It was far from uncommon to see cultures adopting gods and religious practices from their neighbors. The Romans borrowed many of the Greek gods and looked at Greek classical literature with fondness and devotion. While this was common practice, it was not all that common to see one specific deity travel between many different groups of people. One of these deities was the Egyptian goddess Isis. Isis was popular among many different groups in the Mediterranean world and eventually made her way up as far away as western Europe. The cult of Isis found a long term and influential home in Rome where a temple was dedicated to her in Pompeii. The Temple of Isis at Pompeii is a prominent archaeological site that tells little of the story of the cult of Isis’s existence in Rome. While there are still many mysteries surrounding Isis’s popularity and the specific rituals of her cult, the temple at Pompeii was so well preserved that modern scholars are able to deduce at least some of the secrets of the Cult of Isis, such as who was a part of it, how the Pompeii temple came into being, and the impact Isis had on culture and society within Rome.
In her original Egyptian context, Isis was held in high regard. Isis was the sister and wife of the god Osiris, also highly regarded. Osiris was duped and tricked into assisting his own murder in which he was placed into a coffin and dismembered; his extremities were scattered throughout Egypt. Upon hearing this, Isis grieved and embarked on a quest to save her husband and bring him back to life. She was known as essentially the mother goddess of Egypt. She was a lover of all around her and a caregiver to not only her own children and family, but the children and families of others as well (Plutarch, n.d.).
This may seem typical of creation stories and mythology of the time. Often there is a mother goddess figure who saves someone or something and is a mother figure to all around her. However, Isis managed to travel to many different cultures under her own name. To understand her assimilation into Roman culture, we must first explore her relationship to Greek culture and religion. The likeliness of Egyptians showing up in either Greece or Rome and transferring beliefs was very high. According to Plutarch, a Roman author who chronicled the story of Isis and Osiris, Isis was referred to as Athena by Greeks (Plutarch, n.d.). Athena was the patron goddess of the Greek polis of Athens, one of the most powerful regions in the Hellenistic world. The philosophies, culture and literature of the Athenians were of great interest to many Romans, especially those in high power. Greek, Egypt and Rome were also large and powerful nations at very similar times. The belief that Isis and Athena were either somehow related or the same deity would therefore be appealing to any Roman who was enamoured with Greek culture. This along with the fact that she was also a nurturing and caring figure would make joining the Cult of Isis enticing.
The Cult of Isis was open to any free person, whether they were born free or gained their freedom later in life (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 112). However, like most groups in history, only very few are remembered. In this case, a majority of those remembered were those who funded the restoration of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii. The temple survived two devastating tragedies that hit the city of Pompeii: the earthquake of 62 CE and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It had existed in the area long before these events, though. The earliest record of the existence of the temple dates back to between the second century BCE and first century CE (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 105-107). During the earthquake of 62, the temple was badly damaged and in need of repairs. This funding came from members of the cult. Additionally, many cult temples were not publicly funded, the Temple of Isis being one of them. However, the emperor Octavian was supportive of the cult’s existence and funded many other shrines devoted to her within Rome (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 118). His wife, Livia, was even known to have art dedicated to Isis (Balch, 2003, p. 29). The names of the private donors were written on the walls of the temple to be remembered. Most of these individuals contributed great sums of money and therefore a majority of the cult members that are remembered today are the one who were rich enough to fund its reconstruction (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 112, 117).
As stated, membership to the Cult of Isis was open to any free person in Rome. Despite many cults being condemned by Roman emperors such as Octavian, the Cult of Isis was looked upon fondly by many (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 118). Members of the cult were even encouraged and supported to run for public office. However, these prominent figures are still the ones who are remembered because they have a higher status.
Within the temple itself were many shrines and altars devoted to Isis and other characters relevant to either her story or the cult (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 106-112). Unfortunately, there is not much left to understand exactly what the cult’s mission was. It is known that there are specific rooms that exist as community spaces both for cult members and non-members. It is also known that there are specific rooms for cult inductees only (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 116). These rooms would have only been open to cult members and therefore makes sense that most of what happened in those rooms is undocumented. Secret cults and organizations were prevalent among many classical and late antique societies. A majority of present knowledge of them comes from the remains of buildings and locations where practices took place; there is very little written information about many of these secret societies and the Cult of Isis is no exception.
As mentioned, the temple and other cult activities were not publicly funded, as in the government did not take part in it. However, many emperors over different periods of the Roman empire were known to participate or have some devotion to the cult. Strangely enough, many of these emperors, such as Caligula and Nero, have been deemed “bad” rulers (VanSickle, 1922, p. 48). The cult of Isis maintained a generally decent reputation in the Roman empire, as Octavian’s own wife had images depicting Isis. Generally speaking, popular opinion of the cult was at least somewhat accepting. The worship of women deities was not uncommon, especially seeing as how the Cult of Isis potentially stemmed from the worship of the goddess Athena. However, sexism has always been prevalent in history. Potentially these bad emperors became associated with a female-focused cult as a form of propaganda against them. Another possibility could be that it was straying from religious norms. Roman religion was generally very tolerant, as they adopted many different deities from different cultures. This does not necessarily mean, however, that all religious cults were looked at fondly. Despite there being much evidence remaining of the cult, potentially telling modern scholars there was not much vandalism or malicious acts against the cult and its temples, it may not have been as popular as the archaeological evidence makes it seem. Even if it was a popular and generally accepted cult, this propaganda could also have been used down the line once Christianity became the official religion of Rome. In order to drum up more support for Christianity during the period of its rise, Christian officials may have wanted to make the older generations of Rome seem unappealing. Isis being one in a triad, at least, of gods was enough to be unappealing to any believer in monotheism. It also could diminish support for the empire’s pagan existence and make people not want to return to those days.
