Well, it’s about time I kicked my arse in gear to write this post! It honestly should have been one of the first topics that I wrote about, as the lararium is a rather important aspect of the Religio Romana.
Basically, the lararium is a place for prayers and offerings. It gets its name from the Lar familiaris, the protector deity of one’s home. In very early times, this was the main deity who was invoked in the morning and evening at the household altar. However, by the time that the classical era rolled around, the Lar familiaris doubled: now, houses paid homage to two such deities. In his Gods of Ancient Rome (a fantastic book which I highly recommend), Robert Turcan mentions that they may have been associated with the Penates, rather obscure deities who may have been either the protectors of the pantry or the patron deities of the family.
In any case, the images painted on the lararia (plural of lararium) follow, for the most part, a common theme. Two young figures – the Lares – with rhytons and libation dishes are frozen in dance on either side of a robed figure. This figure is the genius, or tutelary/creative deity of the paterfamilias, the head of the family. He is shown sacrificing at an altar, or holding an offering dish in hand.
Oftentimes in a separate scene below this one is a depiction of one or two snakes. Snakes have none of the ill associations that they became known for in Christianity: instead, they are seen as the guardians of the home and land and are symbolic of the procreativity of the family. They are, in this regard, associated with the genius.
Other deities can appear as well. In a famous thermopolium in Pompeii, the gods Mercurius and Bacchus are also present at either end of the scene.
Several tools and statues were also common. There is no evidence for statues of the Lares in the Republic, as they were seen as ancestral spirits, but during the Empire this changed. The statues would be crowned with flowers on the days of the month honoring the Lares, and would also be brought to the table to overlook meals.
Salt was seen as sacred and often offered, so the lararia would more than likely have a little box for the salt. Other tools included an incense burner, a candle, and a dish or two called a patera for wine or food.
I should probably take a picture of my lararium and post it, hahaha.