Lares ( LAIR-eez, LAY-reez, Latin: ['lare:s]; archaic Las?s, singular Lar) were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries, or fruitfulness, or an amalgamation of these.
Lares were believed to observe, protect, and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult, and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events.
Roman writers sometimes identify or conflate them with ancestor-deities, domestic Penates, and the hearth.
Because of these associations, Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods, but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state, and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighbourhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitalia), which served as a focus for the religious, social, and political lives of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities. Their cult officials included freedmen and slaves, otherwise excluded by status or property qualifications from most administrative and religious offices.
Compared to Rome's major deities, Lares had limited scope and potency, but archaeological and literary evidence attests to their central role in Roman identity and religious life. By analogy, a homeward-bound Roman could be described as returning ad Larem (to the Lar). Despite official bans on non-Christian cults from the late fourth century AD onwards, unofficial cults to Lares persisted until at least the early fifth century AD.
Archaic Rome's Etruscan neighbours practiced domestic, ancestral, or family cults very similar to those offered by later Romans to their Lares. The word itself seems to derive from the Etruscan lar, lars, or larth, meaning "lord". Ancient Greek and Roman authors offer "heroes" and "daimones" as translations of "Lares"; the early Roman playwright Plautus (circa 254-184 BC) employs a Lar Familiaris as a guardian of treasure on behalf of a family, as a plot equivalent to the Greek playwright Menander's use of a heroon (as an ancestral hero-shrine). Weinstock proposes a more ancient equivalence of Lar and Greek hero, based on his gloss of a fourth-century BC Latin dedication to the Roman ancestor-hero Aeneas as Lare (Lar).
No physical Lar images survive from before the Late Republican era, but literary references (such as Plautus' singular Lar, above) suggest that cult could be offered to a single Lar, and sometimes many more; in the case of the obscure Lares Grundules, perhaps 30. By the early Imperial era, they had become paired divinities, probably through the influences of Greek religion – in particular, the heroic twin Dioscuri – and the iconography of Rome's semidivine founder-twins, Romulus and Remus. Lares are represented as two small, youthful, lively male figures clad in short, rustic, girdled tunics – made of dogskin, according to Plutarch. They take a dancer's attitude, tiptoed or lightly balanced on one leg. One arm raises a drinking horn (rhyton) aloft as if to offer a toast or libation; the other bears a shallow libation dish (patera). Compitalia shrines of the same period show Lares figures of the same type. Painted shrine-images of paired Lares show them in mirrored poses to the left and right of a central figure, understood to be an ancestral genius.
Lares belonged within the "bounded physical domain" under their protection, and seem to have been as innumerable as the places they protected. Some appear to have had overlapping functions and changes of name. Some have no particular or descriptive name: for example, those invoked along with Mars in the Carmen Arvale are simply Lases (an archaic form of Lares), whose divine functions must be inferred from the wording and context of the Carmen itself. Likewise, those invoked along with other deities by the consul Publius Decius Mus as an act of devotio before his death in battle are simply "Lares". The titles and domains given below cannot, therefore, be taken as exhaustive or definitive.
Traditional Roman households owned at least one protective Lares-figure, housed in a shrine along with the images of the household's penates, genius image and any other favoured deities. Their statues were placed at table during family meals and banquets. They were divine witnesses at important family occasions, such as marriages, births, and adoptions, and their shrines provided a religious hub for social and family life. Individuals who failed to attend to the needs of their Lares and their families should expect neither reward nor good fortune for themselves. In Plautus' comedy Aulularia, the Lar of the miserly paterfamilias Euclio reveals a pot of gold long-hidden beneath his household hearth, denied to Euclio's father because of his stinginess towards his Lar. Euclio's own stinginess deprives him of the gold until he sees the error of his ways; then, he uses it to give his virtuous daughter the dowry she deserves, and all is well.
Responsibility for household cult and the behaviour of family members ultimately fell to the family head, the paterfamilias, but he could, and indeed should on certain occasions properly delegate the cult and care of his Lares to other family members, especially his servants. The positioning of the Lares at the House of Menander suggest that the paterfamilias delegated this religious task to his villicus (bailif).
