Places of Myth

40 The Household

A lararium shrine framed by temple-like columns and pediment. Inside the columns, a fresco depicting the genius in a purple-trimmed toga, flanked by two lares holding cornucopias. A large snake in grass slithers beneath their feet.
Lararium in the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, ca. 1st century CE.

The household was an important site of worship in Greco-Roman antiquity. There were deities that were associated with the home and hearth and, particularly in Ancient Rome, individual families had familial gods, ancestral spirits to whom they paid homage.


Goddess of the Hearth

Hestia was the oldest child of Cronus and Rhea. She too was swallowed by her father and eventually freed by her brother Zeus. Rather than hold a seat among the twelve Olympians, she opted to tend to the sacred hearth or fireplace in the palace of the gods. Like Artemis and Athena, Hestia was a virgin goddess. She is depicted in Greek art as a chastely dressed, veiled matron, holding either a flowered branch or a kettle. However, Hestia was very rarely represented in art, and the below kylix is one of the few known depictions of the goddess.


Hestia, a woman with long curly hair dressed in a himation that leaves one breast exposed. She is seated, holding a branch.
Hestia, red-figure kylix, ca. 5th century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Tarquinia)

Although there are not many myths that center around Hestia, she was very important to religious practice. The hearth was the center of ancient Greek domestic life, so Hestia was the goddess of domestic life, harmony, and happiness. She was thought to be present in every home, as well as in the hearths of every temple. Therefore, she had a part in all ritual sacrifices. When the ancient Greeks burned animal sacrifices to the gods, they invoked Hestia first and gave her a part of the offering.



Homeric Hymn 24, “To Hestia” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This brief Homeric Hymn to Hestia shows how the goddess was invoked at the beginning of worship to the other gods.


[1] Hestia, you who tend the holy house [temple] of the lord Apollo, the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho, with soft oil always dripping from your locks, come now into this house, come, sharing one mind with Zeus the all-wise — draw near, and also bestow grace upon my song.


Taken from:


Homeric Hymn 29, “To Hestia” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

In this brief Homeric Hymn to Hestia we see how important the worship of Hestia is in the context of a feast. A wine offering is poured out to her at the start and end of the meal. We can also see how she is invoked in connection with other gods, in this case in connection with Hermes.


[1] Hestia, in the high houses of all, of both deathless gods and of men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting home and highest honour: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals would hold no banquets, — where one does not properly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last. And you, Slayer of Argus, Son of Zeus and Maia, messenger of the blessed gods, bearer of the golden rod, giver of good, be favourable and help us, you and Hestia, the worshipful and dear. Come and dwell in this glorious house in friendship together; because you two, knowing well the noble actions of men, aid their wisdom and their strength. Hail, Daughter of Cronus, and you also, Hermes, bearer of the golden rod! Now I will remember you and another song also.


Taken from:


Plato, Phaedrus (trans. B. Jowett, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek dialogue, 4th century BCE

Plato’s Phaedrus is a Socratic dialogue about love, covering a range of topics, including the art of rhetoric, madness, erotic love, the soul, and reincarnation. This passage comes in the middle of Socrates’ second speech in the dialogue. He has just discussed divinely inspired madness and has moved on to analogizing the nature of the soul. Whereas, in his estimation, the souls of gods are perfect, like a chariot drawn by two perfectly good and beautiful horses, the souls of humans are like a chariot drawn by horses of opposite natures: one good and beautiful which pulls the chariot (the soul) up towards heaven where the gods reside, and another horse that is ugly and bad, which tries to drag the chariot (the soul) back down to earth. In describing the operations of the gods in heaven, Plato shows how Hestia functions differently from the other Olympians.

