Without a holy book to restrain it, Roman polytheism tended to promiscuous hospitality: a profusion of gods, goddesses, nymphs, divine heroes, and abstract virtues appeared and disappeared; faith remained inventive, untroubled by questions of authenticity; distinctions among deities, supernatural powers, personifications, and allegories were casual. Foreign gods—Isis and Serapis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia—were not resisted but inspired innovative rituals and splendid new temples. Newfangled ones—including some individuals who were still alive and active—rose in popularity, then fell away. As early as the first century BCE, the scholar and writer Varro, faced with the plethora of popular divinities, decided to square the circle, and proposed seeing the multiplicity of gods as a series of variations on a single divine principle.
In spite of the prolific numbers and exotic imports, however, Roman cult figures such as Bona Dea (literally, the Good Goddess), Concordia (Harmony), Fortuna, Pax, Salus (Health), and even Virtus herself strike a rather dutiful note. They lack drama and color and feel interchangeable, as do some classical statues raised on their altars. By contrast, before and during the Republic, local divinities had been rustic and even orgiastic: the Liber Pater (the Free Father) was licentious, a Roman Dionysus, a god of ecstasy and intoxication. But his cult, as well as those of the priapic satyr Faunus, the spring goddess Flora, and the great god Pan, was suppressed in imperial times, purged in favor of far more edifying (and political) principles: the Pax Augusti (Peace of Augustus) was given its own magnificent altar, the Ara Pacis, now enshrined under glass beside the Tiber.
All through these changes, for around seven hundred years from the third century BCE until the fifth century CE, small local gods known as lares were worshipped in Roman households and in public celebrations—games, processions, feasts. They were protectors of the household, “kitchen gods,” “who take care of our dwelling from its foundation,” wrote the poet Ennius in his Annales, and they remained a persistent, indelible feature of the Roman scene. It was a cause of deep anxiety—a sense almost of homelessness—for a household to lose its lares, a misfortune that exacerbated whatever ruin, destruction, or exile had already befallen its members. This fact brings to mind the thousands of refugees who arrived in Europe over the past several decades without anything at all (except their phone—if they are fortunate—kept dry in a tied balloon). The connection to home through familiar objects runs very deep; the lares met that powerful need.
Christian officials singled the lares out for suppression along with the Olympians. When the Theodosian Code, issued in 438 CE, banned religious rites associated with the old religion—“paganism”—it specifically mentioned lares. After prohibiting animal sacrifices and idolatry, it commanded: “Let no one venerate a lar with fire, a genius with pure wine, or offer perfumes to ancestral gods (penates); let no one light a lamp (or candle), offer incense, hang up a garland of flowers.”
In The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, Harriet I. Flower displays a formidable grasp of historical detail and a taste for scholarly disputes. Her book is superbly produced and richly illustrated in color with maps and photographs, including a frontispiece of her dissertation supervisor, Robert E.A. Palmer, whose pioneering research into the topography of Rome and unpublished archival notes Flower has drawn on. Jörg Rüpke’s Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion takes a broader sweep and lingers less on filigree particulars. He digs deep into the meaning of “lived religion” for Romans, and his book gives a lucid and cogent historical overview in a less combative spirit than Flower’s.
Roman religion was tightly intertwined with Roman identity and social status under the empire, and it served an inclusive function: civilians who were not citizens were allowed to perform sacrifices at neighborhood shrines. Around 30 CE, the Greek philosopher Dionysius of Halicarnassus shrewdly noted the political efficacy of
removing every mark of [slaves’] servile condition, in order that…, being softened by this instance of humanity, which has something great and solemn about it, [they] may make themselves more agreeable to their masters and be less oppressed by the painful condition of their fate.
Slaves and freedmen were highly active in these positions; in some circumstances, women were called upon, too. In the streets of the capital, officials who looked after the shrines were often former slaves, yet were permitted to wear the toga, complete with purple stripes, to officiate at sacrifices. In the countryside, the farm manager (vilicus) and housekeeper (vilica) could perform the prescribed rites, greeting the lares by beating the bounds of the property on the master’s behalf if he was away. On feast days, the housekeeper would “hang a garland on the hearth and should make requests to the household lar.”
Both historians remain focused, as far as the evidence allows, on what it was like to inhabit a cityscape hallowed by temples, statues, and altars, and to participate in the continuous rhythm of rituals and holidays, summoning the invisible presence of higher—and lower—powers. They are listening for murmurings in the record about “ordinary” people and what their involvement in ritual meant for the polis of Rome. Pantheon covers the entire growing empire, Britannia to Thrace and well beyond, but Rüpke alerts us that many of the people under Roman rule—perhaps even a majority—probably did not believe in all the gods the state embraced or follow the accompanying religious practices.
Flower keeps strictly to Rome, with excursions to Pompeii and to Delos, a Greek colony of Rome where many Italians lived. “It is perhaps fitting,” she writes, “that the lares should seem so at home in the place that operated one of the biggest slave markets in the Mediterranean…. On Delos, lares were essential in creating community and identity in a place where so many had come from elsewhere.” Both scholars argue strongly that Roman religion counted far more than the familiar picture of Rome’s civic, legal, military, and administrative structures usually allows.
In Rüpke’s view of religion, “actors” (his preferred word for participants) invoked relations with invisible intermediaries: augurs scoped the quivering entrails of sacrificed animals and read the flights of birds; the prophetic Sibylline books were consulted before important decisions of war and government were made; dreams were listened to, portents feared or welcomed. But Rüpke’s approach is resolutely practical: “Human beings used religious action,” he writes, “as a special form of problem-solving.” Flower is likewise more interested in the social functions of magical thinking and ritual behavior than in their theological or psychological, let alone spiritual, repercussions.
No crossroads altar or shrine to the lares survives complete. Some old photographs of vanished sites give an unsatisfactory indication of what the more considerable altars would have looked like; reconstructions are conjectural and, to Flower’s mind, mostly unconvincing. And the lares themselves are shape-shifters, eluding efforts to pin them down. Sometimes a lar appears on his own, as in the fragment of a play, Aulularia (Little Pot of Gold), by Plautus, in which the lar familiaris makes sure that the rightful heir, the daughter, finds the family treasure and unites with her true love; the plot foreshadows commedia dell’arte intrigues, while the lar himself acts like a good jinni in a tale of the Arabian Nights.
Plautus’s solitary lar is an oddity, however, for lares mostly appear as a mirrored pair of two young, charmingly curly-headed boys wearing “tucked-up tunics” and buskins, who dance as they pour wine or wield an overflowing cornucopia. They often appear around an altar, accompanied by a genius, a figure that represented the (male) head of the household and embodied its stability and bounty—the genius, too, carried the symbolic horn of plenty. The British classicist Peter Wiseman in The Myths of Rome (2004) connects the duality of the lares to the Republican institution of the double consulship; he also sees a parallel with the twins Romulus and Remus, especially as, according to one variant legend, the lares were suckled by a she-wolf in their infancy. Twins and doubles recur throughout Roman myths and in the Egyptian and Greek variants that nourished them, such as Osiris and Horus as well as Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri), who had a temple in the Forum.
Painted frescoes that survive with special splendor in Pompeii decorated street shrines and walls near the hearth in private houses. In these frescoes, tremendous snakes writhe in coils through rich vegetation beneath the images of the dancing boys. Evocative of the wise serpents of Aesculapius the healer, god of medicine, they are lavishly crested and seem less to be slithering on the earth than rising and falling in steep waves like sea monsters in old maps. They don’t represent the common Italian adder or grass snake; they’re more primordial, Typhon-like in scale. But the seductive, Edenic overtones of “the serpent in the garden” in the title of Flower’s book are misleading: popular Roman religion did not focus on sin, wisdom, or knowledge. And the hearth snakes depicted in the frescoes don’t symbolize human error; they are there to support the lares by protecting the home and ensuring the safety and health of its inhabitants, especially during the dangerous processes of preparing food.
In her commitment to the religion of ordinary, mostly unlettered Romans, Flower prefers archaeological and historical evidence to literary narratives, and seems puzzlingly wary of using marvelous tales, especially highly literate ones, as sources. The Greek myths, which Ovid so dazzlingly brought into the Latin imaginary, are rarely mentioned. Flower does, however, pass on a wild story from Pliny the Elder about the birth of Servius Tullius, the legendary king of Rome who, according to a fanciful myth of origin, initiated the worship of lares at crossroads shrines. According to Pliny, the future king’s mother sat down in the embers of the hearth where earlier “a penis suddenly appeared.” She duly conceives, and later fire is seen playing around the boy’s head. “He was believed to be the son of the household lar.”
