The introduction of the worship of Isis in Rome

von: Valentino Gasparini
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Isiacology is a young discipline: basically born in the mid XIX century (with Reichel’s De Isidis apud Romanos cultu, 1849), it is now just over 150 years of age. Despite its relative youth, it has been very productive: from 1940 to the present day we can count almost 7.000 publications concerning, more or less directly, the Egyptian cults. On average, one publication every three days!

This, first of all, means that it is impossible for anyone to master the entire bibliography relating to the diffusion of Isis worship outside Egypt. Secondly, such an open and intense scientific debate is due also thanks to the paucity of the material at our disposal (as regards Republican Rome we do not possess more than four inscriptions and a dozen important literary sources): in particular we suffer from the irretrievable loss of the Livian 46th-142nd books, which would have informed us about the events following 167 B.C. Finally, this is a complex phenomenon, polyhedral in all its public and private features, and diluted in time. Isis’ arrival in Rome was not a punctual event that can be formalized as taking place at a precise date, as in the case of some Mid-Republican evocationes. It was a long and tormented process, exactly as in Delos where the Isiac cult was introduced privately at the end of the IV century B.C., received monumental forms one century later, and was finally officialized around 180 B.C. In Rome, the absence of an explicit political or religious motivating factor and the scarcity of the documentation have often led the critics to go as far as denying the introduction of Isis worship in the Republican Period.

Moreover, the exotic nature of the Egyptian cults clashed with the traditional paganism of the Republican Rome only for the modern mentality. In reality, even the most conservative elements of Roman society criticized sometimes only the extreme aspects of the so-called “Eastern Religions” (for instance the idolatry of zoomorphic divinities). For the rest, these cults were greeted precociously and enthusiastically.

In Italy, Isis and Serapis presumably enjoyed a public cult from around 200 B.C. along the eastern coast of Sicily: ruins of a Serapeum (whose presence was already suggested by an inscription, mentioning the temple and found in 1861) have been excavated under the church of San Pancrazio in Tauromenium. The presence of another Serapeum is attested by Cicero during the beginning of the I century B.C., in Syracusae.

From around 140-130 B.C. sanctuaries are widespread in many cities of Campania and Lazio. A Serapeum in Puteoli is attested in the so-called Lex parieti faciendo, in 105 B.C. A contemporary structure is that of the Iseum in Pompeii, whose original chronology has recently been questioned and a date in the Augustan Period proposed, although the arguments for this are not very convincing. Two Republican inscriptions found in Pompeii unfortunately are not helpful in this case, because it is not certain that the first (found outside Porta di Nola and mentioning some theoi eueilatoi) relates to the Egyptian gods, and in the case of the second, the teophoric name Serapio of Lucius Ceius Lucii libertus argentarius is not proof of the presence of a public cult. Two other inscriptions of the end of the II century B.C. found in the Isiac temples of Delos and Philae demonstrate the contemporary presence there of people coming from Neapolis and Minturnae. This seems to suggest the presence of similar Egyptian sanctuaries even in their homeland. In Neapolis this suggestion in particular is corroborated by another, although later, epigraphic source (a dedication to Isis dated to A.D. 15-30); in Minturnae by the presence of the ancient Italic temple of Marica, which was probably transformed in the Roman Period into a temple to Isis. A Republican Isiac sanctuary has been found in Cumae, though we are not sure about its public nature, and Praeneste, though its identification today is already controversial. We can presume the presence of the goddess in Ostia from the end of the II century B.C., while we can underline some difficulties in the interpretation of an Isiac inscription found on the Acropolis of Tusculum and now unfortunately lost. We can find very similar problems (linguistic and topographical) in a graffito on a Hellenistic cup of the III century B.C., found near Nursia, in Sabina, present-day Umbria, which is generally considered to be the oldest Isiac inscription found in Italy. On the other hand, it is perhaps possible to identify as Egyptian sanctuaries both the so-called “Palestra” in Herculaneum and the structures on the Acropolis of Populonia, in Etruria.

