BMCR 2018.06.24

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

, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiii, 394. ISBN 9781400888016, 9780691175003. hb.


The fanciful title, although eye-catching and not inapposite, hardly does justice to the import of this impressive book. More helpful in that regard is the subtitle, which, however, raises some interesting issues to which I will return below. But first, an overview of the book’s subject and contents is in order.

The lares (singular lar) were distinctively Roman deities whose presence is pervasive in Latin literary texts, who are frequently invoked in inscriptions, and whose small shrines are abundantly preserved at sites such as Pompeii and Delos. It is clear that they were tutelary deities of the household and the neighborhood, but beyond that there has been much scholarly disagreement about their nature. This debate results in part from the fact that they received little sustained discussion in the ancient sources, at least those that are extant, presumably because they were such a commonplace and humble part of everyday life. Yet it also reflects the conviction of earlier scholars that the origins of a cult tell us more about its essential nature than its actual functioning in the historical periods to which we have access. Flower reverses these priorities, and while giving due coverage to longstanding controversies she is much more interested in the cult’s functioning in day-to-day life.

The book is essentially a series of case studies, organized around a set of broader topics, in which Flower rigorously keeps her focus fixed on the ancient evidence. She is always precise in parsing out what we can and cannot deduce from it, and regularly reminds the reader of its limitations. Entirely characteristic, and found in one form or another throughout the book, is her remark on p. 282, ‘It is essential to keep in mind how sparse our evidence really is’. With each case study she assembles a complete dossier of the relevant evidence; she quotes texts both in the original language and in translation and presents the visual material in photographs and drawings, so that in all cases the reader has direct access to it. After examining each item individually in meticulous detail, she concludes the section with a summary of her findings and then moves on to the next topic. As a result, the book can sometimes have the feel of a reference work, since Flower has no interest in elaborating a particular theoretical orientation nor even, to a large extent, any sort of grand interpretive framework. Nevertheless, because her writing is consistently crisp and lucid and her summaries frequent and clear, the book never becomes the sort of morass that it might have in less skillful hands. Moreover, by assembling all this material into a carefully articulated structure she is able to impose on it an overall coherence and highlight particular themes and ideas. Since it is impossible to do justice to all the material she analyzes and all the arguments that she advances, I will just briefly summarize the main topics and note a few of her more striking conclusions.

Part I, ‘ Lar(es) / Genius and Juno / Snake(s)’, examines the deities of the cult, especially in its domestic context, starting with the literary evidence (sections i-v) and then moving on to the wall paintings from the household shrines of Pompeii (sections vi-ix). It is in fact only the latter that associate the genius and the snake with the lares. Although the domestic cult of the genius is well known from literary sources, that of the snake is not mentioned at all, and we can only deduce its meaning from the visual evidence. Flower argues cogently that the identification of the lares with spirits of the dead, commonly found in modern scholarship, lacks any solid foundation in the ancient evidence; she herself emphasizes their character as the preeminent ‘protective gods of place, integral to the world of mortals and to its everyday activities of cooking, eating, drinking wine, and traveling’ (17). Part II, ‘Shrines for Lares in Rome’, delivers on its title’s promise, with a survey that encompasses the two attested civic temples of lares in Rome (section xi) and the wide variety of smaller local cult sites (section xii). It is in this part that Flower introduces a topic that will become her primary focus for the rest of the book: the small public shrines of lares located at compita, the crossroads that served as focal points in urban neighborhoods. She examines the evidence for the four best-attested compital shrines of the lares from Rome (section xiii), contrasting them with the sacella that could be consecrated to a wide range of deities (section xiv), and then similarly surveys the evidence from Pompeii (section xv). Two themes that emerge in this part deserve flagging. The first is the idea of lares as irreducibly local. Flower insists that ‘it is not logical or meaningful to ask whether all the lares at the street corners in Rome were “the same” gods. Each was represented as a pair of typical deities, but also the unique inhabitants and protectors of this particular compital shrine and street’ (158). The second is the idea that these compital shrines formed an urban network that helped organize the larger urban landscape into discrete if interconnected units. This is an idea that will become central to next two parts.

