Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.50

Federica Giacobello, Larari pompeiani: Iconografia e culto dei Lari in ambito domestico. Il filarete / Università degli studi di Milano, Facoltà di lettere e filosofia; 251.   Milano:  LED, 2008.  Pp. 294.  ISBN 9788879163743.  €28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lauren Hackworth Petersen, University of Delaware (
Word count: 2006 words

Table of Contents

It might be a bit of an understatement to claim that the study of Roman religion has witnessed a resurgence lately. The myriad publications within the last decade are rich and diverse in approach, as historians and archaeologists alike confront a wide array of primary source material. To this end, Federica Giacobello's book provides a great service to scholars of Roman religion and ritual, particularly to those whose interests are inclined toward quotidian forms of cult and ritual. Indeed, Giacobello's study, as the title indicates, focuses squarely on the lararia of Pompeii and thus builds on the canonical work of George Boyce, David Orr, Thomas Froehlich, and Pedar Foss, among others.1 More precisely, the purpose of the book is two-fold: to provide a comprehensive catalog of the evidence of the domestic cult of the Lares at Pompeii; and to proffer an iconographical analysis of lararia in order to arrive at a definition of an "authentic" expression of the cult. The author deftly engages more recent publications and debates on the topic, and Giacobello's catalog of Pompeian lararia will no doubt be a staple for specialists. This study is therefore indispensable for a scholar working on Roman domestic cults and ritual at Pompeii, and even beyond.

The book is divided into two major sections. The first section presents a synthetic discussion of the literary sources and archaeological evidence that reveal the origins and hence the meanings of the Lares within Roman domestic life. This analysis-driven section is subdivided into the following chapters: 1) the Lares in ancient sources and the scholarly tradition; 2) the system of the lararia at Pompeii; 3) the iconography of the lararia and domestic ritual; and 4) the Lares in the Roman world. Giacobello's conclusions within these chapters, to be discussed shortly, shape the organization of the subsequent catalog, which is subdivided into three sections: 1) the corpus of lararia at Pompeii; 2) a catalog of lararia in the villas in the environs of Pompeii; and 3) the "secondary lararia" of Pompeii. Both the organization and writing are clear and lucid, as are the author's conclusions, namely that the Lares, as guardians of the domus, are closely linked to the iconography of the Dioscuri and are manifestations of the family's ancestors who watch over the living family. Moreover, the "authentic" lararium of any given domus was within or near the kitchen. The shrines found elsewhere within domestic settings, such as in peristyles or atria, should be classified as, according to Giacobello, "secondary lararia." This latter assessment is sure to generate scholarly debate.

Giacobello's pithy introduction firmly states the goals of the book -- to question the scholarly trend that has led to the identification of all domestic cultic spaces as lararia. After a useful, albeit broadly painted, review of the state of the field, the author suggests that a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of the cult of the Lares can be achieved through careful study of the iconography of their painted shrines. Giacobello's approach is interdisciplinary; she provides a balanced review of the ancient literary tradition in the first chapter, and this discussion includes consideration of both household Lares (Lares familiares) and public Lares (of which the Lares Compitales are especially well documented). The author also addresses some problems in uncovering the origins of the cult, namely the lack of clarity of the ancient testimony and the sheer difficulty of the material, both of which have led to differing, and divisive, conclusions regarding the origins of the cult (for example, the Lares as agricultural deities, personifications of ancestors, and underworld spirits taken from the Etruscans). The historiography that Giacobello outlines neatly demonstrates the problem of evidence that any scholar of domestic cults must confront. Ancient authors provide relatively limited information on domestic life, making no reference to the scenes of sacrifice to Lares that are, in contrast, so amply documented at Pompeii (in fact, the term lararium only comes into use in the imperial era, the first time in the Scriptores Historiae Augustae). In an interesting twist, Giacobello proposes that even in this ancient testimony, authors came to use the term lararium for any domestic shrine, meaning that lararium could refer to a domestic shrine dedicated to deities other than the Lares. This ancient slippage in terminology has led to modern-day misunderstandings of the term lararium. Giacobello insists, however, that a lararium was first and foremost dedicated to the Lares, divinities of the hearth, who watched over the food preparation and thus functioned as guardians of a family. Lararia were therefore located within or surrounding kitchen areas. This conclusion directs Giacobello in a couple of thought-provoking directions.

