Those other inhabitants

Pompeii teemed with gods and goddesses. Whatever they would have made of the rest of my account, it would certainly have surprised the inhabitants of the ancient city that, so far, I have tended to leave in the background the various deities who bulked large in their lives. The city contained literally thousands of images of these gods and goddesses. If you count them all, big and small and in every medium, they were probably more in number than the living human population.

They certainly came in all sorts, shapes, sizes and materials – ranging from the large painted pin-up Venus (Ill. 97), sprawling awkwardly across a massive seashell which pointed to her mythical birth from the waves, to miniature dancing bronze figures of the Lares or ‘household gods’ (Ill. 98) or a little bronze bust of Mercury used to balance a set of weighing-scales. Some were presumably intended to prompt feelings of reverence and awe: the large marble head of Jupiter, for example, found in his temple in the Forum (Ill. 99). Others, such as the boisterous caricatures in the private baths in the House of the Menander (Ill. 51) or some of the more overblown phallic versions of the divine Priapus (Ill. 36), must have been joking parodies. Others again, such as a self-consciously old-fashioned bronze Apollo from the House of Julius Polybius, were no doubt valued as precious objets d’art, as much as they were revered as sacred images. Many of the standardised images of Minerva in her long robes and helmet, or Diana in hunting gear, would have seemed safely traditional. Not so the ivory figure of Indian Lakshmi (Ill. 11) or the miniature images of the dog-headed Egyptian god Anubis. To some Pompeians these would have seemed at best troublingly exotic, at worst weird and dangerous.


97. Roman gods were imagined in variety of guises. This Venus, with little Cupid in attendance, seems disconcertingly like a modern pin-up.


98. Bronze figurines of the ‘household gods’ or Lares, dressed in their characteristic tunics (said to be made of dog-skin) and carrying an offering bowl and brimming cornucopia (horn of plenty).


99. The majestic face of Jupiter. This colossal head was found in the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva in the Forum.

We now tend to take the images of ancient gods too much for granted. We are usually interested to spot the key attribute that will identify the deity concerned (if it’s a thunderbolt, it must be Jupiter) and to move on. This is to underestimate the cultural and religious work that these images did in the ancient world. No one then debated, as we might do, whether there existed a divine power in the world. Atheism would have been barely comprehensible as an intellectual or religious position. In fact, apart from among Jews and Christians, the idea that there was only one god, rather than many, would have seemed almost equally eccentric in the first century CE, although it became a commoner view, even among pagans, later. But this did not mean that ancient polytheism was without its disputes and controversies. Romans could disagree violently, not about whether the gods existed (that was a fact rather than a belief), but about what they were like, how the different deities related to one another, and about how, when and why they intervened in the lives of humans. It was perfectly possible to wonder, for example, if the gods really did have a human form (or exactly how like humans were they?), or whether they were concerned with the lives of mortals at all. How did they reveal themselves to people? Just how capricious, or benevolent, were they? Friends, or always potential enemies?

In this sense, many of the images of gods and goddesses that Pompeians saw around them in their daily lives were much more meaningful than we assume. Standardised, funny, expensive or exotic, they were also ways of imagining the divine inhabitants of the world in material form. Size, shape and appearance could all matter. A colossal statue, like the vast Jupiter, was not merely a bombastic creation, it was also a way of reflecting on the power of the god, and on how he might be pictured – literally or metaphorically – in physical form. Ancient religion set great store by images.

A religion without the book

The traditional religion of ancient Rome and Italy was unlike most religions of the modern world in many important respects. The fact that there were many gods and that their number was not fixed (more deities might always be discovered at home, or imported from abroad) are only two of the things that make Roman religion so strikingly different from Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is also the case that there were no tenets of belief that an individual would be expected to hold, no equivalent of the Christian creed and no authoritative sacred texts which laid down doctrine. That did not mean that there was a complete religious free-for-all. There were, no doubt, many more options than in a modern ‘religion of the book’. But the crucial fact is that the community’s adherence to its religion was demonstrated through action and ritual rather than words. As we shall see shortly, the act of animal sacrifice, at Pompeii as elsewhere, was the most important action of all.