In conclusion, this brief report shows that, with the exception of the dubious case of Populonia and the Sicilian episode, there is no definite evidence for the presence of Isis in the Republican Period outside Regio I, between Rome and Pompeii.

This is the historical context. Now, let us analyze the case of Rome. The authorship attributed to Ennius of a passage in Cicero mentioning some Isiaci coniectores, has been much questioned and furthermore does not give any evidence for the presence of Isis in Rome in the III or II century B.C. Isis’ arrival in Rome probably took place in the ’40s or ’30s of the II century B.C., though in this phase she was worshipped only privately. Clearly one must be cautious when examining the meaning of the teophoric onomastics, however, the spread of Isiac names in Rome in this period is significant, for example the nickname Serapio assumed by the two Cornelii Scipiones Nasicae, father and son, consules respectively in 138 and 111 B.C. Apart from this, practically we do not know anything of this period.

Half a century had to pass for Isiac worship in order to strengthen and receive monumental sanctuaries, even though the cult was still private.

This is the case of the Iseum Metellinum, quoted in a passage of the Historia Augusta, that has been very convincingly identified by Mariette de Vos with some structures found on the Oppius, near the modern piazza Iside and via Muratori, between the ancient via Labicana and via Merulana. The ruins, excavated by Lanciani, consist of a platform, 58 x 76 meters wide, delimited by a granite column porch. Along its axis is a pool measuring 7 by over 37 meters. The sanctuary towards the south rests on vaulted structures, preserved for 112 m and already visible along via Villari. In the area many isiaca have been brought to the light: statues, mosaics, reliefs and frescos. The temple was probably built by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, between 71 and 64 B.C., and restored firstly in the Augustan Period and then in the Flavian one. Significantly regio III, which the building must have belonged to, was called (we know this from the Regionary Catalogues and some inscriptions) Isis et Serapis, and its inhabitants had to be called Isiaci, as happened in Pompeii. The denomination is prior to the construction of the Amphitheatrum Flavium, since otherwise the importance of the latter would have probably conditioned the name of the quarter. Recently it has been suggested that the late name of the Amphitheatre (Colosseum-Colisaeum) does not reflect the memory of the Neronian Colossus, but the location of the building ad collem Isaeum: the proposal does not seem very convincing, as the Roman hills (apart from the Quirinal and the Viminal) were not called at that time colles but montes.

The Iseum Metellinum was not the first Isiac sanctuary in Rome. The first was that of the Iseum Capitolinum. Apuleius’ Metamorfoses end with the description of the admission of the protagonist (Lucius, alias Apuleius himself) in the Isiac sacerdotal vetustissimum collegium pastophorum, instituted in the Sillan Age. This means that the college and the temple (although private) that had to host it were founded approximately in the second decade of the I century B.C. We could have doubted this, if not for the existence of three inscriptions, datable between 90 and 60 B.C., which confirm epigraphically the existence of the college (in this case of the melanephori) and of the cult of Isis Capitolina. It is extremely revealing that the first Egyptian temple in Rome was founded in the 180’s B.C. Someone, considering the precocity of the Sicilian episode, has hypothesized that the cult was imported from Sicily into continental Italy. But this is improbable, because the spread of the worship of Isis in Sicily took place after the Roman conquest of the island (and in particular after its reorganization by M. Valerius Levinus in 210-207 B.C.). So we believe, along with the traditional view of the critics, that Isiac worship, through the mediation of Delos (after the destruction of Corinth indisputably the most important market of goods and slaves in the Mediterranean) reached Italy and the Campania, and especially Pozzuoli (the most important italic port until the II century A.D.), which Lucilius just calls ‘Delos minor’. In this context it is interesting to note that the first Iseum in Rome (which had to host not only Isis but also Serapis, Harpocrate and Anubis) was constructed in the same years that saw, in the Capital, the return of the large masses of Italic negotiatores present in Delos, destroyed in 88 B.C. Even more interesting is the fact that the cult practiced in the temple on the Capitolium bears the marks of this particular commercial vocation which was a ‘speciality’ of Delos, particularly linked to the slave trade. In fact the epithet Capitolina is very rare and has been linked to the collegium Capitolinorum, and so to the slave market of the ludi Capitolini. Besides, the Isiac cult does not generally exclude the active participation of people in a servile condition (we can note, for example, the dedication to Isis of the sodalicium vernarum in Valentia) and to a close relationship with the slave traders (who found in the Isiac festivals an occasion for prolific sales, as remembered by Pausanias when discussing the sanctuary of Isis near Titorea in Focis). The massive involvement of slaves in the Isiac cult at the end of the Republican and the beginning of the Imperial Period can easily be proved by the fact that in A.D. 19 the Emperor Tiberius exiled in Sardinia 4.000 liberti, accused of cultivating Egyptian and Judaic worships. Returning to the case of Rome, the fact that the ’80s of the I century B.C. were a significant period for the worship of Isis is finally emphasized because it is precisely in these years that Isiac symbols begin to be found as control marks on the coins of L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi (90 B.C.), C. Vibius Pansa (90-83 B.C.), L. Iulius Bursio (85 B.C.) e L. Papius (80 B.C.), even if this process is more a cultural fact than a religious one. It is probable that some sources relating to the ’70s and ’60s of the I century B.C. (Cicero, Varro and Catullus) refer to the Capitoline temple.

