Lares, Spirits, Genius!

If you visit well preserved ancient Roman sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum or Stabiae (to name a few) you will quickly notice one particular element shared in common by nearly  every house and business space.  It is even found on the streets at crossroads: the Lararium.   Often they appear as a small, arch shaped niche built into the wall, sometimes decorated with frescoes or mosaics, sometimes plain.  Sometimes they are a bit more elaborate incorporating water features, alters and/or columns.  A Lararium is, to put it simply, a shrine–a place to worship that isn’t a temple/building.

Household Lararium

Each Roman family had a Lar Familiaris, or guardian spirit,  that looked over/protected all members of a household, including it’s slaves.  This guardian spirit offered it’s protection as long as he or she was properly honored with sacrifice and devotion.  The household Lararium was usually located near the hearth and the Lar would be worshiped, often by being given a small portion of the family meal.  If the head of the household, the Paterfamilias, did not ensure proper care and worship of the household Lar, said Lar could turn it’s back on the family until proper attention was given.

This lararium is located in the kitchen

On a more public level, neighborhoods were protected by the Lares Compitales and shrines to these spirits would be placed on the street, near or at the crossroads.   In turn, the entire city would be protected by the Lares Publici or Lares Praestites.  At Rome the Lares Praestites had their own temple at the head of the Via Sacra.  When travelling around the countryside, shrines could be found near springs, groves of trees, boundary stones etc.

A lararium located next to a shop counter

The ancient Romans were a very religious people, attributing a Genius or “begetter” to almost every place, and spirits to almost all objects and/or processes:  from stones to childbirth, from doorways to grain.  The number of spirits was almost limitless and many nameless.  And, while you may not have “really” believed in them, you worshiped them properly anyway–just in case…

One of the more elaborate examples of a "household" lararium

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