[246e-247b] The wing is the element of the body that is most similar to the divine, and which by nature tends to fly high and to carry that which gravitates downwards into the upper region, which is the domain of the gods. The divine is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and the like; and by these the wing of the soul is nourished, and grows quickly; but when fed with evil and foulness and the opposite of good, [the wing of the soul] wastes and falls away. Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone stays at home in the house of heaven; of the rest, they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order. They see many blessed sights in the inner heaven, and there are many ways back and forth, along which the blessed gods are passing, every one doing his own work; one who wants to and can may follow them, for jealousy has no place in the celestial choir. But when they go to banquet and festival, then they move up the slope to the top of the vault of heaven. The chariots of the gods in even balance, obeying the reins, glide rapidly; but the others struggle, because the vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained. And this is the hour of agony and most extreme conflict for the soul. For the immortals, when they are at the end of their course, go forth and stand upon the outside of heaven, and the revolution of the spheres [celestial bodies] carries them around, and they behold the things beyond. But of the heaven which is above the heavens, what poet of earth ever did or ever will sing worthily? It is as I will describe it; for I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There lives the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul. The divine intelligence, being nurtured by mind and pure knowledge, and the intelligence of every soul that is capable of receiving the food proper to it, rejoices at beholding reality. And once more gazing upon truth, [the divine intelligence] is replenished and made glad, until the revolution of the worlds brings her round again to the same place. In the revolution she beholds justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute; and beholding the other true existences in the same way, and feasting upon them, she passes down into the interior of the heavens and returns home; and there the charioteer putting up his horses at the stall, gives them ambrosia to eat and nectar to drink.


Taken from:


Vesta was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hestia. She was one of the most important goddesses at Rome although, like Hestia, there are few myths specifically about her. She is seldom depicted in human form and is instead represented as the sacred fire of the city of Rome that was always burning in her temple in the Roman forum. The only people who were allowed inside her temple were the Vestal Virgins.

The Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins or Vestals were women charged with tending the sacred, eternal flame in the temple of Vesta in the Roman forum. The office was said to have been established by the legendary second king of Rome. At first there were only two Vestals, but over time the number increased to six. This was the highest office that a woman could hold in ancient Rome, outside of being a member of the emperor’s family.

Vestals were chosen before puberty, usually between six to ten years of age, and had to swear a vow of chastity for thirty years. At the end of the thirty years they were released from their service obligations and their vow of chastity, given a pension and allowed to marry. However, if they broke their vow of chastity or allowed the sacred flame to go out, the punishment was death.

In addition to tending the sacred flame, the symbolic home hearth for the whole Roman state, the vestals were also responsible for drawing water from the sacred spring, preparing special foods and items for festivals and ritual sacrifices, and guarding over sacred objects.


Ovid, Fasti, Book 3 (trans. J.G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin elegiac poem, 8 CE

Ovid’s Fasti is an elegiac poem in six book, each book taking as its subject a month from January to June. For each month, he explains the god(s) to whom it is connected and the particular significance of each day in the month, including any festivals.

In this selection from the third book, for the month of March, Ovid tells the story of the god Mars’ rape of the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia and her impregnation with the twins Romulus and Remus, the future founders of Rome. Mars is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Ares, though he is a much more important and significant god to the Romans than he seems to have been to the Greeks. In addition, Ovid mentions Minverva, the Roman equivalent of Athena. Quirinus is another name for Romulus.

In Silvia’s prophetic dream, the two palm trees are her future twin sons, Romulus and Remus, who will be threatened with death by her uncle Amulius. The taller of the trees in Romulus/Quirinus, who will ultimately kill his brother Remus and take full control over the future city of Rome. The woodpecker is a symbol of Mars, who will help to protect his sons, and the she-wolf is the wolf who will find the nurse the abandoned boys, when they are ordered to be killed by Amulius.

Ultimately, Rhea Silvia was punished for her pregnancy, since it was seen as a violation of her vow of chastity. She was put to death. In Ovid’s poem here, the images of Vesta cover their eyes in shame when Rhea Silvia goes into labour and the sacred flame goes out at her transgression.

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault (11-43)]

[1] Come, warlike Mars; lay down your shield and spear for a brief period, and from your helmet free your glistening hair. Perhaps you will ask, What does a poet have to do with Mars? From you, the month of which I now sing [March] takes its name. You yourself can see that fierce wars are waged by Minerva’s hands. Does this mean that she is less connected to the liberal arts? Like how Pallas does, take a moment to put aside the lance. You will find something to do unarmed. Then, too, were you unarmed, when the Roman priestess captivated you, so that you might bestow upon this city a great lineage.

