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Lares: Roman Guardian Deities of Place

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

The Romans believed that every location had guardian spirits, these they called Lares. A Lar is responsible for observing what happens in a place, protecting that place, and maintaining the positive energy of that location. Nothing good can happen there if the Lar or Lares of the location is not pleased.

The Romans made daily sacrifices to their household Lares alongside the other household gods, and regular sacrifices to the Lares of their neighborhood, the crossroads, the city, and other important locations, to ensure ongoing prosperity.

Image from Roman household shrine in Pompeii
Image from Roman household shrine in Pompeii

Plethora of Lares

Almost every location had a Lar, or usually multiple Lares, they are almost always depicted as a pair. This included every household, every neighborhood (Lares Compitales), and every city. But this was not the limit. There were Lares of the field and the roads, and also Lares of less fixed locations such as the Lares Militares that protected military units, and the Lares Permarini, guardians of the sea that were cultivated by sailors.

This plethora of Lares reflects the fact that the Romans followed an animistic religious belief system in which all things are imbued with divine spirits. But more than that, these divinities needed to be recognized and respected.

This is part of the reason why the Romans were able to incorporate the religions of the people that they conquered into their religious system. It was logical that new places and new people would have new gods. They would sometimes understand those gods by equating them with their own gods, for example they understood the Norse god Odin as a manifestation of Mercury, but a proliferation of deities was not a problem within Roman religion.

But this is also why Judaism and Christianity were such a threat to the Roman way of life and were originally persecuted. Monotheistic religious beliefs were incompatible with the Roman view of the world as populated by deities and spirits. The problem was not the acknowledgment of the god of the Old Testament, but rather the refusal to recognize other deities, who may become angered and cause problems.

Artistic depictioon of man worshipping at Roman household shrine
Artistic depictioon of man worshipping at Roman household shrine

Appearance of the Roman Household Lares

The household Lares are almost always represented as a pair of youthful male figures engaged in dance and wearing rustic tunics, which Plutarch says were made from dog skin. This implies natural spirits. But there are also clear links between the Lares and the underworld, suggesting that they may also have been considered spirits of the dead.

Lares would usually hold a Cornucopia horn and/or a shallow libation dish, representing the blessings that they provided and the worship that was considered due to the household Lares.

In most Roman households, they had small shrines that could be painted with images of the Lares, and also the other golds worshipped within the household such as the Genius and the Penates. These shrines could also contained figurines of the gods worshipped there.

Statuette of a Roman Lares
Statuette of a Roman Lares

Roman Household Gods

The Lares among a group of household gods cultivated in most Roman homes for the prosperity of the family. Also important was the Genius of the Paterfamilias, who is the head of the household. This was not just the family, but also the slaves and freedmen that served the family. The Genius is his protective spirit, but it does not belong to the paterfamilias alone. It is an ancestral spirit of the family that passes to different heads of the family as a kind of inheritance. When the head of a Roman household died, the Genius remained constantstorerooms.

Alongside the Genius and Lares are the Penates, which are literally the gods of the "penus" which is the store rooms and the kitchens. This suggests that the Penates was linked with the prosperity and self-sufficiency of the household.

While the Genius and Lares usually had an altar in the Atrium of the home, which is the main public entrance space of a Roman home, the Penates were worshipped in the kitchen, a space reserved exclusively for members of the household, free and enslaved. Statues of the Penates were placed on the table during family meals. A portion of food was placed to one side for the Penates and burned as an offering.

While the Lares were probably spirits of the dead, these were more commonly called Manes. While the Manes represented all dead ancestors, the Lares seem to have been the spirits of the dead that specifically helped and protected the household. Aeneas, the great founder of Rome and great ancestor of the Roman people, is sometimes referred to as a Lar.

Roman household worship might also include "great" deities that the leader of the family considered their patron. For example, the emperor Augustus considered Apollo his patron god and built a grand public temple for him on the Palatine in Rome. But Apollo had probably long been worshipped within the household of Augustus (then known as Octavian).

When a family changed their home, they would take their statues and images of their household deities with them.

These gods, and all gods, were known collectively as numen, or numina in the plural, which refers to all divine entities.

Cultivation of the Lares

In the home, the paterfamilias, the head of the household, was chiefly responsible for ensuring the cult of the Lares. He would lead their worship on special occasions, such as marriages, when a pig was often sacrificed to the deities.

But all members of the household were responsible for the worship of the Lares, including slaves. They would have been more involved in the day-to-day veneration of the Lares, Genius, and Penates.

The Lares received regular offerings of things such as spelt wheat, grain garlands, honey cakes, honeycombs, fresh fruits, wine, and incense. Their statuette was placed on the table during family meals, and any food that fell on the floor was considered to belong to them.

In the neighborhoods, again on festival days, local magistrates were responsible for the cult of the Lares Compitales, whereas slaves and freedmen maintained their cults on a regular basis.

The main festival day of the Lares of the city of Rome itself and the Lares Compitales of her neighborhoods was called the Compitalia, and it occurred around the end of January and the start of February, shortly after the Saturnalia festival. Pigs would be led around the neighborhood to be sacrificed at the shrine, and all the members of the community would bring items to give to the Lares. These would be the same items that they gave to their Lares at home.

Items from a neighborhood shrine of the Lares
Items from a neighborhood shrine of the Lares


The term Lares seems to be an Eutruscan word (a people who occupied parts of Italy north of Rome), suggesting that the roots of their Roman worship had an Etruscan influence. Nevertheless, the Greeks equated the Lares with their own heroes (ancestors) and daemons (protective deities). Greek religion had a great influence on Roman religious practices.

When the Roman playwright Plautus reimagined a story told by the Greek playwright Meander, he replaced the hero spirit with a Lar. This Lar protected treasure owned by the family and hidden at their homestead. He does not reveal the location of the treasure to the head of the household, Euclio, because he does not respect the Lar, but he does show the treasure to his daughter.

Modern Lararium

Today, it is not uncommon to see a Lararium in the house of a modern pagan. These are shrines dedicated to gods and spirits that are associated with the location, and in some way born out of the creation of the location.

This means that they can be ancestor deities, born from the people who dwelled in the place previously, or nature deities that stem from the natural area on which the place was built, or just born out of the energy of the things that are happening in the location. In this way, they very much resemble the Lares.

Maintaining a positive relationship with these entities helps to maintain the positive energy of the location and ensures that good things can happen there.

They should have a small shrine that contains objects that represent those deities in whatever form they take for you. The shrine should be blessed daily with offerings of incense, liquor, sweet foods, and anything else that is regularly consumed in the home.

Example of a modern Lararium
Example of a modern Lararium

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