Monday, May 25, 2015

Mussolini and the Virgins

To most people Roman religion was simply a tossed salad of whatever deities the Legions picked up on their march around the known world.  You kind of got the feeling that diffusing the piety among so many objects of devotion made all concerned a little luke warm about the whole enterprise.

But one specific Roman cult is widely remembered.  Even those with a casual acquaintance have heard of The Vestal Virgins.

The worship of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home, goes way back.  It may in fact have been borrowed from the Greeks who had a similar deity named Hestia.  In addition to the similar names each of these guardians of family life had priestesses and a Sacred Flame that had to be kept alight at all times.

In the Roman version the priestesses were the Vestal Virgins, usually six in number. Being a Vestal was in some ways a good job.  You were signed on at a young age and the duties were strictly ceremonial.  They had their own posh accommodations in the Forum, they got great seats at public events, they had various legal rights that were otherwise unavailable to women in that day. They could even pardon convicted criminals, this being just about the only way to get a sentence commuted in Rome unless the Emperor decided in your favor. (And how often in history did THAT happen!)

There was a catch of course.  Virgin meant just that.  You were signing on for a 30 year stretch of celibacy and if you were caught cheating on it you got buried alive.

The temple of Vesta and the adjacent House of the Vestals were important spots, so when the Forum was being cleared of medieval rubbish you would think that impressive ruins would be found and preserved.  The place had been knocked about quite a bit in Late Imperial times and what remained got burned up in the lime kilns in the 15th Century.  If you want the Pope to look upon your monument with favor it would be better to be less pagan.  Constantine or Emperors mistaken for him had a much improved survival rate.

In the 1930's Mussolini was trying to recreate the Glory of Empire.  He did a lot of things that modern archaeologists have come to hate.  He plowed a whopping big road across the north edge of the Forum, destroying who knows what.  And when his teams wanted to have a nice inspirational Temple of Vesta they just took the existing sad little piles of rubble and rebuilt it.  And what was their guide to doing so?


Yep, the Temple of Vesta as you see it today is almost entirely a 20th century concoction of Fascist archaeologists working off of tiny images from Roman coins! So lets take a look around.....

I visited on a blazing bright day when the back lighting was brutal.  You couldn't get a photo from the other angle because like so many areas of archaeology in Rome, things were fenced off.  Budgetary issues are rather dire I understand.  One of the places you could no longer walk around in was the garden area of the adjacent House of the Vestals.

Again, there was a lot of modern imagination going on in the reconstruction of this. Many statues and bits of same, representing past Vestals were found stacked up waiting to be tossed into the the lime kiln.  The best ones went into the museums. These bits and bobs were put up on podiums.  When it was possible to go in there I understand that young ladies would often hop up on the empty ones and try their level best to look Virginal...

In general the signage inside the Forum is both minimal and pretty bland, but even it has to admit that the Temple of the Vestals is largely a 20th Century construct. How bad is it?  Have a close look at one of the main front panels.  See that little bit that looks different?  That is original stonework.  The rest.....

Much more Roman stuff to come but I need a little time to organize.  I think it will be "Roman Mondays" for the rest of the summer.....

1 comment:

JebTexas said...

Thanks for the pics & posts! Very interesting stuff.