The Places of Roman Isis: Between Egyptomania, Politics, and Religion
Abstract and Keywords
This article examines ancient Rome’s ties to Egypt via the goddess Isis. More specifically, it considers the political meanings of Isis and her place in Roman religion and ritual. It first provides an overview of the connection between Egyptomania and Roman Isis, taking as a point of departure the Temple of Isis in the city of Pompeii. It then explores competing explanations of the significance of Isis in Roman society: one account places Isis in the midst of political maneuverings among the Roman elite, and another presents Isis and things Egyptian as exotic and mysterious. The article also reveals how Isis problematizes scholarly notions of religion in ancient Roman society.
Among the many art exhibitions featuring the Egyptian goddess Isis in the Roman world, two held in Italy deserve mention: Iside: Il mito, il mistero, la magia (1997) and Egittomania: Iside e il mistero (2006).1 Both exhibitions were accompanied by lavish tomes and reveal that modern museum-going audiences have a healthy appetite for Isis, not to mention ancient Egypt (take, for example, the worldwide traveling King Tut shows that most recently began in 2005 and are still attracting audiences). In addition, fascination with Egypt, or Egyptomania, has itself been the subject of exhibitions and scholarly inquiry.2
It is well known that ancient Romans also consumed Egypt, literally and figuratively. This article focuses on ancient Rome’s ties to Egypt, but with a critical examination of Rome’s ties to Egypt via the goddess Isis.3 Images of Isis, Isiac priests and priestesses, and temples dedicated to her and her consorts appear throughout ancient Roman cityscapes. Explanations of the significance of Isis in Roman society have ranged widely in the past decades.4 At one end of the spectrum is a tendency to place Isis in the midst of political maneuverings among the Roman elite. At the other end of the spectrum, Isis and things Egyptian are presented as shrouded in mystery and as exotic, appealing to individuals outside elite circles who seem to have had a naive understanding of Egypt and the goddess’s supernatural powers. At both extremes, the impulse is to cast Isis as un-Roman. This article confronts both ancient and modern stereotypes that have fed into these two extreme positions and explores how Isis problematizes modern conceptions of ancient Roman religion. While the literature on Roman religion is vast, with the topic of Roman Isis being increasingly visible in scholarship, this article highlights specific moments and monuments in Rome’s history as a way to complicate our thinking about the places of Isis in Roman religion and society. It does so by placing special emphasis on the visual and material record.
Setting the Stage: Egyptomania and Roman Isis
I take as a point of departure the Temple of Isis in the city of Pompeii, perhaps the best preserved and documented Iseum in Italy (figure 1).5 As one of the first sites to be disinterred at Pompeii, the building immediately piqued the curiosity of its excavators. Here workers recovered images evoking the world of Egypt, leading them to suspect early on that the small, but nearly intact, temple may have been the home of an Egyptian deity. Its attribution as a temple dedicated specifically to Isis was confirmed when a dedicatory inscription belonging to the precinct’s entrance came to light.6 Excavations were completed in 1766, at which time the Iseum was the subject of a number of illustrated reproductions and written descriptions by those who visited it.7 And many did visit the sanctuary. No trip to the Bay of Naples would have been complete without calling on Pompeii’s Temple of Isis, whose discovery coincided with an intense European interest in the art of ancient Egypt.8 Contemporaries often romanticized the temple, conceiving it as a locus of rituals that were not only foreign but also somewhat fantastic. An eighteenth-century image of the sanctuary—shown unnaturally large—gives an impression of a veritable spectacle, with swirling dark clouds that heighten the aura of intrigue (figure 2). In stark contrast to a surviving Roman painting of Isiac ritual occurring during the calm of daylight (figure 3), the modern image reveals prevailing European assumptions about ancient Isiac ritual: it was exotic and entirely un-Roman and therefore un-European.9 Pompeii and its Temple of Isis had become a metaphor for Egypt itself. This notion is made explicit in the frontispiece of the second volume of Giambattista Piranesi’s book on Pompeian antiquities (figures 4 and 5). Rather dramatically, two Isiac sistra, or rattles, dominate the foreground of the page, itself covered in Egyptian motifs, most of which come from the artist’s imagination rather than from the excavations at Pompeii. Moreover, nearly half of the volume is devoted to views of the Temple of Isis, and one depiction of the precinct, as a ruin in its modern state, shows two ancient Isiacs processing before the entrance. The utterly disproportionate Isiacs are about half the size of an ordinary person in relation to the entrance, as if to glorify what is a relatively humble space. Plainly, the Temple of Isis had taken on a life of its own in the imaginations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was probably not a coincidence that Piranesi’s son Francesco produced this collection in 1804, not long after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, helping to spur and feed European intoxication with things Egyptian.
