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The Vestal virgins

The central place of fire in civilization, and the importance of keeping the flame alight, is recognized in the Roman cult of Vesta. She is the intimate goddess of the hearth, the domestic fireside, but she also has a public cult in Rome. Unlike other temples, the temple of Vesta in Rome has no cult statue of the goddess. The central feature is a flame.

The attendants in the shrine are women, in keeping with the domestic theme; and the temple itself is round, unlike the rectangular shape of others, in memory of the early round huts of the Italian tribes.

There are six Vestal virgins, each serving for thirty years. Chosen by the high priest or pontifex maximus (a position held in imperial times by the emperor), they are initiated between the ages of six and ten in a traditional bridal dress, to symbolize virginity. Their vow of virginity is of great solemnity. The penalty for breaking it is burial alive.

Their duties are those of any priest or priestess, responsible for the rituals of the shrine. The most important of these is tending the sacred flame, which is renewed only once a year (on March 1, the Roman new year). A virgin who lets the flame go out at any other time is punished with a beating.

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