Care and cult attendance to domestic Lares could include offerings of spelt wheat and grain-garlands, honey cakes and honeycombs, grapes and first fruits, wine, and incense. They could be served at any time and not always by intention; in addition to the formal offerings that seem to have been their due, any food that fell to the floor during house banquets was theirs. On important occasions, wealthier households may have offered their own Lares a pig. A single source describes Romulus' provision of an altar and sacrifice to Lares Grundules ("grunting lares") after an unusually large farrowing of 30 piglets. The circumstances of this offering are otherwise unknown, Taylor conjectures the sacrifice of a pig, possibly a pregnant sow.
By the early Imperial period, household shrines of any kind were known generically as lararia (s. lararium) because they typically contained a Lares figure or two. Painted lararia from Pompeii show two Lares flanking a genius or ancestor-figure, who wears his toga in the priestly manner prescribed for sacrificers. Underneath this trio, a serpent, representing the fertility of fields or the principle of generative power, winds towards an altar. The essentials of sacrifice are depicted around and about; bowl and knife, incense box, libation vessels and parts of sacrificial animals.
In households of modest means, small Lar statuettes were set in wall-niches, sometimes merely a tile-support projecting from a painted background. In wealthier households, they tend to be found in servant's quarters and working areas. At Pompeii, the Lares and lararium of the sophisticated, unpretentious and artistically restrained House of Menander were associated with its servant quarters and adjacent agricultural estate. Its statuary was unsophisticated, "rustic" and probably of ancient type or make. The placing of Lares in the public or semi-public parts of a house, such as its atrium, enrolled them in the more outward, theatrical functions of household religion.
The House of the Vettii in Pompeii had two lararia; one was positioned out of public view, and was probably used in private household rites. The other was placed boldly front-of-house, among a riot of Greek-inspired mythological wall-paintings and the assorted statuary of patron divinities. Its positioning in a relatively public part of the domus would have provided a backdrop for the probably interminable salutatio (formal greeting) between its upwardly mobile owners and their strings of clients and "an assorted group of unattached persons who made the rounds of salutationes to assure their political and economic security".
Domestic Lararia were also used as a sacred, protective depository for commonplace symbols of family change and continuity. In his coming-of-age, a boy gave his personal amulet (bulla) to his Lares before he put on his manly toga (toga virilis). Once his first beard had been ritually cut off, it was placed in their keeping. On the night before her wedding, a Roman girl surrendered her dolls, soft balls, and breastbands to her family Lares, as a sign she had come of age. On the day of her marriage, she transferred her allegiance to her husband's neighbourhood Lares (Lares Compitalici) by paying them a copper coin en route to her new home. She paid another to her new domestic Lares, and one to her husband. If the marriage made her a materfamilias, she took joint responsibility with her husband for aspects of household cult.
The city of Rome was protected by a Lar, or Lares, housed in a shrine (sacellum) on the city's ancient, sacred boundary (pomerium). Each Roman vicus (pl. vici – administrative districts or wards) had its own communal Lares, housed in a permanent shrine at a central crossroads of the district. These Lares Compitalicii were celebrated at the Compitalia festival (from the Latin compitum, a crossroad) just after the Saturnalia that closed the old year. In the "solemn and sumptuous" rites of Compitalia, a pig was led taken in celebratory procession through the streets of the vicus, then sacrificed to the Lares at their Compitalia shrine. Cult offerings to these Lares were much the same as those to domestic Lares; in the late Republican era, Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the contribution of a honey-cake from each household as ancient tradition. The Compitalia itself was explained as an invention of Rome's sixth king, Servius Tullius, whose servile origins and favour towards plebeians and slaves had antagonised Rome's ruling Patrician caste and ultimately caused his downfall; he was said to have been fathered by a Lar or some other divine being, on a royal slave-girl. So although the Lares Compitalicii were held to protect all the community, regardless of social class, their festival had a distinctly plebeian ambiance, and a measure of Saturnalia's reversal of the status quo. Tradition required that the Lares Compitalicii be served by men of very low legal and social status, not merely plebeians, but freedmen and slaves, to whom "even the heavy-handed Cato recommended liberality during the festival". Dionysius' explains it thus:
While the supervision of the vici and their religious affairs may have been charged to the Roman elite who occupied most magistracies and priesthoods, management of the day-to-day affairs and public amenities of neighbourhoods – including their religious festivals – was the responsibility of freedmen and their slave-assistants. The Compitalia was an official festival but during the Republican era, its shrines appear to have been funded locally, probably by subscription among the plebeians, freedmen and slaves of the vici. Their support through private benefaction is nowhere attested, and official attitudes to the Republican Compitalia seem equivocal at best: The Compitalia games (Ludi Compitalicii) included popular theatrical religious performances of raucously subversive flavour: Compitalia thus offered a religiously sanctioned outlet for free speech and populist subversion. At some time between 85–82 BC, the Compitalia shrines were the focus of cult to the ill-fated popularist politician Marcus Marius Gratidianus during his praetorship. What happened – if anything – to the Compitalia festivals and games in the immediate aftermath of his public, ritualised murder by his opponents is not known but in 68 BC the games at least were suppressed as "disorderly".