The Temple of Isis at Pompeii has occupied a rather ambivalent place within more modern scholarly writings.10 In part this is because the Iseum was dedicated to a “foreign” goddess. Moreover, until recently historians had linked the strong following and worship of Isis to individuals outside elite circles, namely to women, former slaves, and slaves. And yet, as perhaps the first and only complete temple restoration after the devastating earthquake in 62 CE, the rebuilding of the Temple of Isis took some precedence over other sanctuaries, all in various states of disrepair at the time of the city’s final destruction seventeen years later—notably, the Capitolium and the temples of Apollo and Venus near the Civic Forum, which was arguably the political, religious, and commercial center of town. As I have shown elsewhere, the rapid rebuilding of the Iseum suggests that Isis must have held some sway in Pompeian life, in both its religious and political spheres.11
Unfortunately, the temple’s cult statue does not survive, but three nearly intact sculptures of deities were discovered in the area behind the temple. Most notable is a statue of Isis; she holds an ankh in her left hand and would have held a sistrum (no longer extant) in her right.12 The two other statues are of traditional Roman deities, one of Venus and the other of Bacchus. Romans often combined attributes of foreign gods with traditional ones, creating a syncretic deity that conformed to Roman thought (interpretatio romana), although, as with Isis, most eastern gods had already experienced an interpretatio graeca, which had the effect of Hellenizing foreign deities.13 Bacchus, on account of his regenerative powers, was often identified with the Egyptian deity Osiris (the brother and husband of Isis), thus explaining the placement of the statue of Bacchus within the sanctuary.14 The image of Venus depicts a seminude deity wringing her wet hair after a bath (Venus Anadyomene). Given that Venus and Isis were both maternal deities—Venus being the ancestress of the Romans and Isis the archetypal mother in Egyptian mythology—Romans often associated Isis with Venus, making the appearance of Venus within the city’s Iseum fitting enough.15 Yet it is also important to bear in mind that Venus was the patron goddess of Roman Pompeii. The very presence of the city’s goddess, albeit not the typical and more modest Venus Pompeiana, within a sanctuary dedicated to an Egyptian deity, not only alludes to a syncretism between these two deities, but also suggests that Isis and Venus have been united here, perhaps sharing the same ritualistic space as Pompeii’s guardians in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
We know relatively little about the Roman worship of Isis.16 It was a mystery religion, meaning that its daily rituals were ideally revealed to initiates only. Two of our primary sources, Apuleius and Plutarch, are not entirely forthcoming about the rites, nor are the visual remains.17 We do know, however, that Isiacs celebrated two special festivals that could engage individuals—initiates or not—and that had some resonance with Roman rituals.18 The navigium Isidis, celebrated on March 5, included a public procession to the shore and the launching of a model ship loaded with offerings. This event opened the shipping season and was intended to ensure safe and prosperous travel at sea, surely an important concern for Pompeians and others living on the Bay of Naples. The inventio Osiridis, observed between October 28 and November 3, reenacted Osiris’s death, probably staged somewhat privately within the sanctuary, and then Isis’s success in restoring Osiris back to life, which seems to have been celebrated in the streets. This ritual could serve dual purposes: it could reaffirm initiates’ belief in their own life after death, as well as symbolize the annual flooding of the Nile, which made the revival of vegetation possible. Despite the fact that most Roman Isiac rituals remain unknown to us, at least these two festivals took Isis to the streets. This deity, as did other Roman gods, received some public observance, as initiates, skeptics, the curious, and bystanders alike could all witness attempts to garner Isis’s protective and restorative qualities.
The history of the reception of Isis in Italy is a long and complicated one.19 It seems that officials in Rome, during the late republic and early empire, proscribed the worship of Isis. The reason seems straightforward enough: Egypt was often constructed as foreign and Other in the eyes of the ruling elite, as Miguel Versluys has articulated in a study of Roman views of Egypt.20 In fact, a recent trend in scholarship has been to emphasize the political meanings of Isis by engaging imperialist and postcolonialist discourses, with some puzzling results. For example, Cardinal Alessandro Albani’s eighteenth-century collection of Egyptian objects—excavated from Rome and its environs—included two sculptures that formed pendant pieces (figure 6). These objects are typical of statuary recovered from sanctuaries dedicated to Isis.21 As these objects formed part of a collection in modern times—surely a manifestation of Egyptomania—scholars have begun to ascribe similar meanings to these types of sculptures in their ancient contexts, claiming that their appearances in Isiac sanctuaries can be explained as an attempt to create a “kind of museum” of exotic character.22 While this view seems reasonable, it also risks projecting our fascination with Egypt and Isis onto the Romans. In teasing out the social, ritualistic, and political meanings of the goddess, I would like to place Isis in the visual landscape of ancient Italy by examining a number of different sites and images to reveal just how varied—and sometimes contradictory—the reception of Isis was among the Romans.
Isis and Politics
First, it is necessary to assess the ideas behind the us-versus-them relationship (that is, between Rome and Egypt) that has infiltrated studies of Egyptian themes in Roman art,23 a rhetoric that admittedly had a place in Roman literature and thought. For example, ancient authors, such as Juvenal and Apuleius, famously ridicule the cult of Isis and her followers. In Juvenal’s satire, women mindlessly and with great excess heed Isis’s direct orders, undergo physical torture (jumping into the ice-capped Tiber), and pay large penalties for any wrongdoing (6.522–41). Or, in the case of Apuleius, it is one of Isis’s many prerogatives to transform the narrator Lucius from a human to a donkey and back to human form, after which he spends a fortune with each new calling from the goddess. In both literary works, Isis has magical powers and is capable of seducing members of Roman society into following her and eventually into depleting their coffers in her name. The goddess’s might and influence come under suspicion in both texts. To be more precise, the authors are positing a dialectic between religio, the traditional honors paid to the gods by the state, and superstitio, the improper and excessive devotion to gods,24 with the cult of Isis belonging to the latter category. Before we allow Juvenal and Apuleius to be our authoritative voices of the past, however, we should attempt to get behind their rhetoric, which came to a head in the late republic.
In the often-repeated saga of the late republic, Julius Caesar, with an eye to taking Egypt for himself, formed a political and sexual alliance with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, in the year 49 BCE, then brought her to Rome in 46.25 Although he was appointed dictator, some members of the Senate resented his power and saw to his murder in 44. Later, in the 30s BCE, when young Octavian (later Augustus), Julius Caesar’s nephew, and Mark Antony attempted to consolidate Roman authority in the Mediterranean, Mark Antony traveled to Egypt and decided to go at it without Octavian by aligning himself with the now infamous Cleopatra. Coins minted during this period make explicit this strategy—with Mark Antony on one side and Cleopatra on the reverse, they aimed to unite their political power.26 Part of the visual campaign included images of Mark Antony in the guise of his protective deity, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, who had his origins in the East. Meanwhile, Octavian evoked Apollo, the god of reason and law. The ideological battle between the degenerate, effeminate “Eastern” general and the righteous, male, Roman citizen ensued, with Octavian launching visual and rhetorical attacks on Antony. In the end, as Paul Zanker puts it, “Antony was betrayed by his own image.”27
Cleopatra, too, had a central role in this saga. She was often depicted with the attributes of Isis, suggesting an affinity between the queen/pharaoh and the goddess.28 Being that Isis’s brother-husband was Osiris, the Romans must have easily connected Mark Antony, Cleopatra’s consort, with Osiris (a deity that had been assimilated with Bacchus, Mark Antony’s protective deity). Within this politically charged climate, anti-Egypt sentiment among the Senate swelled and would have lasting effects. Later commentaries, picking up on Octavian’s anti-Antony rhetoric, make clear where the battle lines between Rome and Egypt were to be drawn. Cassius Dio (50.5.2–3) remarks that Mark Antony “wore an oriental dagger in his belt, and dressed in a totally unRoman fashion…. He commissioned paintings and statues of himself with Cleopatra, he as Osiris or Dionysus, she as Selene or Isis.” And Plutarch claims that Cleopatra had disarmed Antony, meaning he had become demasculinized and de-Romanized (Lives IX, Demetrius and Antony, 3.3).
