[Chapter four from J.-P. Descoeudres, Pompeii Revisited: The Life and Death of a Roman Town (Sydney: Meditarch, 1994).]
The lararium, the shrine of the household gods, takes its name from the lares to whose vigilance was entrusted the protection of the household. They received regular offerings and were specially celebrated each month (Jupiter Capitolinus being the only other divinity to be so honoured), usually with a wreath and a portion of a mean, but on important occasions with the sacrifice of a lamb. Similarly, the hearth (focus) was decorated with garlands on the Kalends, Ides, Nones and other feast days. The lar familiaris is encountered first in the very early days as protector of the farm, associated in particular with its boundaries and with crossroads; but the switch was easily made to the urban context (nowhere more so than in Pompeii, where at least 500 examples have been documented), for in addition to the evidence of the shrines we are about to consider, we find expressions of deep reference in the writings Cicero and the poets:
The most sacred, the most hallowed place on earth is the home of each
and every citizen. There are his sacred hearth and his household gods,
there the very centre of his worship, religion, and domestic ritual.
(Cicero, De Domo Sua 41, 109)
The ceremonies in honour of the lar familiaris were conducted by the head of the family (the paterfamilias), and were in essence a smaller-scale version of the public sacrifices and prayers made to the great gods (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva), and of the correct observance of ritual that ensured diving goodwill and with it the prosperity of the State. The domestic cult, that is, was conducted by the smaller social unit of the family.
We read of the lar familiaris, but more commonly of the plural lares, and indeed they are visually represented in pairs as youths dance in step with they country-style short-sleeved tunics swishing out around them, a rhyton (a drinking horn in the shape of an animal’s head) held high in one hand and a dish (patera) extended in the other (Fig. 54). Sometimes, in painted versions, a stream of wine pours from the rhyton into the patera. Lares can also carry a horn of plenty, or a wine bucket and a sheaf of corn (see, for instance, Figs. 56 and 58). The youthfulness and the dance step seem a departure from divine ‘seriousness’ and this has been interpreted as an expression of the joy characteristic of the lares’ feast-days. But the dance is also known in another thoroughly religious context: the victory dance of Mars and Heracles (depicted for example on Republican coins), and performed ceremonially by the Salian priests. The visual tradition then provides excellent evidence for reaching conclusions about the nature of the lares, as they came to be envisaged.
There are three main types of lararia: the simplest is merely a niche in the wall to provide a resting place for the statuettes and figurines; the background is sometimes painted (Fig. 55). In richer houses the niche is replaced by an aedicula, a three-dimensional miniature temple set on a podium, its sides lined with marble plaques or covered with painted stucco, imitating marble (Fig. 57). In it were put the lares, just as Petronius described in the house of Trimalchio: ‘the silver lares were placed in an aedicula.’ The third type of lararium was painted on the wall to give the illusion of an aedicula, and the figures of the domestic gods were also painted (Fig. 56).
The lararium, which is a name attested only quite late in Latin, was also the focus of worship of other gods connected with the house and family: the penates for example, often mentioned inseparably with the lares, are gods with a long tradition in Roman worship. Depending on the derivation of their name, there are various theories of their origin: they have been thought of as originally guardians of the food store and therefore very important for the well-being for the family. More recently the word has been derived from a stem meaning ‘power’, which makes the penates gods concerned with everything in the power (potestas) of the master of the house. According to Roman legend, best known in Virgil’s epic, Aeneas carried the penates with him from Troy to Italy and thereby assured the continuity of his family.
Also worshipped in the lararium was the genius, the essential spirit of the head of the house: the house was protected by the lares, the family by the genius who guaranteed continuity of generation. In the lararium of the House of the Red Walls (VIII 5, 37) the genius of the paterfamilias is painted on the back wall of the shrine between two lares (Fig. 58), whilst on the ledge stood the bronze statuettes (now kept in the National Museum in Naples) of a further pair of lares and other gods selected as house-guardians; in this case, Apollo, Aesculapius, Mercury and Hercules. Obviously Olympian gods could be assimilated into domestic worship which centred initially on the hearth (of which Vesta was the Roman goddess), the lares and penates, and the genius. In the lararia of other Pompeian houses have been recorded, for example, Diana, Bacchus, Harpocrates, and the head of Medusa.
Sufficient evidence from lararia in Pompeii also shows that an oriental divinity, the Egyptian goddess Isis, could be accepted not only into public worship, but also into the cult of the domestic shrine. Isis, with the same attributes of the horn of plenty and rudder, is visibly assimilated with Fortuna (see above, Fig. 11) and so fits admirably with a desire for prosperity and regeneration, the chief sentiments of family cult. This assimilation of divinities (even foreign gods) into Roman domestic religion operated just as readily as it did in the public sphere; for Roman religion admitted and moderated and exercised control over new cults, especially during the difficult and sometimes dangerous days of the second century BC. Isiac lararia had all the usual features of domestic cult: niche, altar, snake, offerings (eggs, pineapple, fruits).
The shrine in our ala does not seem to have been associated, as was often the case, with the representation of a snake, also considered to be a guardian spirit or genius loci. The regular pattern was for a pair of antithetically posed snakes to be painted on the wall beneath the lararium-niche, their heads reared over a religious emblem (an altar, for example) set between them. Snakes had a place of honour in public religion and are to be interpreted as gentle and benevolent bringers of peace and prosperity. This feature, however, though presented differently, is not forgotten in our house, for a painted snake was found on a wall of the cellar during excavations in 1979 (Fig. 83).
The poet Propertius describes the sad neglect of the lares when they do not receive their daily worship and offerings. And the attachment of the citizens of Pompeii to their household gods was further revealed in the excavations; for as they attempted to escape during the eruption, some took with them statuettes of the lares: lares have been found in the streets near skeletons, and many lararia were, at the time of excavation, without their divine inhabitants—just like ours.
The whole daily round of the Roman citizen was governed by religious observance as he offered prayers to his hearth, his household gods, and his ancestors; births, coming of age, betrothals, marriages, anniversaries were all times of solemn religious acts for the family. And the flourishing vitality of this element of Roman religious belief is illuminated by the special prohibitions of the Theodosian Code at the end of the 4th century AD:
Let no man in any place in any city make sacrifice, or worship the lar with
burnt offering, or the genius with wine, or the penates with perfumes—let
them light no lamp, burn no incense, hang no garlands.