In the Fasti (On the Roman Calendar), Ovid tells a dramatic story of the lares’ origins. It’s expressed with his customary cruel insouciance and echoes episodes from his earlier masterpiece, Metamorphoses. Jupiter lusts after Juturna; another nymph, a chatterbox called Lara, tells Juno about her husband’s new passion. Incensed by Lara’s indiscretion, Jupiter tears out her tongue and dispatches her to the Underworld in the care of Mercury, who, breaking the trust in him as conductor of souls, takes a fancy to Lara and rapes her; pitifully, Lara can’t cry out against his assault. She bears twins (“a god’s embrace is never fruitless,” as Homer remarks), who are “the Lares who guard the crossroads and are always on watch in our city.”
Flower tells us that the date Ovid gives for the feast of the lares is wrong, and she resists the poet’s general levity. But it seems to me that, however mistaken his dating, or transgressive and flippant his tone, the poems deserve the attention of historians, especially because feast days, when the cult of the lares was kept, were occasions for exchanging plots and tales, for adding jokes and shivers and thrills, and even for enacting them; they contributed to the experience of lived religion. Ovid tells us that on such a feast day, when there was drinking and lovemaking, dancing and singing “whatever they’ve learned from the theatres,…they put down the wine-bowl and lead rough chorus lines, and the chic girlfriend dances with her hair undone” (my italics).
Ovid’s stark story about Lara’s sufferings points to a further aspect of the lares: it links them to the underworld, through their mother’s violation and her descent. In other stories about their mother, she is called Mania, a word that suggests madness and an association with the manes, or shades of the dead, invoked in prayers for the departed (DMS—dis manibus sacrum, or “sacred to the spirit-gods”—is often inscribed on Roman tombs). In yet others, she is called Muta or Tacita, also associated with Lara’s plight. Some etymologies connect lar with larva, a ghost, an apparition. But Flower, with her historical pragmatism and distrust of myth, prefers to stress the merry-making character of the dancing lares and their joyful and reassuring presence at public feasts and street festivals. She claims that “a god could not belong both to the world above and to the underworld, just as most deities were not thought of as being both malicious and protective at the same time.”
Rüpke offers a less categorically binary model and sees the manes and the lares as complementary guardians of the home and the grave. The worlds were interconnected, and it was almost a sign of their divine power that gods in the Roman pantheon could disregard distinctions between worlds, a prerogative denied to mortals. The immortal Pollux, for instance, swapped places with his mortal twin, Castor, rather than let him suffer an eternity of death. Proserpina, one of the supreme deities, became the consort of Pluto, the judge of the dead, after he abducted her down to hell, from which she emerged every year to bring back the spring.
On Flower’s further point about there being a separation between benign and malign divine activity, Minerva and Diana provide useful counterexamples: though Minerva assaults Arachne and Diana has Actaeon changed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs, these goddesses at the same time symbolize wisdom, protect maidens’ chastity, and help young brides. A salient purpose of prayer and sacrifice to the gods is propitiation, to ward off death and damage and to placate the invisible powers that control them. Lares dance cheerfully, no doubt, but they may have required the attention they received—the sacrifices, prayers, libations, and flower garlands—to stay in a good mood; similarly, those writhing serpents below needed placating to ensure their protection.
When Flower turns her attention to the streets and neighborhoods of Rome, she presents a convincing and enthusiastic account of the way in which Augustus set about promoting popular religious beliefs in order to assert control over the urban populace. She focuses particularly on his reforms of 7 BCE, in which he promoted the cult of the lares by adding 265 vici (neighborhoods) to his new map of Rome. In each vicus, an outdoor shrine stood at the crossroads that formed the heart of the area, and was consequently called a compital shrine, from compitum (crossroads); the lares were invoked there to guard against dangers, for crossroads—actual and imaginary—are perilous places.
These compital altars formed part of an efficient system for running Rome. When Augustus multiplied their number, he strengthened his authority. The organizers of each vicus—the vicomagistri—formed a powerful network: they were responsible for preventing and controlling fires, but they also provided surveillance, policing, and intelligence. During the intermittent censuses, locals would hang up “dolls” (effigies in Latin) made of wool or wood, one for each citizen inhabiting a particular building, and for each slave a wooden ball. Later these images were hung at the entrance of houses—there would not have been room, Flower suggests, to display them all at the crossroads altar. The personification of the Roman population through miniature effigies gives a sense that such objects were not merely passive representations: one commentator, Festus, observed that they were offered to the lares so that “they…might spare the living and be content with these balls and likenesses.”
