Tag Archives: etymology

Tempio di Vesta

Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas

Time has come for another story about women in ancient Rome, this time it will be about a very special group of priestesses: the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal virgins were part of the only female priesthood in Rome and for this reason could be considered a privileged category of women…but you’ll see soon that the balance of duties and privileges was not so fair :)

Who were the Vestal Virgins?

Easy to say, they were the priestesses of the goddess Vesta, one of the most archaic and important divinities of the Roman pantheon. In few word we can say that she was the protector goddess of Rome, goddess of the hearth. Hence she was considered both protector of the Roman families and of the State (the State itself was considered as a great family).
Her temple was in the very heart of the Roman Forum, a small round temple (like the shape of an ancient hut) with a conical roof with a hole in the center: in fact the goddess’s presence inside the temple was symbolized not by a statue but by an always burning fire (and the hole was for the smoke!).

Temple of Vesta

The origin is quite easy to understand: at very beginning of the Roman history, when Rome was still no more than a small group of huts, people understood that was easier preserve a constant fire instead of re-light it each night (specially in the wet months) and, as time went by, this became the hearth of the State. No need to say that the extinction of the fire was considered by the Romans as the worst omen ever that could means the end of Rome itself. Hence to preserve the fire was the main duty of the Vestal Virgins.

The priestesses, in number of six, were drawn from their families between the age of six and ten years old. After this moment they must remain in the priesthood for thirty years: ten years learning, ten years performing and ten years teaching to the novices.



And here comes the hardest part: for those thirty years the main duty, with the preservation of the fire, was preserve the virginity. They were in fact considered so sacred that no one can neither touch them…are you starting to understand how hard was their life…and that’s nothing, you’ll see.

The rule not to be touched was really unyielding: it means DON’T TOUCH at all, with a lot of consequences. First, sex: hard to have with no touch, so, no sex. The punishment for those who broke the rule was pretty clear: death. And that’s not the worst part: because they were untouchable, they could neither be wounded and their blood could not to be spilled. So, how to kill someone without spilling her blood or even touch her? Easy: bury her alive! Yes, you got it.

The guilty vestal was dressed with funeral clothes, put on a closed litter, like a dead body, and brought in a subterranean room placed just inside the city walls (nearby the present central Termini train station) called the campus sceleratus, the Evil Field. Once there, they were buried alive in the room with just one oil lamp and a small supply of water, bread, milk and oil.

A kind of the famous scene of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman is buried alive…but unfortunately Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as ninjas!


And what happened to the man? (Because there must be a man) Well he had the same punishment of the slaves: he was simply flogged to death in the Roman Forum.
Ok, you could say, the rule is clear: no sex at all. This could be enough to avoid this horrible death, right? Not exactly.
Of course this was the punishment also in case of the extinction of the fire and that’s not enough. Because in life shit happens: if something bad happened to Rome the Vestal Virgins were often considered guilty and used as a scapegoat to please the gods. By reading ancient chronicles seems that, until the end of the Republic, the punishment of the Vestal Virgins was a kind of disguised human sacrifice to please the gods: a plague, a famine, a war defeat could be considered caused by the wrong behavior of a Vestal Virgin and in this case one girl was condemned. This happened to Oppia, Orbilia, Minucia, Tuccia…

…And rights

Anyway: big duty but also big privileges for these women. Vestal Virgins in some way could be considered the only independent women in Rome. They were not subjected to the patria potestas and, unlike the rest of Roman women, were allowed to make a will, testify in a lawsuit, own properties, be brought in a wagon within the city walls, have reserved seats for the games and, after their death, they could be buried in a special cemetery inside the city walls. And more, if a person sentenced to death had the good luck to see a Vestal Virgin on the day of the execution, he was automatically pardoned.


Among the duties of the Vestal Virgin was also the preparation of the mola salsa: this was a mixture of emmer flour and salt that was used in every official sacrifice. It was sprinkled on the head of the animals before they were sacrificed and on holy fires too. Mola salsa, sacrificed animals…does it remind something: the verb to immolate comes exactly from this!

Tweetable quote: “Too bad Vestal Virgins weren’t trained as Ninjas” – Tweet this!

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Pictures Credits:

  • Reconstruction of the temple of Vesta – from “Trattato di archeologia” by I. Gentile, 1901
  • Ruins of the Temple of Vesta – CC BY 2.0 - HarshLight
  • “Dedication of a New Vestal Virgin”  – by A. Marchesini, 1710
  • “Vestale d’aprés Peytavin” – by C. Normand (1765-1840)
  • “Invocation” – by Frederic Leighton,  (1830–1896)
chiesa sant'agnese

Saints and Prostitutes. The church of S. Agnese in Agone

Today’s tale is about the church of S. Agnese in Agone, in Piazza Navona, a story that spans between the Ancient and the Baroque Rome.

