One significant way that Roman Religion (Religo Romana) differs from Greek is in their veneration of the Lares and Penates, of which their were no Grecian counterparts. Every Roman family had their own set of personal Gods. They were the guardians of the house and the protectors of the family.
The Lares were deified ancestor spirits. They were either the family’s founding ancestors or spirits of fertility who watched over the family’s fields and flocks. Every family had its own Lar or Lares, and so did the city of Rome itself, important crossroads, and the main neighborhoods of Rome.
In every house there was a lararium, a shrine for giving offerings to the family Lares. A Roman would pray to their Lares, their penates, and to Vesta every day. When a member of the family died, the household was in mourning for eight days. They would then make a sacrifice to the Lares, who had been recently joined by the deceased family member. And so, the ancestor worship of the early Latin tribes carried on into the Roman Age.
The Penates were the Gods or spirits of the pantry and storerooms. They would watch over the family’s larder. Along with Vesta, they were considered guardians of the over-all welfare of the household. There were actually many kinds of Lares who acted as guardians for many kinds of people or things.
The most important are the Lares Familiares (guardians of the family), Lares Domestici (guardians of the house), Lares Patrii and Lares Privati. Other guardians were the Lares Permarini (guardians of the sea), Lares Rurales (guardians of the land), Lares Compitales (guardians of crossroads), Lares Viales (guardians of travelers) and Lares Praestitis (guardians of the state). The Lares are usually depicted as dancing youths, with a horn cup in one hand and a bowl in the other. As progenitors of the family, they were accompanied by symbolic phallic serpents1.
There were also the penates publici, the spirits of the state of Rome. Also called the Lares Praestites, “Standby Lares”, were honored in Rome on May 1st. Their temple was on the Via Sacra, or “Sacred Road”, which led through the Forum. It was so old that by the time of Ovid the statues in front were so worn down that a dog with used to stand at their feet had completely disappeared.
A dog fashioned from the same stone used to stand at their feet. What was the reason for its standing with the Lares?
Both watch over the house, and both are loyal to their master; Lares are night watchmen, and dogs are too.
– Ovid. Fasti. 5.135
The importance of the household Gods cannot be overestimated. It was at the lararium that a Roman had most of their contact with the Gods. HBO’s series Rome, despite some small historical inaccuracies, was a really fantastic series that (I think) captured the spirit of Rome. There were many small, unimportant little moments in the show that displayed Roman piety. Both patrician and plebeian characters are shown praying or making offerings to their household Gods in quiet moments at home. Scenes like that are very touching for a Pagan, to see such moments tenderly reproduced on a television show when Hollywood usually forgets such displays of Pagan piety.
At the Parentalia or Feralia on the 18th and 21st of February, the living descendants shared a meal with the benevolent spirits of their ancestors.
The Roman world was filled with many spirits, some of which had to be appeased. Lemures (or sometimes Larvae) are not the friendly dead who protect their descendants. They are dark and angry ghosts that stalk the living because they could find no rest. Lemures were very dangerous, because it was believed that prolonged contact could drive a person insane. Di Manes was a title given to spirits of the dead who were neither helpful nor harmful, or as a name for all the spirits together. Both the Lemures and the Di Manes had specific times throughout the year when they were honored. In August, at the height of the harvest festivals, the dead souls were believed to walk the earth. May was also considered a time when the veil was thin and spirits were everywhere. Every year, on May 9th, during the Lemuria festival, the head of the household would get up in the middle of the night to perform a cleansing ceremony and banish any wandering spirits from his home.