In 31 BCE, Octavian soundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium; Egypt was captured and annexed. Images of a captured Egypt adorned Octavian’s coins, such as a crocodile, symbol of the Nile and Egypt, on the reverse of one such issue; the crocodile is literally situated between the legend “aegypt[o] capta” (figure 7).29 Later, within Augustus’s property on the Palatine Hill in Rome, imagery, such as a priestess of Isis, as well as reliefs depicting Isis and other Egyptian motifs adorning his Temple of Apollo, spoke to an Egypt now controlled and contained through Roman conquest.30 It would be an understatement to say that images of Egypt were highly politicized at this time, with the goddess Isis functioning as a sign of Cleopatra and thus Egypt.31 Indeed, Octavian’s/Augustus’s campaign, which had to make Isis and Egypt “Other” in an attempt to legitimize his own ambitions, has been successful insofar as subsequent writers and modern scholars tend to accept his rhetoric at face value.
As to be expected, during this period of difficult relations with Egypt the ruling elite in Rome most ardently banned worship of Isis. But already, in 65 BCE, an altar dedicated to Isis on the Capitoline Hill, the revered home of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, along with five Isiac sanctuaries throughout the city, had been summarily destroyed. In reality, the Senate could hardly keep followers from attending to their goddess, as all five sanctuaries were soon rebuilt.32 Meanwhile, the Campus Martius in Rome would soon yield to Isis’s influence (figures 8 and 14). Isis’s large sanctuary, likely constructed under Augustus’s watch, makes clear that Egyptian cults had become quite fashionable, despite the emperor’s official opposition.33 Although we know relatively little about the Iseum Campense, except in plan, the sanctuary was divided into two sections.34 The southern part consisted of a semicircular courtyard, with a large water basin as its main feature. Although no longer extant, statues of Isis and her consorts, such as Serapis, probably resided in the niches.35 Fragments from this part of the building have been recovered, including granite columns, upon which priests of Isis face each other in pairs extending sacred objects, such as sistra, papyrus blossoms, and statues of young Horus/Harpocrates, son of Isis (figure 9).36 Carved during Domitian’s extensive renovations of the Iseum in the late first century, these columns probably surrounded the pool of water, and their decoration could have imbued the space with solemn ritual.
A rectangular courtyard connected the southern section of the sanctuary with the northern part. Here aegyptiaca, things related to Egypt, were displayed, including imports from Egypt itself, such as the bust of a pharaoh dating to the Middle Kingdom (Twelfth Dynasty, ca. 1842–1798 BCE), and two intact sphinxes (with one sphinx dating to the Eighteenth Dynasty and the other from the first century of Roman manufacture).37 Despite finds such as these, among many others,38 our knowledge of Rome’s large Iseum is still fragmented, leaving much to our imagination. And what we seem to desire is a monument that created an Egyptian ambience—a sign of Egypt captured and empire—rather than a space for ritual. In the words of Versluys, “Cult and culture must be distinguished from each other,” a statement that leads him to conclude that the Iseum on the Campus Martius “had no religious meaning.”39 This may be partly true, but it is not the whole story.
The Iseum, also known in antiquity as the Iseum-Serapeum, was located outside the sacred boundary of Rome, as was necessary for a foreign cult. As we know, Augustus’s imprint elsewhere within the Campus Martius was not insignificant (figures 10 and 14). Nearby stood Agrippa’s pantheon, dedicated to the living imperial family; Augustus’s sundial, complete with an imported Egyptian obelisk; and his family mausoleum, presumably outfitted with twin obelisks at its entrance.40 While the obelisks, as spolia, certainly reinforced the notion of Rome triumphant, the proximity of Augustan buildings to the Iseum-Serapeum on the Campus Martius also served to complete an image, albeit subtle, of a new imperial dynasty.41 Traditionally, the Egyptian pair Isis and Serapis (Osiris) were charged with the transmission of power among Egyptian royalty. In the context of Augustus’s Campus Martius, the couple, now inhabitants of the Roman empire, may well have symbolically overseen the newly devised dynastic ambitions of the first Roman imperial family.42 Although under Augustus the worship of Isis was officially prohibited, the goddess could be seen as instrumental in asserting his political power beyond the to-be-expected notion of an annexed Egypt here on Roman soil. Augustus did, after all, vow a temple to Isis and Serapis as a member of the second triumvirate (43 BCE), perhaps in “a symbolic gesture toward the deified Casear,” consort of Cleopatra.43 While the political situations of 43 BCE and 20–10 BCE could not have been more different, the fact that the Iseum Campense was constructed not only under Augustus’s reign but also within easy sight of his dynastic buildings suggests that even Augustus, despite all of the rhetoric, could not turn his back on Isis.44
Such visual and ideological associations would have their impacts. Later in the first century, the emperor Caligula more overtly appropriated ideas of Egyptian kingship as Rome’s own. Of the visual examples, two nearly identical granite sculptures at the Vatican are worth highlighting (figures 11 and 12). One depicts the Egyptian Queen Arsinoe II (from Heliopolis). The other is a direct imitation, but likely represents Drusilla (or Drusilla-Arsinoe), sister of Caligula and heir to Caligula’s imperium as stated in his will of 37 CE.45 The likeness between the two portraits is rife with connotations of dynastic succession, but that succession coming from Egypt to Rome (somewhat analogous to what we saw with Augustus’s building program on the Campus Martius). It would seem that the conventions for depicting the Roman imperial family were appropriated from Egyptian imagery as a way to assert dynastic legitimacy and succession from male emperor to female heir. Moreover, it was in Caligula’s reign (ca. 40), after Tiberius’s repressive measures, that Isis was recognized, albeit still in an unofficial capacity, in the Roman pantheon. He also had a direct hand in renovating the Iseum-Serapeum on the Campus Martius. Isis, it turns out, was in Rome to stay.46
Rome, in fact, needed Egypt during the early empire and well beyond. It is well documented that Italy could not produce enough grain to feed its people. Shiploads of Egyptian grain arrived at the Bay of Naples, and later came to Portus, en route to Rome itself. A coin minted in the late empire, during Caracalla’s reign in 215, reveals much of what I see as Rome’s ongoing conflicting attitudes toward Egypt. On the reverse, the emperor in military attire stands with a foot upon a subdued crocodile, symbol of Egypt, signifying his bloody retaliation against a recent Egyptian rebellion (figure 13). The iconography is familiar; he has vanquished a foreign enemy. Meanwhile Isis rushes forth, extending stalks of grain, as if seeking to make amends. But it is important to bear in mind that the emperor depended on Egypt for the fulfillment of his imperial duties, namely the distribution of grain. The propagandistic message thus seems straightforward enough. Caracalla has reclaimed Egypt and its much-needed grain.
