A lone Priestess walks toward an underground chamber, people crowd the streets as she proclaims her innocence. It doesn’t matter. She has already been judged and found guilty. The sentence, live burial. An shadowed underground chamber lowly lit by a lamp, reflecting a simple portion of bread, water, milk and oil. In the darkened corner lies a bed and blanket. But she won’t emerge alive. At the threshold, the priestess pauses and claims her innocence one last time, hoping someone would listen. No one does. Then enters the chamber never to be seen again by the people of Rome.
The priestess was one Rome’s six Vestal Virgins, each carefully selected as children from Rome’s most aristocratic families. But now with her death, there are only five and new priestess must be chosen.
The six year old Sabina witnessed the spectacle, never suspecting that a few days later she would be chose as the next Vestal Virgin. Her respectful lineage and her healthy parents made her the perfect candidate to serve the Goddess Vesta in the eyes of the Romans. Her parents grinning proudly that their daughter was chose to be on of the Vestal Virgins, their eyes glistened in honour that their daughter provided them. They wave to her as she enters the temple.
As Sabina walks through the large wooden doors which would change her life, fear starts to haunt her, she quickly grabs the memory of the parents smiling at her proudly and not with disgust. She smiles, her parents finally got honour from her rather than shame. She shakes her fears away, confidently walks through the threshold as she had no choice in the matter. She must now serve the goddess for at least the next thirty years.
For the first 10 years of Sabina’s service, she trains, learning how to be a Vestal Virgin. Her most important duty is keeping vigil over the flame of Vesta, the virgin goddess of hearth. Vesta did not have a statue like the other roman gods or goddesses, instead she represented by the flame that burns day and night in her temple located next to the forum, in the centre of the city.
Like all the Vestal Virgins, Sabina spent her days on shifts watching and attending the flame. The flame represented the continuous reign of the Roman empire and its power. If the flame went out the Romans believed that Rome would be in danger and would fall. It also represented the continuing virginity of Vesta’s priestesses, a Vestal’s virginity not only signalled her modest spirit and body but also her ritual purity.
So Sabina now knows that she must never let the flame go out, her life, the lives of her fellow Vestal’s and the safety of Rome itself depends upon it. Each day for 10 years Sabina learns to collect water from the fountain outside the temple to cleanse the temple. She learns the Fasti, the calendar of sacred rituals and watches as the senior priestess conducts sacrifices.
Now Sabina that she is 16 now, she has completed her training, she now understand that the way she must act is the reflection of the goddess she serves. When it is her turn to collect water, she keep her eye glues to the ground. When she performs sacrifices she puts all of her concentration and hard work intently on the task. Sabina directs all her efforts and energy to becoming the best priestess that she can be. Her thoughts haunt her, worried that one day the state will claim her life for its own purposes to protects itself from danger.
She could be accused of breaking the vow of chastity at anytime and be sacrifice whether guilty or innocent. Sabina finally understand why her predecessor was buried alive.
Ten years ago the flame went out, the priestess knew they couldn’t keep this a secret, the future of Rome depended on it. They went to the chief priest and he opened an investigation to discover why the flame had failed. Someone came forward and claimed that one of the Vestals was no longer a virgin. That was beginning of the ends. The accused protested he innocence but it wasn’t enough. She was tried and found guilty.
That Vestal’s death was meant to protect the city, but Sabina now is traumatised for what had been lost and for what she now knows. Her own path was carved by the death of another, and her life could be taken just as easily for something as simple as a flame going out.