Marina Warner

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Marina Warner

The Danc­ing Lares and the Ser­pent in the Gar­den: Re­li­gion at the Ro­man Street Cor­ner by Har­riet I. Flower Pan­theon: A New His­tory of Ro­man Re­li­gion by Jörg Rüpke

The Danc­ing Lares and the Ser­pent in the Gar­den:

Re­li­gion at the Ro­man Street Cor­ner by Har­riet I. Flower.

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press,

394 pp., $45.00


A New His­tory of Ro­man Re­li­gion by Jörg Rüpke, trans­lated from the Ger­man by David M. B. Richard­son. Prince­ton Univer­sity Press,

551 pp., $39.95

With­out a holy book to re­strain it, Ro­man poly­the­ism tended to pro­mis­cu­ous hos­pi­tal­ity: a pro­fu­sion of gods, god­desses, nymphs, di­vine he­roes, and ab­stract virtues ap­peared and dis­ap­peared; faith re­mained in­ven­tive, un­trou­bled by ques­tions of au­then­tic­ity; dis­tinc­tions among deities, su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, per­son­i­fi­ca­tions, and al­le­gories were ca­sual. For­eign gods—Isis and Ser­apis from Egypt, Mithras from Per­sia—were not re­sisted but in­spired in­no­va­tive rit­u­als and splen­did new tem­ples. New­fan­gled ones—in­clud­ing some in­di­vid­u­als who were still alive and ac­tive—rose in pop­u­lar­ity, then fell away. As early as the first cen­tury BCE, the scholar and writer Varro, faced with the plethora of pop­u­lar di­vini­ties, de­cided to square the cir­cle, and pro­posed see­ing the mul­ti­plic­ity of gods as a se­ries of vari­a­tions on a sin­gle di­vine prin­ci­ple.

In spite of the pro­lific num­bers and ex­otic im­ports, how­ever, Ro­man cult fig­ures such as Bona Dea (lit­er­ally, the Good God­dess), Con­cor­dia (Har­mony), For­tuna, Pax, Salus (Health), and even Vir­tus her­self strike a rather du­ti­ful note. They lack drama and color and feel in­ter­change­able, as do some clas­si­cal stat­ues raised on their al­tars. By con­trast, be­fore and dur­ing the Repub­lic, lo­cal di­vini­ties had been rus­tic and even or­gias­tic: the Liber Pater (the Free Fa­ther) was li­cen­tious, a Ro­man Diony­sus, a god of ec­stasy and in­tox­i­ca­tion. But his cult, as well as those of the pri­apic satyr Faunus, the spring god­dess Flora, and the great god Pan, was sup­pressed in im­pe­rial times, purged in fa­vor of far more ed­i­fy­ing (and po­lit­i­cal) prin­ci­ples: the Pax Au­gusti (Peace of Au­gus­tus) was given its own mag­nif­i­cent al­tar, the Ara Pacis, now en­shrined un­der glass be­side the Tiber.

All through these changes, for around seven hun­dred years from the third cen­tury BCE un­til the fifth cen­tury CE, small lo­cal gods known as lares were wor­shipped in Ro­man house­holds and in pub­lic cel­e­bra­tions—games, pro­ces­sions, feasts. They were pro­tec­tors of the house­hold, “kitchen gods,” “who take care of our dwelling from its foun­da­tion,” wrote the poet En­nius in his An­nales, and they re­mained a per­sis­tent, in­deli­ble fea­ture of the Ro­man scene. It was a cause of deep anx­i­ety— a sense al­most of home­less­ness—for a house­hold to lose its lares, a mis­for­tune that ex­ac­er­bated what­ever ruin, de­struc­tion, or ex­ile had al­ready be­fallen its mem­bers. This fact brings to mind the thou­sands of refugees who ar­rived in Europe over the past sev­eral decades with­out any­thing at all (ex­cept their phone—if they are for­tu­nate—kept dry in a tied bal­loon). The con­nec­tion to home through fa­mil­iar ob­jects runs very deep; the lares met that pow­er­ful need. Chris­tian of­fi­cials sin­gled the lares out for sup­pres­sion along with the Olympians. When the Theo­dosian Code, is­sued in 438 CE, banned re­li­gious rites associated with the old re­li­gion— “pa­gan­ism”—it specif­i­cally men­tioned lares. Af­ter pro­hibit­ing an­i­mal sac­ri­fices and idol­a­try, it com­manded: “Let no one ven­er­ate a lar with fire, a ge­nius with pure wine, or of­fer per­fumes to an­ces­tral gods (pe­nates); let no one light a lamp (or can­dle), of­fer in­cense, hang up a gar­land of flow­ers.”