The significance of this message cannot be overstated, for it appears, albeit in a different form, within a more private setting at the city of Ostia Antica, a city that was the conduit for the grain that traveled from Egypt to Rome. A shrine (Shrine of Silvanus, I.III.2) belonging to the Caseggiata dei Molini (I.III.3) was accessed by walking through the bakery. Although in a poor state today, the shrine depicted the emperor Augustus, now deified; Isis; Harpocrates (young Horus); Fortuna; Annona (goddess of the harvest and food supply); and Alexander the Great, among others. In this shrine, the bakers gave offerings to Egyptian and Roman gods, who in return were expected to ensure that Rome was fed and that the bakers prospered. An inscription within the shrine works in tandem with the images of gods; it gives thanks to Caracalla and prays for ten more years.47 The denizens of Ostia are grateful not only to the gods, but also to Caracalla for his direct involvement with the distribution of grain. Thus, whether minted on a coin for mass consumption or depicted within the relative privacy of a workshop shrine, the image of Isis plays a central role, as a sign of Egypt’s submission to Rome and of Rome’s dependence on Egypt.
Caracalla, a notoriously ruthless emperor, has also come down in history as one who celebrated Isiac rights and gave the goddess the same legal standing as traditional Roman deities (SHA 9.10). In fact, Isis’s cult seems to have reached its zenith with this emperor. Furthermore, Caracalla is credited for having enlarged and enhanced the Temple of Serapis, consort of Isis, on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, its significance being that while it was located inside the sacred boundary of the city, its scale rivaled that of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which was the center of state religion (figure 14).48 Indeed, Serapis experienced growing popularity under the Severan dynasty. Portraits of Septimius Severus, father of Caracalla, often portray the founder of the Severan dynasty in the guise of Serapis.49 This deity could ensure prosperity, as his attributes often include the stalk of poppy and the modius, a vessel used for measuring grain, atop his head. Or he could guarantee military success, as depicted on coins; Caracalla is shown in military garb on the obverse, with an image of Serapis on the reverse.50 Importantly, the god holds a scepter, a symbol of triumphant authority usually reserved for Jupiter. Serapis was thus often assimilated with Jupiter and could be invoked to convey ideals of supreme authority for emperors. Caracalla not only adopts Serapis as a patron deity of sorts, but he also does so in an almost willful defiance of Roman tradition. He murdered his own brother, Geta, and is reputed to have dedicated the sword with which his brother had been assassinated to Serapis at his sanctuary in Alexandria.51 Moreover, an Alexandrian inscription identifies him as a philoserapis (beloved of Serapis), because of his devotion to the cult.52 Back in Rome, Caracalla’s dedicatory inscription from the Serapeum on the Quirinal affirms his connection to the Egyptian gods.53 Caracalla, known best as an extreme military leader and enthusiastic follower of Egyptian gods, is not one of history’s “good emperors.”
Caracalla is not alone. As Versluys points out, Caligula, Nero, and Commodus are all notorious emperors and traditionally “regarded as personally involved” with Isis and Egyptian cults.54 Moreover, their connections to the Egyptian gods approach superstitio; for example, brief mention by ancient writers of Caligula’s nocturnal performance set in the underworld and performed by Egyptians and Ethopians and the description of a gold statue of Commodus as Horus displayed between a bull, symbol of Osiris, and a cow, symbol of Isis, have been fodder for historians.55 Taken together, it seems that the extreme behaviors of these emperors and their presumed devotion to Egyptian gods cast these “bad” emperors as un-Roman. Versluys is on the mark when he posits that, in the case of Nero, the emperor was “earmarked as a follower of Isis because of his un-Roman behaviour.”56
Roman history’s “bad” emperors were not the only ones to have connections with Isis, however. In the examples that follow, the “good” emperors, too, have a stake in Isis, but with presumably different effects and motives. Coins issued under Septimius Severus depict Julia Domna, the empress and mother of Caracalla, on the obverse, with Isis nursing Horus on the reverse (her foot rests on a ship’s prow, and a rudder is shown to her right; figure 15). The legend surrounding Isis and Horus reads “saeculi felicitas,” as a means to suggest that the joy of the times persists through dynastic succession.57 Importantly, this message is conveyed through Egyptian, rather than Roman, succession stories, a situation that warrants perhaps more attention than it has had in scholarship (indeed, as we saw, Caligula also employed Egyptian imagery to suggest dynastic succession). In a different vein, the emperor Hadrian adorned his villa at Tivoli with evocations of Egypt. His famous canopus was decorated with sculptures from across the empire, including a crocodile that functioned as a fountain and a statue of the river god Nile reclining with a sphinx under his left arm. In addition, there were the many other Egyptian and Egyptianizing sculptures on display at the villa.58 Among the sculptures recovered are those of his famed lover, Antinoos, in the guise of Osiris; Antinoos died tragically in the Nile in 139, and his tomb is allegedly on the villa’s property.59 This second-century emperor is thus viewed as having an interest in Egypt that was “personal,” perhaps even sentimental, in nature.60 And the “good” emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, upon return from the Judaean war in the late first century, spent the night in Rome’s Iseum Campense on the eve of their triumph. They are alleged to have done so for purely political, rather than religious, reasons.61 Scholars seem a trifle hard pressed to explain Isis’s connection to the good emperors, because any hint of devotion to or ritualistic interest in Isis among the “good” emperors begins to tread into highly charged territory, that is, toward the behavior and superstitio of the “bad” emperors.62 How did we get to this point?
An obvious answer is found in Augustus’s pre- and post-Actium rhetoric, which posited an us-versus-them relationship between Rome and Egypt. This rhetoric was, however, a thinly disguised attempt to conceal Rome’s true dependence on Egypt and, just as important, its willingness to embrace Egypt and its gods. In fact, it could be said that polytheism was in continuous search for new gods to be assimilated with gods of the state religion.63 Moreover, Augustus is shown throughout Egypt in the guise of a pharaoh and making offerings to Egyptian gods (figure 16). In Diana Kleiner’s words, representations of Augustus “turned up in Egypt in the most extraordinary places.”64 Here Kleiner refers to the sanctuary at Philae, which portrays Augustus with gift in hand for the infant Horus; she posits that images of Augustus as pharaoh and making sacrifices to Egyptian gods in Egypt promote the emperor’s assertion of supreme power.65 While this argument certainly has validity—when in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do—it is also important to bear in mind that Augustus is shown making offerings to Egyptian gods, and he built temples to them. I suggest that while Egypt and its symbols of political and religious authority were surely integral in promoting newly won Roman authority on Egyptian soil, we also should not forget the potency of Egyptian symbols used in asserting Roman authority found on Roman turf (such as his obelisks in Rome).66 Moreover, our insistence on seeing Isis and Egyptian gods primarily in terms of political maneuvering on the part of the “good” emperors conceals a far more complex reality concerning Isis’s acceptance into Roman religion and the possibility that the “good” emperors sought to secure the goddess’s favor.
Isis: Ritual and Religiosity
Another explanation for the current trend of politicizing Isis—symbol of Egypt—among the “good” emperors is linked to the history of Roman religion and what could be construed as reluctance among scholars in confronting religiosity in a Roman context (more on this later). Moreover, Isis is often portrayed as the people’s goddess.67 The most often cited reason for the enthusiastic embrace of Isis among Romans focuses on her primary role as a mother figure; Isis was identified as the giver of life (she “reconstituted her husband [-brother Osiris] and magically restored him back to life”).68 The goddess’s ability to regenerate life provided followers with a hope for life after death or eternal life, which was becoming increasingly attractive to Romans; indeed, the Dionysiac mysteries and Platonism, both of which promoted such ideals, were already much in vogue.69 Isis was also invoked as a protective deity.70 In this respect, she shares affinities with the Roman goddess Ceres, also a mother, protectress, and giver of life. The syncretic image of Isis-Ceres often displays attributes of Isis, such as a lotus flower atop her head, and of Ceres, such as grain held in one of her hands.71 But, as Molly Swetnam-Burland notes, so absorbed was Isis within the Roman pantheon, it is difficult—if not impossible—to identify a “canonical” type or representation of Isis, because she was worshipped in so many guises (such as Isis-Ceres, Isis-Fortuna, and Isis-Venus).72 Herein lies the paradox. Isis was an Egyptian goddess who was often construed as un-Roman (by the elite) and who could take on a number of different roles while being easily assimilated within Roman visual and ideological landscapes.
I now take us back to Pompeii, where I began this article. The visual evidence of Pompeians’ embrace of Egypt and Isis appears in a variety of places throughout the city and provides us with a window that Rome cannot provide—namely, images drawn from the domestic sphere and workshops. Isis’s popularity among Pompeians is most evident as the syncretic deity Isis-Fortuna, a type that prevails within the city and through whom individuals could not only hope for good fortune via the Roman deity Fortuna, but also fortify that hope by assimilating her qualities with those of Isis (figure 17).73 The assimilation of Isis-Fortuna must have been a particularly attractive combination for Pompeians. Given their dependence on the sea for trade and commerce, it could be argued that Isis-Fortuna became an important deity who watched over and protected business interests in addition to personal, familial concerns.74
Painted or sculpted images of Isis and her entourage appear throughout Pompeii. The interpretation of these types of images has varied significantly in the past few decades. At one point, scholars were eager to identify almost any image of Isis and her entourage as a sign of cultic activity, no matter what the context.75 Indeed, the city’s Iseum attests to a cultic following. More recently, in contrast, the tendency has been to downplay Isis’s role in Roman ritual so that the goddess functions either as an index of Roman Egyptomania (the fact that many images of the goddess and her consorts are found in gardens, embedded in wall decorations, and adorning small-scale objects is suggestive that these objects may have indeed been part and parcel of Pompeian fascination with the region of the Nile in the aftermath of Rome’s conquest of Egypt), or as a pawn in the city’s politics (the argument is that the Popidius family, who rebuilt Pompeii’s Temple of Isis, attempted to gain social standing with this act of civic benefaction).76
Part of the problem with interpretation is that the material record is not always consistent. If we look to Pompeii’s funerary realm, where we would expect to find devotees of Isis who identify with her cult because of the goddess’s promise of life after death, or individuals commemorated as Isiac priests or priestesses, we are too easily disappointed. In part this disappointment arises because of the ample evidence from the capital that we do possess. Two funerary monuments, from Rome and contemporary with Pompeian Isiac imagery, can serve as examples. A funerary relief belonging to the Rabirii and Usia Prima dates to the late first century BCE and belonged to a tomb along the via Appia. It shows Usia Prima at right as a follower of Isis. Specifically, she is identified both visually, with a sistrum carved above her right shoulder, and below verbally as an Isiac priestess (sac[erdos] Isidis).77 Likewise, a first-century funerary cippus from the via Ostiense, dedicated to Cantinea Procla, shows the deceased in her religious role as a priestess of Isis. She wears the headdress of Isis, with two stalks of wheat, and holds a vessel in her left hand (her right hand may have held a sistrum, although it is damaged). The sacred Isiac baskets with serpents appear on the sides of the altar.78 As the evidence from the funerary realm reveals, Rome was home to devotees and priests of Isis who identified themselves as such for perpetuity. To my knowledge, no such imagery has resurfaced from the necropoleis at Pompeii, a situation that is perplexing given the presence of the Iseum and the profusion of Isiac imagery within the city itself.
