previous next


An Italian goddess of the hearth, and more especially of the fire on the hearth, both in name and in nature akin to the Greek Hestia (q.v.), but worshipped by the Italian nations, particularly by the Latins, from ancient times independently of any connection with Greece. It has been shown that the worship of Vesta had its origin in the difficulty and the necessity of obtaining fire in primitive times. Hence, as even in the present time among savage tribes, arose the custom of keeping a fire always alight somewhere for the use of the community and of carrying fire thence for any new settlement. This custom was preserved by the conservatism of religion among civilized Greeks and Romans, after the necessity had ceased to exist, and the State-hearth was preserved in each Latin State, just as in Greece in the Prytanea; and in like fashion an outgoing settlement carried its sacred fire from the parent city. It was natural that from these observances the sacred flame itself should become personified as a goddess (Ovid, Fast. vi. 291) who presided over the hearth of each house, and in the State-hearth or sanctuary of Vesta over the whole commonwealth. Vesta was thus intimately connected with the Penates as deities of the household and of the State (see Penates); and the fact that the sacred fire was brought from the parent city made the Romans trace back the origin of the cult to the more ancient Latin settlements, first to Lanuvium and Alba, and, after the idea of a Trojan origin prevailed, to Troy itself, whence it was supposed the sacred fire of Vesta as well as the Penates had come (Verg. Aen. ii. 296). To this cause belongs the ancient custom at Rome that praetors, consuls, and dictators, before they began their functions, sacrificed at Lanuvium, that town having been an ancient religious centre of the Latins. At Rome, as in other Latin cities, the sacred fire was tended and the service of Vesta maintained by a body of virgin priestesses, who lived together in a house (Atrium Vestae) to the southeast of the Forum, and under the northwest side of the Palatine, abutting on the Via Nova. This house, as rebuilt under Hadrian, was excavated in 1883, and from its character and the inscriptions (as late as the beginning of the fourth century A.D.) and sculptures found in it much additional light has been thrown on the Vestal service. See Jordan, Das Tempel der Vesta und d. Haus der Vestalinnen (Berlin, 1886); and Lanciani, in his Ancient Rome, ch. vi. (Boston, 1888).

It is no doubt right to assume that the Vestals represented the daughters of the chief in the primitive tribe, who maintained the State-fire in their father's hut. When Vesta was recognized as a personal deity it became necessary that the priestesses should dwell in a sort of nunnery, and that the goddess should have a separate temple; but this Aedes Vestae preserved the shape of the primitive chief's hut, and was a round building (see illustration under Roma). The public worship of Vesta was maintained in this temple: her private worship belonged to every domestic hearth —in the earliest Roman houses in the atrium. In her aspect as a benign goddess of fire Vesta seems to have been akin to or identical with Stata Mater (q. v.). See Preuner, Hestia-Vesta (Tübingen, 1864); Maes, Vesta e Vestali (Rome, 1883); the discussion by Frazer in the (English) Journal of Philology, vol. xiv., and the articles Lares, Penates, and Vestales, in this Dictionary.

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 2.296
    • Ovid, Fasti, 6
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: