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What does archaeological/written evidence reveal about the role/importance of household gods and temples in Roman life during the first century AD? Archaeological and written evidence has revealed to us many great revelations about the past, in this case, the past concerning household gods in Roman life during the first century AD. These revelations help us understand both their role and importance. Roman household religion was associated with the family unit, the traditional institution ruled over by the paterfamilias.
These gods would be treated as members of the family and invited to join in meals, or be given offerings of food and drink.
From this, it is obvious household gods held a great importance, and archaeological evidence provides a principal source of detail about Greek mythology, with gods and heroes featured prominently in the decoration of many artifacts, such as numerous statues. There were numerous household gods in Roman life, the main ones being identified as Lares and Penates, and others also included Janus and Vesta, all holding great power.
In Roman mythology, Lares and Penates were groups of deities who protected the family and the Roman state, and although different, they were often worshiped together at household shrines. These spirits were represented in tiny bronze statuettes, and most houses had miniature shrines, fashioned after Roman temples, known as lararia, and contained were these small statues or painted images of these household gods. There has been much archaeological evidence of Lararia found, and this includes many frescoes found depicting these family defenders, thus showing the importance of household gods.
Lares were considered spirits of the dead, such as the family’s ancestors, and guarded homes, crossroads, and the city. They were represented by little figurines which would be kept in a special cupboard, and among them, the lar familiaris, the family spirit, was the most important, as it ensured that the family line did not die out. There is also much archaeological evidence supporting the importance of these lare statues, as there were many bronze statuettes found from the first century AD, such as the one pictured here. Each morning Romans prayed and made offerings to an image of the Lar familiaris kept in a family shrine.
On an everyday basis, short prayers and small offerings would be made to the Lares. These prayers are what bring us our written evidence of household gods, as there are many literary forms found stating this. Most of our evidence of the Roman prayer is late though, being preserved in Augustan writers, particularly Livy. Prayers are seen as significant and special, and so obviously this shows their great importance. The Penates, originally honored as gods of the pantry, eventually became guardians of the entire household. The main function of the Penates was to ensure the family’s welfare and prosperity.
Thanks were given to Penates for keeping the family fed, and they too had their own little cupboard they resided in. Also, 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. There are also many statues found from that time, representing these gods, such as the one pictured wearing a crown and holding a libation bowl and a cornucopia. Two gods of the Roman state cult guarded the private homes of the Roman citizen, and one was known as Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings.
It was he, who was seen as the chief guardian of the home. He was the passage through the door, and was both inside and outside the house at once. Janus is often depicted as having two faces, one looking in each direction, representing both the inside and outside of the house, and so, coins have been found portraying this, giving us great archaeological evidence of him, and showing how important his role really was. To further highlight the importance of Janus and his role, there has also been a temple of Janus discovered, which stood in the Roman Forum. The temple had doors on both ends, and inside the temple was a statue of Janus.
Along with him was also the deity Vesta, who had both public and private functions. Vesta’s presence was symbolized by the sacred fire that burned at her hearth and temples. She was the goddess of the hearth, and as the hearth was of practical importance for cooking, and of spiritual significance such as 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, once again stating written evidence, and even during meals, some food might be set aside and passed into the fire as an offering to this goddess.
Just like all of the other household gods, Vesta also has many statues of her, also made in bronze, just like this one shown, now located in the Vatican Museum, in Rome. Overall, it is obvious that from the many brilliant archaeological statues of both the household gods and temples in Janus’s case, frescoes and coins found, household gods played a major role and held great importance in the house in Roman Life during the first century AD, as if they didn’t have that much influence, then there wouldn’t be as many statues as there is.
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