The focus of the religious system was much more on the community as a whole than on its individual members. True, many Pompeian men and women might claim some kind of personal relationship with one or more of the gods. They might detect the influence of the gods on their lives and might turn to them in crises great and small. Many written traces of this survive from the city. In one of the corridors of the theatre, a graffito asks Venus to look kindly on a young couple. ‘Methe, slave of Cominia, from Atella, loves Chrestus. May Venus of Pompeii be kind to them and may they live together happily ever after.’ Two people in the House of Julius Polybius recorded their vow to the household gods: ‘For the well-being, return and success of Caius Julius Philippus, Publius Cornelius Felix and Vitalis, slave of Cuspius here made a vow to the Lares.’ This was a standard formula used at all levels of Roman religion, public and private: a vow made to the gods, which would be paid with an offering or sacrifice to them, in the event of the desired outcome. Here, these humble servants must have been praying that one of the masters of the house made it home safely from wherever he had been. Nonetheless, for all the expressions of private devotion that we find, it was the links between religion and the city or the state as a whole that gave Roman religion its distinctive character.

To put it at its simplest, the official line was that the gods protected and supported Rome or, on a smaller scale, Pompeii, so long as they received due worship. If they were neglected, disaster would surely be the result. In these terms – far from the nineteenth-century Christian idea that the eruption of Vesuvius was punishment for the paganism, or for the pagan immorality, of the local populations – the Pompeians themselves would have been much more likely to take the final destruction of their city as a sign that the worship of those pagan gods had not been properly carried out. There was a certain instrumentality in Roman dealings with the gods: ‘you scratch the divine back and the gods scratch yours’ can sometimes seem to have been the main guiding principle of Roman religion. But we might perhaps better understand it in terms of the reciprocity of patronage, honour and benefaction that we have already seen in the relations between the Pompeian elite and the rest of the citizens. One of the ways the inhabitants of Pompeii envisaged their gods was as larger-than-life, and infinitely more powerful, duoviri.

Exactly which community the gods belonged to could be a tricky question. Since the Social War, Pompeii’s religion was both Roman and Pompeian. As elsewhere in the Roman world, there was a trade-off between the centralising tendencies of Rome and a tremendous degree of local distinctiveness. This meant that what is for us the ‘same god’ (Minerva, Apollo, Juno or whoever) could actually be significantly different in different towns. The Venus of Pompeii (Venus Pompeiana), who was asked to bless the partnership of Methe and her Chrestus, is a good example of this. For Pompeii’s Venus had a classic Roman aspect which would be recognisable all over the Roman world and was sometimes associated with her role as the patron goddess of Sulla’s colony. But she also had distinctive local Pompeian traits, powers and associations, as well as a compound title, ‘Venus Fisica’, which may have gone back to the Oscan period (what it means, we honestly do not know for sure). Even more striking divergences are found in religious rituals and festivals. Although there was some overlap between Rome and Pompeii, and although animal sacrifice was found everywhere in the Roman world, many festivals were local events, following a local calendar, according to local custom.

Hand in hand with the basic political axiom which linked the success of the community with its worship of the gods went the structure and character of priesthood. In most cases (though we shall explore some exceptions towards the end of this chapter), priests were not people with a special religious calling, they were not full-time religious officials, and they did not take any pastoral responsibility for the moral and religious needs of a congregation. Priests of the gods were usually the same men as those who conducted the political business of the city. As Cicero, who was himself both a political leader and a priest, put it, ‘Among the many things ... that our ancestors created and established under divine inspiration, nothing is more renowned than their decision to entrust the worship of the gods and the highest interests of state to the same men.’

The result is that religion is found in several places in Pompeian life where we might not expect it. It is, for example, integrally connected with politics at all levels – so much so that the Roman emperor himself was treated like a god with his own priest. But it is also absent from some areas where we might expect to find it. Most marriages, for example, were not solemnised by any religious ceremony. In fact, a marriage was normally contracted, as the Romans put it, ‘by practice’: that is, in our terms, ‘by cohabitation’. If you lived together for a year, you were married.

It is against this background that the rest of this chapter looks at the remains of religious life in Pompeii. There is some truth in the old joke which says that archaeologists will label anything ‘religious’ that they cannot fully understand, whether that is peculiar holes in the ground or phalluses and snakes daubed on the walls. Nonetheless, we shall be trying to identify the places or objects in the city which counted as religious – starting from its main public temples, priests and rituals and ending with the aspect of Pompeian religion that since the eighteenth century has captured the imagination of most visitors, the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis. But we shall also be wondering what people did and said at the temple or shrine, and even occasionally what might have gone on in their heads when they were there. The most important thing to remember is that the varieties of their response will have been enormous, from cynicism and boredom to piety. Romans were no more unanimous on such things than we are.

