Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
For Romans being civilized very much meant living in a home. If the saying states that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, then this very much also was true for the Roman.
And the very spiritual center of his home was the hearth. This will no doubt have gone back to ancient times, when the peasants on the hills of Rome lived in primitive round houses, huddling around the fire in the middle of their hut during cold and rainy days.
The fire of the hearth was something the woman of the house were to guard over. Just as Rome itself had its eternal flame burning in the Temple of Vesta, then so too the hearth was meant to be kept alight. Before the house retired to bed the fire would be stocked up, so it had fuel to burn alone during the night. In the morning it would be built up anew from what little fire was left.
If the fire was to burn on forever, then it was only when the family moved away to another home, that the fire would be put out with wine in a small ritual.
It was at the hearth sacrifices were made to the gods and the spirits of the families ancestors.
Two gods of the Roman state cult guarded the private homes of the Roman citizen. One was Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings. It was he who was seen as the chief guardian of the home. His was the passage through the door, he was both inside and outside the house at once. Hence he was its guardian.
And yet he was not to be the only god in care of the door to a Roman’s home. There was Cardea, the goddess of hinges, Forculus, god of the door leaves, and Limentius, the god of the threshold.
The second official deity of the home, next to Janus, was Vesta. She was the goddess of the hearth. As the hearth was of practical importance (for cooking) and of spiritual significance (sacrifices) it is quite understandable that Vesta was seen to be of great importance to a Roman’s home.
Every day prayers would be said to Vesta. During meals some food might be set aside and passed into the fire as an offering to the goddess.
The spirits of the household were the lares and penates. The lares were the spirits of the families ancestors. They were represented by little figurines which would be kept in a special cupboard. Among them the lar familiaris, the family spirit, was the most important.
On a everyday bases short prayers and small offerings would be made to the lares. And on the more sacred days of the month – the calends, ides and nones – or on special days like a wedding, birth or birthday, more elaborate rituals were held in their honour.
Meanwhile the penates were the spirits of the larder. thanks were given to them for keeping the family fed. They too were represented by little figurines and they too had their own little cupboard they resided in. But they would tend to be taken out and placed on the table during mealtimes.
When the family ever moved house, then its lares and penates invariably moved with them.
The third household spirit of note was the genius, who was usually represented in form of a snake.
This genius was in a sense the ‘manhood’ of the family, which empowered the husband to father children. Naturally the place of its greatest influence within the house was in the marital bed.
The genius of the household was particularly celebrated on the head of the family’s birthday.
Apart from friendly spirits there were also ghostly spirits of the dead which might haunt a house. They were the so-called larvae and lemures. These could be driven out of the house by ritual, performed by the head of the family, which involved spitting our black beans and noisily bashing together metal pots.
Births, Marriages and Deaths
Births, marriages and deaths all were of great spiritual significance.
Juno Lucina was the goddess who watched over the birth of a child. But ever since its very conception a fetus had a whole host of spirits guarding over it.
After a birth a meal would always be made for the gods, Picumnus and Pilumnus in thanks for their services.
Thereafter a boatload of other minor gods all played theri part, overseeing matters such as breast feeding, the growth of bones, drinking, eating – even talking.
The naming of a child (on the ninth day for a boy, the eighth for a girl) was watched over by the goddess Nundina. The child would then be given an amulet, the bulla, which a girl would wear until she married and a boy would wear until he reached manhood and was given his toga virilis, at an age between 14 and 17 .
Enacting a marriage could be done in several ways:
- Simple consent of both sides, without any rituals or any festivities.
- After a couple had cohabited a year, the woman not having been absent for more than three nights.
- A symbolic purchase of the bride, with a holder of a pair of scales and five witnesses present.
- With full religious ritual and elaborate ceremonies in the presence of the pontifex maximus. This was a legal requirement for patrician families.
The early forms of religious ritual for a marriage included prayers, sacrifice, the sharing and sacrificing of sacred bread and the taking of auspices, while the couple sat on chairs covered with lambskin and tied together. This type of marriage lasted until about the second century AD, after which it was superceded by a new kind of rite.
At an official betrothal ceremony the bride had a ring placed on her finger in front of the gathered guests.
At the later wedding she would wear a bright red/orange veil, crowned by a wreath made of blossom. Animal sacrifice was made and the entrails of the animal were then examined for any omens. Thereafter the bride and groom would exchange vows and thus be married.
If all through a Roman’s life spirits watched over him, then when he died, he died without any such guardians.
Once the corpse was cremated or buried its spirit joined all the other spirits of the dead, which were known collectively as manes. Of course it now also became one of the family lares.
If the funeral sought to honour the deceased, there were no spirits to be pleased to watch over him. And so the rituals of the funeral sought rather to help purify the living members of the surviving family. Family members were sprinkled with water and bid to step across the ceremonial fire.
Thereafter there was a feast in honour of the deceased.
To help cleanse the house of death a pig was sacrificed to the goddess Ceres and the house was thoroughly swept.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.