In The Danc­ing Lares and the Ser­pent in the Gar­den: Re­li­gion at the Ro­man Street Cor­ner, Har­riet I. Flower dis­plays a for­mi­da­ble grasp of his­tor­i­cal de­tail and a taste for schol­arly dis­putes. Her book is su­perbly pro­duced and richly il­lus­trated in color with maps and pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing a fron­tispiece of her dis­ser­ta­tion su­per­vi­sor, Robert E. A. Palmer, whose pi­o­neer­ing re­search into the to­pog­ra­phy of Rome and un­pub­lished archival notes Flower has drawn on. Jörg Rüpke’s Pan­theon: A New His­tory of Ro­man Re­li­gion takes a broader sweep and lingers less on fil­i­gree par­tic­u­lars. He digs deep into the mean­ing of “lived re­li­gion” for Ro­mans, and his book gives a lu­cid and co­gent his­tor­i­cal over­view in a less com­bat­ive spirit than Flower’s.

Ro­man re­li­gion was tightly in­ter­twined with Ro­man iden­tity and so­cial sta­tus un­der the em­pire, and it served an in­clu­sive func­tion: civil­ians who were not cit­i­zens were al­lowed to per­form sac­ri­fices at neigh­bor­hood shrines. Around 30 CE, the Greek philoso­pher Diony­sius of Hali­car­nas­sus shrewdly noted the po­lit­i­cal ef­fi­cacy of

re­mov­ing ev­ery mark of [slaves’] servile con­di­tion, in or­der that..., be­ing soft­ened by this in­stance of hu­man­ity, which has some­thing great and solemn about it, [they] may make them­selves more agree­able to their mas­ters and be less op­pressed by the painful con­di­tion of their fate.

Slaves and freed­men were highly ac­tive in these po­si­tions; in some cir­cum­stances, women were called upon, too. In the streets of the cap­i­tal, of­fi­cials who looked af­ter the shrines were of­ten former slaves, yet were per­mit­ted to wear the toga, com­plete with pur­ple stripes, to of­fi­ci­ate at sac­ri­fices. In the coun­try­side, the farm man­ager (vili­cus) and house­keeper (vil­ica) could per­form the pre­scribed rites, greet­ing the lares by beat­ing the bounds of the prop­erty on the mas­ter’s be­half if he was away. On feast days, the house­keeper would “hang a gar­land on the hearth and should make re­quests to the house­hold lar.”

Both his­to­ri­ans re­main fo­cused, as far as the ev­i­dence al­lows, on what it was like to in­habit a cityscape hal­lowed by tem­ples, stat­ues, and al­tars, and to par­tic­i­pate in the con­tin­u­ous rhythm of rit­u­als and hol­i­days, sum­mon­ing the in­vis­i­ble pres­ence of higher—and lower—pow­ers. They are lis­ten­ing for mur­mur­ings in the record about “or­di­nary” peo­ple and what their in­volve­ment in rit­ual meant for the po­lis of Rome. Pan­theon cov­ers the en­tire grow­ing em­pire, Bri­tan­nia to Thrace and well be­yond, but Rüpke alerts us that many of the peo­ple un­der Ro­man rule—per­haps even a ma­jor­ity—prob­a­bly did not be­lieve in all the gods the state em­braced or fol­low the ac­com­pa­ny­ing re­li­gious prac­tices.

