At the center of the otherwise masculine world of the Roman Forum sits a graceful ancient building that was once exclusively governed by women: the Temple of Vesta.

The hearth goddess Vesta is one of the oldest deities in the Roman pantheon, and her temple (c. 575–550 B.C.) is the Forum’s oldest structure. Here the goddess’s servants, the Vestal Virgins, tended the eternal flame—which tradition holds was brought from Troy.

Relatively little is known about the Vestals. Ancient sources tell us that they were required to live apart from the world of men, after vowing to remain chaste for 30 years. A Vestal who broke her vow was buried alive. Once a year the Vestals made a sacred procession to a stream just outside the walls of Rome at the beginning of the Appian Way. Any man caught spying on them risked death for his presumption.

Most of the time, the Vestals remained safely ensconced in their building complex at the Forum. The principal building in this complex was the circular Temple of Vesta (shown here), where the Vestals guarded the sacred fire. Near the temple sat a large rectangular building with an open atrium, known as the House of the Vestals (Atrium Vestae). This structure probably served as a reception hall and administrative building. Because of the Vestals’ legendary trustworthiness, Rome’s citizens deposited wills and other important documents with them for safekeeping. In another building, probably the Vestal residence, archaeologists have identified a kitchen on the second story.

Fittingly, the first serious study of the Vestal complex was undertaken by a woman: Esther van Deman. In the early years of the 20th century, van Deman, a fellow at the School of Classical Studies of the American Academy in Rome, was able to determine the relative dates of the Vestal complex’s buildings (the absolute dates have not yet been fixed with certainty). Van Deman also extended her method of determining relative dates to other buildings from the Roman Empire, a method for which she is known today. As a woman and a foreigner, however, Van Deman was not allowed to excavate; instead, she was relegated to following Italian archeologist Giacomo Boni about the Forum.

“She was allowed only to observe and take notes,” explained Joanna Spurza, an archaeologist from the City University of New York who began studying the Vestal complex in 1987. “Nevertheless, in 1912 van Deman published a monograph called Atrium Vestae, in which she taught us how to look at ancient buildings. Her chronology [of the House of the Vestals and other ancient monuments] has been superseded, but her methodology is still respected and in use.”

Archaeological work by foreign scholars on the Forum was largely suspended under Mussolini’s rule, but excavations were resumed after World War II. In the 1970s, Cambridge University classicist Mary Beard published an influential study of the House of the Vestals, in which she argued that the Vestals functioned not only as priestesses but as surrogate wives and daughters of Roman rulers. Beard suggested that the Vestals wore bridal costumes and were cloistered to preserve their fidelity.

More recently, Spurza has been studying the brick work of the House of the Vestals. The building’s facade once consisted of sheets of marble attached to a brick structure. By examining plug holes in the brick, used to support the marble revetments, Spurza has been able to sketch in some of the building’s marble facing and infer the appearance of the facade. Researchers are also studying inscriptions containing the names of Vestals, in order to trace the priestesses’ families. “You might send a daughter there,” Spurza said, “to help her come up in the world.”

Like Rome itself, the Vestal Virgins lost much of their influence with the rise of Christianity and the division of the Roman Empire between East and West in the late third century A.D. As the empire crumbled, the sacred flame, a symbol of Rome’s well-being for almost a millennium, finally flickered out in the year 394 A.D.