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23
Apr
2019
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Palladium shrine

Vesta Temple: Sacred hearth & Palladium shrine

Our next coins-related post is about Temple of Vesta. Many tourists who visit Rome think of it as one of the best-preserved buildings on the Forum. In reality, authentic remains are scarce. The standing structure with columns dates from Mussolini-era restorations and materials used are of Severan era.  Many visitors associate Vesta Temple with Vestal Virgins and sacred fire, which is true. But not many think today of the most sacred Roman object that the Shrine used to keep in the past: Palladium.

Palladium story 

Vesta Temple used to keep the most sacred object of the Ancient Rome: a statue of Pallas Athena, or Palladium. It was stolen by Odysseus from Troy, and later brought to Rome by Aeneas. Vestal Temple kept this wooden statue for centuries. Romans believed that the safety of their city and their power depended on the safety of Palladium and a few other sacred objects. Penates and Sacred fire were among them, and they were also kept in the Vesta Temple. Prophecy said that as long as these objects were safe, Rome would remain safe. 

Pic 1. Q. Cassius Longinus. 55 BC. AR Denarius. Rome mint. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, www.cngcoins.com, used by permission of CNG. Annotations by TTR. 
The coin refers to the investigation held in 113 BC over which an ancestor of Quintus Cassius Longinus presided. In 113 BC Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla condemned two Vestals and put them to death. They were previously acquitted of incestum by the pontifical court. The tablet besides the temple is actually a voting tablet and “AC” on it stands for “Absolvo, Condemno” or “I acquit, I condemn”. The reverse depicts the appearance of the Vesta Temple during the late republican period.

King’s sacred hearth ? 

The temple itself was dedicated to the cult of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. According to legend, the cult had been founded either by the city’s founder, Romulus, or the Etruscan king Numa Pompilius. It was traditional for there to be a hearth burning in the center of huts of the archaic period. And the fact that the temple was situated very close to the archaic Regia (the palace of Rome’s Etruscan kings) suggests that the first sacred hearth of the Roman State may well have been that of the king.

Vestal Virgins duty 

The vestal virgins, a group of six or seven virgin priestesses, maintained the eternal holy hearth of the city of Rome. It was the vestals’ responsibility to make sure that the sacred hearth of Vesta didn’t go out. If it did, this could only mean one thing: calamity for Rome. For vestals, neglecting their duties could result in them being walled up alive.

Pic 2. Nero. AD 54-68. AR Denarius. Rome mint. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, www.cngcoins.com, used by permission of CNG. Annotations by TTR.

Archaic hut

Roman believed that the Temple was circular because of its antiquity. The first cult site had been no more than a simple straw hut. The Temple was victim of frequent fires: we know of at least four fires that consumed it: in 241 BC, 210 BC, 64 AD, and 191 AD. But the hut design was repeated through successive restorations. The last one was carried out by Julia Domna, the wife of Septimius Severus, after the fire of 191 AD. Remaining authentic parts of the Temple date from this time. 

Pic 3. Julia Domna. Augusta, AD 193-217. AR Denarius. Rome mint. Struck under Septimius Severus. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, www.cngcoins.com, used by permission of CNG. Annotations by TTR.

What is to see there now ? 

Enough survives of the Temple of Vesta for you to make out its curious, circular shape. The temple’s podium – seen behind standing columns – has a diameter of 15 metres and has a marble revetment. The podium was supporting Corinthian columns, six of which were re-erected in the 1930s. These columns held a conical roof, which had a hole in the center to allow the sacred hearth’s fire to escape. Excepting periods when the rooftop was occupied by a statue. We recommend paying a special attention to the cavity in the podium of the Temple. Archaeologists believe that it was the storage area for Palladium and Penates, most sacred objects of the Ancient Rome.

To find out more: Timetravelrome.

Authors: Alexander Meddings with contributions and additional edits from TTR. 

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