Flower keeps strictly to Rome, with ex­cur­sions to Pom­peii and to De­los, a Greek colony of Rome where many Ital­ians lived. “It is per­haps fit­ting,” she writes, “that the lares should seem so at home in the place that op­er­ated one of the big­gest slave mar­kets in the Mediter­ranean .... On De­los, lares were es­sen­tial in cre­at­ing com­mu­nity and iden­tity in a place where so many had come from else­where.” Both schol­ars ar­gue strongly that Ro­man re­li­gion counted far more than the fa­mil­iar pic­ture of Rome’s civic, le­gal, mil­i­tary, and ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­tures usu­ally al­lows.

In Rüpke’s view of re­li­gion, “ac­tors” (his pre­ferred word for par­tic­i­pants) in­voked re­la­tions with in­vis­i­ble in­ter­me­di­aries: au­gurs scoped the quiv­er­ing en­trails of sac­ri­ficed an­i­mals and read the flights of birds; the prophetic Sibylline books were con­sulted be­fore im­por­tant de­ci­sions of war and govern­ment were made; dreams were lis­tened to, por­tents feared or wel­comed. But Rüpke’s ap­proach is res­o­lutely prac­ti­cal: “Hu­man be­ings used re­li­gious ac­tion,” he writes, “as a spe­cial form of prob­lem-solv­ing.” Flower is like­wise more in­ter­ested in the so­cial func­tions of mag­i­cal think­ing and rit­ual be­hav­ior than in their the­o­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal, let alone spir­i­tual, reper­cus­sions.

No cross­roads al­tar or shrine to the lares sur­vives com­plete. Some old pho­to­graphs of van­ished sites give an un­sat­is­fac­tory in­di­ca­tion of what the more con­sid­er­able al­tars would have looked like; re­con­struc­tions are con­jec­tural and, to Flower’s mind, mostly un­con­vinc­ing. And the lares them­selves are shape-shifters, elud­ing ef­forts to pin them down. Some­times a lar ap­pears on his own, as in the frag­ment of a play, Au­l­u­laria (Lit­tle Pot of Gold), by Plau­tus, in which the lar fa­mil­iaris makes sure that the right­ful heir, the daugh­ter, finds the fam­ily trea­sure and unites with her true love; the plot fore­shad­ows com­me­dia dell’arte in­trigues, while the lar him­self acts like a good jinni in a tale of the Ara­bian Nights.

Plau­tus’s soli­tary lar is an odd­ity, how­ever, for lares mostly ap­pear as a mir­rored pair of two young, charm­ingly curly-headed boys wear­ing “tucked-up tu­nics” and buskins, who dance as they pour wine or wield an over­flow­ing cor­nu­copia. They of­ten ap­pear around an al­tar, ac­com­pa­nied by a ge­nius, a fig­ure that rep­re­sented the (male) head of the house­hold and em­bod­ied its sta­bil­ity and bounty—the ge­nius, too, car­ried the sym­bolic horn of plenty. The Bri­tish clas­si­cist Peter Wise­man in The Myths of Rome (2004) con­nects the du­al­ity of the lares to the Repub­li­can in­sti­tu­tion of the dou­ble con­sul­ship; he also sees a par­al­lel with the twins Ro­mu­lus and Re­mus, es­pe­cially as, ac­cord­ing to one vari­ant leg­end, the lares were suck­led by a she-wolf in their in­fancy. Twins and dou­bles re­cur through­out Ro­man myths and in the Egyp­tian and Greek vari­ants that nour­ished them, such as Osiris and Horus as well as Cas­tor and Pol­lux (the Dioscuri), who had a tem­ple in the Fo­rum.