City temples

Temples are for us one of the clearest symbols of Roman religion, instantly recognisable with their columns, triangular gables (or ‘pediments’), and steps leading up onto the raised platform (or podium), from which a visitor might then gain access, through high doors, to the interior of the building and whatever lay within. Romans had a whole repertoire of different kinds of sacred space, ranging from places where a deity was supposed to be present ‘in person’, as it were, to those from where signs sent by the gods might be observed. We have already come across the traces of an early countryside shrine, or sacred grove, underneath the House of the Etruscan Column (pp. 26–7). And, as we shall see later in this chapter, the final phases of the city included a variety of free-standing altars and other sacred enclosures. But it is the distinctive form of the temple that marks the urban landscape of Pompeii and other Roman towns, much as the parish church is the stamp of religion in an English village.

But if the English village has just a single parish church, Pompeii – as you might expect, given its many gods – had many temples, though by no means one for every god or goddess who might intervene in the lives of its inhabitants. They came in all sizes, in varying degrees of prominence and with very different histories. Some stretched back to the earliest years of the city. The temple of Apollo next to the Forum was established by the sixth century BCE at the latest. So too was the temple of Minerva and Hercules (Ill. 101) in the so-called Triangular Forum (named after the triangular colonnade built around the temple in the first century CE). This, in fact, may long since have been a picturesque ruin at the time of the eruption – though some archaeologists attribute its ruined appearance to the aggressive excavation techniques of earlier generations of diggers (not to mention Allied bombers).


100. This nineteenth-century reconstruction shows the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, flanked on either side by an arch. It is an accurate drawing, but perhaps gives a rather too grand, monumental and clean impression of the temple and its surroundings.

Most of the rest date to the second century BCE or later. In just one case we can reconstruct the precise circumstances of their building. The small Temple of Fortuna Augusta was dedicated to an almost untranslatable combination of the goddess of Good Fortune or Success (Fortuna) and the power of the emperor (the adjective Augusta can confusingly, or conveniently, refer either to the first emperor Augustus himself, or to imperial power more generally – for subsequent emperors used ‘Augustus’ as part of their titles too). It was funded, according to a surviving inscription, by a local grandee and three-times duumvir, Marcus Tullius, and built on his own land, which he donated to the town. He was careful, however, that there should be no misunderstanding about exactly how much land he had made over. Behind the temple there was a stone boundary marker, reading ‘Private property of Marcus Tullius, son of Marcus’.


101. Looking up to the Temple of Minerva and Hercules, in the Triangular Forum, from outside the town. This imaginative reconstruction (note the solitary charioteer out for a spin) gives a good idea of the gradients and different levels on which Pompeii was built.


102. An early traveller takes a rest – or seizes the chance for some romantic reflection on the passing of time – in the ruins of the tiny Temple of Jupiter Meilichios (or Aesculapius). Even this very small building shows the standard structure of a Roman temple: a room (or cella) to house the statue or statues of gods, and an altar outside.

Sometimes the gods associated with the temple are easy to identify. The temple in the commanding position at one end of the Forum, for example, can only be that of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva – located in this prime site as in many, if not most, Roman towns (Ill. 100). The goddess Fortuna Augusta is clearly named in the inscription. For several others we are reduced, for better or worse, to conjecture. The vast temple overlooking the sea, next to the Marine Gate, was very likely the Temple of Venus – but there is no firm evidence for this beyond a battered statue and our conviction that there must have been a substantial temple to the colony’s patron somewhere in the town. The tiny temple tucked almost out of sight, behind high precinct walls near the theatres, has proved a real puzzle (Ill. 102). Archaeologists have recently returned to the theory of J. J. Winckelmann, the ‘Father of Art History’, who visited Pompeii in the mid eighteenth century and called this a temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing – again on no firmer evidence than a statue found there which may have depicted the god. Others have called it the Temple of Jupiter Meilichios (‘honey sweet’ – a title connected with the gods of the underworld). This is on the basis of an inscription which refers to a temple of that name. If it is not the Temple of Meilichios, then that must still be waiting to be found somewhere else in the city (or, as some now think, outside – matching it up with a shrine beyond the city walls). There is, as we shall see again, a domino effect in many of these conjectures – one identification can easily topple another.

The overall design of these temples may be familiar. What went on inside them is much less so and much more surprising. Temples were not places where a congregation of worshippers gathered or where religious rituals were carried out. The essential function of any Greek or Roman temple was to house a statue of a god or goddess. We should not imagine bloody sacrifices carried out in the dark inner room of any of these buildings. These always took place outside in the open air. The temple was the home of a divine image, or ‘cult-statue’. The most common Latin word for it, aedes rather than templum, means simply ‘house’.

