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The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner

By Harriet I. Flower. Pp. xvi + 394. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2017. $45. ISBN 978-0-691-17500-3 (cloth).

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This is an excellent book. It is rational, clear, well written, with no obvious flaw in production or fact. It is also an important book about the study of the traditional religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Rejecting contemporary approaches that seek to establish a single identity for a god, Flower avoids “combining evidence from different times and places to create an artificial and anachronistic single cult for the lares either in the home or at the crossroads” (74). She seeks to establish meaning through careful analysis of ritual gesture and action as described in literary texts, complemented “by study of religious iconography, especially in cases where visual language is well attested and integrated into cult sites” to avoid “multiple explanations and convoluted combinations produced by syncretism, whether ancient or modern” (3).

A book whose overriding principle is to avoid making broad generalizations will naturally break into a series of discrete studies. Flower offers 32 such studies around four themes: the cult practices, the location of cult sites in Rome, the celebration of lares, and the Augustan creation of the cult of the Lares Augusti.

In the opening series of essays, Flower shows that there were different ways of conceptualizing the lares, whose shrines often are found in the backs of houses, despite evidence suggesting that they were originally connected with the hearth and therefore the center of family life. She suggests that the shift in the location of the cult and what became the close association of lar cults with slaves and freedmen is connected with the growth of domestic slavery, the Roman habit of freeing slaves, absentee farming by rich landowners, and the development of kitchens as separate rooms, which moved the seat of the lares from the center of family life to the slave quarters. This shift of the lar to the fringes of the household can be dated to the later second century B.C.E. with the aid of Cato and Plautus. The latter depicts the cult of the lar as a central act of the paterfamilias. Cato makes it clear that cultivation of the lar is essential to the household: when the master is away, the administration of the cult in an aristocratic property will fall to the vilicus’ wife, who should make offerings to the household lar on the kalends, nones, and ides of each month (Agr. 43). Varro, who discusses lares in his Antiquitates, has nothing to say about them in De re rustica, and Columella mentions a lar only in the context of the duties of a rural vilicus (Rust. 11.1.19). This is indeed suggestive of a change by the later first century B.C.E. that accords with depictions of the cult in food preparation areas at Pompeii.

As far as the actual worship goes, Flower shows that there were differences according to time and place. Comparison of Pompeian paintings with images of the cult of the lares from Delos reveals that the image of the genius pouring a libation for the lar, common at Pompeii, is specific to regional practices in the period in which the art depicting this act was commissioned. On Delos, in the later second century B.C.E., the celebration of the lares by the Italian (largely Campanian) community involved the sacrifice of a pig.

The book’s second section goes from the household to the streets, examining the evidence for the shrines of lares in public places at Rome, of which there are three types: temples (two of them), local shrines for named lares, and compita larum, or open-air crossroad shrines. The very early date for shrines to local lares would appear to be secured by references to them in Varro’s account of the Roman marriage ceremony during which a new bride would make sacrifices to the local lares as well as to the ones in her husband’s house, and by Cassius Hemina’s description of the “grunting lares” (Lares Grundiles) who received a shrine (fanum) when Romulus and Remus agreed to share power (FRHist. 6 F. 14). (Hemina was something of a contrarian when it came to the history of early Rome.) Of the two temples, one is attested “at the highest section of the Sacred Way,” which Flower (along with others) places near the House of the Vestals. The other, the temple to the Lares Permarini, with some caution she identifies with the temple in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure (86–103). There are three smaller shrines, one for the aforementioned “grunters” that was probably near the Forum Boarium, one for the Lares Praestites, guardians of Rome’s walls (site unknown but possibly near the Volcanal), and the third, the sacellum larum, probably in the area of the Campus Martius. What all three have in common is that they could be associated with what Romans of Tacitus’ day thought would constitute the city’s earliest pomerium, which is not a bad guess given that all three shrines do seem to be connected with the protection of boundaries (104–15). Finally, there are the 265 crossroad shrines (compita). These gave structure to the small neighborhoods, vici, creating a flexible system allowing for the development of urban community—and also allowing for the sorts of interactions across class lines that Mignone has recently shown to have been important in securing peace in a city that still lacked a police force (The Republican Aventine and Rome’s Social Order [Ann Arbor, Mich., 2016]).

As Flower points out, evidence begins to accrue through the second century B.C.E. for the development of networks binding leading politicians with neighborhood leadership through the Compitalia (sometimes, it might be noted, a bit more forcibly, through the tribal organizations). Of particular interest in this regard is her discussion of how Sulla reached out to the urban population through the local organizations and the distribution of his freedmen throughout the city, as well as through large-scale entertainment (236–41). The importance of the collegia associated with the Compitalia is further stressed, after the restoration of tribunician power in 70 B.C.E., by Manilius’ legislation in 67, followed by the ban on the collegia in 64, and their restoration at the beginning of Clodius’ tribunate in 58, when “grassroots politics flourished in the unstable space created by the disintegration of traditional, republican political culture” (249).

It was not just Clodius who realized the potential political clout of the collegia and the need to connect with Rome’s people through the structures of the vici. In 7 B.C.E., Augustus reorganized the cult of the lares at the compita, introducing the Lares Augusti on 1 August of that year. The details of the reform are lost because of the disinterest of aristocratic authors in cults associated with the lowly, but as Flower shows, exploiting epigraphic evidence along with the imagery of the Belvedere altar, which shows Augustus giving the new Lares Augusti to the vicomagistri, this was a highly organized moment in its own right (271–83).

This is a wide-ranging book, managing a vast quantity of material in different media with effective clarity. It succeeds not only in providing a model for the way that religious issues in the ancient world should be studied but also in bringing us face to face with the people who celebrated the lares, the ordinary people of Rome, so often ignored by literary sources but here given a voice through Flower’s meticulously creative scholarship.

David Potter
University of California, Los Angeles

Book Review of The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, by Harriet I. Flower

Reviewed by David Potter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.potter

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