Local religion: lararia and Compitalia
During these [festival] days they take off every symbol of their servitude, so that by this act of humanity … they become better disposed to their masters and bear the sorrow of their fate less heavily.Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 4.14.2-4.
The shrines must have been familiar sights within the urban landscape, and hubs of festive activity on the day of the celebrations.The inscriptions on the surviving shrines tell us something about how the cult of the Lares Augusti was organised. Rather than direct involvement by elite priests, the neighbourhoods were allowed to choose four officers (magistri vici) who, in addition to various local civic duties, were in charge of the festival, performed sacrifices and were responsible for the maintenance of the shrines. After the emperor’s death, these same local officials and the statues from the shrines were involved in the annual games held in his honour in October – an important step in the establishment of the emperor-worship.The veneration of the emperor in neighbourhoods was just one aspect of local religion within the city. In peoples’ homes for example, numerous spirits relating to domestic life and the cult of the dead were recognised, and each household had its own guardian spirits, as did also each male and female citizen.A relatively wealthy family home would typically contain a cabinet-like shrine known as a lararium to house the household gods, the Penates (often also referred to as spirits of the pantry), and the spirits of the ancestors (Lares). For well-preserved examples we can look outside Rome to Pompeii, where many survive. In the House of the Menander, for example, there is a prominent lararium in the central atrium or hallway, visible to any visitor or inhabitant entering the house. Reminiscent of a small temple, the shrine was decorated with painted plaster (stucco) and was comprised of a raised rectangular platform with a single column supporting a triangular roof. This small structure might have been used to house statuettes of the household gods, possibly accompanied by flowers, cakes, lamps and incense. Further within the house, the internal courtyard garden featured a small colourfully-painted niche set into the wall, complete with four small figurines that most likely represent the ancestors of the owners.Although we don’t have this type of domestic evidence directly surviving in Rome, you’ll see in Week 4, that this particular style of residence (known as atrium or domus housing) featured within the city, depicted on the Severan marble plan. It’s a reasonable assumption that their wealthy owners would have had similar household shrines. In other cases, descriptions in the ancient sources can provide further insight into domestic practices relating to the veneration of family ancestors. For instance, you’ll see in Step 4.10, an account of the prominent role of ancestor portraits in grand funerals. The display of these images within the home therefore served as an important means to remember and venerate the deceased; this is particularly important, for, in Rome, almost all tombs and burials were located outside the city. We know of a particular festival, the Parentalia, held each year in February during which people travelled out to the graves of their family members or patrons to present flowers and food, making a connection with the burial site.… guard all things with their eyes. They stand there for us, and preside over the city’s walls; they are present for us, and bring us help.Ovid, Fasti 5.134-6.
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Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City
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