[11] Silvia the Vestal (for why not start from her?) went in the morning to fetch water to wash the holy things. When she had come to where the path ran gently down the sloping bank, she set down her earthenware pitcher from her head. Weary, she sat her on the ground and opened her clothes to catch the breezes, and composed her ruffled hair. While she sat, the shady willows and the melodic birds and the soft murmur of the water induced her to sleep. Sweet slumber overpowered and crept stealthily over her eyes, and her relaxed hand dropped from her chin. Mars saw her; the sight inspired him with desire, and his desire was followed by possession, but by his divine power he hid his stolen joys. Sleep left her; she lay big, for already within her womb there was Rome’s founder. Slowly she rose, but she did not know why she rose so slowly, and leaning on a tree she spoke these words: “I pray that that which I saw in a vision of sleep turns out to be useful and fortunate. Or was the vision too clear for sleep? I thought I was by the fire of Ilium, when the woolen fillet slipped from my hair and fell before the sacred hearth. From the fillet there sprang a wondrous sight – two palm-trees side by side. Of them one was taller and by its heavy boughs spread a canopy over the whole world, and with its foliage touched the topmost stars. My uncle [ Amulius ] wielded an axe against the trees; the warning terrified me and my heart throbbed with fear. A woodpecker (the bird of Mars) and a she-wolf fought in defense of the twin trunks, and by their help both of the palms were saved.” She finished speaking, and by a feeble effort lifted the full pitcher; she had filed it while she was telling her vision. Meanwhile her belly swelled with a heavenly burden, for Remus was growing, and growing, too, was Quirinus.

[43] When now two heavenly [star] signs remained for the bright god [ the Sun ] to traverse, before the year could complete its course and run out, Silvia became a mother. The images of Vesta are said to have covered their eyes with their virgin hands; certainly the altar of the goddess trembled, when her priestess was brought to bed, and the terrified flame sank under its own ashes.


Taken from:

Vesta and the Emperor

Ovid, Fasti, Book 3 (trans. J.G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin poem, 1st century CE

This selection, also from the third book of the Fasti, contains Ovid’s description of the significance of March 6th and March 15th.

For March 6th, he encourages people to offer incense on the hearth to Vesta. On March 6th, 12 BCE, the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar, in addition to his
many other titles and offices, took up the office of the Pontifex Maximus, or the Pontificate, the head priest of Rome. This was the office that oversaw the Vestal Virgins and acted as their male guardian, since in their capacity as devotees of Vesta they were disconnected from their natal families. Ovid draws the connection from Augustus back to Aeneas and Troy.

For March 15th, Ovid recalls the assassination of Julius Caesar on that date in 44 BCE. Since Caesar also held the office of Pontifex Maximus, the personification of Vesta here equates his stabbing with her own murder. Ovid connects Augustus’ victory over the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BCE to the avenging spirit of Caesar.

[415 PR. NON. 6th] When the sixth sun climbs up Olympus’ slopes from the ocean, and through the ether takes his way on his winged steeds, all of you, whoever you are, who worship at the shrine of the chaste Vesta, wish the goddess joy and offer incense on the Ilian (Trojan) hearth. To [Augustus] Caesar’s countless titles, which he has chosen to receive, was added the honour of the pontificate. Over the eternal fire, the divinity of Caesar, no less eternal, presides: the pledges of empire you see side by side. You gods of ancient Troy, you worthiest prize to him who bore you, you whose weight did save Aeneas from the enemy, a priest of the line of Aeneas handles your kindred divinities; Vesta, guard his kindred head! Nursed by his sacred hand, your fires live well. O live undying, flame and leader both, I pray.

