Home: Lar & Di Penates


One of our students thought it might be significant that Greek, but not Latin, had a single word, νόστος, for returning home; but after research, she gained the impression that reverence for the home was even stronger for Romans than for Greeks.

She found the passage in Cicero’s De Domo Sua:

quid est sanctius, quid omni religione munitius quam domus unius cuiusque civium? hic arae sunt, hic foci, hic di penates, hic sacra, religiones, caerimoniae continentur; hoc perfugium est ita sanctum omnibus ut inde abripi neminem fas sit.

 What is more hallowed, what more hedged around with every sanctity than the home of each individual citizen? Here are contained the altars, the hearths, the gods of the household, the sacred objects, the rituals, the ceremonies: this is a refuge so hallowed for all people that it is not right for anyone to be snatched away from it.

The Greeks had their home, with its hearth sacred for anyone who took refuge there, and they had their different images of Zeus to protect it, and statues of the Dioscuri. Homer gives pictures of the home and its joys, and the distress when it is threatened; but it was the Romans who constructed a captivating meme of what a home implied.

It was seemingly by a chance of history. The Lar, used in the singular by Virgil, was the guardian and overseer of a place or space that was his province, whether house, village, city, field, road or stretch of water. The word apparently comes from the Etruscan, and so perhaps does the cult itself, which receives passing mention precisely because it became the centre of all family rituals. The Lar observed, protected and blessed all domestic events, and his statue was always in evidence.

Even from the body language of the statues of Lares, it is clear that they wished to give the gift of joy, and this is borne out in Plautus’s Aulularia, where the Lar of the house speaks the Prologue: he will not reveal where the gold is hidden until the master stops being a mean old curmudgeon.

The Lar was in one place and did not move with the family, but the Di Penates did. They had their origin far from Italy, and their province was not a place, but a family or community.

Aeneas brought the Di Penates of Troy all the way to Lavinium—those same Penates that had originally been brought by Dardanus from Samothrace; and in historic times they were still at Lavinium, as the centre of the Latin League: certain Roman magistrates had the duty to visit them and make offerings.

The gift of the Di Penates was protection and prosperity. Lewis and Short describe them as ‘old Latin guardian deities of the household, and of the state formed of a union of households…’

As part of the reconciliation after the Civil Wars, Augustus built a shrine to the Penates of Rome, on the Palatine.

 Of interest: Beth Severy, Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire, Routledge 2003.

Next post: τὸ καλόν.

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