Piazza Navona and the Stadium of Domitian

This is probably one of the most popular square of Rome, with its distinctive shape and the famous fountain made by Bernini. The stretched shape, as you may know, comes from that of the stadium of Domitian (you already heard about him when we talked about the Colosseum, built by his family). Around 86 AD he had this stadium built for athletic competitions; this kind of games were called “agones” from a Greek word, and after it was probably named the square: it became “in agonis“, then “innagone“, “navone” and finally “Navona“. The buildings surrounding nowadays the square  are literally built ON the walls of the Roman stadium: around the square, in the lower levels of the new buildings, you can still see the travertine blocks of Domitian’s stadium.


Our story begins in the ancient Rome, when the stadium was still there.

Saint Agnes

According to tradition, around the beginning of the 4th century AD there was in Rome this beautiful and virtuous woman named Agnes. Ok, she was probably only 13 years old, so it would be better to say a child, a girl, but on that time, 13 years old was the age for getting married and having children, so we’ll say a woman, even if she wasn’t already.


Well, it happened that she was so beautiful that the Roman Prefect’s son fell in love with her. And this could still become a nice love story… probably the Prefect’s son was rich and could be considered a great catch. If only Agnes wasn’t Christian. And she hadn’t made vow of chastity, too. Hence she refused the Prefect’s son who, probably, went back crying to his father: the latter punished Agnes forcing her to become a Vestal Virgin.

The Vestal Virgins were a group of pagan priestesses (actually this was the only female priesthood in Rome), very powerful. They also had to made vow of chastity and that’s why Agnes was forced to become one of them. Also the story of the Vestal Virgins is really interesting, but there’s so much to say that I need another post…good idea for the future :)

Anyway the Vestal Virgins were pagan and therefore Agnes refused to join them because she was Christian.

And here we come to the stadium of Domitian because the Prefect of Rome, when Agnes refused to join the Vestal Virgins, condemned her to become a prostitute and that’s why she was brought to the stadium.

Prostitutes in the Ancient Rome

In the ancient Rome there were a lot of prostitutes and obviously brothels, called lupanares. This name comes from lupa, “she-wolf“, the slang for prostitute… And if you’re thinking to the most famous Rome’s she-wolf, the symbol of the city itself… well, yes, you’re probably right! Many historians think that the legend of the she-wolf was invented to hide and recall the real story, that probably Romulus and Remus were raised by a prostitute, Acca Larentia (who in the legend became the shepherd’s wife, who found the twins).
Anyway the lupanares were not the only workplace for prostitutes and we know that many of them used to sell themselves near the circuses and stadiums, waiting below the arches.


Now it happens that the Latin word for arch is fornix (fornices plural) and, because the prostitutes were used to work there, this is the origin of the English word “fornication“, that you still use, maybe. At least the Red Hot Chilly Peppers do :)

The “uniform” of Roman prostitutes was the toga, the short male dress, so as to show more legs and make clear that they weren’t respectable women (worthy to wear the typical female clothes: a long dress, the stola, and a mantle, the palla). Wearing a toga was a so distinctive sign of  licentiousness that if a woman was found guilty of adultery, one of the punishments was to wear the toga. In addition, prostitutes also worn a red wig.

How Agnes became Saint

Going back to Saint Agnes, she was brought to the stadium to become a prostitute. But because of her holiness, the first man who tried to touch her was soon blinded by God (but don’t worry for him… Saint Agnes was so saint that she later prayed God to save him, and he had back his sight).
Did the Prefect recognized Saint Agnes’s holiness? No way! On the contrary he accused her of  being a witch and condemned her to be burned at the stake. And that’s still not the end of our story, because soon after she was put, naked, on the fire, her hair suddenly grew up to cover her nudity and the fire split.

statua sant'agnese

Neither this time the Prefect quit with her: she was finally beheaded and, yes, this time she died.

The Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone

Hence, according to tradition, Saint Agnes was martyred in the arches of the stadium and here a small shrine was built already in the 8th century AD.

In the same spot, in the sixteen hundreds, was built the present church, projected by the famous baroque artist Francesco Borromini, for the pope Innocent X Pamphilj. Many are the legends about the construction of the church and the famous Fountain of the Rivers, built by Bernini just in front of it, mostly related to the rivalry between the two artists…but we need an entire other post for all this :)

Anyway, in the meanwhile, if you’ll visit Piazza Navona, enter the church and  go to the chapel on the right: it’s dedicated to Saint Agnes and here is preserved her most sacred relic: her head!

testa sant'agnese

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Pictures Credits



The Capitoline Hill, where “money” began

This story starts in the Archaic Roman Age when the Capitoline hill was Rome’s citadel , defended by walls, and her religious center: here was in fact the Temple of Jupiter, the king of gods. But here was also another temple dedicated to Juno.