Although Isis and her entourage appear in a wide variety of contexts throughout Pompeii, the images are extremely difficult to discuss exclusively in terms of ritual and worship.79 To be sure, according to Shelley Hales, a small picture of an Isiac priest depicted on a wall at the House of Octavius Quartio (II.2.2) was placed within a domestic iconography that might have allowed the “homeowners to express the full variety of responses to concepts of religion circulating at the time,” not to mention exemplifying the appeal of things Egyptian among Pompeians.80 Images of Isis permeated many aspects of life in Pompeii—both public and private—and to fix their meanings may prove impossible, beyond noting the broad appeal of things Egyptian, including Isis herself.
We can, however, be a bit more precise. As I have noted elsewhere, Isis’s presence within lararia, or domestic shrines, is suggestive of Isiac worship, given its ritual-specific context.81 For example, the owners of the House of the Gilded Cupids (VI.16.7, 38) at Pompeii commissioned a shrine to Isis in the southeast corner of the peristyle (figure 18). It features Isis, Anubis, Serapis, and the young Horus on one wall, and Isiac symbols on the other. A small alabaster statue of Horus was found in this shrine and could have been a focus of veneration.82 This domus is home to another lararium, also within its peristyle but across the way, dedicated to the Roman Capitoline Triad—Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva—thus complementing the shrine featuring Egyptian gods.83 Hales has suggested that the juxtaposition of these shrines reveals Romans’ insatiable desire for the foreign and potentially transgressive.84 In that case, the Isiac shrine would project a fascination with and desire for things Egyptian, but Egypt would be contained within the context of Roman rituals as asserted by the appearance of the Capitoline Triad. I submit that we should also allow for an interpretation that acknowledges a family’s desire to curry Isis’s favor, whether as initiates of the cult or otherwise, even though this space is usually discussed in terms of the iconography of the wall painting and its connections with Egyptomania within Pompeii.85 It is important to bear in mind that in this area numerous items were discovered, including the aforementioned alabaster statue of Horus, perhaps of Egyptian manufacture;86 a now-lost marble statue of Fortuna enthroned; two bronze plates; two amphorae; and an oil lamp adorned with three Egyptian deities (Harpocrates, Isis, and perhaps Anubis), all suggestive of active cultic ritual.87 That Fortuna would be included with Isiac imagery is not surprising, given that at Pompeii, the syncretic deity Isis-Fortuna is found throughout the city.88 Moreover, two recessed spaces in the east wall (and the impression of boards in each) indicate that shelves were incorporated into this ritual space for depositing offerings.89 Below are painted two snakes approaching an altar, upon which an egg and other offerings are depicted. The hole in the center of the painted altar held another small shelf, intended for the presentation of actual offerings, alongside those already depicted.90 The fact that we cannot know if the house’s owners were initiates in the cult hardly matters. In other words, we may have to consider that some of our evidence points to religious ritual and activity that extends to individuals beyond a select group of initiates, which is not to return to the days in which nearly every image of Isis and/or her entourage suggests cultic activity. Rather, I seek a middle ground. And here is where I depart from some recent scholarship on the archaeology of ritual and religion.91
If we consider broadly the types of material coming from Pompeii and Rome as outlined thus far, we can observe the following. At Pompeii we are confronted with images of Isis appearing in a variety of domestic and public contexts, suggestive of an Egyptomania to be sure, and within shrines, in addition to a small temple dedicated to the goddess that clearly points to ritual. Oddly, nothing seems to survive from Pompeii’s funerary realm that links the deceased to Isiac worship. In Rome itself we have a sprawling sanctuary dedicated to Isis and Serapis on the Campus Martius; funerary monuments attesting to devotion to and priesthoods of Isis; and a smattering of images from the domestic and political realms, including the House of Augustus on the Palatine and monuments on the Campus Martius. What can this material record tell us about the place of Isis in Roman religion, and should we attempt to separate Isiac worship from Roman Egyptomania and politics? What is at stake in making the latter query?
I would like to point to an interesting trend that has taken shape in the study of Roman ritual and religion. Ritual sparks the imagination.92 Perhaps in reaction to some overreaching and overimagining of religious rites, scholars now tend to rationalize religion by emphasizing the extent to which Roman religion and ritual reinforce power relations—for example, relationships between emperors and citizens, men and women, slave owners and slaves, Rome and the periphery, and so forth.93 In this regard, religion and politics cannot be separated from each other; these two institutions, the religious and the sociopolitical, are inextricably linked in ancient Roman thought. I have no intention of arguing to the contrary. Indeed, the Iseum at Pompeii was a space for ritual and political posturing. Katja Lembke argues the same for the Temple of Isis-Serapis on the Campus Martius in Rome.
When modern constructs of ancient religion are taken to an extreme, however, notions of religiosity, and even belief, have less and less space in discourse on Roman religion.94 In this regard, I take us back to Versluys’s comment, namely that the Iseum in Rome had “no religious concept.” He adds, “It is the exotic character of an object [displayed in the Iseum] rather than its religious meaning, which determines its attractiveness in the first place.”95 But how can we find a religious concept and meaning, let alone belief among some individuals, if not in a sanctuary dedicated to a goddess that attended to individual needs rather than to the exclusive needs of the state, that is, a goddess that Romans could invoke by choice?