As princeps, Augustus reformed Compitalia and subdivided the vici. From 7 BC a Lares' festival on 1 May was dedicated to the Lares Augusti and a new celebration of the Genius Augusti was held on 1 August, the inaugural day for Roman magistracies and personally auspicious for Augustus as the anniversary of his victory at Actium. Statues representing the Genius Augusti were inserted between the Lares of the Compitalia shrines. Whether or not Augustus substituted the public Lares with "his own" household Lares is questionable — the earliest reference to august Lares (58 BC, in provincial Cisalpine Gaul) anticipates Octavian's adoption of Augustus as honorific by some thirty years — but when coupled with his new cult to the Genius Augusti, his donation of Lares Augusti statues for use at Compitalia shrines, and his association with the community Lares through the shared honorific makes the reformed Compitalia an unmistakable, local, "street level" aspect of cult to living emperors.
The iconography of these shrines celebrates their sponsor's personal qualities and achievements and evokes a real or re-invented continuity of practice from ancient times. Some examples are sophisticated, others crude and virtually rustic in style; taken as a whole, their positioning in every vicus (ward) of Rome symbolically extends the ideology of a "refounded" Rome to every part of the city. The Compitalia reforms were ingenious and genuinely popular; they valued the traditions of the Roman masses and won their political, social and religious support. Probably in response to this, provincial cults to the Lares Augusti appear soon afterwards; in Ostia, a Lares Augusti shrine was placed in the forum, which was ritually cleansed for the occasion. The Augustan model persisted until the end of the Western Empire, with only minor and local modifications, and the Lares Augusti would always be identified with the ruling emperor, the Augustus, whatever his personal or family name.
Augustus officially confirmed the plebeian-servile character of Compitalia as essential to his "restoration" of Roman tradition, and formalised their offices; the vici and their religious affairs were now the responsibility of official magistri vici, usually freedmen, assisted by ministri vici who were usually slaves. A dedication of 2 BC to the Augustan Lares lists four slaves as shrine-officials of their vicus. Given their slave status, their powers are debatable but they clearly constitute an official body. Their inscribed names, and those of their owners, are contained within an oak-wreath cartouche. The oak-leaf chaplet was voted to Augustus as "saviour" of Rome; He was symbolic pater (father) of the Roman state, and though his genius was owed cult by his extended family, its offer seems to have been entirely voluntary. Hardly any of the reformed Compital shrines show evidence of cult to the emperor's genius. Augustus acted with the political acumen of any responsible patronus (patron); his subdivision of the vici created new opportunities for his clients. It repaid honour with honours, which for the plebs meant offices, priesthood, and the respect of their peers; at least for some. In Petronius' Satyricon, a magistrate's lictor bangs on Trimalchio's door; it causes a fearful stir but in comes Habinnas, one of Augustus' new priests, a stonemason by trade; dressed up in his regalia, perfumed and completely drunk.