Suddenly, from 58 B.C., the Capitoline Egyptian temple began to be subjected to a series of repressive measures that led, in ten years, to its total destruction. Despite popular pressure, the consules of that year, Gabinius and Piso, did not sacrifice to the Egyptian Gods, but on the contrary opted for the destruction of their altars (arae). Five years later, in 53 B.C., the Senatus ordered the destruction of the temples (naoi) of the Egyptian Gods (whose the private building is significantly remembered). But the order was probably not fulfilled and three years later Lucius Aemilius Paulus consul had to personally put his hands to the axe. The support that the Isiac worship constantly received from the common people and the loathing shown by the Senatorial class do not mean that the cult was widespread and embedded only in the lowest classes of Roman society, as is explained by the parallel success among the aristocratic exponents (as, for example, the Cornelii Scipiones Nasicae or Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius). They only show that the phenomenon was politicized (in connection with the conflict between the populares and the optimates) and that around it extra-religious mechanisms were concentrated. However finally, in 48 B.C., during a sacrifice to Isis on the Capitolium, a swarm of bees settled near the sanctuary of Hercules and because of this bad omen the diviners decided to destroy the entire sacred enclosure (temenismata) of Isis and Serapis. From this time onwards we do not have any more news regarding the Iseum Capitolinum: there is no reference to the latter in Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ account concerning how on December 19th, A.D. the future Emperor Domitianus avoided Vitellians’ attack on the Capitolium dressing up as an Isiac priest and mingling with the crowd of sacrificuli variae superstitionis. If the Capitoline cult was not completely suppressed, it was surely scaled down: it is possible that only a small altar survived. The chronology of the inscription mentioning a Volusius Caesario, priest of Isis Capitolina, oscillates between the half of the I century B.C. and the beginning of the Augustan Age. The priest has been linked with Marcus Volusius, aedilis plebis who was proscribed in 43 B.C. and escaped dressed up as an Isiac priest. The survival of the cult is perhaps demonstrated by the mention of an ara Isidis Desertae on the Capitolium, whose strange name perhaps is a reminder of the past history of the worship. The altar is placed behind the temple of Ops. If we can believe this account and if we compare it with the passage of Cassius Dio, who described that, during the destruction of the Isiac Capitoline sanctuary (near an Hercules’ one), an Enueion (that is a sanctuary of Mâ-Bellona) was also accidentally destroyed, we have perhaps some topographical information regarding the position of the temple. Unless we are dealing with temples placed on the Capitolium which have not been cited by the ancient sources, the proximity to the sanctuaries of Bellona and Hercules, on the one hand, and of Ops, on the other, would lead us to place the Iseum Capitolinum along the south-western slopes of the Capitolium, near the theatre of Marcellus. In this area a relief showing Isis has also been found. The hypothetical location of the sanctuary between the temples of Ops and Bellona, immediately to the north of the Porticus Triumphalis, could perhaps be related with an inscription, of which we do not know the exact provenience, mentioning an Isis Triumphalis. Alternatively we can suppose a different location not on the Capitolium but on the Arx, in the area of Santa Maria in Aracoeli where a dedication to Isis Frugifera and another one concerning a silver protome of Serapis have been found. Often this hypothesis has been related to the appearance of Isiac control marks on the ’80s denarii, because of the supposed proximity of the sanctuary with the Moneta.

