Lares, the guardians of the hearth, fields & boundaries

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In ancient Roman religion, lares served as protective deities. They may have been guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness; their origin is unknown.

Lares were thought to keep watch over, defend, and have a say in everything that occurred within the confines of their domain of presence or duty. During family meals, domestic Lares statues were placed at the table; their attendance, worship, and blessing appear to have been necessary at all significant family occasions. Etruscans, who lived next to Archaic Rome, held domestic, ancestor, or family rituals that were quite similar to those that Romans dedicated to their Lares. The term “lord” appears to have originated from the Etruscan lar, lars, or larth. Roman authors occasionally associate them with household Penates, ancestor-deities, and the hearth.

Related article: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Rome

Lares are frequently categorized as home gods, although some of them had considerably wider spheres of influence. Their specific Lar or Lares guarded the state’s military as well as the land, the sea, agriculture, animals, villages, and cities. The intersection shrines (Compitalia), which functioned as the center for the local, predominately plebeian communities’ religious, social, and political activities, were home to those who guarded nearby neighborhoods (vici). Freedmen and slaves who would often be barred from holding administrative or religious positions due to their status or property were included among their cult’s authorities.

Lares were minor gods in comparison to Rome’s great gods, yet literary and archaeological evidence attests to their essential place in Roman culture and religion. A Roman coming home may be compared to returning ad Larem (to the Lar). Unofficial cults to Lares continued until at least the beginning of the fifth century AD, despite official restrictions on non-Christian cults beginning in the late fourth century AD.

Lares appeared to have been as numerous as the areas they guarded and belonged inside the “bounded physical domain” under their care. Some of them seem to have had overlapping roles and name changes. For instance, those summoned with Mars in the Carmen Arvale are simply referred to as Lases (an ancient version of Lares), and their divine roles must be deduced from the language and context of the Carmen itself. Similarly, those who were summoned by consul Publius Decius Mus as a devotio before his death in combat together with other deities are simply referred to as “Lares”. Therefore, the titles and domains listed below should not be viewed as exhaustive or final.

Featured image: Two lares with rhyton and situla, a genius making an offering at an altar, a flute player, a servant holding a vase, and a servant bringing a pig to the altar are all depicted in a fresco at Pompeii. Below that is an altar with fruits and eggs between two snakes (“agathodaimones”)

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