Part of the problem that we confront has to do with categories, both ancient and modern. As the cult of Isis has been categorized as a mystery religion, we tend to present this deity as the epistemological Other, which is part and parcel of our own Egyptomania. We have little knowledge or grasp of the rites of Isis, so we explain them away by either trivializing them—our indebtedness to Juvenal and Apuleius, among others—or rationalizing the cultic following of Isis though our own institutional structures. It would seem that in today’s world, one in which (Western) governments have become fearful of the religious beliefs of the (Eastern) Other, historians have made attempts to explain Roman worship of Isis, by Other-izing her so that she could be manipulated to fulfill ancient political agendas, meet the hedonistic needs of the so-called bad emperors, speak to the marginalized, or be an object of exotic display. Such a paradigm, which posits Isis as the Other, relegates to the margins any understanding of how religiosity, or even belief, no matter how strong or tentative, might have been part of Romans’ everyday encounters with Isis, including the active participation in or passive observation of ritual.
It would seem that the time has come to problematize our dependence on the political meanings of Isis—a strategy that has tacitly permitted us to dismiss the places of Isis in Roman religion and ritual and thus silences the question: What is religious about Roman Isis? Perhaps we might do well to consider Isis as a Roman deity, not just for demonstrative cultic members, but as one of many gods that individuals—whether emperor, freed slave, wealthy Roman, ordinary citizen, and so forth—could invoke, just as with any other Roman deity. Moreover, if at the heart of religion, broadly defined, and what we want to call the religious, is a set of beliefs and ritual action,96 then a critical examination of the visual and material record can assist us in finding traces of ritual and hence religious activity. In the case of Isiac worship, these ritual actions can occur at the very least at Isea and shrines, in both public and private realms. It is, however, important to bear in mind that ritual action can be difficult to identify. As Christopher Smith observes, “The material traces that ritual leaves are often the indirect representation of original actions, since a great deal of religious behaviour leaves no physical record.”97 What we see on the ground, therefore, remains only a partial—and limited—picture.
With respect to Isis, we do possess evidence that speaks directly to religiosity, and we should not lose sight of this evidence even as we are caught up in our own version of Egyptomania. Isis’s sanctuary on the Campus Martius and that of her consort on the Quirinal rivaled, in scale alone, most temples dedicated to Roman gods (see figure 14). Furthermore, the Campus Martius was home to potent references to Egypt and religion, namely the highly visible and easily recognizable obelisks.98 The Iseum at Pompeii was the first and only temple to have been rebuilt in the city after the earthquake of 62 CE. These sanctuaries are first and foremost places for ritual activity in honor of the gods (although other activities took place in sanctuaries to be sure, as in other Roman temples).99 The same could be said for shrines with images of Isis within domestic, commercial, and more public contexts. Put another way, these spaces enable ritual practice and thus serve as indexes of religiosity and agency, despite recent attempts to dilute these spaces’ ritualistic and religious import. I hasten to add, however, that we should not talk about Isis exclusively in terms of religion and religiosity. Rather, Isis, like most Roman gods, could move in and out of Romans’ lives, whether in the political, social, cultural, and/or religious realms. And this is precisely where Isis’s strengths lie. At once a foreign deity, Isis was decisively central in shaping ideals of Roman-ness, while meeting individuals’ varied religious needs and desires.
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(1) This ideas in this essay were developed for the Inaugural Meeting for the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions (2009, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome), which had the theme “What’s Religious about Ancient Mediterranean Religions?”
(3) Much fascinating work has been done on Isis in the past decade. For an excellent collection of essays and bibliography, see Bricault and Versluys (2014). See Swetnam-Burland (2015) for a compelling study of Rome’s connections to Egypt more generally as told through the material remains and literary record. For a collection of inscriptions (and visual material) related to the cult of Isis throughout the Roman world, see Bricault (2005).
(5) Many parts and fragments of Roman Isea survive, but the Temple of Isis at Pompeii is the most complete. On Roman Isea, see essays in Arslan (1997); de Caro (2006); and Lembke (1994). See also Lollio Barberi, Parola, and Toti (1995); and Roullet (1972).
(6) CIL 10.846. The inscription reads: Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, with his own money rebuilt from the foundation the Temple of Isis collapsed from the earthquake. For his munificence, the decurions accepted him to their order without further obligation, although he was only six years old. For a synopsis of the history of the excavations and bibliography, see de Caro (1992b, 3–21, esp. 3–7).
Later in 1791, but before Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, Mozart produced Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), an opera with strong Masonic connections that takes place in Egypt. Given the opera’s theme of initiation, Isis and Osiris play a central role. Interestingly, when it was first performed in Paris in 1801, it was with the title Les Mystères d’Isis. On this opera, and Mozart’s trip to the Bay of Naples as a possible source of inspiration, see Versluys (2002, 17–18, esp. n53).
(10) Much of what follows on the Temple of Isis in Pompeii is derived from Petersen (2006, 17–56). See also Brenk (2007a, 346–370); dal Maso (2013); Moormann (2007); and Swetnam-Burland (2015, 105–141).
(12) MNN inv. 976; CIL 10.849; de Caro (1992a, no. 3.2). Not rendered in a traditional Egyptian style, Isis appears Hellenized, depicted in an archaic Greek manner, although the sculpture itself dates to the first century.
(16) The cult of Isis traveled between Alexandria (Egypt), via Delos, and Italy’s principal harbor near Naples (Puteoli) as early as the second century BCE. Not surprisingly, Egyptian cults appeared first in Campania and eventually found their way north to Rome itself. See Coarelli (1984); Malaise (1984, 1972a); Meyboom, (1995, 85); Tran Tam Tinh (1964, 25–29); Turcan (1996, 81–85); and Witt (1971, 70–88).
(17) Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book 11 (also known as The Golden Ass); Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride.
(19) This account of Isiac worship in Italy comes primarily from Tran Tam Tinh (1964, 9–25). The basic bibliography includes Arslan (1997); Beard, North, and Price (1998, esp. ch. 6); de Vos (1980); Heyob (1975); Malaise (1972b); Merkelbach (1995); Meyboom (1995); Takács (1995); Tran Tam Tinh (1972); Witt (1971); and more recently, Versluys (2002) and essays in Bricault, Versluys, and Meyboom (2007).
