Posted by: Isidora | October 31, 2009

Isis in Rome

Farnese_Isis

Roman Isis, from the 2nd century CE, in the Farnese Collection in Naples. Perhaps my favorite non-Egyptian image of the Goddess. Now I have seen Her up close and personal. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

In Rome’s Capitoline Museum, there are two large pillars, a sphinx, a Thoth baboon, and a crocodile from the famous Iseum Campense, the Temple of Isis in the Campus Martius. The carving on the pillars is unlike the Egyptian stonework we’re used to seeing—the images are less precise, softer—but the other statues look exactly like their Egyptian counterparts. Likely, the pillars were locally made and the statuary imported from Egypt.

Pillar_Temple_of_Isis

A close up of the carving on the pillar from the Iseum Campense in Rome. It shows the priests making offering to the Goddess. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

Anything left of the temple itself is buried beneath a church and the streets of modern Rome. Scrying in the area, I caught hardly a wiff of the Isiacism that permeated the place all those many hundreds of years ago. The Roman church did a very good job of deconsecrating the Pagan sacred places that preceded their own. (The Pantheon really freaked me out…but that’s another story.)

Due to the scarcity of written evidence, nothing is completely certain about when the worship of Isis came to Rome. That said, scholars think that Her cult was introduced sometime during the early Republican period (261-30 BCE) and slowly grew over the centuries—not without some significant bumps in the via sacra, though.

An early Temple of Isis and Serapis, dating to about 200 BCE, has been found along the Sicilian coast. Temples in southern Italy followed. The first Temple of Isis in Pompeii may have been built sometime around 100 BCE, destroyed in the earthquake of 62 CE, and rebuilt after that—only to be destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 CE.

As private worship, the cult of Isis probably came to Rome itself in the 30s or 40s BCE. About 50 years later, large temples, still private, began to be built for Her and both Isiac and Serapiac theophoric names (“god-bearing” names, that is, names that incorporate divine names; Isidora is an example) become more common.

There were a number of Isis sanctuaries in Rome over the years. The remains of the Iseum Metellinum can be seen near the modern Piazza Iside in Rome. (I did not get to see this temple as I only found out about it after returning home. Whining and kicking self.) But the first Isis temple in Rome was probably the Iseum Capitolinum. Isis Capitolina, Serapis, Anubis, and Harpocrates were worshipped there.

Scholars think that this particular branch of Isis worship may have come to Rome from the Greek holy island of Delos for there were some similarities between the Delian and Capitolinian cults. Delos was a large market city and the trade included slaves. Unfortunately, this slave trade became connected with the Capitoline Isis temple as well and this may have played a part in the political persecution of Isiacs in following years. Interestingly, temples of both Isis and Serapis later became associated with freedom for slaves. Slaves were liberated through a fictitious sale to the Goddess and God. No longer owned by their masters, the newly purchased slaves were now owned by the Deities and thus free.

Beginning in 58 BCE, the anti-Isiac political pot began to boil and the Capitoline Isis temple became subject to a variety of repressive measures. In 48 BCE, during a sacrifice to Isis at the temple, a swarm of bees settled at the nearby sanctuary of Hercules. This was deemed a Very Bad Thing and it was decided that the entire Isis-Serapis temple complex had to be destroyed; and it was.

Pillar_Isiac_Capitoline

A pillar from the Iseum Campense in the Capitoline Museum. You can see the other statues from the temple behind it in the Egyptian Room. Image copyright Forrest 2009.

This did not keep Isis from being worshipped in Rome. Five years later, during the Second Triumvirate, the Triumvirs voted to erect a temple of Isis and Serapis. It is uncertain whether this temple was actually built, but if so, this would have been the Iseum Campense. It may also be so that Queen Cleopatra, who had been living in Rome at that time and called herself The New Isis, was instrumental in having this temple built. It was raised in the Campus Martius and many archeological finds there confirm the location. Nothing can be seen of it today. Yet, because of its location outside the pomerium, the sacred, ancient boundary of the city of Rome, it did not suffer as much when certain emperors banned the worship of the Egyptian Gods inside the pomerium in 28 and again in 21 BCE.