[ . . . ]

[697 IDUS 15th] I was about to carry on without mentioning the swords that stabbed the prince [Julius Caesar], when Vesta spoke thus from her chaste hearth: “Doubt not to recall them: he was my priest, it was at me that these sacrilegious hands struck with the steel. I myself carried the man away, and left nothing but his wraith behind; what fell by the sword was Caesar’s shade.” Transported to the sky he saw the halls of Jupiter, and in the great Forum he owns a temple dedicated to him. But all the daring sinners who, in defiance of the gods’ will, profaned the pontiff’s head, lie low in death, the death they merited. Witness Philippi and those whose scattered bones whiten the ground. This, this was [Augustus] Caesar’s work, his duty, his first task by righteous arms to avenge his father.


Taken from:


Ovid, Fasti, Book 4 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin poem, 1st century CE

In this selection from the fourth book of the Fasti (for April), Ovid mentions the Floralia, the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, which fell at the end of April and ran to the beginning of May. But he eschews writing about this festival (which he will do in his next book about May), in favour of returning to his theme of Augustus’ connection to Vesta.

When Augustus became the Pontifex Maximus, he made part of the imperial palace public, since the Pontifex Maximus was required by the divine law of Rome to inhabit a public residence. Augustus established cult worship of Vesta in this public portion of the residence, adding her worship to that of Apollo, which he had already instituted at the palace as of 29 BCE.

The section of the Fasti sees Ovid praising a deifying Augustus. He calls him the relative of Vesta, through his ancestral connections to Venus and Mars. The three gods that now inhabit the Palatine are Apollo, Vesta, and Augustus, himself.


[943 IV. PR. KAL. 28th – 30th] When [ Dawn ] the spouse of Tithonus has left [ Tithonus ] the brother of Phrygian Assaracus, and three times has lifted up her radiant light in the vast heavens, there comes a goddess decked with garlands of a thousand varied flowers, and the stage enjoys a customary license of mirth. The rites of Flora also extend into the Kalends of May. Then I will resume the theme: now a loftier task is laid upon me. O Vesta, take your day! Vesta has been received in the home of her kinsman [Augustus Caesar]: so have the Fathers righteously decreed. Phoebus owns part of the house; another part has been given up to Vesta; what remains is occupied by Caesar himself. Long live the laurels of the Palatine! Long live the house wreathed with oak boughs! A single house holds three eternal gods.


Taken from:

The Vestalia

Silver coin. Obverse: Diademed head of Venus in profile, wearing necklace. Reverse: Aeneas advancing left, nude, holding father Anchises on shoulder with left hand, right hand holding small statue of Athena (the palladium). The word CAESAR in capitol Roman letters downward on right side.
Venus, and Aeneas carrying Anchises, silver coin, ca. 48 BCE (Classical Numismatic Group)

The Vestalia was the annual Roman festival for Vesta, held from 7-15 June every year.  On the first day of the festival, the innermost area of the temple to Vesta was opened up to the public for the duration of the festival. Women could come to offer sacrifices in exchange for blessings from the goddess. Then, on June 9th, donkeys were hung with loaves of bread in order to honour their work in the grain mills and in commemoration of the donkey’s service in preventing Priapus from raping Vesta. On the last day of the festival, the innermost chamber of the temple was again closed.


Ovid, Fasti, Book 6 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak and T. Mulder)

Latin poem, 1st century CE

In this selection from Book VI of the Fasti, Ovid begins with an invocation to Vesta, asking if he has the goddess’ permission to engage in celebration of her rites. Then he relates everything to he claims to have learned from the goddess via a sort of divine inspiration. He is careful to say the goddess does not appear to him, because Vesta was not thought to take a corporeal form. Rather, she embodied the flame itself.

First Ovid describes the building of the first temple to Vesta under Numa Pompilius, noting its rustic quality. He compares the design of the building to the shape of the earth. He explains Vesta’s virginity and the lack of anthropomorphic representations of her. Ovid then tells a series of myths about Vesta: Priapus’ attempted rape of her (thwarted by the braying of Silenus’ donkey, the meaning behind the altar to Baker Jupiter, the continuity between Troy and Rome by way of the statue of Athena that was guarded by the Vestal Virgins (the Palladium), and the salvation of the Vestal Virgins and their sacred artifacts by the Pontifex Maximus, Metellus in 241 BCE, during the first Punic War.

