Tuesday, June 29, 2021

From Etruscan Lasa to Roman Lare

Although art historians are not certain whether a Lasa was a major or minor Etruscan deity, it is thought the domain and purpose of the lasa morphed into a being known as a Lar to the Romans. Lares are thought to have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries, or fruitfulness, or an amalgamation of these.

Roman writers sometimes conflated the Lares with domestic Penates but the Lares had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state, and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighborhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitalia), which served as a focus for the religious, social, and political lives of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities. Their cult officials included freedmen and slaves, otherwise excluded by status or property qualifications from most administrative and religious offices. Despite official bans on non-Christian cults from the late fourth century CE onwards, unofficial cults to Lares persisted until at least the early fifth century CE. 

Although the Etruscan Lasa could be female, Roman Lares were described by Plutarch as  two small, youthful, lively male figures clad in short, rustic, girdled tunics – made of dogskin. They take a dancer's attitude, tiptoed or lightly balanced on one leg. One arm raises a drinking horn (rhyton) aloft as if to offer a toast or libation, the other bears a shallow libation dish (patera). 

Traditional Roman households owned at least one protective Lares figure, housed in a shrine along with the images of the household's penates, genius image and any other favored deities. Their statues were placed at table during family meals and banquets. They were divine witnesses at important family occasions, such as marriages, births, and adoptions, and their shrines provided a religious hub for social and family life. Care and cult attendance to domestic Lares could include offerings of spelt wheat and grain-garlands, honey cakes and honeycombs, grapes and first fruits, wine, and incense. They could be served at any time and not always by intention - in addition to the formal offerings that seem to have been their due, any food that fell to the floor during house banquets was considered theirs.

By the early Imperial period, household shrines of any kind became known generically as lararia (s. lararium) because they typically contained a Lares figure or two. In households of modest means, small Lar statuettes were set in wall-niches, sometimes merely a tile-support projecting from a painted background. In wealthier households, they tend to be found in servant's quarters and working areas. The sumptuous House of the Vettii in Pompeii had two lararia.  One was positioned out of public view, and was probably used in private household rites. The other was placed boldly front-of-house, among a riot of Greek-inspired mythological wall-paintings and the assorted statuary of patron divinities.

Domestic Lararia were also used as a sacred, protective depository for commonplace symbols of family change and continuity. In his coming-of-age, a boy gave his personal amulet (bulla) to his Lares before he put on his manly toga (toga virilis). Once his first beard had been ritually cut off, it was placed in their keeping. On the night before her wedding, a Roman girl surrendered her dolls, soft balls, and breastbands to her family Lares, as a sign she had come of age. On the day of her marriage, she transferred her allegiance to her husband's neighborhood Lares (Lares Compitalici) by paying them a copper coin en route to her new home. She paid another to her new domestic Lares, and one to her husband.

The city of Rome itself was protected by a Lar, or Lares, housed in a shrine (sacellum) on the city's ancient, sacred boundary (pomerium). Each Roman vicus (pl. vici – administrative districts or wards) had its own communal Lares, housed in a permanent shrine at a central crossroads of the district. These Lares Compitalicii were celebrated at the Compitalia festival (from the Latin compitum, a crossroad) just after the Saturnalia that closed the old year. In the "solemn and sumptuous" rites of Compitalia, a pig was led taken in celebratory procession through the streets of the vicus, then sacrificed to the Lares at their Compitalia shrine. According to Plutarch, Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome who was assassinated in 579 BCE, is credited with the founding of the Lares' public festival. 

Etruscan Lasa, once the support for a patera, bronze with silver inlays, 3rd - early 2nd century BCE, now in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, image courtesy of the museum.

Dancing Roman Lare holding a rhyton and a patera. Bronze statuette, First century CE, in the collections of the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Figurine of a Lar, 0-200 CE, at the Gallo-Roman museum, Tongeren, Belgium, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sam Donvil.

Frescoed and columned lararium in the house of Marco Epidio Sabino in Pompeii watercolor by Luigi Bazzani. Currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England that I uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

Watercolor of a red Pompeii interior with lararium by Luigi Bazzani that I uploaded to Wikimedia Commons

Lararium of the House of Dioscuri at Pompeii, 1902 watercolor by Luigi Bazzani that I uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

Lararium in the Casa degli Amorini Dorati (House of the Golden Cupids) in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Lararium from the Casa del Efebo in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Pompeii lararium courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor ho visto nina volare.

An elaborate Lararium with niche from Pompeii, Roman, 1st century CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Claus Ableiter.

Lararium in the peristyle of the Villa Romana del Casale courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.

Lararium in the Casa del Criptoportico (1.6.2), Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Maltaper

Kitchen lararium in Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii in Pictures (https://pompeiiinpictures.com/pompeiiinpictures/index.htm)

Another niche lararium from the south wall of a garden area in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Stanley A. Jashemski.

Niche lararium from the west wall of a garden area in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Stanley A. Jashemski and Pompeii in Pictures.

Lararium niche on west wall of peristyle garden in Pompeii courtesy of Pompeii in Pictures

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