Apparently, the worship of Isis and Serapis was spreading wildly throughout the Roman world and it made the rulers nervous. The fact that the emperors had to ban the worship of the Goddess inside the pomerium in 28 BCE—even after the destruction of the Iseum Capitolinum—must have  meant that She was still being worshipped there. It argues for the survival of either the Iseum Metellinum or perhaps even some part of the Iseum Capitolinum. Given its location outside the pomerium, the Iseum Campense became the most important Isis temple in Rome. Writing in the second century CE, Apuleius says,

Isis in Rome is worshipped with supreme devotion and, for the place where her temple rises up, she is called Isis Campensis.” (Ap., M., XI 26)

The temple’s importance also made it the target of ongoing anti-Egyptian-Gods repression. In 19 CE, with a juicy sex scandal as an excuse, Tiberius, who was personally hostile to the Egyptian cults, ordered the Iseum Campense destroyed and everything in it thrown into the Tiber river. Some statuary and sistra have been pulled from the river and are thought to have been from this event.

Still Isis Invicta remained unconquered. Somewhere between Tiberius’ reign and 65 CE, the worship of Isis received imperial sanction. Under Caligula and Vespasian, it apparently flourished. (Caligula is another candidate for the construction of the Iseum Campenseif it hadn’t already been built in the previous century. Or he may have been responsible for re-building it after Tiberius’ destruction.) The Iseum burned in the great fires of 80 CE, but was restored by Dominitan and enhanced by some of his sucessors.

And so the floodgates were opened and many more Isis temples, sanctuaries, and shrines were constructed in and around Rome. By the second century CE, the worship of Isis had spread throughout the Roman Empire and She was being worshipped by people in every level of society, from emperors to slaves. Isis became the Universal Goddess; She was The One. A Roman graffito records what I suspect was a mantra of sorts for ancient Isiacs: Una quai es omnia, Dea Isis—Being one, Thou art all, Goddess Isis.

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Responses

  1. Hi! i live in rome. wonderrful article! just wanted to know why your mind was blown seeing the pantheon? i wonder if you felt the way i do every time i pass by there…

  2. by the way i’ve been into this kind of thing for many years. have my own secrets too, willing to share…

    • Hi, Suzanne!

      Ah, how lovely to live in Rome. We enjoyed our travels there very much and hope to go back sometime in the future.

      The Pantheon was strange to me because it felt very “dead;” no spiritual energy…even though Christian services are still held there. I was guessing that when the church took it over, they did such a good job of de-consecrating the Pagan temple that it was never quite able to “take a charge” again. Of course, it could be my imagination, but that’s how it felt to me…and that kinda creeped me out 😉

      What are your stories?

      Isidora

  3. Isadora!
    i used to think the pantheon was the most beautiful place in rome…
    for its formal aspects: a cube, a sphere and a triangle. i used to sit
    in front of it at a bar and feel its stability. it is very impressive from lots of views and streets. it’s a clock inside as the sun hits the dome. the inside is terrible! to see it when it rains is amazing as the water falls down the hole
    in a coloumn of water. that whole area is still filled with incredible sensations
    and i’m sure it’s the temple underneath! caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto (the black madonna)
    is right there in sant agostino’s. there’s a black cat in the center of the picture, just have a good look at this very pagan picture. (nobody talks about these things in caravaggio). now i know why this area is so
    loaded as i’ve just recently begun to explore the isis temple and the whole area is
    filled with sphincxes and pieces of the, from the temple even though the destruction
    is thorough. the freemasons did a good job too, there is a compass design from
    piazza del popolo (16 sphinxes from the temple are there) all the way down to the pantheon. this area has always been populated by the artists from the baroque on. i lived in this area for decades and
    still go into a trance when i’m in that neighborhood! it was really special to find
    your studies on isis and thanks so much for answering and so quickly!!!
    suzanne