[249 V. ID. 9th] O Vesta, grant me your favour! In your service now I open my lips, if it is lawful for me to come to your sacred rites. I was engrossed in prayer; I felt the heavenly deity, and the glad ground gleamed with a purple light. Not to say that I saw you, O goddess (far from me are the lies of poets!), nor that it is proper for a man to look upon you; but my ignorance was enlightened and my errors corrected without the help of an instructor. They say that Rome had forty times celebrated the Parilia[1] when the goddess, Guardian of Fire, was received in her temple; it was the work of that peaceful king [ Numa Pompilius ], than whom no man of more god-fearing temper was ever born in Sabine land. The buildings which now you see roofed with bronze, you might then have seen roofed with thatch, and the walls were woven of tough willow branches. This little spot, which now supports the Hall of Vesta, was then the great palace of unshorn Numa. Yet the shape of the temple, as it now exists, is said to have been its original shape, and it is based on a sound reason. Vesta is the same as the Earth: under both of them is a perpetual fire, and the earth and the hearth are symbols of the home. The earth is like a ball, resting on no supports; so great a weight hangs on the air beneath it. Its own power of rotation keeps its orb balanced; it has no angle which could press on any part; and since it is placed in the middle of the world and touches no side more or less, if it were not convex, it would be closer to some part than to another, and the universe would not have the earth as its central weight. There stands a globe hung by Syracusan art [by Archimedes] in closed air, a small image of the vast vault of heaven, and the earth is equally distant from the top and bottom. That is brought about by its round shape. The form of the temple is similar: there is no projecting angle in it; a dome protects it from the showers of rain.

[283] You ask why the goddess is tended by virgin ministers. Of that also I will discover the true causes. They say that Juno and Ceres were born of Ops by Saturn’s seed; the third daughter was Vesta. The other two married; both are reported to have had offspring; of the three one remained, who refused to submit to a husband. What wonder if a virgin delights in a virgin minister and allows only chaste hands to touch her sacred things? Conceive of Vesta as nothing but the living flame, and you see that no bodies are born of flame. Rightly, therefore, is she a virgin who neither gives nor takes seeds, and she loves companions in her virginity.

[295] For a long time I foolishly thought that there were images of Vesta: afterwards I learned that there are none under her curved dome. An undying fire is hidden in that temple; but there is no effigy of Vesta nor of the fire. The earth stands by its own power; Vesta is so called from standing by power (vi stando); and the reason of her Greek name may be similar. But the hearth (focus) is so named from the flames, and because it fosters (fovet) all things; yet previously it stood in the first room of the house. From this, too, I am of opinion that the vestibule took its name; it is from there that in praying we begin by addressing Vesta, who occupies the first place: it used to be the custom of old to sit on long benches in front of the hearth and to suppose that the gods were present at the table; even now, when sacrifices are offered to ancient Vacuna, they stand and sit in front of her hearths. Something of olden custom has come down to our time: a clean platter contains the food offered to Vesta. See, loaves are hung on donkeys decked with wreaths, and flowery garlands veil the rough millstones. In the past, husbandmen used to toast only spelt in the ovens, and the goddess of ovens has her own sacred rites: the hearth alone baked the bread that was put under the ashes, and a broken tile was laid on the warm floor. Hence the baker honours the hearth and the mistress of hearths and the she-donkey that turns the millstones of pumice.

[319] Shall I pass over or tell of your disgrace, ruddy Priapus? It is a short story, but a very merry one. Cybele, whose brow is crowned with a coronet of towers, invited the eternal gods to her feast. She invited all the satyrs and those rural divinities, the nymphs. Silenus came, though nobody had asked him. It is unlawful, and it would be tedious, to narrate the banquet of the gods: the livelong night was passed in deep drinking. Some roamed aimlessly in the valleys of shady Ida; some lay and stretched their limbs at ease on the soft grass; some played; some slept; some, arm linked in arm, three times beat with rapid foot the lush ground. Vesta lay down and carelessly took her peaceful rest, just as she was, her head resting on the earth. But the ruddy guardian of gardens (Priapus) courted nymphs and goddesses, and here and there he turned his wandering steps. He saw Vesta too; it is unclear whether he mistook her for a nymph or knew her to be Vesta; he himself said that he did not recognize her. He conceived a rash hope, and tried to approach her sneakily; he walked on tiptoe with throbbing heart. It so happened that old Silenus had left the donkey, on which he rode, on the banks of a babbling brook. The god of the long Hellespont [ Priapus ] was going to begin, when the donkey uttered an ill-timed bray. Frightened by the deep voice, the goddess woke up; the whole troop flocked together; Priapus made his escape between hands that tried to catch him. Lampsacus[2] often sacrifices this animal (the donkey) to Priapus, saying: “We appropriately give to the flames the innards of the tell-tale.” That animal, goddess, you adorn with necklaces of loaves in memory of the event. Work comes to a stop, the mills are empty and silent.

[349] I will explain the meaning of an altar of Baker Jupiter, which stands on the citadel of the Thunderer and is more famous for its name than for its value. The Capitol was surrounded and hard pressed by fierce Gauls: the long siege had already caused a famine.[3] Having summoned the celestial gods to his royal throne, Jupiter said to Mars, “Begin.” Immediately Mars answered, “In truth, nobody knows the struggles of my people, and this my sorrow needs to be voiced as a complaint. But if you require me to tell in brief the sad and shameful tale: Rome lies at the foot of the Alpine enemy. Is this the Rome, O Jupiter, to which was promised the domination of the world? is this the Rome which you intended to make the mistress of the earth? Already she had crushed her neighbours and the Etruscan hosts. Hope was in full swing, but now she is driven from her own hearth and home. We have seen old men dressed in embroidered robes – the symbol of the triumphs they had won – cut down within their bronze-lined halls. We have seen the pledges of Ilian [Trojan] Vesta removed from their proper seat. Clearly the Romans think that some gods exist, but if they were to look back at the citadel in which you live, and to see so many of your homes suffering, they would know that the worship of the gods is futile, and that incense offered by an anxious hand is thrown away. And if only they could find a clear field of battle! Let them take up arms, and, if they cannot conquer, then let them fall! As it is, starving and dreading a coward’s death, they are shut up and pressed hard on their own hill by a barbarous mob.” Then Venus and Quirinus, in the getup of augur’s staff and striped gown, and Vesta pleaded hard for their own Latium. Jupiter replied, “A general providence is charged with the defence of those walls. Gaul will be vanquished and will pay the penalty. Only you, Vesta, see to it that the corn which is lacking may be thought to be abundant, and do not abandon your proper seat. Let all the grain that is still unground be crushed in the hollow mill, let it be kneaded by hand and roasted by fire in the oven.” So Jupiter commanded, and the virgin daughter of Saturn assented to her brother’s command, the time being midnight. Now sleep had overcome the wearied leaders. Jupiter scolded them, and with his sacred lips informed them of his will: “Arise, and from the topmost battlements throw into the middle of the enemy the last resource that you would wish to give up.” Sleep left them, and moved by the strange riddle they inquired what resource they were being asked to give up against their will. They thought it must be corn. They threw down the gifts of the Corn-goddess, which, in falling, clattered upon the helmets and the long shields of the foe. The hope that the citadel could be destroyed by famine now vanished: the enemy was driven back and a white altar set up to Baker Jupiter.

[395] It happened that at the festival of Vesta, I was returning by the road which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum. There I saw a matron coming down barefoot. Amazed, I fell silent and halted. An old woman of the neighbourhood saw me and, asking me to sit down, she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. “This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but previously it was a lake. Where now the processions typically go, through the Velabrum to the Circus,[4] there was nothing but willows and hollow canes; often the reveler, returning home over the waters of the suburb, used to tip a staff and rap out tipsy words at passing sailors. That god (Vertumnus), whose name is appropriate to various etymologies, had not yet derived it from damming back the river (averso amne).[5] Here, too, there was a grove overgrown with bulrushes and reeds, and a marsh not to be trodden with booted feet. The pools have receded, and the river confines its water within its banks, and the ground is now dry; but the old custom survives.” The old woman thus explained the custom. “Farewell, good old dame,” said I, “may the remainder of your life be entirely easy for you!”