Yet only rarely would the statue have stood entirely on its own. Many temples acquired a lot of clutter, sometimes very precious clutter. Dedications and offerings to the god or goddess in fulfilment of a vow often ended up here. Someone might, for example, promise a gift to Aesculapius if he got better from his illness – and, on recovery, deposit what he had promised in his temple. Statues and other works of art were often displayed here too. In Rome itself, temples were a favourite place to house rich pieces of booty captured in war, or the authoritative texts of laws inscribed on bronze tablets. And all kinds of other activities might also have gone on around the statue of the god. The Roman senate used the space inside several temples for its own meetings, some of the wealthiest citizens deposited their wills in the Temple of the goddess Vesta, and the basement of the Temple of Saturn served as the Roman state treasury. All these valuables mean that they must have been well-policed by their caretakers (security guards, cleaners and maintenance men rolled into one), firmly locked at night and open to the public only under supervision.

This was the pattern at Pompeii too. The traces are, at first sight, more fleeting than we might hope – whether because, like the Temple of Venus, these temples were in the middle of building works when the eruption came, or because their precious fixtures and fittings made them an obvious target for looters after the eruption (the archaeological remains, after all, being much the same in each case). Alternatively, of course, their loyal caretakers may have removed some of the more precious objects as they fled the eruption.

But all kinds of telling pieces of evidence do survive. We have already seen the piece of booty from the capture of Corinth in 146 BCE that was put on show in or near the Temple of Apollo. This same temple also displayed a magnificent pair of bronze statues, of Apollo and Diana (only her head now survives) in its piazza, as well as a replica of the strange omphalos (that is the ‘navel of the earth’) which was one of the sacred symbols of Apollo’s famous shrine at Delphi – and another example here of Pompeii’s wide cultural reach. We even get a hint of the security systems that these temples might use. Still visible along the front façade of the Temple of Fortuna Augusta are the remains of metal railings, which could close the building off (Ill. 103). One leading expert on Pompeii once assured me that these had been a nineteenth-century addition, designed to stop tourists climbing on the monument. That is just what they look like. But they were actually intended to keep ancient Pompeians out.

Even some of the town’s most ruined monuments can give us more information on temple life and organisation than we would suspect at first sight, tantalising glimpses of their cult statues and the other riches which once were there, and sometimes unexpected stories of what was going on in Pompeii in 79. A good case in point is the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, which at least from the arrival of the Roman colonists housed the trio of deities which defined Pompeii as a Roman town. It is frankly not much to look at now (Ill. 104). Its steps and some sadly truncated columns remain at the front. On top of the podium, the inner room of the temple is still clearly visible, and within it the scant remains of what was once a two-storey internal colonnade. At the far end are the niches which would have displayed the statues of the three gods. In its present state, it is grim and functional. But we get a vivid ancient view of it in one of the small friezes in the House of Caecilius Jucundus (Ill. 5). Although the intention of this sculpture was to demonstrate the damage done by the earthquake (damage from which this temple perhaps never recovered), it also offers us a nice – maybe slightly imaginative – snapshot of the building in its original setting, complete with some of its decoration. The altar stands outside on a platform set into the steps of the temple. On either side of the steps we find an equestrian statue, while behind the altar, by leaving out two of the six columns, the sculptor has been able to show us the doors leading into the inner room and, above, a garland or wreath decorating the pediment.

We have other clues about the building’s original appearance and its use. First, the podium on which the temple stands is not solid. It is hollow, and contains a basement room, which you could reach either via some stairs from inside the temple, or through a door at pavement level on the east side. Light was brought into this basement by shafts set into the floor above. This fact alone suggests that the room had a practical use. For why provide lighting if no one was likely ever to go into it? One idea is that it was intended as a store for the surplus dedications from upstairs: whenever the temple caretaker felt that a clearout was needed, he would not throw the pious offerings out, but carefully stash them away in the basement. Another is that it was the city council’s treasury or bank vault, just as the treasury at Rome itself was in a temple cellar. Either is possible. But sadly there is no indication that anything was in there at the time of the eruption apart from some assorted pieces of sculpted marble.


103. This nineteenth century reconstruction of the Temple of Fortuna Augusta rightly imagines the religious rituals taking place outside the temple and in its portico. The artist has included the metal railings (though not at a height to keep a vandal out) and has brightened up the exterior with festoons. But the crowd of worshippers in front seem implausibly flamboyant.


104. The now rather desolate ruins of the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. How dilapidated this end of the Forum was at the time of the eruption is still disputed.

There are also clear signs that it was once much more richly decorated than it appears today. The floor was inlaid with geometric patterns of marble (so-called opus sectile) and the walls of the inner room were brightly painted. These paintings are now faded almost beyond recognition, but they were clearly visible when the building was first excavated in the early nineteenth century and when this temple was one of the star attractions of the site. In fact it was this spot that the poet Shelley chose for his picnic when he visited Pompeii in December 1818. Even if it was originally rather dark – for there is no obvious source of light except the main doorway – the inner room, with colonnade, statues, rich fittings and offerings, must have been an impressive sight. At more than 10 by 15 metres, and with the doors left open so you could see what you were doing, it would have been a place for the local council to meet.

That is, if there was not too much clutter and bric-a-brac getting in the way. The nineteenth-century excavators found a few inscriptions recording dedications for vows fulfilled (including one for the ‘well-being’ of the emperor Caligula), and the base of a statue put up in honour of a man, Spurius Turranius Proculus Gellianus, who had held various posts in Rome and the town of Lavinium. What his connection with Pompeii was, and quite why he was given a statue in this particular place of honour (if this was its original location), we have no idea. The excavators also turned up, in and around the temple, a good haul of bits and pieces of sculpture. As William Gell describes it in the 1830s, giving a nice flavour of the curious assemblage: ‘Many fingers of bronze were discovered ... a group representing an old man in a Phrygian cap taking a child by the hand, half a foot high; a woman carrying her infant ... a hand, a finger, and part of a foot, in marble; two feet with sandals; an arm, and many other colossal fragments.’

Standing out amongst all this was a colossal marble torso, which could only have come from the statue of a god, and two striking heads: that colossal bearded marble head of Jupiter himself (Ill. 99), and a smaller female head (Juno or Minerva). These heads have often been thought to be all that is left of the cult statues of the three deities. If so they must have been what we now call ‘acrolithic’ sculptures (literally ‘stone extremities’). This was a favourite ancient method of making huge images that would have been too big, heavy and costly to make out of solid marble, and much, much too costly to make entirely out of bronze. It involved constructing a frame out of wood or metal, covering most of the frame with rich clothing, and using marble just to stand in for the skin of hands, feet and faces. This partly explains why museums of ancient sculpture are now rather over-provided with large marble extremities. It is not only because they break off easily (which they do). It is because hands, feet and heads were often all that was made in marble in the first place.

But a more careful look at these remains produces a strange picture of the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva at the time of the eruption. For a start the male head and colossal torso cannot possibly belong together. Then there is the puzzle of why these parts of the precious cult images were found just lying around. Perhaps it was the result of an inefficient rescue job as the volcano exploded, or of hurried looting later. But if, as seems more likely in this case, the general disarray in the temple was caused by restoration works in progress (after one or more earthquakes) why was such little care taken with the old statues? Were the authorities really happy that parts of their venerable old images were just scattered on the temple floor? Most curious of all, on the back of the marble torso there is another sculpture in relief, showing three small figures. The marble has obviously been reused. This heroic male chest has, recently we would guess, been carved out of an earlier relief sculpture. All these factors, combined with the haul of other very fragmentary pieces, have made some archaeologists think that in 79 the building was not merely being restored, but it was actually temporarily decommissioned as a temple and was being used as a sculpture depository, workshop and site office. No need to worry about the careless treatment of the old cult statues. What was found here, impressive as some pieces are, were just the spare fragments in the depository.

We cannot now know for sure. But there are intriguing consequences for the little Temple of Aesculapius, and a whole web of possible stories follow. That temple contained three terracotta statues: a full length pair, male and female, plus an instantly recognisable and crudely crafted bust of Minerva. For Winckelmann the male figure was Aesculapius (Ill. 105), which made the female Hygeia, his daughter and another healing deity – with Minerva thrown in for good measure. But suppose, for a moment, that the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva really was out of commission at the time of the eruption. Surely the Pompeians would have wanted to lodge its cult images somewhere safe. This trio found in the small temple would make an equally plausible Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. What is against them being those very statues from the Forum, temporarily lodging in the temple down the road?


105. One of the statues found in the Temple of Jupiter Meilichios: a terracotta image of a god who could equally well be Aesculapius or Jupiter.

Well, they are not very grand, and they are made of terracotta not marble. Minerva is only a bust. But in religion, sacred and showy are not always synonymous. Sometimes the most humble objects have the most religious power. Maybe – and it is only maybe – we have been looking in the wrong place for that Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Celebrating the gods: in public and private

Carved into an altar also found in the Pompeian Forum is a scene of that most iconic of ancient rituals: animal sacrifice. We see it here in its classic guise, as it was described by Roman writers and plastered across the Roman world in thousands of images from coins to triumphal arches. It repays a closer look. For there are details and distinctions that do not immediately strike the modern eye. In the centre is a tripod, serving here as a portable altar. Next to it, the sacrificer, whether a priest or a political official (for both conducted sacrifices on behalf of their community), is reciting the prayer, while pouring an offering of wine and incense. He is wearing a toga, but has pulled part of the material over his head, as was the rule when sacrificing. A musician in the background plays the double pipes, while behind him some attendants (including a child) carry more equipment, including just the kind of shaped bowls and jugs that you can now see filling the cases of the Naples Museum. On the other side of the tripod, the splendid bull is being led to the scene, by three slaves. These are specially dressed for the killing that they will shortly carry out, naked to the waist. One of them is holding an axe ready for the slaughter.


106. The sacrifice of a bull. This altar from the Forum shows – as is usual in Roman art – the preliminaries to the death of the animal, not the kill itself. The social and political hierarchies are made clearly visible, in the contrast between the semi-naked slaves managing the animal and the heavily-draped elite priest, to the left, reciting the prayer.

This is, of course, a very idealised image of a sacrifice. It is the equivalent of a commemorative group photograph or rather – given that it was sculpted on the front of a marble altar where sacrifice would actually have taken place – it offered to the participants in the ritual a perfect image of what they were doing. The bull is not only very well behaved, he is also very large. It has been estimated that an animal this size (assuming the human participants were of average height) would have carried some 500 kilos of meat on him. My guess is that real-life sacrifice was usually a less well-ordered occasion, and that the animals were smaller, and less expensive. But even so we can get a sense here of the occasion itself: the noise, the music, the imminent spilling of blood. We see too some of the hierarchical and social conventions of the ritual. The official sacrificer himself stands at the altar, heavily clothed. He speaks the ritual words but he is not going to labour at the kill nor bloody his hands. That dirty work is to be done by slaves, bared for the task. Even (or especially) at ritual moments the divisions of the Roman social order were clearly marked.

What was sacrifice for? It was, in part, an offering to the god. When the animal had been killed its meat was divided. Some of it was consumed by the human participants, some of it was sold off, but some was burnt on the altar – its savour wafting up to heaven as a gift to the gods. It could also provide a way of finding out the divine will. After the kill, experts (haruspices) would inspect the entrails of the dead animal for signs from the gods. When Julius Caesar, for example, was sacrificing just before his assassination, the story was that the animal was found to have no heart. A bad omen needless to say – though sceptical Romans pointed out that it was impossible for an animal to live with no heart.

But sacrifice also offered a model of how the world was ordered on a much grander scale. The repeated slaughter of animals by humans to gods was an emblem of the hierarchy of the cosmos, with humans in the middle between the beasts on the one hand and the divine on the other. And the sharing of the meat after the sacrifice, and the communal banqueting that sometimes went with it, reaffirmed the human community and its own internal hierarchies. (There were very few civic handouts in the Roman world that did not reassert social rank by giving more to the rich than the poor – an unsettling reversal of our own assumption that more should go to the needy.) Sacrifice was the closest thing the Roman world had to a creed – a creed in action. To reject sacrifice, as the Christians did, was tantamount to rejecting traditional Roman religion. Even vegetarianism was more than a moral or lifestyle choice. By not participating in the consumption of meat, vegetarians put themselves dangerously at odds with the social and cosmic order represented by sacrifice.

We would love to know more of the practical details of sacrifice at Pompeii. How was it funded? How many people actually witnessed it? Did the duoviri have haruspices on their staff, as is mentioned in the Spanish charter? How many shared in the consumption of the meat, and where did that happen? In Rome on some occasions tables were set up in the Forum. Could that have been done in Pompeii as well? How much of the meat was sold off through the butchers? And was it really the case, as some modern historians have claimed, that all meat ever consumed had been part of a sacrifice? I am not convinced. But if the building known as the macellum (‘market’) was primarily a meat market, then at least it was conveniently close to the main temples of the town.

We would also like to know more about when, and how often, sacrifice was performed. A sacrifice might be offered to a god in payment of a vow or to appease the gods after some disaster. It might mark major events or anniversaries: the accession of an emperor, the anniversary of a temple’s foundation, the inauguration of new civic officials or a god’s special festival. But exactly how often the distinctive, full-blown animal slaughter took place – rather than the cheaper ‘shorthand’ of wine, incense and grain, thrown onto the flames of an altar – we can only guess.