  4. […] The name Iset means “Throne.” Thus the Goddess Iset is the Goddess Throne. She, and just about every Egyptian Deity, was connected with Egyptian royalty in one way or another. (However, I believe the meaning of Iset’s name originally had more to do with sacred place, which is another meaning of “iset,” than it did with its later connection to the kingship. I explain this under the entry “Throne” in Offering to Isis.) The non-Egyptian rulers of Egypt—the Greek Ptolemies and, after them, the Romans—did not want to lose this important royal connection, especially since Isis was, in their time, an even more important and universal Goddess. So Isis was one of a handful of Deities Who became personal Ptolemaic matrons and patrons. The last Ptolemy, Kleopatra VII, considered herself an avatar of Isis. The Romans had a somewhat rockier relationship with the Goddess, which I talk a bit about here. […]

  5. Rogue Classicist.
    Enjoyed your provocative article. To follow up…
    – what temple was located under the Pantheon?
    – what churches are built over Isis Compensis?
    I am planning a trip to Rome & Malta in March and have created ceremonies to honour Cybele, Diana, Minerva, Isis and Mary (as the continuation of the Mother Goddess cult).

    • Hi, Irene!

      Have a wonderful trip. I really enjoyed my Roman adventure.

      As far as I know, there isn’t another temple under the Pantheon. It’s an original Roman building—built as a temple itself—that was taken over by the Catholic Church. To me, it was the church there today that felt lifeless. Your mileage may vary.

      As far as the Isis temple…the Isis and Serapis temples were right next to each other in an area that is today bounded by Via del Seminario on the north and the Via di S. Stefano del Cacco on the south. Apparently, the northern area contained the Temple of Isis, and the southern area the Serapeum. Between the two there was a public square which is roughly along Via Pie’ di Marmo and the Piazza del Collegio Romano today. On the Via Pie di Marmo, there is a giant marble foot (hence the street name) that may be from a Serapis statue.

      The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is over part of the Isis/Serapis complex now. And, judging by the name, over a temple or shrine of Minerva that must have been there as well. In the courtyard of the church is an Egyptian obelisk that was probably from the Isis Temple and which now rides on the back of an elephant sculpture by Bernini. The Pantheon is right next door.

      Don’t miss the Capitoline Museum with its famous statue of Isis with Her sistrum that came from Hadrian’s Villa. And there are some pillars and other statues from the Isis Temple.

      Oh yes…and there is something I missed that maybe you can see: the remains of another Isis Temple. It’s in the Piazza Iside. Not much to see remains-wise, but a holy place for Her in its day.

      I hope to see Malta someday, myself!

      Isidora

      • That was very helpful. Thank you so much sister!

      • Pantheon : use Traditional Chinese Medicine and you will feel so much energy in the center (Cosmos/Oculus/Circle on the floor/Earth)
        Btw : more info about what’s under the Pantheon (older Temple?)?

  6. HI,

    I have only read your entry now but it has been starred for a long time. 🙂 Great article, well done!
    The only thing is that Caligula almost certainly rebuilt the temple in the field of Mars immediately after Tiberius, long before 70AD. And It got destroyed again together with the whole area in the fire of 80AD. Domititan rebuilt it again in grandiose form and later Alexander Severus as well. And you can see some of it in scattered around Rome and the world; obelisks in Rome, Florence and Urbino,. The Vatican Museums has a statue of Nile and the Louvre of the Tevere.
    You can check out the location of the dromos on the severan Marble Plan!

    Thank you so much for your article!

  7. And thank you, Susan, for the correction. You are so right! Never could keep those Roman emperors straight 😉 I’ve updated the post. As with so much of the ancient world, things are always a bit fuzzier than they at first seem and the post now reflects the proper fuzz. I can’t wait to visit Rome again to see what I missed last time.

  8. thanks. need to think more… in a tizzy at the moment, but i’m aways in that area. they’ve finally put a plack under the big foot, via pie di marmo, denoting it be isis/serapis. it was a surprise because this city is the most
    surpressed history for women! thank you for being able to transmit info!!
    happy black beautiful cats and witches day!


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