previous next


Gods of inferior power worshipped at Rome, of human origin and presiding over houses and families. There were various classes of them, such as Urbāni, to preside over the cities; Familiāres, over houses; Rustĭci, over the country; Compitāles, over crossways; Marīni, over the sea; Viāles, over roads, etc. The Lares were originally human beings themselves, who lived upon the earth, and, becoming pure spirits after death, loved still to hover round the dwelling which they once inhabited, to watch over its safety, and to guard it with as much care as the faithful dog does the possessions of its master. They keep off, therefore, danger from without, while the Penates (q.v.), residing in the interior of the dwelling, pour forth benefits upon its inmates. The fundamental idea, on which rests the doctrine of the Lares, is intimately connected with all the psychology and pneumatology of the ancient Italians. According to Apuleius the daemones which once had inhabited, as souls, human bodies, were called Lemures: this name therefore designated, in general, the spirit separated from the body. Such a spirit, if it adopted its posterity—if it took possession, with favourable power, of the abode of its children—was called Lar familiaris. If on the contrary, by reason of the faults committed in life, it found in the grave no resting place, it appeared to men as a phantom; inoffensive to the good, but terrible to the wicked. Its name was in that case Larva. As, however, there was no way of precisely ascertaining what had been the lot of a deceased person, whether he had become, for example, a Lar or a Larva, it was customary to give to the dead the general appellation of Manes. The mother of the Lares was called Lara or Larunda (Arnob. Adv. Gent. iii. 41; Macrob. i. 7). This conception of the Lares, as the souls of fathers and of forefathers, protectors of their children, and watching over the safety of their descendants, necessarily gave rise to the custom of burying the dead within the dwelling (Serv. ad Verg. Aen. v. 64; vi. 152; Orig. xv. 11). Men wished to have near them these tutelary genii, in order to be certain of their assistance and support. In process of time, however, this custom was prohibited at Rome by the laws of the Twelve Tables.

The Etrurians, and the Romans after them, had their Lares publĭci and Lares privāti. The Lares were supposed to assist at all gatherings of men, at all public assemblies or reunions, in all transactions of men, and in all the most important affairs of State as well as of individuals. As each individual had his Lar, his genius, his guardian spirit, even the infant at the breast, so entire families, and whole races and nations, were equally under the protection of one of these tutelar deities. Here the Lares became in some degree confounded with the Heroes, that is, with the spirits of those who, having deserved well of their country while on earth, continued to watch over and protect it. It would seem, too, that at times the worship of these public Lares, like that of the public Penates, was not without some striking resemblance to that rendered to the great national divinities.

All that the house contained was confided to the superintending care of these vigilant genii: they were set as a watch over all things large and small, and hence the name of Praestĭtes, which is sometimes given them (Ovid, Fast. v. 128, 132). Hence the dog was the natural symbol of the Lares; an image of this animal was placed by the side of their statues, or else these were covered with the skin of a dog. The ordinary altar on which sacrifices were offered to the Lares was the domestic hearth. The victims consisted of a hog (Hor. Carm. iii. 23, 4) or a fowl; sometimes, with the rich, of a young steer; to them were also presented the first fruits of the season, and libations of wine were poured out. In all the family repasts, the first thing done was to cast a portion of all the viands into the fire that burned on the hearth, in honour of the Lares. In the form of marriage, called coëmptio, the bride always threw a piece of money on the hearth to the Lares of her family, and deposited another in the neighbouring cross-road, in order to obtain admission, as it were, into the dwelling of her husband. Young persons, after their fifteenth year, consecrated to the Lares the bulla which they had worn from infancy (Pers. v. 31). Soldiers, when their time of service was once ended, dedicated to them the arms with which they had fought (Ovid, Trist. iv. 8, 21). Captives and slaves restored to freedom consecrated to the Lares the fetters from which they had just been freed (Hor. Sat. i. 5). Before undertaking a journey, or after a successful return, homage was paid to these deities, their protection was implored, or thanks were rendered for their guardian care (Ovid, Trist. i. 3, 33). The new master of a house crowned the Lares, in order to render them propitious; a custom which was of the most universal nature, and which was perpetuated to the latest times (Plaut. Trinum. i. 2, 1). The proper place for worshipping the Lares, and where their images stood, was called Lararium, a sort of domestic chapel in the atrium, where were also to be seen the images and busts of the family ancestors. The rich had often two Lararia, one large and the other small; they had also “Masters of the Lares,” and “Decuries of the Lares”—namely, slaves specially charged with the care of these domestic chapels and the images of their divinities. As to the poor, their Lares had to be content with the simple hearth, where honours not less simple were paid to them. Certain public festivals were also celebrated in honour of the Lares, called Lararia and Compitalia. The period for their celebration fell in the month of December, a little after that of the Saturnalia. The Compitalia, dedicated to the Lares Compitales, were celebrated in the open air, in the cross-roads. The day of their celebration was not fixed. They were introduced at Rome by Servius Tullius, who left to the Senate the care of determining the period when they should be held. In early times, children were immolated to the goddess Mania, the mother, according to some, of the Lares, to propitiate her favour for the protection of the family. This barbarous rite was subsequently abolished, and little balls of wool were hung up in the stead of human offerings at the gates of dwellings. Macrobius ( Sat. i. 7, 34) informs us that it was Junius Brutus who, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, introduced a new form of sacrifice, by virtue of which heads of garlic and poppies were offered up in place of human heads, ut pro capitibus capitibus supplicaretur, in accordance with the oracle of Apollo.

As regards the forms under which the Lares were represented, it may be observed that it dif

Lares. (Duruy.)

fered often but little from that of the Penates. Thus, on the coins of the Caesian family, they are represented as two young men, seated, their heads covered with helmets, and holding spears in their hands, while a dog watches at their feet. Sometimes, as has already been remarked, the heads of the Lares are represented as covered with, or their mantle as formed of, the skin of a dog. At other times we find the Lares resembling naked children, with the bulla hanging from the neck.

hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 5.64
    • Horace, Satires, 1.5
    • Persius, Saturae, 5
    • Ovid, Fasti, 5
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: