Question Jake Education

The temple of Isis; Pompeii and Herculaneum

What does the temple of Isis reveal about religion in Pompeii and Herculaneum?

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The temple of Isis at Pompeii demonstrates that some of the population of Pompeii and Herculaneum worshipped this female Egyptian deity. It was built in the Theatre district towards the end of the second century BC and reflects “the trading and cultural links between the town and Alexandria” (Cooley and Cooley, 2014, p. 119). Architecturally, the temple is distinctive because of its high surrounding wall, and because it stands on a high podium surrounded by a portico. These features, along with its lavish decoration show that religion was practised as a special, highly visual activity, with ceremonial activities that were followed by the wealthiest citizens of the area out of the sight of the general public (Amery and Curran, 2002)

Some of the detail inside the temple emphasises the foreignness of the goddess, such as frescoes showing figures with dark skin, or with the shaved heads that were characteristic of priests of Isis in Egypt. A tablet containing examples of genuine hieroglyphics was found in front of the temple and there are paintings of Isis herself, as well as other Egyptian gods including Anubis, who has the head of a dog (Cooley and Cooley, 2014). Some statuettes of Dionysus and Venus were also found inside the temple precincts, however, and this shows “the syncretism of the Isis cult with Graeco-Roman cults connected with fertility and regeneration” (Small, 2007, p. 188).

The depiction of priestesses participating in the rituals alongside male priests shows that women played ceremonial roles in this temple. Altogether then, the temple of Isis at Pompeii reveals an eclectic mix of familiar and exotic influences and is testament to the rich, international heritage that underpins religious worship in classical Roman times.

References

Amery, C. and Curran, B. (2002) The Lost World of Pompeii. Los Angeles, CA: Frances Lincoln.

Cooley, A. E. and Cooley, M. G. L. (2014) Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Sourcebook. Second edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Small, A. (2007) Urban, suburban and rural religion in the Roman period. In P. Foss and J. J. Dobbins (Eds.), The World of Pompeii. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 184-211.