The core of Roman religion traditionally involved the veneration of ancestral and domestic/territorial spirits: The Lares, Lemures, and Manes, collectively referred to as di inferi (‘gods of the lower world’). This was Rome’s ancestral cult, and has no parallel in Greek religion. It also seems to have had little narrative relationship with the world of the higher (eg – Olympian style) gods and demigods which borrowed/merged with the Greek system: Mars (Ares), Jupiter (Zeus), Minerva (Athena), Juno (Hera), Mercury (Hermes), Hercules (Herakles), Pluto (Hades), Vulcan (Hephaestos), Diana (Artemis) etc.
The worship of di inferi was perhaps the most conservative part of their religion, and contemporary educated high-class Romans (Ovid, Varro, Cicero, etc) often wrote of them in connection with country people and the plebeian classes, much in the way that later Christian writers would identify ‘common’ opinion with recidivist paganism. It is therefore highly likely that this form of religion preceded the introduction and worship of the Hellenic, Pontic, Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities that characterised our popular concepts of Roman religious life between the 5thC BCE – 4thC CE.
Lares were typically venerated as the worthy ancestral spirits who watched over the hearth and home. Lemures and Larvae represented the restless and turbulent spirits who inhabited liminal places in the physical and temporal world; They might be thought of as Lares ‘gone bad’ either due to their own unworthy lives or through improper treatment (such as incorrect veneration, or the displacement/destruction of their own proper familia) and required appeasement to prevent them causing harm.
Manes on the other hand appear to be a name for the whole class, of which Lares and Lemures are the subsets. They are akin to what we would nowadays consider ‘fairies’ or ‘ghosts’, and are therefore of a more morally ambivalent nature, perhaps unattached to individuals and arising from an undifferentiated impersonal and more historic provenance – the world of the dead in general. As these were cthonic deities, they were typically worshipped in underground temples or caves.
Despite their apparent disgust for the core Druid doctrine of metempsychosis, the Romans (like the Greeks) also associated the world of the dead with regeneration and fertility, as the worship and legends regarding Dis/Pluto/Hades/Orcus and Prosperina/Persephone/Ana Perenna clearly show. These cults were tied in to the worship of Ceres/Demeter and Liber/Bacchus/Dionysus, and by association with the most significant and influential ancient mystery cults of the Mediterranean: Orphism and the Rites of Eleusis. These earth and ancestor-based beliefs were, it would appear, the historic basis for most of Europe’s popular ancient religions, yet were to mutate under the influence of hierarchical city-based cultures and the philosophies stemming from these.
Where the Romans claimed they differed from the Druids (and the Orphics and Eleusians) was that they held that human souls were treated exceptionally in death and went to a gloomy ‘underworld’ existence rather than taking part in the cycles of regeneration so apparent in the empirical observations of nature. The druids (representing ancient Atlantic European spirituality) taught that human souls were included in the natural cycles of regeneration, an opinion which appears to be based on the same natural observations as the Mediterranean mystery cults. Why Rome chose to be different is perhaps illustrated by their attitudes to the effect the belief in metempsychosis had on their enemies: Rome was about top-down power, with the living at the apex and the dead (usually representing their enemies) thus consigned downwards… In this manner, they were again treading on the toga tails of the Greeks who had first introduced Europe to the notion of the human God-Emperor in the form of Alexander during the 4thC BCE! The foundations for the introduction of a tyrannical monotheism were set far earlier than most realise…