Juno Regina, the first Desperate Housewife

She was the queen (regina) of Roman gods such as sister AND wife of Jupiter. In fact they both were Saturn‘s sons (Ju-piter, Ju-no…it’s not a coincidence :) )

Annibale Carracci, "Jupiter and Juno", 1597-1601

But Jupiter was a very bad guy and he had plenty of lovers: Roman mythology is teeming with stories about Jupiter’s loves and, of course, Juno’s jealousy …not so far from the modern soaps’ stories!
Anyway, Juno as queen was the female State protector and goddess of the female world, protecting all the most important events of a woman’s life such as marriage, childbirths and so on.

The Geese of the Capitoline Hill

The temple of Juno on the Capitoline hill was guarded by a gaggle, because geese were considered sacred to the goddess.
In 390 B.C., after a long siege, the Gauls tried  to conquer the hill but it was saved by the geese.
This is Plutarch’s tale about that event:

“About midnight a large band of them (the Gauls) scaled the cliff and made their way upward in silence (…) Neither man nor dog were aware of their approach. But there were some sacred geese near the temple of Juno, which were usually fed without stint, but at that time, since provisions barely sufficed for the garrison alone, they were neglected and in evil plight. The creature is naturally sharp of hearing and afraid of every noise, and these, being specially wakeful and restless by reason of their hunger, perceived the approach of the Gauls, dashed at them with loud cries, and so waked all the garrison (…) The defenders, snatching up in haste whatever weapon came to hand, made the best shift they could. (…) So the Romans escaped out of their peril. ”

Juno became Moneta

Obviously the Romans, very religious people, thought it was the goddess who awaking the soldiers saved Rome, and gave her the epithet “Moneta”, from the Latin verb “Monere”, “to warn”.

The Temple

Searching on the Internet you could read that according to tradition the temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC after a war victory … How can it be possible if the episode of the Gauls happened in 390 BC? This appear to suggest the existence of an older temple, entirely rebuilt in 344 BC (and actually on the Capitoline Hill have been found some terracotta decorations of the temple dating at the 6-5th century BC and probably belonging to the older temple).
Anyway after the episode of the geese and the goddess’ new epithet this became known as the Temple of Juno Moneta.
And these are the few ruins still preserved belonging to the temple (believe me, they are!).

Tempio di Giunone Moneta

And finally the coins

In 296 BC Romans started to make coins and they needed a safe place to do it, hence they chose the temple of Juno Moneta (or a place immediately nearby), for two reasons: first it was in the citadel, so it was well protected by humans, second it was well protected by the goddess too, a kind of: “Don’t steal here or Juno’ll punish you!”.

denarius of juno moneta

Hence, because the mint was in the temple of Juno Moneta, the Romans began to call it the Moneta, and coins were named “moneta”after it … and this is the origin of the English words  “mint” and of course “money”!
In Italian we also have the same word, “moneta”, that means “coin”, but the bizarre thing is that for “mint” we use the word “zecca”, from an Arabic word: at least English, in this case, is closer than Italian to ancient Romans and their legends!

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Picture credits

The Temple of Saturn

Unknown gods and familiar habits. The Temple of Saturn

In this tale we are going to talk about a pretty unknown Roman god, Saturn, who left us a very popular custom.

Who was God Saturn ?

Saturn was one of the most ancient and important divinities of the Roman religion, the legendary king who, according to the tradition, ruled Italy in the Golden Age. Archaic Roman society was a rural one, hence this Golden Age was strictly related with agriculture, and this was exactly Saturn’s field. Inside his temple was an ivory statue of him which was empty and filled with olive oil – related with agriculture: Lazio was (and still is) rich in olive trees – and whose legs were fettered with woolen strings.

Saturnalia, something familiar

After the end of the autumn planting, Saturn was celebrated with a feast, the Saturnalia, that officially lasted from December the 17th until the 23rd. In the first day the woolen strings were loosened and the priest sacrificed  a sow that was later eaten in a sacred banquet.

Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia! Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - 1880 Akron Art Museum (United States) Painting - oil on panel

Saturnalia were the most loved feast of the Roman year. During this holiday week people used to invite friends and relatives for private banquets, offering them food and small gifts, such as candles, food, small clay figurines, usually accompanied by greeting cards … Does it sound familiar? Of course it does! The Saturnalia were so popular among the Romans that when the empire became Christian (in the 4th century AD) all those habits were handed over to Christmas!
So… blame Saturn, next time you’ll be in a hurry for last minute Christmas gifts! :)

This feast had also another peculiarity, during those days social norms were reversed and restrictions were relaxed:  gambling was allowed and masters would serve their slaves. This general sense of freedom was considered to be a memory of the Golden Age ushered by the God. People used to wear the pileus, a cap normally used by the freed slave, that was more or less like the Smurfs’ hat (I swear!).

