Lararium

Lararium

The Lararium (pl. lararia) is the focal point of the sacra privata, the family-centered aspect of the cultus deorum. It is the sacred place of the home where offerings and prayers are made to the gods. Possession of a lararium is a distinctive, almost necessary, feature of the Roman home, ancient or modern.

“The most sacred, the most hallowed place on earth is the home of each and every citizen. There are his sacred hearth and his household gods, there the very center of his worship, religion, and domestic ritual”. (Cicero, De Domo Sua 41, 109)

A lararium, properly speaking, is a shrine for the Lares. There is scholarly debate about the origin of the Lares, but what is certain is that the Lares and the lararium played a central role in the life of the Roman family. In addition to the Lares, the lararium was the site of worship of the Penates and the Genius of the paterfamilias. Evidence from Pompeii shows that these could be joined by whatever deities a family chose to add to those protecting the household.

Variety of Forms

The forms of lararium varied greatly. Rich homes might have a huge affair of carved marble which looked rather like a temple in miniature. In other homes the lararium might only be a simple wooden cabinet or wall shelf. Big or small, the important thing about a lararium is that it should be permanent rather than something to be put away when the rites are not being held.

Making a lararium

A lararium can be set up by reserving a small one-tier wall shelf, a table or cabinet as an altar. An average lararium needs only about one square foot of space; enough room for a candle, incense, and an offering dish. Space for statuary or wall space to hang pictures on is nice but not critical.

In antiquity, the lararium was often placed in a front room or near the kitchen, but any place that isn’t so remote that it will be ignored or forgotten, or so obtrusive it gets bumped into and knocked about during the course of the day is acceptable.

A lararium may be decorated in any style, but classical style is quite common. Simple temple replicas are popular and are easy to make using basic woodworking skills.

To be able to perform rituals at the lararium, you will need to have a few items. You can choose any form or style that you like.

  • Salinum, a container for salt.
  • Gutus, a container for milk or wine.
  • Patera, an offering dish.
  • Lucerna, an oil lamp, but a candle may also be used.
  • Incense, as an offering to the gods. An acerra is a container for incense and a turibulum is the incense burner.

The photo to the right shows a lararium with  a lucerna and gutus to the left, incense burner and salinum to the right and patera in the center. The background is in temple form and shows two Lares flanking the genius of the paterfamilias. Below is a snake, a protective spirit. Snakes were for Romans “gentle and benevolent bringers of peace and prosperity” and their images are regularly found in association with lararia.

Living with your lararium

The gods of the lararium are members of the household, and its protectors, so it would be rude to ignore them and their presence in daily life. Remember the meaning of pietas: “…being diligent in fulfilling the requirements of the partnership with the gods. Pietas demands sincerity, as a perfunctory performance of ritual, without any feeling, was simply not acceptable.”

The lararium should be kept clean. A well-kept lararium shows your reverence to the deities and makes ritual more enjoyable. Keep your lararium free of dust and properly dispose of food offerings, preferably soon after the offering, either by pouring them onto the ground outside, burning them, or consuming them yourself. Live flowers should be tended to and disposed of outdoors if needed, and removed items and tools should be carefully stored in a separate place. Replenish supplies (i.e. candles, incense, matches) and promptly replace broken or damaged items.

Daily Rites

Historically, there are two simple rites done at the lararium each day: in the morning and in the evening. During these rites the gods are honored, and asked to watch over the affairs of the family. The lararium was of course also a place where individuals could worship the gods privately, and make small offerings to them.

Rites of Passage

Just as it would be rude to ignore the gods of the lararium in daily life, it would also be rude to fail to inform them of changes to the household that they protect and nurture. At the end of childhood, boys would dedicate their bullae to the family Lares, and girls would do the same with their dolls. (Solebant pueri, postquam pueritiam excedebant, dis Laribus bullas suas consecrare, similiter et puellae pupas. Pseudo-Acro, Ad Horati Saturam I.5.65) In Roman times, it was the custom for a bride to join her husband’s household, and doing so included making an offering (usually a copper coin) at the lararium.

More Information

Watch a video about lararia.
See a photo of a Pompeii lararium with a small shelf.
Read how to make libum from PBS’s NOVA television program.
Read about women and the lararium on Professor Ann Raia’s site.
Peter Connor’s summary of chapter four of J.-P. Descoeudres, “Pompeii Revisited: The Life and Death of a Roman Town”

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