The destruction of the Iseum Capitolinum in 48 B.C. did not prevent the revival of the cult and the Egyptian divinities from finally receiving a public veneration, in a sanctuary built out of the pomerium. Information regarding the immediately successive events, recorded by the same historian Cassius Dio, just consist of the building by the triumviri in 43 B.C. (only 5 years after the destruction of the Capitoline sanctuary) of a new temple dedicated to Isis and Serapis. The triumviral role wielded by Anthony, Lepidus and Octavian demonstrates the official character of the deliberation, and their involvement in the Caesarian project of the urban reorganization of the Campus Martius (and of the Saepta in particular) make it very likely that the public temple out of the pomerium built in 43 B.C. is to be identified with the Iseum Campense. In this context, we cannot exclude that the presence of Queen Cleopatre, as nea Isis, in Rome between 46 and 44 B.C., played an important role. The Iseum-Serapeum Campense was not built, as Vitruvius sanctioned in the same years, in emporio. It was built, near the Saepta in the Campus Martius, outside the pomerium: its precise location is documented by the Severian Forma Urbis (even if this reflects a situation which is chronologically much later than the period we are dealing with) and confirmed by many archaeological finds. None of the structures are visible today.

Because of its location, the temple was not probably touched by the further repressive measures, ordered by Augustus in 28 B.C. and Agrippa in 21 B.C., which banned the celebration of the Egyptian cults inside the pomerium, firstly, and later in the suburbs within half a mile of distance from it. The initiative tried to contain the renewed spread of the Isiac rites in the city and to banish them outside the latter, consequently strengthening the role of the Iseum Campense, from this moment the most important Egyptian temple of Rome. This is shown by Apuleius’ words (in the II century A.D.), who writes: “Isis in Rome is worshipped with supreme devotion and, for the place where her temple rises up, she’s called Isis Campensis” (Ap., M., XI 26). It is probably this sanctuary that some passages of the main Augustan poets refer to: Tibullus, Propertius and Ovid. The measures taken in 28 and 21 B.C. show that the isiac rites already constituted a problem in the city: if the State needs to legislate against a specific reality, this means that the reality itself does exist. Otherwise it would not be necessary to find a solution. So in 28 B.C. the Isiac cult was already celebrated inside the pomerium. Where? Either in the Iseum Capitolinum or in the Iseum Metellinum, at least on the base of our documentation. In the first case, this would confirm the survival of the temple on the Capitolium after 48 B.C., even if perhaps in an embrionic form. In the second case, the decree was not enforced, given that the structures on the Oppius, identified as the sanctuary, were restored and not destroyed in the Augustan Age. The situation is complicated by the fact that the temple rests against the Servian Walls and its inclusion in the pomerium is uncertain. If it was outside the latter, this could probably explain why, 7 years after the first decree (in 21 B.C.), it was decided to extend the veto for some additional hundreds of metres.