Painted fres­coes that sur­vive with spe­cial splen­dor in Pom­peii dec­o­rated street shrines and walls near the hearth in pri­vate houses. In these fres­coes, tremen­dous snakes writhe in coils through rich veg­e­ta­tion be­neath the images of the danc­ing boys. Evoca­tive of the wise ser­pents of Aes­cu­lapius the healer, god of medicine, they are lav­ishly crested and seem less to be slith­er­ing on the earth than ris­ing and fall­ing in steep waves like sea mon­sters in old maps. They don’t rep­re­sent the com­mon Ital­ian adder or grass snake; they’re more pri­mor­dial, Typhon-like in scale. But the se­duc­tive, Edenic over­tones of “the ser­pent in the gar­den” in the ti­tle of Flower’s book are mis­lead­ing: pop­u­lar Ro­man re­li­gion did not fo­cus on sin, wis­dom, or knowl­edge. And the hearth snakes de­picted in the fres­coes don’t sym­bol­ize hu­man er­ror; they are there to sup­port the lares by pro­tect­ing the home and en­sur­ing the safety and health of its in­hab­i­tants, es­pe­cially dur­ing the dan­ger­ous pro­cesses of pre­par­ing food.

In her com­mit­ment to the re­li­gion of or­di­nary, mostly un­let­tered Ro­mans, Flower prefers ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence to lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives, and seems puz­zlingly wary of us­ing mar­velous tales, es­pe­cially highly lit­er­ate ones, as sources. The Greek myths, which Ovid so daz­zlingly brought into the Latin imag­i­nary, are rarely men­tioned. Flower does, how­ever, pass on a wild story from Pliny the Elder about the birth of Servius Tul­lius, the leg­endary king of Rome who, ac­cord­ing to a fan­ci­ful myth of ori­gin, ini­ti­ated the wor­ship of lares at cross­roads shrines. Ac­cord­ing to Pliny, the fu­ture king’s mother sat down in the em­bers of the hearth where ear­lier “a pe­nis sud­denly ap­peared.” She duly con­ceives, and later fire is seen play­ing around the boy’s head. “He was be­lieved to be the son of the house­hold lar.”

In the Fasti (On the Ro­man Cal­en­dar), Ovid tells a dra­matic story of the lares’ ori­gins. It’s ex­pressed with his cus­tom­ary cruel in­sou­ciance and echoes episodes from his ear­lier mas­ter­piece, Me­ta­mor­phoses. Jupiter lusts af­ter Ju­turna; an­other nymph, a chat­ter­box called Lara, tells Juno about her hus­band’s new pas­sion. In­censed by Lara’s in­dis­cre­tion, Jupiter tears out her tongue and dis­patches her to the Un­der­world in the care of Mer­cury, who, break­ing the trust in him as con­duc­tor of souls, takes a fancy to Lara and rapes her; piti­fully, Lara can’t cry out against his as­sault. She bears twins (“a god’s em­brace is never fruit­less,” as Homer re­marks), who are “the Lares who guard the cross­roads and are al­ways on watch in our city.”

Flower tells us that the date Ovid gives for the feast of the lares is wrong, and she re­sists the poet’s gen­eral lev­ity. But it seems to me that, how­ever mis­taken his dat­ing, or trans­gres­sive and flip­pant his tone, the po­ems de­serve the at­ten­tion of his­to­ri­ans, es­pe­cially be­cause feast days, when the cult of the lares was kept, were oc­ca­sions for ex­chang­ing plots and tales, for adding jokes and shiv­ers and thrills, and even for en­act­ing them; they contributed to the ex­pe­ri­ence of lived re­li­gion. Ovid tells us that on such a feast day, when there was drink­ing and love­mak­ing, danc­ing and singing “what­ever they’ve learned from the the­atres, ...they put down the wine-bowl and lead rough cho­rus lines, and the chic girl­friend dances with her hair un­done” (my ital­ics).

Ovid’s stark story about Lara’s suf­fer­ings points to a fur­ther as­pect of the lares: it links them to the un­der­world, through their mother’s vi­o­la­tion and her de­scent. In other sto­ries about their mother, she is called Ma­nia, a word that sug­gests mad­ness and an as­so­ci­a­tion with the manes, or shades of the dead, in­voked in prayers for the de­parted (DMS—dis manibus sacrum, or “sa­cred to the spirit-gods”—is of­ten in­scribed on Ro­man tombs). In yet oth­ers, she is called Muta or Tacita, also associated with Lara’s plight. Some et­y­molo­gies con­nect lar with larva,a ghost, an ap­pari­tion. But Flower, with her his­tor­i­cal prag­ma­tism and dis­trust of myth, prefers to stress the mer­ry­mak­ing char­ac­ter of the danc­ing lares and their joy­ful and re­as­sur­ing pres­ence at pub­lic feasts and street fes­ti­vals. She claims that “a god could not be­long both to the world above and to the un­der­world, just as most deities were not thought of as be­ing both ma­li­cious and pro­tec­tive at the same time.”

Rüpke of­fers a less cat­e­gor­i­cally bi­nary model and sees the manes and the lares as com­ple­men­tary guardians of the home and the grave. The worlds were in­ter­con­nected, and it was al­most a sign of their di­vine power that gods in the Ro­man pan­theon could dis­re­gard dis­tinc­tions be­tween worlds, a pre­rog­a­tive de­nied to mor­tals. The im­mor­tal Pol­lux, for in­stance, swapped places with his mor­tal twin, Cas­tor, rather than let him suf­fer an eter­nity of death. Proser­pina, one of the supreme deities, be­came the con­sort of Pluto, the judge of the dead, af­ter he ab­ducted her down to hell, from which she emerged ev­ery year to bring back the spring. On Flower’s fur­ther point about there be­ing a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween be­nign and ma­lign di­vine ac­tiv­ity, Min­erva and Diana pro­vide use­ful coun­terex­am­ples: though Min­erva as­saults Arachne and Diana has Ac­taeon changed into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs, these god­desses at the same time sym­bol­ize wis­dom, pro­tect maid­ens’ chastity, and help young brides. A salient pur­pose of prayer and sac­ri­fice to the gods is pro­pi­ti­a­tion, to ward off death and dam­age and to pla­cate the in­vis­i­ble pow­ers that con­trol them. Lares dance cheer­fully, no doubt, but they may have re­quired the at­ten­tion they re­ceived—the sac­ri­fices, prayers, li­ba­tions, and flower gar­lands—to stay in a good mood; sim­i­larly, those writhing ser­pents be­low needed pla­cat­ing to en­sure their pro­tec­tion.

When Flower turns her at­ten­tion to the streets and neigh­bor­hoods of Rome, she presents a con­vinc­ing and en­thu­si­as­tic ac­count of the way in which Au­gus­tus set about pro­mot­ing pop­u­lar re­li­gious be­liefs in or­der to as­sert con­trol over the ur­ban pop­u­lace. She fo­cuses par­tic­u­larly on his re­forms of 7 BCE, in which he pro­moted the cult of the lares by adding 265 vici (neigh­bor­hoods) to his new map of Rome. In each vi­cus, an out­door shrine stood at the cross­roads that formed the heart of the area, and was con­se­quently called a com­pi­tal shrine, from com­pi­tum (cross­roads); the lares were in­voked there to guard against dan­gers, for cross­roads—ac­tual and imag­i­nary— are per­ilous places. These com­pi­tal al­tars formed part of an ef­fi­cient sys­tem for run­ning Rome. When Au­gus­tus mul­ti­plied their num­ber, he strength­ened his au­thor­ity. The or­ga­niz­ers of each vi­cus—the vi­co­mag­istri—formed a pow­er­ful net­work: they were re­spon­si­ble for pre­vent­ing and con­trol­ling fires, but they also pro­vided sur­veil­lance, polic­ing, and in­tel­li­gence. Dur­ing the in­ter­mit­tent cen­suses, lo­cals would hang up “dolls” (ef­fi­gies in Latin) made of wool or wood, one for each cit­i­zen in­hab­it­ing a par­tic­u­lar build­ing, and for each slave a wooden ball. Later these images were hung at the en­trance of houses—there would not have been room, Flower sug­gests, to dis­play them all at the cross­roads al­tar. The per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Ro­man pop­u­la­tion through minia­ture ef­fi­gies gives a sense that such ob­jects were not merely pas­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tions: one com­men­ta­tor, Fes­tus, ob­served that they were of­fered to the lares so that “they...might spare the liv­ing and be con­tent with these balls and like­nesses.”

The in­sider knowl­edge of the lo­cal of­fi­cials, so use­ful to the rul­ing pow­ers, also made them po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous: they could rouse the crowd against a mea­sure or an in­di­vid­ual and had done so sev­eral times in the past. Keep­ing the vici on the side of the em­peror was cru­cial—and Au­gus­tus, hy­per­aware of the mis­takes of his adop­tive fa­ther, Julius Cae­sar, who had fa­tally mis­read the pub­lic mood, made many in­no­va­tions to re­tain the love and al­le­giance of the peo­ple. He took stock of ev­ery­thing: the daily round, the lay­out of the city, the en­ter­tain­ments. He es­tab­lished one an­niver­sary fes­ti­val af­ter an­other, tim­ing them to co­in­cide with each decade of his sur­pris­ingly long life.

In 7 BCE, at the age of fifty-five, twenty years af­ter declar­ing him­self “Au­gus­tus,” he in­sti­tuted the lares au­gusti, giv­ing these hum­ble lo­cal gods the grandil­o­quent ep­i­thet he had al­ready con­ferred on other prin­ci­ples and di­vini­ties in his spe­cial fa­vor. He also cre­ated “a new civic year,” be­gin­ning on Au­gust 1 (his month), to be cel­e­brated with flower fes­ti­vals, paid for at his own ex­pense. Five years later, on his six­ti­eth birth­day, he be­came pater pa­triae, fa­ther of the fa­ther­land, and ded­i­cated the Fo­rum Au­gus­tum, with a huge tem­ple to Mars Ul­tor (Mars the Avenger) to com­mem­o­rate the Bat­tle of Philippi. Flower gives us a strik­ing glimpse of the em­peror rev­el­ing in the un­of­fi­cial box­ing matches that took place in the streets.

The rise and mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of the lares, their fes­ti­vals, shrines, and the of­fi­cials at­tend­ing to them, were bound up with the po­lit­i­cal aims of the em­peror. Flower writes, “Au­gus­tus’ his­tori­ciz­ing of a new era in the vici in­volved a (re)sacral­iza­tion of time it­self, which was linked to a nar­ra­tive of re­li­gious in­no­va­tion that did not fol­low tra­di­tional Ro­man pat­terns.” It isn’t dif­fi­cult to see how Ovid, who was sen­tenced to ex­ile in 8 CE, would have en­raged Au­gus­tus: When the poet set out in the Fasti to com­pose a sto­ried al­manac, was he mak­ing fun of the solemn pon­tiff and his new sa­cred or­der?

Au­gus­tus kept the spot­light on him­self by in­sti­tut­ing a cult of his ge­nius be­side the lo­cal lares in their street shrines. Flower de­fends Au­gus­tus fiercely, how­ever, against crit­i­cisms that he set him­self up as a god; she ar­gues that he was merely un­der­lin­ing his po­si­tion as the sym­bolic head of ev­ery Ro­man house­hold. Idoliza­tion of liv­ing in­di­vid­u­als had started in Repub­li­can times: in 85 BCE, stat­ues were raised to a pop­u­lar prae­tor, Mar­cus Mar­ius Gra­tid­i­anus, and of­fer­ings of in­cense and wine made to them, but like many adored celebri­ties, he met a ter­ri­ble end not long af­ter­ward. Al­though Julius Cae­sar was mur­dered for his po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, he was quickly de­clared a god; this el­e­va­tion be­came rou­tine for later em­per­ors.

