Harriet Flower. The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2017.
What was the ordinary, nonelite experience of the Roman religious world? How far can we recover the everyday interactions of Romans and their deities in the republican and early imperial periods?
In her recent monograph, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden: Religion at the Roman Street Corner, Harriet Flower brings together disparate and fragmentary evidence about a specific type of Roman deity, the lar (lares in the plural), in order to reconsider the role of “religion” at the local level. Celebrated on wedding days, at annual festivals, in public temples, in kitchens, and at small shrines on street corners which dotted the urban landscape, the lares had a ubiquitous presence in Rome. But because the ancient evidence about these deities is fragmented and often ambiguous, many scholars (ancient and modern) have misinterpreted their basic nature and underestimated their role in the religious world of the Romans. Flower argues that these overlooked lar(es) were an essential and integral part of local life and religious experience in Rome, especially for the nonelite, the freedman, and slave.
Throughout her work, Flower systematically revisits the extant literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence concerning the lares and resituates each attestation in its appropriate social and historical context. She cautions the reader whenever any texts or inscriptions she addresses are fragmentary or illegible in places and when certain material evidence from outside Rome has limitations for comparison with attestations from the city itself. She frequently summarizes her conclusions at the end of small sections which makes her long and detailed work quite clear and convincing. The book is divided into four parts. Part I and II provide the literary and archaeological background for parts III and IV.
In Part I “Lar(es)/Genius and Juno/Snake(s),” Flower focuses on who the lares were and how they were depicted. She points out the ways in which ancient and modern scholars have been misled in viewing the lares as spirits of the dead and deconstructs any evidence used to associate the lares and the underworld. Instead she argues that the lares are gods of place, protecting the spaces in which Romans lived. The lares are distinctly Roman deities. It is because of their Romanness, Flower argues, that there is a dearth of discussion about them in our sources since these traditional deities did not need to be explained to a Roman audience.
In the absence of an origin story to confirm the basic nature of the deities as “gods of place,” Flower focuses on what extant evidence can tell us about how the Romans experienced the lares and their cult in everyday life. She walks through literary evidence about lares in domestic spaces (sections ii-iv) before turning to the houses and streets of Pompeii (sections iv-viii). Though she cautions that paintings from the Bay of Naples are influenced by their local environment and are not representative of any kind of “standard” Roman imagery, she adeptly uses the Campanian walls to contextualize and explain literary mentions of lares by focusing on the snakes depicted alongside them. Wall paintings from the Bay of Naples portray the lares as a lively pair of twins in tunics often dancing and receiving a libation from the genius of a householder. A separate illustration complements this picture of domestic ritual: a depiction of a natural, garden-like space occupied by one or two snakes who receive their own offering. While there is no mention of the relationship between the lares and snakes in our literary evidence, Flower argues that the snakes represent the genius of the natural environment (genius loci). As “gods of place” over wild and uncultivated space, the snakes offer a contrast to the lares, different “gods of place” who protect the domestic and civic spheres of men. Flower suggests that together the lares and snakes offer us a glimpse into the imagined “sacred landscape” of a Roman religious world absent of Greek mythology.
In part II, “Shrines for the Lares in Rome,” Flower moves beyond the domestic sphere and examines the various shrines and cult sites constructed for the lares in civic contexts. The extant material evidence, largely from Pompeii, shows that lares could be found and worshipped at a public temple (aedes), a street corner (compitum), or a small open-air shrine (sacellum), in addition to household spaces. As she analyzes these different types of spaces, Flower points to the ways that the built environment manifests the “sacred landscape” of the Roman imaginary. Among the spaces Flower examines, the compital shrines, those situated where two or more roads cross each other, represent the quotidian locations of these cultic sites. The crossroad shrine was the “place of worship where the largest cross section of Roman society could (at least potentially) perform common ritual actions, regardless of the social status, ethnicity, or gender, simply on the basis of living locally” (p. 116). Because no crossroad shrine has been found in situ in Rome, Pompeii serves, again, as a case study for the general popularity and layout of the compita. This part of her work, with its close attention to the built urban landscape, serves as a backdrop upon which her discussion of the celebration and celebrators of the lares at the annual midwinter festival, Compitalia, is set.
