Religion was an important part of Roman family life - the house, its contents and the family itself were all involved. Religious ritual was important too at crucial times in an individual's life: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.


Vesta and Janus

Two national deities had their place in private worship too: Vesta, goddess of the fire and the hearth, and Janus, god of doorways. Vesta was particularly important to women of the household, for the hearth was where the food was prepared and cooked, and beside it the meal was eaten. Prayers were said to Vesta every day, and during a meal a portion of food might be thrown into the fire as an offering, and also to seek omens from the way in which it burned.

Janus, who gave his name to the month of January, is often depicted as having two faces, one looking in each direction. It has been suggested that this represents opening and closing a door, going in and coming out, or viewing (and thus guarding) both the inside and outside of a house.


Janus on a silver coin of 225 - 214 BC. (VRoma:Fine Arts Museum, Chicago: Ann Raia)


Lares and Penates

The particular gods of the household were its lares and penates.


Statuette of a lar. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The lares (one of them was designated lar familiaris or “family spirit” and was special to that household) were supposed to be the spirits of dead ancestors, and had a cupboard of their own which they inhabited in the form of tiny statuettes. Daily prayers and offerings were made to them.

Figure from a set of Penates

Silver figurine of one of a set of penates, wearing a crown and holding a libation bowl and cornucopia. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

The penates looked after the larder, its contents and their replenishment, and also had their own cupboard. The statuettes of the penates used to be taken out and put on the table at mealtimes. When the family moved, its lares and penates went too.

Aeneas sacrificing to the Penates

Aeneas sacrificing to the penates in their cupboard, from the Ara Pacis 13 - 9 BC. (VRoma: AICT)

Each household had in addition its genius, whose image was a snake. Genius might be described as a “spirit of manhood”, since it was supposed to give a man the power of generation, and its sphere of influence was the marriage-bed. The household genius was especially honoured on the birthday of the head of the family.

Lararium - shrine of the lares

Painting from the shrine of the lares. The genius of the family is flanked by two lares, with below the snake image at the altar. From the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. (VRoma: AICT)

Rituals for birth, marriage and death

Births and deaths had their special rituals. Juno Lucina was the main deity of childbirth, but there were other spirits who watched over the embryo child and its mother from the moment of conception to the birth itself. Immediately after the birth, a sacred meal was offered to Picumnus and Pilumnus, two jolly rustic deities, for whom a made-up bed was kept in some conjugal bedrooms. A positive string of child-development deities watched over the baby’s breast-feeding, bones, posture, drinking, eating, and talking, even its accent.


An infant at the breast, watched by his father, who later is carrying him. Scenes from sarcophagus relief of M. Cornelius Statius (second century AD). (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

On the ninth day after the birth of a boy, the eighth for a girl, the ceremony of purification and naming was enacted. Free-born children received an amulet - gold for a child of the rich, bronze or merely leather for poorer families - which a girl would wear until her marriage, and a boy until he exchanged his toga praetexta, the robe of a child worn also by girls, for the toga virilis, the garb of a man, at the age of between 14 and 17.

Child wearing bulla

Statue with child, possibly Nero, wearing the amulet (bulla) round his neck. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

There were several ways of celebrating a marriage, of which the simplest involved the consent of both parties, without rites or ceremony. There were three others, each giving the husband legal power over his wife:

  1. By cohabiting for a year without the woman being absent for a total of three nights.
  2. By a symbolic form of purchase, in the presence of a holder of a pair of scales and five witnesses.
  3. By full ritual, in the presence of the pontifex maximus.

Betrothal ring

Gold betrothal ring (second or third century AD) showing a couple clasping right hands. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

After the second century AD a different kind of ritual emerged, which began with a formal betrothal, at which the prospective bride slipped a gold ring onto finger now known as the “wedding finger” in the presence of the guests. For the marriage ceremony itself she wore a veil of flaming orange-red, surmounted by a simple wreath of blossom.


Drawing of a funerary procession into a columbarium (a vaulted crypt for the ashes of a Roman family or of a guild). (From Albert Kuhn, Roma 1913: Barbara McManus)

While a spirit of some kind watched over a person at most times and on most occasions from conception to death, at the actual moment of death there was none. The religious element in the funeral rites was directed towards a symbolic purification of the survivors. Once the corpse was entombed or buried - and even in the case of cremation one bone was preserved and put in the ground - its own spirit joined all those other spirits of the dead, which were known collectively as manes and required regular worship and appeasement. There were also mischievous spirits of the dead. know as larvae or lemures.

Reclining matron on lid of a sarcophagus

Sarcophagus lid, with reclining Roman matron with Flavian hairstyle. (VRoma: Vatican Museum, Rome: Lisanne Marshall)


Statue of goddess with torches, probably Vesta (VRoma: Vatican Museums, Rome: Lisanne Marshall)

Believe it or not:

The Romans regarded the entrance to a house as of such importance that, in addition to Janus, it had three other deities of its own: Cardea, goddess of hinges, Limentinus, god of the threshold, and Forculus, god of the individual leaf or leaves of which the door consisted.

Augustus ruled that the minimum age for marriage was 12 for girls, and 14 for boys. In the event, a girl’s first marriage was usually between the ages of 12 and 15. Divorce was a simple procedure, if you were a man, or the wife’s father. The orator Hortensius invited Cato the Younger to dissolve his daughter Porcia’s marriage to Bibulus so that he could marry her himself. Cato refused. Hortensius then persuaded Cato to divorce his own wife, Marcia, whom Hortensius now married. When Hortensius died in 49 BC, leaving Marcia a rich widow, Cato remarried her.

It was a tradition that the manes required to feed regularly if they were to perform their functions. So, when a corpse was buried, an elaborate meal was often put with it into the grave or tomb. The larvae or lemures could be appeased by an elaborate ritual performed by the master of the house, involving the spitting out of black beans and the clanking of brass pots.