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Updated on January 5, 2011

Lares, in Roman religion, are tutelary deities.

Few modern scholars support the old theory that the lares were the ghosts of the dead and deified ancestors, who personified the vital powers and thus assured the duration of the family over which their protection was supposed to extend. The prevalent view is that the lares were originally protecting deities of arable land and that their shrines were placed upon such land at the junctions of boundary paths.

Modern opinion holds that from such agrarian statues the lares gradually assumed the function of guarding the individuals who owned or worked the land. Whatever their origin, it is certain that, as Roman religious thought matured and as the worship of the lares spread, they came to be regarded as beneficent spirits who protected the family, the state, farmers, herders, soldiers, sailors, and travelers. Of the more than 20 varieties of lares known, the most important are the following:

  1. Lares domestici- the private lares of the home, worshiped by the family alone. The principal one of these, the lar familiaris, accompanied the family in its changes of residence and was conceived as the center of the household cult. By extension the word lar, like penates, became a Latin metaphor, or metonymy, for "home", whence the English expression "lares and penates" denoting personal or household effects. The lar familiaris, usually represented by a less than life-sized figure of a youth, stood beside the hearth in a small shrine or chapel (lararium). The image might be of wood, stone, or metal. Prayer was made to the idol every morning by the paterfamilias, or head of the house. At each meal offerings of food and drink were laid before it. Special offerings and sacrifices to this lar occurred on such notable domestic events as births, birthdays, comings of age, marriages, and deaths. On such occasions the image was crowned with floral wreaths, viands and wine were presented to it, and incense was burned before it. Particular honors were paid to it on the calends (1st day), nones (5th or 7th day), and ides (13th or 15th day) of the month. The reverence accorded to the lar familiaris gave every religious Roman's house something of the sanctity of a temple. Probably no other people outside of the Orient ever carried the religion of the home so far as did the Romans through this form of worship.
  2. Lares compitales were guardian spirits of the crossroads, where their shrines were set. In their honor was celebrated the annual festival of the Compitalia or the Laralia in December by the "guilds of priests" (associations of neighboring laymen, mostly freedmen) who tended the shrines.
  3. Lares hostilii were deities who defended the state from its enemies.

  4. Lares militares were the guardian spirits of the soldiers.

  5. Lares permarini were the guardian spirits of sailors and travelers by sea.

  6. Lares praestites, originally tutelaries of the public land, later became guardians of the state in general. Their temple was on the Sacred Way near the Palatine Hill in Rome. Republican coins show them as two youths (presumably Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome) holding a spear and seated beside a dog, thus symbolizing vigilance. Imperial coins added another figure, possibly representing the first emperor, Augustus (r. 27 B.C. - 14 A.D.), who wished to be regarded as Rome's second founder.

  7. Lares rurales, or lares rustici, were deities who presided over farms in the countryside and protected flocks and herds.

  8. Lares salutares protected individual health.

  9. Lares semitales guarded the footpaths and byways.

  10. Lares viales, or lares viatorii, protected wayfarers on the roads.

  11. Lares victores were the divinities who granted victory in war.


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