Special case: Lares Viales

There’s one particular group of gods who, while not originally Iberian – at least not under the Latin name of Lares Viales – were nonetheless very popular in the peninsula, especially in modern-day Galicia and in stark contrast with the scarcity of epigraphic traces elsewhere in the ancient Roman world. Which makes them an Iberian phenomenon and explains why I wanted to give them a closer look.

Historically, the Lares Viales are not easily distinguishable from the Lares Compitales, the obvious reason being that, judging by their names, the former preside over the pathways or viae, whereas the latter govern the crossroads or compitia. Hence Varro, in his De Lingua Latina (6:25), says the Compitalia was a feast in honour of the Lares Viales. This is actually one of the few literary references to those gods and there’s another in Plautus Mercator, line 865, though there, it seems, there’s no confusion between the different types of Lares. By while the Compitales were given a public cult, both before and after the Augustan reforms of 7 BCE and thus had multiple places of worship (Beard et al. 2010: 184), there’s no record of a similar attention being given to the Lares Viales, which perhaps explains why there’s only one known altar to them in Rome (CIL VI 36812). That doesn’t mean they had few worshippers – at least not necessarily – but perhaps that the structures and places of worship dedicated to them were of a simpler nature, less prone to survive the passage of time. Things like cairns by the road, which is an obvious expression of a wayfarer cult, but without an official status or wealthy patrons. And the scarcity of traces in Rome is equally true for the rest of the ancient Roman world, with one notable exception.

Galician abundance
There are just under forty known altars dedicated to the Lares Viales. Apart from the already mentioned piece from Rome, there’s another from Italy (CIL XI 3079), one from ancient Dacia (CIL III 1422), one from Morocco (CIL VIII 9755) and another from ancient Gaul (CIL XII 4320). There’s also three that were found in the eastern half of the Iberian peninsula (AE 1903 185; CIL II 2987), two in the Spanish province of Avila (Hernando Sobrino 2005: 158-9) and then… well, then there’s twenty-eight in modern-day Galicia (Franco Maside 2002: 218-9).

Sites in Iberia where traces of a cult to the Lares Viales have been found. Map my own.

The exact motive for that clear concentration of altars is unclear, though it may have something to do with the late Romanization of the region , for while southern Iberia was conquered by Rome at the start of the 2nd century BCE, it was only two hundred years later that the Asturias and surrounding regions were subdued. And unsurprisingly, that chronological discrepancy has cultural consequences, adding to the northern rough terrain and hence a greater isolationist tendency. In other words, when the north was starting to enter the Roman world, the Iberian south was already well integrated in it. This much was suggested by William van Andringa, who pointed out that religious practices in Baetica followed more closely those of Rome: for instance, in Tucci, epigraphic evidence indicates Hercules, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Pietas Augusta were very popular, just as Diana, Venus, Liberta Augusta, Mars Augustus and the Lares Augusti were in Singli Barba. But in Lugo, in modern-day Galicia, Jupiter appears to have been worshipped side by side with native deities (van Andringa 2011: 86). It was for that reason that Portela Filgueiras proposed that, in northwest Iberia, the Lares Viales and the king of the Roman gods fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult elsewhere, i.e. that of a religious expression of loyalty towards the Roman State (1984: 157). In that sense and despite the fact that Filgueiras’ work is already three decades old, it’s worth mentioning that she found no traces of a cult to the Lares Augusti in Galicia and just two (or four, if one includes the land north of the river Douro) to the Roman Lares. And that’s despite the existence of at least two dozen pieces from elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula (Portela Filgueiras 1989: 161).

Old gods, new faces?
If they fulfilled the same role as the imperial cult, then the popularity of the Lares Viales in Galicia would be part of an initial or intermediate stage in a process of cultural assimilation. Which is to say that had it started earlier or lasted longer, beyond Christianization, then perhaps the Lares Augusti would have acquired the popularity they apparently did not have in Galicia and may have even replaced the Lares Viales. But to thus conclude that the popularity of the latter was merely the product of a political scheme is to ignore that syncretism and assimilation are made possible through commonalities, i.e. by shared features that allow for the new to attached itself to the old and make way for a transition from the latter to the former.

It is that dynamical fact that has led to the suggestion that the Galician Lares Viales were in fact a Roman mask to much older religious practices (Santos Yanguas 2014: 254). In other words, that the region already had a popular cult to one or more deities whose worshippers saw in the Lares Viales an appropriate Latin expression for a new context. Which is a more convincing explanation than merely the movement of Roman troops on northwest Iberian roads, since, if that were true, one would expect an equally abundant number of altars and votive inscriptions elsewhere. Instead, there’s an exceptional concentration in Galicia, suggesting a specifically Galician motive. Though it is curious that while in the Gallo-Roman world there was a proliferation of native epithets coupled with Latin theonyms, thus integrating old religious practices into new ones – e.g. Mars Nodens, Apollo Belenus or Silvanus Sinquas – things in old Galicia seem to have followed a different path.