The Iseum Campense (or, less probably, the Iseum Capitolinum, if we accept its survival after 48 B.C.) became the target of the last harsh repression against Isiac worship: in A.D. 19, as a consequence of the scandal (reported by Flavius Joseph) which involved the aristocrats Decius Mundus and Paulina, Tiberius (notoriously hostile to the Egyptian and Judaic cults) ordered the destruction of the temple and to throw into the Tiber its contents: some statuary fragments (now in München) and some systrus found in the river bed are usually traced back to this sanctuary. The temple had probably already been restored by Caligula, it is possible that two Claudio-Neronian inscriptions (one mentioning a Serapeum, the other dedicated to Isis Invicta and Serapis) refer to this. We know, thanks to Flavius Joseph, that Vespasianus (who arrived in Rome at the end of September A.D. 70) passed through the Iseum Campense, with his son Titus, the night before their triumph (in June A.D. 71). The restoration of the temple, celebrated by two different coinages in A.D. 71 and 73, has to be placed in the eight months between the arrival of the Emperor and his triumph; a very short period which makes it impossible, in addition to the elements already presented, to accept the hypothesis of an ex novo building of the Iseum in A.D. 71.

Iseum Metellinum, Iseum Capitolinum and Iseum Campense are the three Isiac sanctuaries in Rome that we can trace back to the Republican Age with certitude or good probability. In the Imperial Period many other temples were erected in Rome: around the mid I century A.D., a temple of Isis Pelagia must have existed, as we can deduce from the inscription of a libertus of Galba, aedituus of the Goddess. It is possible that the cult existed already in the Republican or Augustan Age: the oldest epigraphical evidence in Rome can be dated to A.D. 1. This cult with difficulty can be related with the known Isea. So its location remains totally uncertain: near the Forum Boarium, which would be a good candidate in this sense, only few isiaca have been found. We could otherwise propose the identification of this cult with the Isis Athenodoria that had to be worshipped in regio XII (perhaps near the Baths of Caracalla).

The concentration of isiaca near regio II, on the Celius, could imply the existence of another sanctuary (perhaps belonging to Isis Regina), in the area of S. Maria in Domnica and S. Stefano Rotondo.

An Isis Patricia is quoted by the Regionary Catalogues, next to the mention of the temple of Minerva Medica. Considering the possibile proximity of the latter (situated in regio V, immediately outside the Servian Walls, north of via Botta) to the Iseum Metellinum (in regio III, immediately inside the Servian Walls, south of via Botta), the same Isis Patricia has been identified with the Metellina, linking the epithet Patricia to an unattested epithet Plebeia. We believe that the mention in the Catalogues is not to be interpreted in the sense of an immediate topographical proximity and thus we prefer to see the temple of Isis Patricia near the vicus Patricius, always in regio V, on the Esquiline.

We can be sure of the presence on the Quirinal of a Serapeum, built by Hadrian (or Domitianus) and restored by Caracalla.

With the Iseum Campense, the sanctuaries of Isis Patricia on the Esquiline, Isis Athenodoria in regio XII and Serapis on the Quirinal are the only Egyptian cult places recorded by the Regionary Catalogues and so expressly considered active in the IV century A.D. But it is probable that other, mostly private, temples were constructed in the Imperial Period in the Castra Praetoria, in the Horti Sallustiani, near S. Sabina on the Aventine, in Trastevere and in Vatican.

To summarize: from Delos the worship of the Egyptian cults arrived in continental Italy soon after the mid II century A.D., in Pozzuoli. It then quickly spread throughout the whole of Regio I, between Rome and Pompeii. In Rome, this cult, which was first worshipped only privately, received monumental temples from the ’80s of the I century B.C. (the Iseum Capitolinum and, later, the Iseum Metellinum) but was officialized only in 43 B.C. (in the Iseum Campense). The cult penetrated in particular in those areas where there was a strong foreign presence, gaining many believers of both sexes and every social rank. The political class (the Senate and the Republican magistracy as the imperial administration) did not outwardly love Egyptian cults, in particular before the mid II century A.D. The role of the traders (especially of the slave traders and of the argentarii) was instead of primary importance (even if not richly attested). Strongly contrasted during the I century B.C., for political reasons, the worship survived to the indifference or hostility of the Giulio-Claudian Emperors (but Caligula), and finally obtaining success only with the Flavian dynasty.