While Isis gained a large following among various different kinds of Romans, she found her home in the heart of many women living in the empire. Evidence found in the temple at Pompeii shows that women were regular contributors to the temple in the form of paintings and statues (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 119). Additionally, it was common to see women depicted in portraits of themselves wearing their hair or clothes similarly to how Isis was personified (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 119). There are many possible reasons as to why Isis was popular among women living in Rome. A very simple reason could be that she was a woman as well. Women in Athens were responsible for festivals pertaining to Athena, so it would make sense that a counterpart of Athena was celebrated by women as well. Another possibility could be that Isis is portrayed as essentially the perfect woman. Isis went to all corners of the world to try to save her husband and remained loyal to him even when she thought he was dead. Additionally, she had her son, Horus, with her to help her during her quest to save Osiris. While she was strong and loyal, she was still under the supervision of a male relative. She did not choose to adventure alone and she kept a man by her side. This could serve as inspiration for women who are at the age to marry or become a mother.
This view of Isis as the perfect woman could also give insight into how mortal women were viewed. Goddesses in creation stories were characters passed down through oral tradition and eventually written down. Because of this these female characters could be crafted into perfect for each culture’s standards. Taking Isis as an example, she was loyal, devoted and not entirely independent. She could serve as a model for how all women should behave. Goddesses in stories like this could also easily be manipulated over time. If the story is told to someone one way, the next storyteller could change it in a way that was more pleasing. Mortal women, however, could not be controlled like this. Since mortal women had a sense of agency and free will they could do whatever they wanted within reason. There was a standard for women, however, and they were expected to fit into that mold. The Cult of Isis could have become popular because it could have pushed families to join together and husbands and fathers could manipulate their wives and daughters into becoming the perfect woman. Since the story of Isis was so well known it makes sense that people would turn to her as an ideal deity to worship since she would be able to inspire mortal women.
Returning to the temple itself, while also staying in the same vein as Isis’s relationship to her followers, the language used in the Temple of Isis at Pompeii reveals that Isis was a benevolent and loving deity. When a cult member became a benefactor of or donated to the temple, the language used in inscriptions showed an intimate relationship between the donator and the goddess herself (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 120). Additionally, everything in the temple was tenderly and diligently cared for (Swetnam-Burland, 2015, p. 121). While this acts as motivation to get people to join, donate, or contribute, it also emphasizes the positive and ideal qualities of Isis. There does not seem to be any repercussions for not contributing; one’s relationship with Isis would just improve upon becoming more active in the community. This intimacy could also entice Romans not yet a part of the cult to join. It also offered a way to become closer to Isis without needing to constantly pray or provide offerings or visit the temple.
Isis herself gives insight into the cultural and societal practices of the ancient Roman world essentially throughout its existence. She shows how adoptive Roman religion was compared to monothesitic and even other polytheistic religions. She also gives insight into how Roman culture perceived women. She was the example of an ideal woman: loyal and strong, yet not too independent. She was also a caring, loving and devoted mother and wife, which was an ideal trait for a Roman woman.
She also gives insight to how Rome viewed its previous leaders. When used in the context of being an inspiration of women, Isis and her cult seem to be well loved. Even if she is used in the context of an emperor’s wife she seems beloved. Perhaps this is because Octavian endorsed the Cult of Isis since his wife did, making her more likely to be an ideal wife that one would aspire to be. However, in the case of Nero and Caligula it was the men worshipping her. This may have been looked down upon since it was men worshipping a female deity on their own instead of with a wife, daughter, or other female family member.
The Temple of Isis at Pompeii existing for as long as it has in the condition it is in is also a testament to the influence of Isis and her cult. The temple could have been destroyed and left to rot twice. However, Roman people and even politicians rose up to help fund its reconstruction. Additionally, members of the Cult of Isis were encouraged to run for office and represent the people of the cult. This most likely would not have been the case if the cult was small and relatively unknown. Even if it was, it is unlikely this information would have survived this long. A similar thing could be said about the objects within the temple. Most of them are still intact and able to be read, viewed and deciphered.
Being an Egyptian figure, it may initially seem strange or out of place for Isis to be a central figure in Roman religion. However, Isis made her way to many different corners of the world. It would make sense that her story was shared through trade and other interactions with Egypt. Would the Cult of Isis become so big without Greek and Roman influence, though? Rome expanded its borders from the Atlantic all the way into Persia. It is highly likely that without Roman influence, the Cult of Isis would not have become as widespread as it is known to be today. Without the maintenance of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, one of the biggest cult sites in the Roman Empire, the Cult of Isis and its influence on Roman culture would not be as well known as it is today. Though it is possible that information about the cult could have been passed down orally or eventually written down, or even found through many smaller cult sites, the fact that a large and central site exists to this day with names attached shows how big of an influence the Cult of the Goddess Isis had on the Roman world.
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