[417] The rest of the tale, I had learned long ago when I was a boy; but not on that account should I neglect to tell of it. Ilus, descendant of Dardanus, had lately founded a new city (Ilus was still rich and possessed the wealth of Asia). A celestial image of armed Minerva is believed to have been on the hills of the Ilian city. (I was anxious to see it: I saw the temple and the place; that is all that is left here; the image of Pallas is in Rome.) Smintheus [ Apollo ] was consulted, and in the dim light of his shady grove he gave this answer with no lying lips: “Preserve the heavenly goddess, so shall you preserve the city. She will transfer with herself the seat of empire.” Ilus preserved the image of the goddess and kept it shut up on the top of the citadel; the protection of it descended to his heir Laomedon. In Priam’s reign the image was not well preserved. Such was the goddess’s own will ever since judgement was given against her in the contest of beauty. Whether it was [ Diomedes ] the descendant of Adrastus, or the sly Ulysses, or Aeneas, they say someone carried it off; the culprit is uncertain. The thing is now at Rome: Vesta guards it, because she sees all things by her light that never fails.

[437] Alas, how alarmed the Senate was when the temple of Vesta caught fire, and the goddess was almost buried under her own roof! Holy fires blazed, fed by wicked fires, and a profane flame was mixed with a pious flame. Amazed the priestesses wept with streaming hair; fear had robbed them of bodily strength. Metellus [the pontifex] rushed into their midst and in a loud voice cried, “Hasten to the rescue! There is no use in weeping. Take up in your virgin hands the pledges given by fate; it is not by prayers but by deed that they can be saved. Oh no! Do you hesitate?” said he. He saw that they hesitated and fell trembling to their knees. He took up water and, lifting up his hands, “Forgive me, you sacred things,” said he, “I, a man, will enter a place where no man should set foot. If it is a crime, let the punishment of the deed fall on me! May I pay with my head the penalty, so Rome may go free!” With these words he burst in. The goddess whom he carried off approved the deed and was saved by the devotion of her pontiff.

[455] You sacred flames, now you shine bright under Caesar’s rule; the fire is now and will continue to be on the Ilian hearths, and it will not be told that under his leadership any priestess defiled her sacred fillets, and none shall be buried in the live ground. That is the doom of she who proves unchaste, because she is put away in the earth which she contaminated, since Earth and Vesta are one and the same deity.

[461] Then [during the Vestalia] did Brutus win his surname from the Gallaecan enemy, and dyed the Spanish ground with blood. To be sure, sorrow is sometimes mixed with joy, or else festivals would be pure happiness for the people: Crassus lost the eagles, his son, and his soldiers at the Euphrates, and perished last of all himself. “Why exult, you Parthian?” said the goddess, “you shalt send back the standards, and there will be an avenger who shall exact punishment for the slaughter of Crassus.”


Taken from:

The Roman Lararium


A fresco of of a genius in a toga flanked by two lares, with a snake below. The fresco is set into a reconstructed temple-like frame with columns and pediment, with a shelf. Three statuettes sit on the shelf: a lare, and two other penates.
Reconstructed lararium from Augusta Raurica, ca. 2nd century CE.


Though Vesta was the primary goddess of the hearth, many different deities were worshipped in the Roman household. At the Roman household shrine, or lararium, people could give worship to the lares, the penates, and the genius of the paterfamilias (head of the house).


A lararium set against a wall. The lararium is framed by columns and a pediment, and is decorated with curly blue and gold designs.
Lararium in the Casa dello Scheletro in Ercolano.
A shrine set into the wall. The shrine is framed with columns and a pediment, in the style of a temple.
Lararium from the House of the Golden Cupids in Pompeii, ca. 1st century CE












There are numerous archaeological examples of lararia, particularly from Pompeii. These shrines were often decorated with frescoes, and had space to give small food offerings.