Because of the laxity this period was perfect for murders and conspiracies and many famous episodes happened during it: Catilina’s conspiracy, murder of Geta by Caracalla and also that of Commodus. Latin writer Seneca complains that because of the Saturnalia “the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures”.

The Temple

The Temple of Saturn, was built a long long time ago in the very heart of Rome, the Roman Forum. It was dedicated exactly in 498 B.C.: that’s why I said long long time ago! It’s not only old, not exactly the oldest one, but is the oldest temple officially recorded by the Pontiffs, a kind of pagan priests who were in charge of recording the most important events. According to tradition, to myth, it was erected on the same spot of an older altar built by God Saturn himself, when he founded the first village on the Capitoline Hill.

This temple, as most of Roman ones, was also used as a kind of public office: public documents were displayed on its walls. And here was also the Roman Treasury, where coins and ingots were stored, and also the official scale used for coins.

Don’t be surprised by the fact that the treasury was in this temple: as mentioned above, Saturn was a god linked with fertility and rural world and for the archaic Romans wealth consisted of harvests and cattle: the Latin word pecunia, “wealth”, comes from pecus, “sheep“… and, despite you’re not a farmer, you still preserve a memory of this link when use the English word pecuniary!

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Pictures credits

  • The temple of Saturn – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Painting  “Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!” – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 1880 – Akron Art Museum (United States)
  • “Mithra killing the bull” – 2nd-3rd century AD – National Museum in Warsaw

What’s in a name? The true story of the Colosseum’s Name

The Colosseum is the most famous monument of the city, if you think about Rome you think about the Colosseum and everywhere it is known as the Colosseum … but actually this is not the right name!

Pretend to be an ancient Roman, walking in the crowded noisy streets of  Rome and asking someone “Sorry, where is the Colosseum?” … No one could respond you. People would look at you like: WHAT? Because in Romans time this monument was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, or simply … THE amphitheater. Flavian because it was built in the 1st century A.D. by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Vespasian (69-79), the father, and the two sons Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81-96). Amphitheatre comes from the Greek preposition “amphi”, that means double (like amphibious or amphora), because is like two theatres back to back.

The True Story

So why we call it “Colosseum”? It’s really a nice story…
All starts in 64 A.D.: the Colosseum had yet to be built, Nero was the emperor and a huge fire destroyed the most part of the city, specially the area around the amphitheater itself (fires were quite frequent in ancient Rome).

After the fire, on the ruins of burned houses, Nero decided to build his own giant brand new villa in the centre of Rome: the Domus Aurea, or Golden House… a little bit megalomaniac project, but that’s Nero!

Domus Aurea

This villa was spread in a huge area and where now is the Colesseum valley was a beautiful garden with trees, plants, pavilions and finally…where now stands the Colosseum … a lake, the Stagnum Neronis or Nero’s lake.

The entrance of this villa was opened on the Roman Forum and it was decorated with a huge golden bronze statue of Nero: it was 35 meters high (or 100 feet for Americans), the largest bronze statue in the ancient world. To have an idea is more or less like the third floor of the Colosseum! So, really, really tall.

You can understand that people were not so happy about this villa so, after Nero’s death, the new emperor, Vespasian to please them decided to give back that part of the city to the people, building something for them…and what better than a Colosseum?!

So he just dried the lake and used the basin for the foundations of the amphitheater. The most part of the Domus Aurea was abandoned but the giant statue was left in the same place, simply erasing Nero’s face and putting the God Sun’s one… I guess also because of the weight!

In fact when more or less fifty years later another emperor, Hadrian, decided to built the biggest temple in Rome, the Temple of Venus and Rome, in the same place of the statue, he had to move it and needed a cart pulled by 25 elephants!

The statue was actually only moved few meters, nearest to the Colosseum: on the north-west side of the Colosseum is now a flowerbed made in tufa blocks that is a reconstruction of the original base of the statue; the original one was destroyed by Mussolini in 1936. It’s not a big distance, but the statue was so heavy and big that elephants were needed. This statue began to be called “Colossus”, because it was colossal, obviously.

Nero colossus
During the Middle Ages (since the 11th century), when the amphitheater was abandoned and no one could remember its true name and what it was for, the people began to call it Colosseum, simply because it was close to the Colossus. Unfortunately the statue is now lost because, later on in the Middle Ages, it was melted down to reuse the bronze. But we still use the name, Colosseum … And that’s why we call it so.

Love at first sight

The best “first sight” of the Colosseum is from the Fagutal: when you exit the subway try to resist and not to look outside; don’t exit from the main door but take the staircase on the right. You’ll reach the top of the Fagutal  hill and you’ll have the best first sight ever!

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Pictures Credits:

  • Colosseum – All rights reserved, with permissions – Andrea Moro
  • Nero’s Domus Aurea – CC BY 2.0 – Jennifer May