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Hecto

Lares Familiares

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Who exactly were the Lares ?

I read here and on the net about families having 1 Lar deity in there household (for the floor? where the dead were buried). But from the legend, Mercury had 2 sons named Lares.

 

So just to be sure I understand correctly, in a roman household, there is a little shrine dedicated to one Lar, but there is more then one "god of the household".

 

Also, is the Lar, like the Penates, named after another minor or major god? This really bothers.

 

Any help is welcome since I am a bit lost studying all these different gods. If it helps, I am mainly studying practices during the republic.

Edited by Hecto

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They were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. If we say in one word they are "guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness".

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The Lares of the household were basically a sort of spiritual hodgepodge of the families ancestors. My understanding is that they were essentially a familial deity. Each house typically had a shrine to their Lar and would offer tributes to it so that it would protect and provide for the family (good crops, etc.)

 

I'm not too familiar with the sons of Mercury so I am not sure how or if they relate to this practice though.

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As I understand it, the definition on Wikipedia is a bit exaggerated. Lares were not gods/deities per se, but spirits or ghosts, the word 'familiares' suggesting ancestral spirit. The Romans did venerate ancestors - it was common practice in wealthier families to keep a shrine with death masks of former family members - but households might also have a deity to which the household was dedicated. Notice that unlike christianity, there is no clear division between mortal and divine, even in the period before Caesars got a bit above themselves. A man may be mundane by birt - he might accumlate via his deeds, his virtus, status and power that would eventually rival the residents of Olympus (though in reality this usually happened after they were dead and the Senate had deified them as an honour - notice also the right of the Senate to designate a man as a god)

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I was delighted to see that in Gladiator, and I think in the HBO series Rome, in The Eagle (set in Roman Britain), a major character was shown talking to his ancestors. Before Gladiator at least, I don't recall a movie set in the ancient world depicting with such ease a prevalent (but sometimes unfamiliar) part of Roman daily life.

 

I keep a reproduction of a lares sculpture in my home. 

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Ancestor worship was a low key but important factor of Roman life, with empahsis on the longer lived and more formal families. A shrine containing death masks would be on display for visitors as much as for personal veneration. It wasn't just about worship of course - it was also propaganda.

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I agree that propaganda, i.e. wanting to boast, subtly or not, about one's famous and ancient lineage, was probably a factor for many Romans in their ancestor veneration. But I also want to hope and consider that for many others, and even for those seeing it in propaganda terms, they still honestly did honor their ancestors. Ancestor veneration, which thrives today in many cultural and religious aspects of society around the world, is a noble and worthy part of life, in my opinion. We all came from somewhere, from some one. And some day we too will be ancestors in some or other way. It's humbling to consider that we may be remembered by future generations.

 

The most pitiable part, I think, of the Romans venerating their ancestors, is that too often they did not learn anything moral or ethical (or if they did they took it all to the wrong extremes of behavioral standards).

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The concept of ancestor worship was partly to maintain family tradition, as well as maintaining a suiperstitious approval and protection of the departed. However, Romans were often, by their nature, expedient and exploitative. The standards of old declined as the amount of cash floating around in society increased. Success and prosperity somewhat eroded these standards in other words. Also we know from the sources that whilst some Romans were very strong on public morality and behaviour, others were not, and indeed, that span of behaviour had always existed in Roman society - it was that rebellious and aggressive aspect of the Romans that had been with them from the start and was esconsed in their myths and legends of their origins. Also there were increasingly families with little ancestory to be proud of. As time went by the older families tended to die out, and it was said that eventually the Senate was manned by men descended from slaves. Augustus, for instance, was chided by Antony for having humble ancestors.

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I can't feel sorry for the old families dying out. The Gods know Rome needed fresh blood, fresh thinking.

I find it interesting that social mobility appears to be greater under the Empire than the supposedly noble and great republic.

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