The second chapter is the richest of the chapters, as Giacobello summarizes her findings drawn from information provided in the catalogs, that is from the archaeological remains. Giacobello guides readers through a number of "middle-class" houses throughout Pompeii, Regio by Regio. With respect to Regio I, noteworthy as Pompeii's commercial and artisan district, of the thirty lararia and forty-one "secondary lararia," many are among the finest to survive, suggesting that a small house could have an architecturally complex shrine (and not just a simply painted shrine). In Regio V, characterized as having both large- and modest-sized traditional houses, the pattern of multiple shrines within a single dwelling persists. After moving through each Regio, Giacobello concludes that the present evidence indicates that Pompeii was home to 114 "true" lararia and 156 "secondary lararia." With only a couple of exceptions, most date to the post-earthquake period (62-79 CE). Here, Giacobello introduces the novel claim that the duplication of shrines within a domus is not indicative of a distinction between the enslaved and the free in terms of domestic ritual, as scholars have maintained since Froehlich. This idea, however, is not developed until the reader gets to the next chapter, although the author paves the way in the second half of this chapter.

The second half of chapter two is largely dedicated to a discussion of the "secondary lararia." Giacobello proposes that these shrines were dedicated to beneficent deities who protected the house in a more generic manner than the Lares (who were more specifically connected with the hearth and ancestors). In the "secondary lararia," therefore, sculpted and painted images of Hercules, Bacchus, and Venus connect the household with ancient, local traditions. Likewise, Mercury is frequently represented in "secondary shrines," but most often within shops. In addition, Minerva, Jupiter, and Apollo, among others, find their way into domestic shrines. Interestingly, Lares also make appearances in the so-called secondary lararia, and here is where Giacobello's distinction between "true" lararia and "secondary lararia" begins to blur. The author suggests that in this "secondary" context, the Lares take on roles similar to those of the other deities, as guarantors of the well-being of the paterfamilias and the domus as whole. In this light, Giacobello's distinction between lararium and "secondary lararium" seems unnecessary, especially if, as noted above, ancient writers seem not to have been always so precise. Moreover, images of the Genius (protective spirit of the paterfamilias) and a snake or snakes approaching an altar, both typical of kitchen lararia, are also amply represented in "secondary lararia." Less frequently, other gods do make appearances within kitchen lararia, a situation that Giacobello seems at pains to explain (see, for example, corpus n. 94). The evidence suggests a certain fluidity that Giacobello resists in her attempt to find an authentic expression of the cult of the Lares.

The third chapter provides, first and foremost, a detailed examination of the Lares themselves. The purpose is to address what the author identifies as misunderstandings concerning the Lares' attributes and details of dress, the latter having been erroneously attributed to the lower social strata. For example, Giacobello argues that the pilleus (conical cap) sometimes worn by the Lares was probably part of the figures' original iconography (and thus should not be interpreted as a cap of ex-slaves, which was a later development). Likewise, the fringed shoes (perones) that came to be associated with the working poor actually had an earlier association with the heroic realm. In addition, she confronts controversial interpretations of the clavi (stripes) shown on the Lares' short tunics and suggests that scholarly attempts to identify the stripes precisely (as, for example, laticlavi or the less prestigious angusticlavi) miss the simple point that the stripes probably functioned as a more generic indication of distinction in Roman dress. All of this is to suggest that the overall costume of the Lares works to portray the heroic nature of the deities, and that the costume derives specifically from Greek sources, namely from the iconography of the Dioscuri. The Dioscuri and Lares shared other traits as well; both were heroic and divine, and both protected households. This conclusion is based in part on the visual evidence from Delos and thus falls on the heels of Claire Hasenohr's analysis of the Compitalia at Delos.2

