The Roman family spirits, included the lares, manes and penates, also linked to the family, the location and the hearth of the household. They are of archaic origin, possibly predating other polytheistic deities.
Important within Roman religion was the concept of family spirits known as the “Lares”. The Romans had a strong belief in the spirits of the dead or divine beings called Genii; particularly those of their own ancestors which generally inhabited the household.
These spirits were called Lares (Lar familiaris). Similar spirits called Manes were believed to protect the house and family belongings, including their fields and the Penates who protected family provisions (called penus). These spirits were either direct ancestors of the family or spirits of the land, which preexisted the founding of the city.
In the 3rd Century BC the Roman playwright Plautus writes in his commedy Aulularia (The concealed treasure)
ego lar sum familiaris ex hac familia unde exeuntem me asperistis. hanc domum jam multos annos est cum possideo et colo patri avoque jam hujus qui nunc hic habet …. huic filia una est. ea mihi cottidie aut ture aut vino aut aliqui semper supplicat, dat mihi coronas
Which roughly translates as:
I am the ‘lar familiaris’ a member of this family, from which you have called me. I own this house since many years and I cherish the forefathers of its present owner … He has a daughter who cherishes me and prays for me every day, with gifts of wine or incense, she gives me garlands.
These spirits were represented by wax or metal statuettes which were kept together, standing or hung in a recess of a wall at home, rather like a small family shrine called a ‘Lararium’. Together with these it was quite possible, particularly in Patrician circles which had “ius imaginam” (right to images), to keep wax masks in wooden molds which had the vague resemblance of the deceased ancestors. These would be used to bring the ancestors to “life” during funeral processions.
Each morning the head of the family or a suitably instructed slave would perform a strict series of rituals in order to keep the family spirits happy. This routine was carefully followed rather like we might routinely brush our teeth each morning.
Other symbols of snakes or “Dracones” often appeared on or near the Lararium. The snake was considered a benevolent demon. The Roman demon snakes are often represented in a male and female pair, denoted by elements like a beard, or by difference in size, approaching an altar with votive eggs. They are hence both a sign of benevolence as well as of regenerative forces.
Roman spirits of the urban landscape
Similarly the Lars Compitales were spirits linked to the urban landscape and were remembered each year during the Ludi Compitales or Compitalia. There were two primary temples to these divine beings in Rome called the “aedes larum“. One of these was next to the Mugonia gate and the other in the Forum near the ancient Romanula gate.
Its real importance to the community was that it created a strong tie to ones’ own family as well as underlining the family head’s importance. In fact as head of the family the ‘pater familias’ had absolute property over family members and all that was within the house. His orders were not only his own, but given in name of the family spirits also.
As silly as this might seem family spirits were actually a corner stone of Roman religion, military and civil life. In fact Roman society since its earliest times had been structured according to family tribes or clans each of which had military as well as civil obligations. We can quickly see how an absolute devotion to one’s own family and family spirits translated directly to a complete (military) devotion to the state.