Temple of Vesta: Aedes Vesta

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Interior of Aedes Vesta.

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Exterior of Aedes Vasta.

In Casting Lots, Centurion Cornelius visits the Temple of Vesta. He gives his slave, Lucinius, money to spend in the stores around the forum while Lucinius awaits Cornelius to accomplish his business. This business is a crucial plot element of the story.

Aedes Vesta is usually translated as the Temple of Vesta. The word ‘aedes’, perhaps more properly ‘aedis’, is derived from a word which meant “a place with a hearth”. Thus, one could probably translate it as Vesta’s hearth. Doing so, would add greater weight to the concept that Vesta was worshiped as the keeper of the sacred hearth of Rome.

In fact, because augurs had not set the Aedes Vesta apart and hallowed it, it is not technically a temple, but a sacred place. The word ‘aedes’ has several meanings including private sanctuary, but also including house, dwelling, and household. Often the word ‘aedes’ is paired with the word ‘sacra’, hence, aedes sacra or “sacred building”, which if the word ‘aedes’ meant ‘temple’ in the first place, it would seem odd to be a sacred temple, for are not all temples sacred?

One of the most singular features of the Temple of Vesta is that it is circular in its footprint. Why would the Romans build a temple which is circular in form?

Ovid wrote:

The current temple’s shape preserves the shape of old.

There is solid reason for its roundness: the Earth,

You see, and Vesta are one; for each, an undying fire,

And Earth, like hearth-place, signifies the Center.

The Earth, also, is round like a ball ….

Foolishly I used to think that Vesta had a statue,

Until I learned her curving dome held none.

A perpetual flame burns hidden in that temple,

But neither Vesta nor the flame have sculptured form.

Ovid, Fasti 6.265-269; 295-298

Some scholars have advanced the theory that the Temple mirrored the shape of the circular huts which housed Romans from the founding of Rome. Adding support to this theory is the fact that the worship of Vesta began in the homes of the Romans whop gathered around their hearths.

A second unusual feature is that Aedes Vesta did not house a statue of Vesta, only her sacred hearth. While Aedes Vesta served as the repository for important legal documents of Rome (which comes into play in Casting Lots), it also housed the Palladium, a statute of Pallas Athene, believed by Romans to have been rescued by Aeneas from the burning city of Troy.

The myth of Aeneas is central to the psyche of the Roman people. In the Aeneid, Virgil represents Aeneas as the exemplar of Roman piety, virtue, and devotion to duty. Aeneas is called ‘pius’ through the Aeneid. He carries his father Anchises upon his back, while he leads his young son, Iulus (Julius) through the burning flames to safety. Gaius Julius Caesar traced his lineage to Aeneas and through him claimed to be divine, because the mother of Aeneas was the goddess Venus.

Aedes Vesta did face east demonstrating that the sacred fire within has a connection with the rising sun. Life needs sunlight and life needs fire. Further, the fire of Vesta is eternal much like the sun.

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