The celebration of Compitalia at the local level is the main focus of part III, “Celebrating Lares.” Flower discusses the ritual practices involved in the observance of the festival as well as the local administration responsible for organizing the event. During Compitalia, which took place around the winter solstice in late December, the lares compitalia (the lares which were situated at the crossroad shrines) were decorated with dolls and balls for each inhabitant in the surrounding neighborhood (vicus). According to inscriptions and paintings in Hellenistic Delos, the festival day also involved feasts and games (ludi compitalicii). Groups of freedmen (vicimagistri) were in charge of financing and organizing the event in their neighborhoods. But beyond the Compitalia festival itself, the compital shrines functionedas the local nodes of a larger urban network which served religious or political functions. The compita were sites for shared civic ritual throughout the year and were daily reminders to the local inhabitants of each vicus of the larger urban community.
Part IV, “Augustus and Lares Augusti,” considers how and why Augustus introduced the lares augusti at compital shrines throughout the city of Rome in 7/8 BC. Flower argues that the lares augusti, which were “given” to the vicimagistri by Augustus in 7 BC, were not new lares at all, but renamed and rededicated lares compitales. They were not copies of his own domestic lares nor were they associated with a cult of his genius, as previous scholars have believed. The worship of the lares augusti was cultivated by the local freedmen and slaves (vicimagistri), just like the lares compitales. Although Augustus does not mention the lares augusti in his Res Gestae, Flower demonstrates how they were a critical part of a role and image which he had been cultivating since the mid-40s BC: a princeps who heralded a new age of peace and prosperity.
This renewal of the images and inscriptions on the compital shrines gave Augustus a “presence” on nearly every street corner. Flower walks through the extant material evidence of altars dedicated to the lares august iby groups of vicimagistri and points to ways that other popular Augustan images were utilized. Some shrines have images depicting the sacrifice of a bull, which previous scholars have used to attest to the presence of a cult of Augustus’ genius. Flower denies the existence of a cult of Augustus’ genius altogether and argues that these bull sacrifices are part of a boundary-marking ritual (lustratio) commonly practiced on Roman farms with a specific set of animals (a bull, sheep, and pig). Flower then situates the implementation of this change from lares compitales to lares augusti within Augustus’ broader (re)building program of religious sites throughout the city, including an innovative reading of the images on the Ara Pacis (section xxix). Finally, she discusses the subtle gesture Augustus gives towards the laresaugusti by planning their introduction to coincide with the twenty-year anniversary of his own name change as well as the “new” civic age of the vicimagistri.
Flower’s work is exhaustive and her attention to detail is complemented by her consistent references to social and historical contexts. She builds her argument carefully from a disparate body of evidence and succeeds in convincing the reader that one could not walk through the streets of Rome without being reminded of the lares at nearly every corner. But how does this new information about the lares and their worshippers change our approach to studying the Roman religious world? While Flower is deliberate about avoiding generalizing claims concerning the lares and attends to the limits of her, often local, data, she could have offered further reflection on her use of “religion” as second-order category. When “religion” is not parsed as a category, certain decisions about what counts as “religion” remain hidden from the reader.
Though Flower is never explicit about what is and is not included in her analysis of Roman “religion,” her monograph lays the groundwork for developing a new approach to the study of “religion” in the Roman world which does not limit the discussion to “origins.” As she uses textual and material evidence to reconstruct the lived experience of many nonelite Romans and their relationship to the lares, Flower demonstrates the pervasive influence the lares have in many different spheres of Roman life. The “gods of place” are significant for individuals and collective groups, within both domestic and civic spaces, and in social, personal, and political contexts. Lares function in manifold ways to produce meaning, resisting reductionist accounts that restrict them to one area of life, one space, or one ritual practice; and the same can be said of Roman “religion.”
This monograph offers rich resources for those interested in the reconstructing the daily life of nonelites in Rome. Flower goads the reader to rethink their assumptions about the relationship between Greek mythology and the Roman religious world and to develop a more robust approach to embodied Roman religious practices. For specialist and non-specialist alike, The Dancing Lares and the Serpent in the Garden, invites modern readers into the daily realities of Romans with cultic practice and divine presences around every corner.
Alex Istok is Ph.D. Student at New York University (firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow Alex’s research on Twitter.