Ancient Rome gave the world many things, including a simple blueprint for large city development and habitation. Roman engineers paved over 250,000 miles of road to connect the empire. They perfected a recipe for concrete and used it to build aqueducts to bring fresh water into the city from miles away and a also pioneered a sewer system for moving wastewater back out. They created our modern calendar, known as the Julian Calendar (first introduced by Julius Caesar in the year 46 B.C.) and a daily news process, which many historians claim is the likely origins of the modern day newspaper. But even more important than their many great physical achievements, the Romans gave us a healthy dose of holidays and celebratory events. They celebrated great military victories, paid homage to important things in Roman culture such as wine, sacred wells, and the mythical founders Romulus and Remus and had lavish parties to honor their Gods and Goddesses. One of these celebrations was known as Vestalia; a very important religious festival to honor the Goddess Vesta.
Vesta was the virgin Goddess of the hearth, home, and family; three extremely important components of Roman life. She was rarely depicted in her human form, instead being represented by an eternal flame that burned in her temple and was never extinguished. She was considered a guardian of the Roman people and her temple was sacred ground which could only be entered by her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Evidence of Vesta being worshiped dates back to the 7th Century B.C.; early accounts state that a bit of food would be thrown into the fire at each meal as an offering to her. As Rome grew, her importance grew and she became part of the Dii Consentes, the twelve most important Gods and Goddesses in Rome.
Vestalia was celebrated from June 7th until June 15th. The first day of festivities was significant because it was the only day of the year that the Temple of Vesta would be opened to women who weren’t Vestal Virgins to offer sacrifices, which were usually in the form of food. The Temple was round with the entrance to the east, symbolizing the connection between the rising sun and Vesta’s flame. It was one of the earliest constructions in the Roman forum, the center of activities in the city, and also served as a storehouse for important Roman documents and the last will and testimony of many prominent citizens. During the festivities, matrons of Rome would proceed barefoot to the Temple to make their annual offering. At the end of the celebration, the Vestal Virgins would ritualistically sweep the entire facility and dump the dust and debris in the Tiber River.
The Vestales were a select group of women drawn from the patrician, or ruling class of Rome. They were carefully selected and had to commit to absolute chastity for a period of thirty years, thus the origin of the Vestal Virgin term. They were one of the few full-time religious positions in ancient Rome, and the only ones held by women. The vow of chastity was binding and anyone caught violating the sacred oath would be buried alive in the Field of Wickedness; the Campus Sceleris. This was done so that no blood would be shed. The male who participated in the deflowering of a Virgin would be beaten to death in the public square.
Girls between ages three and ten would be selected to serve as Vestales in a three phase progression. The first ten years as a novice, ten years as a Vestal Virgin, and the final ten years as an overseer. After serving for thirty years the women were released from their obligation and free to marry. It was highly prestigious for a Roman man to marry a former Vestal Virgin. The most senior Vestale was known as the Virgo Vestalis Maxima. The entire order was under the protection of the Pontifex Maximus, the chief high priest and highest religious position in Rome. This fact alone ensured the Vestal Virgins were able to perform their duties free of harassment by any Roman.
In exchange for thirty years of chastity and servitude, the Virgins were granted special rights and privileges not afforded to other Roman women. As soon as they took the vow, these women were “released” from their father’s control, which meant that they could manage their own property and write legally binding documents. They were allowed to legally move around the city in a carriage and their blood was considered sacred and never to be spilled.
The Vestal Virgins would tend the sacred flame in the temple but had other duties. They were responsible for first making salamoia, a salt brine that would later be used in the recipe for Mola salsa. This mixture would be sprinkled on the heads of animals being sacrificed and was officially designated as such. It would also be made into a dough and the Vestal Virgins would make cakes for the celebration of Vestalia. Mola salsa (translated ‘salted flour’) was a mixture of coarse-ground emmer flour, salamoia salt and sacred water. Because of these ceremonial cakes being prepared, Vestalia was a holiday to bakers and millers.