Interestingly the sculptor who showed the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva tottering in the earthquake depicted a sacrifice in progress right next door to it (Ill. 5). It has proved very hard to match up this large and distinctive altar, apparently decorated with the sculpture of a pig, to any monument anywhere in the Forum. But there is no need to read this literally, and certainly no need to suppose that a sacrifice had been in full swing at the very moment of the tremor. Much more likely the sculptor was attempting to capture the kinds of activities that symbolised the life of the town at the moment of its interruption. In the Forum, next to the temple, what else but a large bull being led to slaughter by a man naked to the waist, carrying an axe?

Ancient religious festivals could also be fun. We have very little idea how the participants, in Pompeii or anywhere else, reacted to the slaughter of the sacrificial animals. The poet Horace had some sentimental reflections on the young goat he intended to sacrifice (‘his head, swollen with horns, / newly grown, gives promise of love and battles; / in vain ...’). But Horace was unlikely to have been typical. And in any case the feasting which followed must surely have been a jolly and celebratory event. Many other ways of honouring the gods involved pleasure for their human worshippers too. We have already looked at shows, theatre and pantomime as part of Pompeian ‘Fun and Games’. Very often these were staged as part of a festival with a religious core. Drama in Italy, no less than in Greece, had its roots in religious celebrations. Many early ‘theatres’ were improvised from the steps of temples, the gods overseeing the performance from within. At Pompeii the Large Theatre is directly linked, by a monumental staircase, to the Triangular Forum and its Temple of Minerva and Hercules – a connection which points to the religious aspect of drama here too.

We happen to know most about Pompeii’s festival of the god Apollo. Almost certainly there were festivals of plenty of other gods too. But thanks to the surviving epitaph of Aulus Clodius Flaccus (p. 198) we have a brief order of ceremonies for the ‘Games of Apollo’ on three occasions when Flaccus, as duumvir, was sponsoring the proceedings. We have already discussed some of the range of spectacles he presented: bullfighters, boxers and pantomimes. His epitaph also stresses the ‘procession’ that was a part of all this. Processions were another distinctive element in ancient religion. Priests, officials of various sorts, clubs and the representatives of particular trades paraded through the streets. Sometimes the images of gods came too, even brought from the temples themselves, or other displays transported on floats or those portable platforms carried shoulder-high. Accompanied by music, by the sprinkling of incense and (if there was a generous sponsor) by presents thrown to the spectators, these festivities put the city, its officials, its representatives and its gods on display – to itself.

By definition, processions are transitory affairs and tracking their progress through the town is difficult. How would anyone be able to reconstruct from any material remains the routes of the London Lord Mayor’s procession or of a royal wedding? One theory, as we have already seen, holds that the road which leads from the old temple in the Triangular Forum to the main Forum – largely traffic-free and free of disreputable elements such as bars – was a major processional route in the city, and imagines parades moving between the old religious centre of the Temple of Minerva and Hercules and the new focus in the Temple of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. It may have been so. But, whichever precise route they took (and that surely must have differed according to the occasion), we have some evidence in sculpture and painting of what the displays might have looked like.

We glimpsed in the last chapter the procession that led to the games in the Amphitheatre. An extraordinary painting from the façade of what was probably a carpenter’s shop, just opposite the Bar on the Via di Mercurio, captures the style of display even more vividly. Most of the paintings discovered on the outside of this building have been lost. According to early copies, they featured a trio of gods and goddesses – Mercury (often associated with trade and commerce), Fortuna (for good luck), Minerva (who was regularly the patron of crafts and craftsmanship) – plus Daedalus, the mythical craftsman who most famously built the Labyrinth for King Minos and made the wings which brought about the death of his son Icarus. But luckily one scene was long ago removed to the Naples Museum (Plate 5). It shows another of those portable platforms (or fercula in Latin), like the one carrying the model blacksmiths in the Amphitheatre procession. This one is also being carried by four bearers. It must be heavy, for the men use sticks to support themselves, and it appears to be rather more elaborate than the earlier one – with a canopy and a frame decorated with flowers and foliage.

Displayed on the ferculum are three groups of model figures. At the back is an image of the goddess Minerva. This part of the painting is badly damaged, but part of her dress and her trademark shield are still visible. In the middle three carpenters are at work, one apparently planing a piece of wood, the other two operating a saw between them. At the front is a much more puzzling scene: a man dressed in a short tunic, with a compass in his hands, stands over a naked man lying in the ground. One attractive theory sees the standing figure as Daedalus again, and this part of the scene therefore as some myth of craftmanship and carpentry. But who is the figure on the ground? Is it a statue that Daedalus has crafted? Or is it his nephew Perdix, whom Daedalus killed in jealous rivalry because the clever lad had invented the compasses and saw? Either way, what we are looking at must be a tableau carried in procession by the carpenters – whether representing this one firm, or the whole carpentry trade in the city. It is rare evidence for what Flaccus’ ‘procession’ at the Games of Apollo might have contained.