(30) For the fresco of the Isiac priestess: MNN inv. 9303 (as seen and illustrated in Arslan [1997, 408]). Admittedly, this fresco fragment comes from the so-called House of Livia on the Palatine, but should be considered as part of Augustus’s palatial complex there. For the relief of Isis from the Temple of Apollo: Rome, Museo Palatino, inv. 379054 (as seen and illustrated in Tomei [1997, 58–59]).
(33) On the date of the Iseum Campense and its renovations, see Lembke (1994, 65–73); Versluys (2002, 12 and 353–355), for a date of 20–10 BCE and relevant chronology. For Octavian’s/Augustus’s prohibitions of Egyptian sacra within the pomerium, see Takács (1995, 75–80); and Orlin (2008) for a fuller study.
(35) Serapis appears in the Greco-Egyptian pantheon at a relatively late date, the fourth century BCE, but becomes more visible from the third century BCE onward. See especially Merkelbach (1995); Stambaugh (1972); and Takács (1995).
(43) Tackás (1995, 69–70).
(45) See Grenier (1989b, 20–33) for a more thorough discussion of this pair of statues and Caligula’s revival of pharaonic traditions. Cf. Swetnam-Burland (2015, 50–53). On Drusilla as heir, see Wood (1995).
(46) A sudden change apparently occurred with the emperor Caligula, who rebuilt the Iseum on the Campus Martius and decorated his palace with Isiac symbols. With Caligula, Isiac worship was practiced openly even among the upper orders of Roman society (i.e., the worship of Isis was not prohibited). For thorough discussions of early imperial responses to the cult of Isis, see Heyob (1975, 21–30); Takács (1995, 71–129); and Versluys (2002, 387–443).
(47) “Calpurnius, night-watchman from the centuria of the Ostiensis, from the seventh (or sixth) cohors, during the reign of Caracalla, in the year of consuls Laetus and Cerialis, X,” with the X being a vota decennalia. This translation and the discussion are taken from Bakker (1994, 159–160). For a reconstruction of the shrine’s imagery, see Bakker (1994, 146 fig. 19).
(61) Versluys (2002, 24); and Takács (1995, 94–98); cf. Vittozzi (2014). See also Bülow Clausen (2012) for a sensitive study of the statuary from the sanctuary of Isis at Beneventum and its relationship to the religious-political ideology of the Flavian emperors.
(65) Kleiner (2005, 189–199). See also Capponi (2005) and Swetnam-Burland (2010) for further discussions of the historical context surrounding the appearance of Augustus in temples of Egypt, namely the border skirmishes in Egypt and Ethiopia that arose after the Battle of Actium.
(68) Turcan (1996, 79). For a more in-depth discussion of Isis as a protectress and patron of the family, see Heyob (1975, 37–52); Tran Tam Tinh (1964, 103–109); Turcan (1996, 75–129); and Witt (1971, 25–35 and 130–140).
(73) According to the catalog in Tran Tam Tinh (1964), nineteen images of Isis and twenty-six of Isis-Fortuna survive at Pompeii. See Tran Tam Tinh (1964, 78–81); LIMC, v. 5: Isis-Fortuna, nos. 303–318. Also consult Coarelli (1994). Interestingly, no images of Isis-Fortuna have been recovered from Pompeii’s Iseum.
(74) For Isis as protectress of navigation and the port (Isis Pelagia), see Tran Tam Tinh (1964, 98–99 and n3). See also Turcan (1996, 114–121) and Orr (1978, 1580) for a discussion of Fortuna as protectress of the sea. Orr writes: “The luck with which farmers hoped for their crops is altered in Pompeii to the luck of commerce and trade. The rudder comments on the dangers of shipping and the vagaries of Mediterranean trade in the early Empire. Her conflation with the Egyptian Isis also underscores this point.”
(76) For example, Versluys (2002). For attempts to wrestle with this problem and terminology, see various essays in Arslan (1997); essays in de Caro (2006); Malaise (2007); and Petersen (2006, 17–56).
(85) On the problems of distinguishing Egyptian motifs as evidence of cultic activity or as symptomatic of Roman Egyptomania, see Bragantini (2006); Lipka (2006, 334–339); Petersen (2006, 17–56); Swetnam-Burland (2007); Versluys (2002); and Vout (2003).
(91) For example, Colin Renfrew, in a different historical context, carefully argues that “the discovery of evidence of ritual behavior in the archaeological record is thus not necessarily to be taken as indicative of cult practice” (2007, 120). While his argument—that the practice of religion typically involves ritual, but the converse is not necessarily true—has some validity, it can be taken to an extreme, as in recent discussions of Isis.
(94) Telling is James Rives’s recent assessment that “it is fair to conclude that the centre of Roman religion lay in ritual, not in belief: it was what people did that was important, not what they thought” (2000, 251). Cf. Bendlin (2001) for a critical review of Beard, North, and Price (1998).
(98) The inscription on the base of the obelisk of Augustus’s so-called horologium is telling: “The Emperor Caesar, son of a god, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Imperator for the twelfth time, in his eleventh consulship, with tribunician power for the fourteenth time, gave [this] gift to the sun when Egypt had been made subject to the Roman people (IMP. CAESAR DIVI F. / AUGUSTUS / PONTIFEX MAXIMUS / IMP. XII COS. XI TRIB. POT. XIV / AEGYPTO IN POTESTATEM / POPULI ROMANI REDACTA / SOLI DONUM DEDIT).” CIL 6.702, as translated in Davies (2000, 76). A delicious ambiguity emerges, as the sun god to whom the obelisk is dedicated could be Apollo, Augustus’s protective deity, or Re, the Egyptian god of the sun. See also Swetnam-Burland (2010) for a more detailed study of the obelisk.
(99) Roman temples were not merely for ritual; rather, they were embedded within the fabric of everyday life by functioning as venues for political gatherings, economic exchanges, and social meetings. Temples were thus highly frequented spaces throughout the course of a single day. See Stambaugh (1978). For a lively account of the functions of temples at Pompeii, see Hopkins (2001, 7–45).