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Sacred fire of Vesta
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Sacred fire of Vesta

The Sacred fire of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and goddess of fire, was an eternal flame which burned within the Temple of Vesta on the Roman Forum. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus , the Romans believed that the fire was closely tied to the fortunes of the city; its extinction was viewed as a portent of disaster.

The practice of keeping a fire always burning was not limited to religious ritual: for the Romans, maintaining a constant fire was often easier than relighting one regularly. The worship of Vesta grew out of this practice; the position of the Vestal Virgins, who tended the sacred fire, was originally held by the Roman king's daughters, who, like other young Roman girls, had the chore of tending the house's fire. The fire in the temple of Vesta, who was herself always personified as living flame (Ovid, Fasti, vi), was thus the hearth fire of the city. As the extinction of a hearth fire was a misfortune for a family, so the extinction of Vesta's flame was thought to portend national disaster for Rome—which explains the severe punishment (usually death) of Vestals who allowed the fire to go out.

The Vestal Virgins (they originally numbered four, but were later increased to six) were selected by lot and served for thirty years, tending the holy fire and performing other rituals connected to domestic life—among them were the ritual sweeping of the temple on June 15 and the preparation of foods for certain festivals. By analogy, they also tended the life and soul of the city and of the body politic through the sacred fire of Vesta, which was renewed every year on the Kalends of March.

The sacred fire burned in Vesta's circular temple in the Roman Forum (below the Aventine Hill. Other sacred objects were stored within the temple, including the Palladium supposed to have been brought by Aeneas from Troy. The temple existed from pre-republican times until 394, when the fire was extinguished by order of Theodosius I, and the Vestal Virgins disbanded. The temple burned completely on at least four occasions and caught fire on two others. The current temple (somewhat restored in the 20th century) dates from 191 AD, when Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimius Severus, ordered a thorough rebuilding.

Nikola Tesla once suggested, in passing, that the fire of Vesta might be electrical plasma. [1] The current written historical record accounts that the fire of Vesta was a normal flame (from records of the frequent fires in the Temple).