VESTA, an ancient goddess, called Hestia by the Greeks. According to the traditions of that people she was a virgin divinity, and watched over the fire that burned on the household hearth, which was looked on as her shrine. Something sacred attached to this part of the house. It was the family altar; here suppliants took refuge; on it oaths were sworn. Each town had its public fire, which was left continually burning in the Prytane urn, and when a band of colonists went forth from the city, they carried fire lighted at the common hearth with them. At Rome it was believed that IEneas had brought in this manner the sacred fire from Troy. It was preserved in a temple of circular shape with vaulted roof, which stood on the Forum. The sacred fire therein was tended by six priestesses who were called Vestales. They were vir gins like the goddess whom they served. They performed several important func tions in the State religion of Rome. They assisted at all great public rites, and were present at such religious transac tions as the consecration of temples. Their fixed term of service was 30 years, of which they passed 10 in a state of novitiate, 10 in performing the sacred duties of their office, and 10 in instruct ing novices. After this they were per
mitted to return to ordinary life if they pleased, though this was a privilege of which few availed themselves; for not withstanding the drawbacks and re strictions of their position, it was one of great honor and even profit. Lictors preceded them when they appeared in public; consuls and praetors saluted and made way for them. They were main tained at the public expense, and they occupied special places of honor at the public games. If any proved unfaithful to her vows, she met with a terrible fate. She was degraded and deprived of her insignia of office. She was then dressed like a corpse, placed in a close litter, and conducted with all the usual ceremonies attendant on a funeral to a piece of ground called the Campus Sceleratus, where she was buried alive. If the sacred fire of the goddess was allowed through negligence to go out, it was re kindled by the Pontifex Maximus by the friction of two pieces of wood against each other. The festival of Vesta was celebrated on June 9, in each year, on June 15 the temple was cleaned and purified, and on March 1, the sacred fire and the laurel tree that shaded it were renewed.