From the Late Republican and early Imperial eras, the priestly records of the Arval Brethren and the speculative commentaries of a very small number of literate Romans attest to a Mother of the Lares (Mater Larum). Her children are invoked by the obscure, fragmentary opening to the Arval Hymn (Carmen Arvale); enos Lases iuvate ("Help us, Lares"). She is named as Mania by Varro (116-27 BC), who believes her an originally Sabine deity. The same name is used by later Roman authors with the general sense of a bogey or "evil spirit". Much later, Macrobius (fl. AD 395-430) describes the woolen figurines hung at crossroad shrines during Compitalia as maniae, supposed as an ingenious substitution for child sacrifices to the Mater Larum, instituted by Rome's last monarch and suppressed by its first consul, L. Junius Brutus. Modern scholarship takes the Arval rites to the Mother of the Lares as typically chthonic, and the goddess herself as a dark or terrible aspect of the earth-mother, Tellus. Ovid supplies or elaborates an origin-myth for the Mater Larum as a once-loquacious nymph, Lara, whose tongue is cut out as punishment for her betrayal of Jupiter's secret amours. Lara thus becomes Muta (the speechless one). Mercury leads her to the underworld abode of the dead (ad Manes); in this place of silence she is Dea Tacita (the silent one). En route, he impregnates her. She gives birth to twin boys as silent or speechless as she. In this context, the Lares can be understood as "manes of silence" (taciti manes).
Ovid's poetic myth appears to draw on remnants of ancient rites to the Mater Larum, surviving as folk-cult among women at the fringes of the Feralia: an old woman sews up a fish-head, smears it with pitch then pierces and roasts it to bind hostile tongues to silence: she thus invokes Dea Tacita. If, as Ovid proposes, the lemures are an unsatiated, malevolent and wandering form of Lares, then they and their mother also find their way into Lemuralia, when the hungry Lemures gather in Roman houses and claim cult from the living. The paterfamilias must redeem himself and his family with the offer of midnight libations of spring-water, and black beans spat onto the floor. Any lemures dissatisfied with these offerings are scared away by the loud clashing of bronze pots. Taylor notes the chthonic character of offerings made to fall – or deliberately expelled – towards the earth. If their mother's nature connects the Lares to the earth they are, according to Taylor, spirits of the departed.
Plutarch offers a legend of Servius Tullius, sixth king of Rome, credited with the founding of the Lares' public festival, Compitalia. Servius' virginal slave mother-to-be is impregnated by a phallus-apparition arising from the hearth, or some other divine being held to be a major deity or ancestor-hero by some, a Lar by others: the latter seems to have been a strong popular tradition. During the Augustan era, Dionysius of Halicarnassus reports Servius' fathering by a Lar and his pious founding of Compitalia as common knowledge, and the Lar as equivalent to the Greek hero; semi-divine, ancestral and protective of place.
These stories connect the Lar to the hearth, the underworld, generative powers (however embodied), nourishment, forms of divine or semi-divine ancestry and the coupling of the divine with the servile, wherein those deprived by legal or birth-status of a personal gens could serve, and be served by, the cults attached to Compitalia and Larentalia. Mommsen's contention that Lares were originally field deities is not incompatible with their role as ancestors and guardians. A rural familia relied on the productivity of their estate and its soil: around the early 2nd century BC, Plautus's Lar Familiaris protects the house, and familia as he has always done, and safeguards their secrets.
The little mythography that belongs to the Lares seems inventive and poetic. With no traditional, systematic theology to limit their development, Lares became a single but usefully nebulous type, with many functions. In Cicero's day, one's possession of domestic Lares laid moral claim of ownership and belonging to one's domicile. Festus identifies them as "gods of the underworld" (di inferi). To Flaccus, they are ancestral genii (s. genius). Apuleius considers them benevolent ancestral spirits; they belong both to the underworld and to particular places of the human world. To him, this distinguishes them from the divine and eternal genius which inhabits, protects and inspires living men: and having specific physical domains, they cannot be connected with the malicious, vagrant lemures. In the 4th century AD the Christian polemicist Arnobius, claiming among others Varro (116-27 BC) as his source, describes them as once-human spirits of the underworld, therefore ancestral manes-ghosts; but also as "gods of the air", or the upper world. He also – perhaps uniquely in the literature but still claiming Varro's authority – categorises them with the frightful larvae. The ubiquity of Lares seems to have offered considerable restraints on Christian participation in Roman public life. In the 3rd century AD, Tertullian remarks the inevitable presence of Lares in pagan households as good reason to forbid marriage between pagan men and Christian women: the latter would be "tormented by the vapor of incense each time the demons are honored, each solemn festivity in honor of the emperors, each beginning of the year, each beginning of the month." Yet their type proved remarkably persistent. In the early 5th century AD, after the official suppression of non-Christian cults, Rutilius Namatianus could write of a famine-stricken district whose inhabitants had no choice but to "abandon their Lares" (thus, to desert their rat-infested houses).