The camino
It is also curious that Galicia continues to be a land religiously defined by the notion of path or road, not towards Rome or a polytheistic shrine, but to the Catholic cult site of Santiago de Compostela. And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that the Galician devotion to Saint James is a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian cult, let me clearly state that no, it isn’t!. It has old elements, yes, of which cairns are perhaps the clearest example, but you find the same practice in pretty much every European pilgrimage route – even modern-day leisure trails – without having to see a polytheistic origin in all of them. And while it’s true that, in the 5th century, Martin of Dume condemned the lighting of candles on crossroads (De Correctione Rusticorum 16), that hardly proves the survival of a cult to the Lares Viales in old Galicia at the start of the Middle Ages. Firstly, because that same section of the text also mentions the worship of boulders and trees, divination, the celebration of the Volcanalia and calends, stepping in with the right foot, throwing bread and wine into fountains and calling on Minerva when weaving. And secondly, because that makes it unclear whether Martin of Dume was referring to actual practices he found in ancient Galicia or simply used a standard list of pagan practices that was employed by any missionary in Europe.

Roadside sign pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela, complete with a cairn. Source

The truth is that the history of the Galician shrine of Saint James is complex and does not fit into a simplistic view of a pre-Christian cult site being taken over by Christianity – no matter how much that appeals to people who suffer from a siege mentality. One can start by pointing out that the first Christian communities in western Iberia go back to the 2nd century and the putative discovery of the tomb of Saint James is dated from c. 813. This amounts to a hiatus of six centuries during which a lot of things happened: the officialization of Christianity, the prohibition of traditional and esoteric polytheisms, the Germanic invasion and settling during the Migration Age, renewed missionary activity by men like Martin of Dume, schisms and quarrels between different branches of Christianism (Aryanism , Pricillianism, Donatism, etc.), the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711-14 and the start of the co-called “Reconquista” around 720. So by the time the body of Saint James is said to have been uncovered, the religious landscape in Iberia was no longer one of rivalry between Christians and polytheists, rather between different forms of monotheism. And it had been so for a few centuries already. And it is revealing that the supposed tomb of James, who died in Palestine and not Galicia (Acts of the Apostles 12:2), may in fact be that if Priscillian, a Galician bishop who was decapitated for heresy in 385. That the hypothetical traces of a cult to his memory were combined with late legends on Saint James to produce a miraculous tomb, at a time the Christian north was starting to retake the Muslim south, goes to show how much the Iberian religious context had distanced itself from the time when the Lares Viales were worshipped. Even more so if one takes into account that the earliest Asturian chronicles, which date from the end of the 9th century and start of the 10th, say nothing on a tomb of an apostle, hinting at a later revision of history, thus creating an even bigger chronological hiatus between the pre-Christian period and the development of the Galician shrine of Saint James.

A continuum
Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a continuity, even if accidental, since it nonetheless remains true that the land where the Lares Viales were most popular is still religiously marked by the notion of path and journey. And this cannot be ignored by someone like me, who’s not only interested in pre-Christian religions of western Iberia, but is also a devotee of a god of wayfarers and roads.

As such, I have little trouble placing the Lares Viales among native Iberian gods, side by side with Arentio, Bandua, Nabia or Reve, and even if they’re not originally from the peninsula. Because their cult had its greatest expression in the northwest corner of the territory and in an exceptional manner, not tangential. For which reason one can argue that there is something Iberian about the Lares Viales, acquired if not original, which is stressed by the fact that Galician remains today a land of pilgrims and travelers and even if the religious tones are different. At the very least, it’s a case of strongly settled gods who maintain a level of influence. It may indirect and accidental, but it’s still a form of continuity with the past. And for that reason there’s also something Iberian about pilling rocks on the roadside, pouring wheat and wine on cairns and decorating them with garlands. Because those are gestures that perpetuate what appears to have been a singularly Iberian devotion.

Works cited
BEARD, Mary; NORTH, John; PRICE, Simon. 2010. Religions of Rome I: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

FRANCO MASIDE, Rosa María. 2002. “Lares Viales na provincia de A Coruña”, in Gallaecia, number 21. Santiago de Compostela: Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, pages 215-222.

HERNANDO SOBRINO, Maria del Rosario. 2005. “A propósito del teónimo Ilurbeda. Hipótesis de trabajo” in Veleia, number 22. Leioa: Universidad del Pais Vasco, pages 153-164.

PORTELA FILGUEIRAS, Maria Isabel. 1984. “Los dioses Lares en la Hispania romana”, in Lucentum, number 3, Alicante: Universidad de Alicante, pages 153-180.

SANTOS YANGUAS, Narciso. 2014. “El culto a los Lares Viales en Asturias”, in Ilu: Revista de Ciencias de las Religiones, number 25. Madrid: Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pages 251-263.

VAN ANDRINGA, William. 2011. “Religions and the integration of cities in the Empire in the second century AD: the creation of a common religious language”, in A Companion to Roman Religion, ed. Jörg Rüpke. Blackwell: Oxford, pages 83-95.