While just a fragment of the original building, the remnant of this temple shows the sophisticated elegance that architecture achieved under the later Empire. Set off by florid Corinthian columns, the circular tholos was rebuilt by Emperor Septimius Severus when he restored this temple around AD 205. Dedicated to Vesta—the goddess of the hearth—the highly privileged vestal virgins kept the sacred vestal flame alive. Next to the temple, the Casa delle Vestali, which reopened after restoration in 2011, gives a glimpse of the splendor in which the women lived out their 30-year vows of chastity. Marble statues of the vestals and fragments of mosaic pavement line the garden courtyard, which once would have been surrounded by lofty colonnades and at least 50 rooms. Chosen when they were between 6 and 10 years old, the six vestal virgins dedicated the next 30 years of their lives to keeping the sacred fire, a tradition that dated back to the very earliest days of Rome, when guarding
the community's precious fire was essential to its well-being. Their standing in Rome was considerable; among women, they were second in rank only to the empress. Their intercession could save a condemned man, and they did, in fact, rescue Julius Caesar from the lethal vengeance of his enemy Sulla. The virgins were handsomely maintained by the state, but if they allowed the sacred fire to go out, they were scourged by the high priest, and if they broke their vows of celibacy, they were buried alive (a punishment doled out only a handful of times throughout the cult's 1,000-year history). The vestal virgins were one of the last of ancient Rome's institutions to die out, enduring to the end of the 4th century AD, even after Rome's emperors had become Christian.