Vestal courtyard
ATRIUM VESTAE: remains of the post-191 CE building viewed from the Palatine Hill (adapted from The Garden Landscape Guide)


Evidence for the building history of the home of the Vestal Virgins exists today principally in the remains of its final restoration in the early 3rd century CE under the Emperor Septimius Severus and the Empress Julia Domna (c. 170-218 CE); a rare aureus coin commemorates Julia Domna for the reconstruction of the Vestal residence which had been destroyed by fire in 191 CE during the reign of the Emperor Commodus. Excavation of the site suggests six stages in the development of the building (Platner 204-6). Although the oldest foundation stones date from the sixth century BCE (the original tufa blocks were reused in the reconstruction after a fire in the third century BCE), recent excavations have revealed traces of a wood and straw hut dating to the mid-8th century BCE, perhaps the earliest home of the priestesses (see model of an early Latin house on the Palatine). After the destruction of the Vestal's residence in the great fire of 64 BCE under the Emperor Nero, it was redesigned and reoriented against the Palatine hillside. This building was also damaged by fire and restored by the Emperor Domitian. In their role as Pontifex Maximus, successive emperors enhanced the Atrium: the Emperor Hadrian added rooms and the Antonine emperors erected at least one additional floor. Despite its size (building footprint: approx. 377 feet x 174 feet), heated walls and floors, and once-luxurious decorations, the House of the Vestals was a damp and sunless home, set as it was against the Palatine Hill and 30 feet below the Via Nova, facing north and shadowed by the lofty imperial palace above.


The Area Vestae is located in the heart of the Roman Forum, between the Via Sacra on the north and the upper Via Nova on the south, the Vicus Vestae on the west and a lane on the east side leading up to the Palatine. The complex faced the Via Sacra with an attached portico and shops (see drawing and Atrium Plan, #13 and 14). The residence seems large for only six priestesses, but it included reception rooms, storerooms, a bath complex and workrooms, as well as apartments for each Vestal, her slaves and servants (see Atrium key). In addition, until Augustus moved the home of the Pontifex Maximus to his palace on the Palatine hill in 12 BCE after his election to the office, his living quarters, the Domus Publica, were traditionally part of the Vestal residence (the Regia, a nearby dedicated sacred space from the time of the Kings, remained his official headquarters as chief priest of the pontifical colleges).
Aedicula: originally designed with four Ionic columns and set at the corner of the Vicus Vestae behind the Temple of Vesta and to the right of the entrance to the Vestal Residence (#2 on the Atrium Plan), this structure has been identified as either a shrine of the Lares Compitales or a decorative enhancement visible to all, added during the Hadrianic period (c. 120 CE). Set on a podium, the small temple-like structure (approx. 10 feet x 6.5 feet) is large enough to hold an under life size statue (Lanciani, 224-6, suggests Mercury; other scholars suggest the goddess Vesta: Lindner, 92-95, offers as Vesta the seated statue discovered in the Atrium). The entablature frieze contains a two-line inscription in Roman capitals of the Hadrianic period that testifies to its construction at public expense: SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANV[s] / PECVNIA PVBLICA FACIENDAM CVRAVIT.
Aedes Vestae: The Temple of Vesta (virtual recreation; 1st century CE marble relief) is situated in the northeast corner of the Area Vestae, where the earliest traces of building are to be found. Originally built by Numa as a round wood hut with a thatched straw roof (see Ovid, Fasti 6.257-268), it was destroyed by the Gallic invasion of 390 BCE and again by fire in 241 BCE when L. Caecilius Metellus was Pontifex Maximus (see Ovid, June 9: the Vestalia, in Fasti 6.349-394 and 437-458). Despite the evidence on coins (denarius of Nero, 64-68 CE, aureus of Vespasian, 73 CE), the Temple contained no image of the goddess Vesta (see Ovid, Fasti 6.295-298). By tradition the temple was the repository, among other sacred objects, of the Palladium, the ancient statue of Athena that Aeneas brought from Troy along with his household gods (see Fasti 6.417-458). Sharing its re-building history with the Atrium (see historical events), the Temple's last recorded reconstruction was carried out under the Emperor Septimius Severus by his wife Julia Domna (commemorative sestertius). In 394 CE Theodosius I closed the gates and extinguished its sacred fire, but the building survived almost intact until its discovery in 1489, not long after which it was dismantled for its materials.
Sources: R. Lanciani (1897), The Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome 224-232; S. B. Platner (1911), Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome 204-210; A. Claridge (1998), Oxford Archaeological Guides, 100-104; F. Coarelli (2007), Rome and Environs, 84-89; M.M. Lindner (2015), Portraits of the Vestal Virgins, pp.39-61, 90-92. See Russell T. Scott, "Vestae Aedem Petitam?" p. 173, in Dickison and Hallett (Bibliography); also s.v. Vesta, Aedes, Atrium Vestae in Digital Roman Forum and Rome Reborn.


During the late 1st century CE the interior courtyard was enlarged with a roofed two-story portico. It was surrounded on four sides by rooms: on the south side by the residence building, on the north side by tabernae facing outward onto the Via Sacra, on the west side by rooms associated with the Temple of Vesta, and on the east side by a great hall (see image above and Atrium Plan). The large barrel-vaulted hall (approx. 39 feet x 26 feet) whose function is unclear interrupted the eastern portico and was raised three steps above the court yard, its entry flanked by two columns; it contained three small rooms on each side, tempting scholars to conjecture they were for each of the six Vestals. The open central area (approx. 197 feet x 49 feet) contained three paved basins and plantings. The surrounding portico consisted of a colonnade of 48 Corinthian columns on each floor, only two of which remain from the upper floor. The corridor formed by the roofed colonnade on the ground floor, of which only fragments and Travertine marble bases remain, contained along its back wall life-size portrait statues of the Virgines Vestales Maximae on inscribed pedestals.