The insider knowledge of the local officials, so useful to the ruling powers, also made them potentially dangerous: they could rouse the crowd against a measure or an individual and had done so several times in the past. Keeping the vici on the side of the emperor was crucial—and Augustus, hyperaware of the mistakes of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had fatally misread the public mood, made many innovations to retain the love and allegiance of the people. He took stock of everything: the daily round, the layout of the city, the entertainments. He established one anniversary festival after another, timing them to coincide with each decade of his surprisingly long life.
In 7 BCE, at the age of fifty-five, twenty years after declaring himself “Augustus,” he instituted the lares augusti, giving these humble local gods the grandiloquent epithet he had already conferred on other principles and divinities in his special favor. He also created “a new civic year,” beginning on August 1 (his month), to be celebrated with flower festivals, paid for at his own expense. Five years later, on his sixtieth birthday, he became pater patriae, father of the fatherland, and dedicated the Forum Augustum, with a huge temple to Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) to commemorate the Battle of Philippi. Flower gives us a striking glimpse of the emperor reveling in the unofficial boxing matches that took place in the streets.
The rise and multiplication of the lares, their festivals, shrines, and the officials attending to them, were bound up with the political aims of the emperor. Flower writes, “Augustus’ historicizing of a new era in the vici involved a (re)sacralization of time itself, which was linked to a narrative of religious innovation that did not follow traditional Roman patterns.” It isn’t difficult to see how Ovid, who was sentenced to exile in 8 CE, would have enraged Augustus: When the poet set out in the Fasti to compose a storied almanac, was he making fun of the solemn pontiff and his new sacred order?
Augustus kept the spotlight on himself by instituting a cult of his genius beside the local lares in their street shrines. Flower defends Augustus fiercely, however, against criticisms that he set himself up as a god; she argues that he was merely underlining his position as the symbolic head of every Roman household. Idolization of living individuals had started in Republican times: in 85 BCE, statues were raised to a popular praetor, Marcus Marius Gratidianus, and offerings of incense and wine made to them, but like many adored celebrities, he met a terrible end not long afterward. Although Julius Caesar was murdered for his political ambitions, he was quickly declared a god; this elevation became routine for later emperors.
Rüpke is subtler about Augustus’s divinity, and argues for degrees of difference between divus and deus. It’s clear, though, that “god,” as invoked in the case of Roman rulers, meant something closer to “hero” than to God the Father or Allah. Rüpke’s portrait also emphasizes the increasing priestliness of Augustus’s self-presentation during his long reign. The emperor was certainly publicly devout and observant, but as in the case of populist leaders today, who can know what went on in his mind, or whether he was cynical or sincere?
The inner experiences of belief for individuals, from the emperor Augustus to the vicomagister to whom he gave dignity and influence, remain hidden from us. But the workings of religion to forge social bonds and identity are clearly demonstrated in these histories; faith appears far less a matter of eschatology, salvation stories, or the search for metaphysical truths than an instrument for making a community out of heterogeneous elements. On the evidence of both these impressive studies, the eclecticism of the Republic and of Augustan Rome represented an effective strategy to strengthen social cohesion and advance political interests—a strategy that differed from the fundamentalism and persecution that later failed to suppress the new monotheisms from the east, first Christianity, then Islam. For Romans, a bewildering new world was on the horizon, one in which, as Rüpke writes, “the seriousness of religion was now such that…[an individual] would be restricted to membership in just one religion.”
The local rituals that the Theodosian code banned are still flourishing, as any visitor to Italy or Mexico knows. Small wayside shrines have succeeded the compital altars of the lares, and they show the wavering intensity of popular devotions: sometimes a tabernacle to a patron saint will commemorate a neighborhood lad who died in a motorbike accident, with photos of him bright and smiling, fresh flowers, and a votive lamp trimmed and lit; elsewhere, a sun-bleached Madonna and Child peers from behind smeary glass, with a wilted offering of flowers and torn scraps of ancient, forgotten prayers. In Sicily today, a garage manager or a greengrocer will set up a brand-new, life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, luxuriously dressed in real silks and lace, and haloed and garlanded with fairy lights; while in Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia (especially Mecca), iconoclastic fundamentalists continue to stamp out similar devotions as “idolatrous” and have razed much-loved sanctuaries—including the grave of the mother of the Prophet. The cult of the lares confirmed a sense of belonging to a place, a home, a neighborhood; they were familiars, and Augustus cultivated them purposefully to resist alienation and discontent among Romans.