The Landscape Guide

14.3 Genius Loci in Rome

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The Spirit of Place in Rome

The Romans adopted the Greek pantheon and continued the practice of associating named gods with temples, shrines, groves and springs. They were a superstitious people and made offerings to local gods wherever they went. The spirit (numen) which inhabits a place and the generative power (genius) which sustains a place, or a family, was ho noured. A spirit associated with a place, such as a river or wood, was known as a genius loci if it lacked another name . Calpurnius Siculus, for example, wrote: ‘Tum caespite vivo pone focum geniumque loci Faunumque Larsque salso farrre voca’ (Then set up a hearth of living turf and summon Faunus and Lares and the genius of the place with an offering of salad meal). There was a shrine to Faunus on the Tiber Island.

With the advent of Christian monotheism, the gods of old were condemned as ‘pagan’ (from pagus, a village or country district). An incident in The Life of St Martin, who died in 397 AD, records him speaking of ‘a moral necessity’ why a tree should be cut down ‘because it had been dedicated to a demon’ and of ‘the crowds of heathens [who] looked on in perfect quiet as he razed the pagan temple even to the foundations, he also reduced all the altars and images to dust’. For centuries to come, the gods of old were treated as demons. During the renaissance pagan statues were dug up and placed in gardens.