A niche in the wall containing a statuette of a helmed figure, lit from below.
Lararium at the Santa Cecilia in Travestere in Rome.


Atrium. In the far corner, a small temple-style lararium set against the wall. The centre of the floor has rectangular shallow pit.
Atrium of the House of Menander in Pompeii, with lararium, ca. 1st century CE.

The Penates

Landscape perspective wall painting. Red border with a row of evenly spaced gold diamonds in the red. Nighttime scene. Male figure (Aeneas) lies on a bed with four ornate, golden legs, covered in a light blue blanket. He is half sitting up in bed, bare chest exposed, right arm out of covers, looking towards the viewer. The bed is between two Corinthian colums, A crescent moon hangs in the sky over the entablature of the columns. Two male figures in dark, greyish-blue cloaks stand behind the bed. One reaches a hand towards Aeneas. Above the figure on the right, Roman capitol letters read "Penates."
Aeneas and the Penates, Roman fresco, ca. 4th century CE

The Penates or Di Penates were were each house’s particular set of guardian deities. They are often represented by two male figures. There were also public Penates for the entire city of Rome, which had their own temple in Rome. Famously, when Aeneas fled from Troy, he is said to have brought the statues of the public Penates of Troy with him. They then transferred their protective powers from Troy to Italy and eventually to Rome.

Roman families thanked their Penates by throwing a bit of food on the fire at the start of their meal. Thus, the Penates were also associated with Vesta and the hearth.

The Lares

A two-level fresco. Top level: a the genius, in a purple-trimmed toga, stands by an altar holding a horn. Two small figures, one carrying a plate and another bringing a pig, approach the altar, and another figure in a toga plays a flute. They are all flanked by two lares, young men in tunics holding horns in one hand and small vessels in the other. Bottom level: two large snakes in grass, on either side of an altar.
Lararium fresco from Pompeii, ca. 1st century CE (National Archeological Museum, Naples)

Like the Penates, the Lares were protective deities, often represented as small statues of young men. But whereas the Penates were specifically associated with families (and the city of Rome, as a sort of large family), the Lares were small time guardians of all sorts of places. Importantly, their powers were confined to the boundaries of the small physical spaces over which they had control. There were Lares of households, neighborhoods, crossroads, seaways, pastures, cities, and towns.

Household Lares were worshipped and honoured with offerings of grain, honey, fruit, wine, and incense. Roman families built Lararia (singular: Lararium) to house the household Lares and other significant household items. These were shrines or even just small wall niches that held statues of the Lares and the other objects. When young Roman boys transitioned from children to adults, they dedicated the protective amulet necklaces they had worn as children to the Lararium and put on the first toga of manhood. When Roman girls married, they gave the objects of the girlhood, such as their dolls, to the Lares.

Media Attributions and Footnotes

  1. The Parilia was a rural agricultural festival of the deity Pales, celebrated on the 21st of April. Ovid explains this festival in Fasti, Book 4.
  2. Lampsacus was an ancient Greek town that was said to have been the birthplace of Priapus, and was therefore known for worshipping him.
  3. The Gauls comprised many tribes of people across Europe, and they had many conflicts with the Greeks and Romans. This siege may refer to the siege of Veii or the Battle of Allia, in the early 4th century BCE, when the Gauls invaded Rome. Livy provides an account of these events in Ab Urbe Condita, Book 5.
  4. Processions in Rome typically followed set routes through the city. This procession went from the Velabrum, a valley on the west side of Rome, to the Circus Maximus, a racing stadium towards the centre of the city.
  5. Vertumnus was a Roman god of seasons and plants. Ovid here provides a mythical etymology for the name, referring to Vertumnus having cleared the marshlands and enabled the Forum to be build (from averso amne, meaning "retreating/reversing current"). However, it is more historically likely that the name Vertumnus comes from an Etruscan deity with a similar name, Voltumna.


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