls. Moreover, she did not have to listen to her father.
The entrance was on the east side of the Temple of Vesta. The aedicula standing here dates from Hadrian’s time. It use to be supported by two columns (only one of which remains) and probably contained a statue of the goddess Vesta.
The large rectangular courtyard was 69 meters long and around it was a two-storey portico. The house itself also consisted of several floors.
In the center of the courtyard was a rectangular pond and at the ends were two smaller, square ponds. The larger one was later enclosed by an octagonal building, of which nothing remains.
Under the portico are 3rd and 4th century statues depicting some of the Vestal Virgins. Unfortunately, the heads of most of these statues have disappeared. Since it is not known exactly which statue stood where, they have been randomly placed. The better-preserved statues have been taken to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme seat of the Museo Nazionale Romano.
On one of the pedestals, the inscription has been removed. The Virgin who figured on it had disgraced herself by converting to Christianity.
Although some of the rooms around the courtyard, including the stairs leading to the second floor, are very well preserved, it is not permitted to enter.
On the east side is a large room that used to be covered with a vault. On either side were three rooms, so it can be assumed that these belonged to the Virgins. The central room was a Sacellum (a small Sanctuary) dedicated to the Lares (deities that protected the house and the family). A statue of Numa, the second king of Rome and the creator of the cult of Vesta used to stand here.
The rooms on the south side lay along a long corridor. The first served as a bakery, the second as a mill and the third as a kitchen. A staircase led to the 2nd floor, with the priestesses’ rooms, and several of heated baths.
A second staircase shows that there was also a 3rd floor, probably for the staff.
There was also a hallway called Aius Locutius, dedicated to a God who had tried to warn the (not listening) Romans of the arrival of the Gauls in 390 BC.
The large rectangular room on the west side was probably a triclinium.
The rooms on the north side are so dilapidated that it is impossible to guess what their function used to be.