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.
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.
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 Campense—if 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.