Simply put, Giacobello is intent on raising the status of lararia in scholarship. For example, she counters the claims that reduce the pictures of lararia to "volkstuemliche Kunst" (per Froehlich), citing the fine lararium at the House of the Vettii. In addition, she argues that the lararia of Pompeii are fairly uniform, as justified by the conservative nature of religion (while also acknowledging the limited chronology of the lararia). And perhaps most significantly, the formative role Delos played in giving visual expression to the cult is repeatedly asserted, as if the status of Greek artistic origins supercedes any Roman, and seemingly more humble, origins. While this latter implication is not explicitly stated, it nonetheless lurks behind the text. Indeed, it is in this chapter that Giacobello develops her claim that the principal lararium of a Roman house, although located in the kitchen area, was ultimately the domain of the paterfamilias and that on occasion the entire family united there to venerate the Lares. The daily maintenance of the cult, however, was the responsibility of the slaves, but this is not, per Giacobello, to suggest a division of cultic activity in houses with more than one lararium as based on perceived social divisions within a house.3 Rather, the lararium at the kitchen retained its primary cultic function, and the so-called secondary lararium -- in more visible spaces within the house -- was, according to Giacobello, more about the self-representation of the dominus, and thus had a weakened religious significance. This latter point seems highly debatable, especially given the fact that many "secondary lararia" retain evidence of cultic use, such as nails for the hanging of garlands (see, for example, the House of the Sarno Lararium, appendix V20).

The fourth and final chapter provides a cursory survey of the Lares and their shrines beyond Pompeii. Giacobello raises good questions for future research, although it is a pity that this lesser-known material is not illustrated at all. In fact, one limitation of this book as a whole is the relative lack of visual material. Furthermore, it is disappointing that, of the shrines that are pictured, many did not reproduce well. This book should therefore be read with Froehlich's and Boyce's texts at hand. The book also lacks an index, which this reader sorely missed.

Although the book is fairly narrow in scope and pitched to specialists, Giacobello articulates the significance of her study in the book's first sentence; the cult of the Lares played a role of primary importance in Roman religion. While this statement is surely correct, Giacobello's focus is first and foremost on the iconography of lararia and less on the place of the Lares in Roman religion and ritual per se. Nonetheless, the author's descriptions of the lararia of Pompeii are indispensable, and her conclusions advance many thought-provoking leads that scholars of Roman religion may wish to pursue. As Pompeii and its environs are vulnerable to the natural elements and the images of the lararia fade from view, Giacobello's research is timely. Her book adds yet another valuable voice to the chorus of scholars working on ancient domestic ritual.


1.   George Boyce, Corpus of the Lararia of Pompeii (Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 14) (Rome, 1937); David Orr, "Roman Domestic Religion: A Study of the Roman Household Deities and their Shrines at Pompeii and Herculanuem," Aufstieg und Niedergang der roemischen Welt, II.16.2 (New York, 1978), 1557-1591; Thomas Froehlich, Lararien- und Fassadenbilder in den Vesuvstaedten. Untersuchungen zur 'volkstuemlichen' pomejanischen Malerei (Mainz, 1991); and Pedar Foss, "Watchful Lares: Roman Household Organization and the Rituals of Cooking and Eating," in Domestic Space in the Roman World: Pompeii and Beyond, eds. Ray Laurence and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (Journal of Roman Archaeology, suppl. 22, 1997), 197-218.
2.   Claire Hasenohr, "Les Compitalia à Délos," Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 127 (2003), 167-249.
3.   The now-entrenched paradigm of a Roman house as being divided between the grand (free) and humble (servile) spaces began with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton, 1994), and has greatly affected how scholars discuss domestic space. Giacobello is right to point out some limitations of this paradigm.

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