Isis

Isis was a mother goddess, as well as one of wisdom and magic, in ancient Egyptian religion whose worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.

Symbols: Human woman with a throne-like hieroglyphs upon her head
Parents: Geb and Nut
Consort: Osiris and Serapis
Siblings: Osiris, Set and Nephthys
Children: Horus and Min

Profile of a woman in ancient Egyptian clothing. She has yellow skin and wears a headdress shaped like a tall chair.

Isis’s cult reached Italy and the Roman sphere of influence in the 2nd c. BC. It was one of many cults that were introduced to Rome as the Roman Republic’s territory expanded. Shrines and altars to Isis were set up on the Capitoline Hill, at the heart of the city, by private citizens in the early 1st c. BC. The independence of her cult from the control of Roman authorities made it potentially unsettling to them. In the 50s and 40s BC, when the crisis of the Roman Republic made many Romans fear that peace among the gods was being disrupted, the Roman Senate destroyed these shrines, although it did not ban the worship of Isis from the city outright.

Fresco of a seated woman with a cobra wrapped around her arm grasping the hand of a standing woman with small horns on her head
Isis welcoming Io to Egypt. Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st c. AD.

Egyptian cults faced further hostility during the Final War of the Roman Republic (32–30 BC), when Rome, led by Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, fought Egypt under Mark Anthony and Cleopatra VII. After Octavian’s victory, he banned shrines to Isis within the pomerium, the city’s innermost and sacred boundary, but allowed them in parts of the city outside the pomerium, thus marking Egyptian deities as non-Roman but acceptable to Rome. Despite being temporarily expelled from Rome during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 AD), the Egyptian cults gradually became an accepted part of the Roman religious landscape. The Flavian emperors in the late 1st c. AD treated Serapis and Isis as traditional Roman deities, such as Jupiter and Minerva.

Marble staue of a woman holding a rattle in one hand and a pitcher in the other.
Roman statue of Isis, 1st-2nd c. AD.

The cult also expanded into Rome’s western provinces, beginning along the Mediterranean coast in the 1st c. AD. At their peak in the 2nd-3rd c. AD, Isis was worshipped in most towns across the western empire, although she did not have much presence in the countryside. Her temples were found from Petra and Palmyra, in the East, to Italica and Londinium in the West. By this time, she was on a comparable footing with traditional Roman deities.

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Roman fresco of an Isiac gathering, 1st c. AD.