Rüpke is sub­tler about Au­gus­tus’s di­vin­ity, and ar­gues for de­grees of dif­fer­ence be­tween di­vus and deus. It’s clear, though, that “god,” as in­voked in the case of Ro­man rulers, meant some­thing closer to “hero” than to God the Fa­ther or Al­lah. Rüpke’s por­trait also em­pha­sizes the in­creas­ing priest­li­ness of Au­gus­tus’s self-pre­sen­ta­tion dur­ing his long reign. The em­peror was cer­tainly pub­licly de­vout and ob­ser­vant, but as in the case of pop­ulist lead­ers to­day, who can know what went on in his mind, or whether he was cyn­i­cal or sin­cere?

The in­ner ex­pe­ri­ences of be­lief for in­di­vid­u­als, from the em­peror Au­gus­tus to the vi­co­mag­is­ter to whom he gave dig­nity and in­flu­ence, re­main hid­den from us. But the work­ings of re­li­gion to forge so­cial bonds and iden­tity are clearly demon­strated in these his­to­ries; faith ap­pears far less a mat­ter of es­cha­tol­ogy, sal­va­tion sto­ries, or the search for meta­phys­i­cal truths than an in­stru­ment for mak­ing a com­mu­nity out of het­ero­ge­neous el­e­ments. On the ev­i­dence of both these im­pres­sive stud­ies, the eclec­ti­cism of the Repub­lic and of Au­gus­tan Rome rep­re­sented an ef­fec­tive strat­egy to strengthen so­cial co­he­sion and ad­vance po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests—a strat­egy that dif­fered from the fun­da­men­tal­ism and per­se­cu­tion that later failed to sup­press the new monotheisms from the east, first Chris­tian­ity, then Is­lam. For Ro­mans, a be­wil­der­ing new world was on the hori­zon, one in which, as Rüpke writes, “the se­ri­ous­ness of re­li­gion was now such that... [an in­di­vid­ual] would be re­stricted to membership in just one re­li­gion.”

The lo­cal rit­u­als that the Theo­dosian code banned are still flour­ish­ing, as any vis­i­tor to Italy or Mex­ico knows. Small way­side shrines have suc­ceeded the com­pi­tal al­tars of the lares, and they show the wa­ver­ing in­ten­sity of pop­u­lar de­vo­tions: some­times a taber­na­cle to a pa­tron saint will com­mem­o­rate a neigh­bor­hood lad who died in a mo­tor­bike ac­ci­dent, with pho­tos of him bright and smil­ing, fresh flow­ers, and a vo­tive lamp trimmed and lit; else­where, a sun-bleached Madonna and Child peers from be­hind smeary glass, with a wilted of­fer­ing of flow­ers and torn scraps of an­cient, for­got­ten prayers. In Si­cily to­day, a garage man­ager or a green­gro­cer will set up a brand-new, life-size statue of the Vir­gin Mary, lux­u­ri­ously dressed in real silks and lace, and haloed and gar­landed with fairy lights; while in Syria, Morocco, and Saudi Ara­bia (es­pe­cially Mecca), icon­o­clas­tic fun­da­men­tal­ists con­tinue to stamp out sim­i­lar de­vo­tions as “idol­a­trous” and have razed much-loved sanc­tu­ar­ies—in­clud­ing the grave of the mother of the Prophet. The cult of the lares con­firmed a sense of be­long­ing to a place, a home, a neigh­bor­hood; they were fa­mil­iars, and Au­gus­tus cul­ti­vated them pur­pose­fully to re­sist alien­ation and dis­con­tent among Ro­mans.

A fresco show­ing lares, or lo­cal house­hold gods, from a shrine in Pom­peii, circa first cen­tury AD

A bronze stat­uette of one of the lares deities from the Ro­man city of Vol­u­bilis, in present-day Morocco, circa first cen­tury AD

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