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date: 06 February 2023



  • C. Robert Phillips


  • Roman Myth and Religion

There are two principal theories of origins; it is impossible to prefer one.


E. Samter, Familienfeste der Griechen und Römer (1901), considers them ghosts. He starts from the Lar familiaris, connecting him with the cult of the dead on two grounds:


if a bit of food falls on the floor during a meal, it is proper to burn it before the Lares (Plin. HN 28. 27). Since ghosts notoriously haunt the floor, the food, therefore, has gone to the ghosts' region and is formally given to them.


At the Compitalia it was customary to hang up a male or female puppet for each free member of a household, a ball for each slave (Festus 272 Lindsay; cf. 108, 273), that the Lares might spare the living and take these surrogates. This seems a precaution against ghosts and accords with the crossroads as favourite places for ghosts; cf. Frazer on Ov. Fast. 2. 615 at pp. 459 ff. This theory had languished until M. Guarducci published the Tor Tignosa dedicatory inscription Lare Aineia D(onom), Bull. Com.Arch. 1956–8, 3 ff. and S. Weinstock, JRS 1960, 114 ff.; this supports the Lar as a deified ancestor (cf. C. Phillips, Hermes 1976, 247 ff.). Although H.-G. Kolbe, MDAI (R) 1970, 1 ff., and others have questioned the reading Aineia, the inscription's site (crossroads, cave with sulphur spring) supports the ancestor/ghost theory; cf. T. J. Cornell, LCM 1977, 77 ff.


Wissowa (RK 166 ff.) asserts that the Roman dead are honoured not in the house but at their graves; the hearth is the place of Vesta and the di Penates and the Lar (familiaris) was a later intruder. He reconciles this with the ceremonial at the crossroads by observing that a compitum is properly and originally the place where the paths separating four farms meet (schol. Pers. 4. 28; the oft-cited Gromatici, 302. 20 ff. (= F. Blume, Die Schriften der römischer Feldmesser (1848); see gromatici) do not mention compitum, but cf. L. Holland, TAPA 1937, 428 ff.) This has no ghostly associations, but regularly had a chapel of the Lares; Latte, RR 90 ff., would substitute purification for sacrifice. Thus the Lar familiaris (in origin, Lar of the servants, rather than of the household generally) would have come to the house via farm-slaves.

The Lares, whatever their origins, expand (apart from purely theoretical developments of their name to signify ghost or daimōn) (a) into guardians of any crossway, including one in a city: hence arose in Rome the collegia compitalicia, associations (see collegium) of mostly freedmen, who tended the shrines, and ran the festival; Augustus restored those colleges which had been banned in the late republic, adding his own genius; (b) into guardians of roads and wayfarers, Lares viales, including travellers by sea, Lares permarini; (c) into guardians of the state in general, Lares praestites (see especially Wissowa, Ges. Abh. 277 ff.; Ov. Fast. 5. 129 ff. with Bömer's note); (d) into a variety of sometimes obscure associations (listing in Roscher, Lex. 2. 1885 ff.).

Some later stories feature the Lares. Ovid (Fast. 2. 599 ff.) reports their begetting by Mercurius on Lara—possibly his own invention, but cf. E. Tabeling, Mater Larum (1932), 40 ff., 69 ff. In one version of the birth of King Servius Tullius, from a phallus arising from ashes and impregnating the servant Ocrisia with a flame, later appearing around his head marking him for the kingship, his father is the Lar familiaris (Plin. HN 36. 204); cf. Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 4. 2; Ov. Fast. 6. 631 ff.; Ogilvie on Livy 1. 39. 1, 5. Since the cult of the Lar familiaris ultimately became universal (D. Orr, ANRW 2. 16. 2 (1978), 1575 ff.), lar or lares is used like penates, by metonymy, for ‘home’.