All this time we’ve been exploring the myths behind The Trials of Hercules: Book One of The Osteria Chronicles, things have been a bit too Hercules-centric. I mean, Hercules is great and all, but there’s plenty of other history and myth that served as the basis for events and characters in the book.
One of these characters are the Herenes, the priestesses of Hera that reside in the House of Hera in Portaceae City. They are quite prominent in The Trials of Hercules and you soon learn that they, not the leader of Portaceae, are the only ones keeping the city-state from completely crumbling to pieces.
Although the individual Herenes are purely characters of my own overactive imagination (and the result of my talking to myself WAY too much), the Herenes themselves were based on the legendary Vestal Virgins whose home and temple you can see in Rome’s Forum. So, for this week’s Behind the Book, let’s explore the history and ruins of these fascinating ladies.
A Bit About Vesta – A Fiery Goddess
Vesta was the goddess of the hearth who protected families and Rome itself. In a very male-centric world, it’s interesting that one of the most important gods was actually a goddess. In each home on every day, people would gather around the hearth to honor Vesta.
Since it was a big no-no to represent Vesta in statue or other tangible form, her only permitted representation was the sacred fire kept in – you guessed it – the Temple of Vesta. This fire was guarded by her accolades, the Vestal Virgins (more on them later). The Romans believed that if this fire ever went out, Rome would be destroyed.
As a bit of an ironical side note, some of the worst destruction Rome experienced during her history was due to fires.
The Temple of Vesta – Maybe Not the Smartest Storage Place
The Temple of Vesta is said to have been built by King Numa Pompilius way back around 700 BCE. Besides the sacred fire, the temple housed the wills of all the well-to-do and people in power in Rome. Not sure if this was really a good idea given that, with the flame and all, the temple caught fire and burned down four times. You can almost hear the emperor’s propaganda team saying, “Sure all the wills burnt to ash, but look, the sacred fire is still lit, so we’re good! Oh, and I’m pretty sure your grandpa left everything to me.”
As Christianity took hold of the Roman Empire, pagan rites were shunned. In 394 CE, Emperor Theodosius ordered the sacred fire to be extinguished forever. Rome fell to the Visigoths about 15 years later. Take away lesson: You do NOT mess with the gods! Ever.
Meet the Vestal Virgins
So back to those Vestal Virgins. At any time there were only six of them and they had a pretty good career and lifestyle as long as they followed the rules.
Between the ages of six to ten years old, a girl would be chosen for Vestal duty. Originally, these girls were only from the upper crust of society, but eventually the Romans started letting the plebeian girls join in the fun. If chosen, a woman had to serve for a minimum of 30 years.After that you were free to go join society.
Essentially, if chosen at the youngest age, a woman could retire at age 36. Not bad. However, many women chose not to retire because 1) this was one of the most respected jobs in the empire 2) it was pretty much the only job for women other than staying home and caring for the family 3) they had awesome benefits that were lost upon retirement.
Living the Vestal Life
During their service, the Vestals had to keep that pesky flame burning, kept track of the wills and prepared the sacred food that would be used in various rituals. Oh yeah, and not have sex – the “virgin” part of the job description was non-negotiable as their virginity somehow kept that flame burning.
In return, the ladies got some of the best seats in the house at any event; were escorted everywhere by lictors (essentially bodyguards only very important politicians had); were freed from the tyranny of their fathers and of any other man and so were allowed to vote and own property (even the empress couldn’t do that); and they could offer testimony in court that would be accepted without question. Oh, and, if a condemned man walked past them, it was believed that the Vestals were so sacred that the man had to be forgiven.
Seems like an easy life, right? And you can see why so many women refused to give up their job at retirement age, since, once no longer a Vestal they would go back to being the nothings that women in Roman society were. Far better to be one of the most important members of the Roman world.
The only problem was if a Vestal let the sacred fire go out or if she happened to enjoy herself with a man and, well, lost the “virgin” part of her title, things got ugly…and complicated.
Alright, so Vestal Virgins couldn’t be executed because it was sacrilege to kill them or draw their blood (this apparently also applied even if the Vestal was no longer a Virgin). This meant a wayward Vestal couldn’t be killed outright by poison, beheading, crucifixion or any of the other handy methods of capital punishment Romans preferred.
Instead, the Vestal was locked in an underground chamber called Campus Sceleratus (Field of the Wicked) with a big hunk of bread. That way, if she happened to die after being left in there for a month or so, it was the gods’ fault for not taking care of the poor creature. Love that Roman logic. Lesson learned: Don’t screw around on the job if part of the title includes “virgin.” (By the way, this live burial/gods-will-judge also plays an important role in The Trials of Hercules.)
Visiting the Home of the Vestal Virgins
The Vestals’ 50-room house was quite posh and opened onto a large courtyard. The courtyard contained a garden surrounded by marble statues, some of which can still be seen today.
If you happen to be in the Roman Forum, you’ll also see the remnants of the kitchen, flour mill and the house’s elaborate heating facilities. In the photo is a small portion of the huge courtyard and a section of the three-story house.
The House of Hera where the Herenes live was loosely based on layout of the Home of the Vestal Virgins, with an enclosed courtyard and many self-sustaining features. The beauty and wealth of the House is the envy of the leader of Portaceae who thinks it would better serve as his personal brothal.
What do you think? Could you handle the lifestyle of a Vestal?