Part III, ‘Celebrating Lares ’, begins with two surveys of the evidence for the main festival of the lares compitales, the Compitalia: the literary evidence from Rome (section xvii) and the archaeological evidence from Delos, dating to the period 120-90 BCE (section xviii). Flower devotes the rest of this part to examining the way that the compital cult was embedded in the civic organization of localized urban communities (sections xix-xxi) and then exploring the practice of politics within this compital context (sections xxii-xxiii). The officers and associations involved in the administration of the neighborhood cult (the freedmen vicomagistri, the slave ministri, and local collegia) provided a ready-made framework for local politics: ‘the complex world of urban politics appears to be situated in that shadowy but characteristically Roman space between vicus, compitum, and collegia – the street, the shrine on its corner, and the various organizations to which local, working people living in the vicus chose to belong. This was also, not by coincidence, the same space guarded by lares and celebrated at the annual Compitalia’ (215). The segue here from ‘religion’ to ‘politics’ is so seamless as to be unnoticeable, which as I shall suggest below is precisely the point. Through her careful review of the evidence, Flower cogently demonstrates that the political debates over the role of collegia and the goings-on at the Compitalia about which we hear so much in the tumultuous 50s BCE did not result from the recent political exploitation of a previously pure ‘religion’, but arose from long- standing practice. So too did Augustus’ transformation of the compital cult, which is the subject of Part IV, ‘Augustus and Lares Augusti ’. Here Flower focuses on Augustus’ reform of the cult in 7 BCE, which involved his ‘giving’ new lares augusti to the compital shrines. She rightly emphasizes the novelty of this reform, which ‘afforded him greatly enhanced visibility throughout the network of crossroads shrines that articulated communication and communities’ (284) in the complex urban setting of Rome. At the same time she argues forcefully that these new lares augusti were not Augustus’ household lares, as has so often been suggested, but the familiar compitales under a new name (section xxvi), and goes against the communis opinio in insisting that there was never, in the Augustan period at least, a cult of his genius at compital shrines (section xxvii). The bull that appears so often on altars dedicated by vicomagistri was accordingly not offered to the genius Augusti, but should instead be understood as part of a suovetaurilia (section xxviii). She makes a very convincing case, although she might have noted that, starting at least in the reign of Nero, as we know from the commentarii of the Arval Brothers, it did eventually become customary to sacrifice a bull to the emperor’s genius. More controversial will surely be her suggestion that the bearded figure in the sacrificial scene from the Ara Pacis is neither Aeneas nor Numa but Titus Tatius (section xxix). A short epilogue concludes the volume, in which Flower sums up her project as one that ‘has drawn on many small case studies and individual pieces of evidence to offer a mosaic picture of life with lares ’ (349).

Flower’s approach to her subject is encyclopedic, even more so than this brief overview would suggest, since she regularly sets her specific topics within their larger social and political context. Her treatments of these contextual matters, in which she draws on her deep knowledge of Roman republican history and culture, are frequently masterful and add considerably to the book’s richness. One thing that the book does not include, however, is any explicit reflection on theory or even methodology. Since she makes her views on methodology abundantly clear through her practice, I will here just hazard a few observations, of the sort that she herself carefully avoids, on the book’s theoretical dimension. As the subtitle suggests and the book’s contents confirm, Flower is unapologetic and apparently even un-self-conscious in using the term ‘religion’. The ongoing debate about its utility and value for understanding the ancient Greek and Roman world is something that she ignores completely, and the recent contributions of Brent Nongbri ( Before Religion, 2013) and Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin ( Imagine No Religion, 2017) do not even appear in her bibliography. It was accordingly with some surprise that I realized that her study, with its richness of detail and the breadth of the issues and contexts it discusses, constitutes perhaps the best case that I have yet seen for the inadequacy of ‘religion’ as a central analytical category. Flower demonstrates in lush detail the extent to which interactions with the gods were bound up with all other aspects of life: social, economic, political, and affective. It is accordingly impossible to craft an adequate analysis of what we might be tempted to isolate as ‘religion’ without addressing a much wider range of human experience. In that respect, the book fits very comfortably within the approach of ‘lived religion’ that is currently advocated in particular by Jörg Rüpke, although that too is something that Flower herself does not invoke.

The book is very nicely produced. The inclusion of 24 color plates feels luxurious, and the abundant black-and-white plans, drawings, and photographs are uniformly crisp and clear. The copy-editing seems to have been very careful, so that the book is very largely error-free (although I noted that the text of the inscription on p. 60 does not seem to match that in the drawing of the inscription itself on p. 61). The only recurring problem is that works cited in the notes do not always appear in the bibliography. I happened to note the following omissions: Hartmann 2005 (15 n. 32), May 2015 (15 n. 33), Laforge 2009 and 2001 (47 n. 7), Cooley 2006 (321 n. 4). For a reader like myself who wants to pursue further some of the multitudinous topics she covers, this can be a source of minor irritation. But it is a small price to pay for such a rich volume. Not only will this be an indispensable starting point for anyone working on any topic connected with the lares, it also constitutes a valuable model for one highly effective way to study religion in a world without ‘religion’.