Sacrifice of bulls, processions, theatrical performances ... all these are rituals on a city-wide scale. What happened in more-local or more-private contexts? There is, in fact, plenty of evidence for the presence of the gods in neighbourhoods of the town and in private houses, large and small. Shrines and altars were set up at many crossroads, and one of the most distinctive and easily recognisable features of Pompeian houses is shrines that we now call by the Latin word lararium, shrine of the Lares or household gods (though the term was not used in Latin itself until centuries after the destruction of Pompeii). Some of these are quite elaborate affairs, set up in the atrium or peristyle of large houses. We saw in the House of the Tragic Poet, for example, how the visitor’s eye was drawn through the house directly to the shrine on the back wall of the peristyle garden. But many others are much simpler and often placed in the kitchen or service areas. In fact, in the absence of much decoration it can be hard to distinguish an ordinary shelf or niche from one of these simple ‘shrines’ – and there is a good chance that some of those features confidently labelled lararium on modern plans were nothing more than a shelf for normal household equipment.

One of the most impressive of these shrines is in the small atrium of the House of the Vettii (Ill. 107). The painting which covers its back wall includes many of the figures typically found on these lararia. To left and right are the Lares themselves, dressed in skimpy tunics and carrying drinking horns and wine buckets. These mini-gods were often associated with the protection and welfare of the house, or sometimes (when they appear as the ‘Lares of the Crossroads’) of a local neighbourhood. In one of Plautus’ plays a Lar, who appears on stage to speak the prologue, has been responsible for finding a hidden pot of gold in the house. And it was to the Lares that the two members of the household of Caius Julius Philippus made their vow for the master’s safe return. But no myths attached to them, as to most other deities, and even the Romans themselves debated their history and exactly what kind of gods they were.


107. This household shrine or lararium from the House of the Vettii is among the most impressive to survive. Above the writhing snake, the Lares themselves (similar to the miniature bronze versions in Ill. 98) stand on either side of a figure in a toga, who may be the head of the household or his ‘guardian spirit’.

Between the Lares, in the middle of the scene, stands a man dressed in a toga, pulled over his head, as if he were in the act of sacrifice. He is, in fact, scattering incense from a box in his left hand. One would naturally see him as the head of the household (paterfamilias), but archaeologists tend – for no very strong reason, so far as I can tell – to refer to him as the genius, or the ‘guardian spirit’ of the head of the household. The difference probably does not matter too much. For, in whichever guise, he is making an offering to the Lares. Underneath squirms a splendid snake: a symbol of prosperity, fertility and the protection of the house (or so the usual story goes).


108. A community of worshippers. It is hard to be certain what kind of religious rituals took place in a Pompeian house. This rough painting seems to suggest some form of communal worship. For next to the large figure of a Lar, we see a group of people, young and old, gathered together around an altar.

In many cases statuettes of gods and goddesses stood on the ledge or shelf of the lararium. Sometimes these depict the Lares themselves, but a much wider range of deities has been found – perhaps giving us a glimpse into the divine favourites of the Pompeians (or at least those rich enough to afford statuettes, mostly in bronze). After the Lares, Mercury is the most popular divine subject, closely followed by the Egyptian gods (whom we shall look at more closely at the end of this chapter), with Venus, Minerva, Jupiter and Hercules, in that order, coming next.

The big question is what ritual, if any, took place at these shrines? We know that offerings were made on the crossroads shrines for the simple reason that on at least one traces of ash and burnt remains have been discovered. These were presumably organised by the ‘presidents’ and ‘attendants’ whose names are recorded in a handful of painted lists found close by (p. 211). As for the private houses, one common idea is that the whole household – owners, slaves and other dependants – would gather at the larariumregularly, while the paterfamilias made an offering to the gods. That may seem unlikely. Not only does it sound much too like the Victorian custom of family prayers, but in some cases the shrine is in such a poky room that it would have been impossible to assemble many of the household around it. All the same, something along those lines does appear to be shown in an unusual painting found right next to the lararium of one small house (Ill. 108).

Between two giant Lares, a paterfamilias is making an offering at an altar. This is not full-blown animal sacrifice, but it does feature a pipe-player just as on the sacrificial scene from the Forum. Just behind the paterfamilias stands his wife, while on the right we see another thirteen people, all of whom, apart from the little boy in front stand in exactly the same position, with their right hand on their chest. Again there are dangers in reading the image too literally. Certainly this crowd could not have fitted into the cramped room where the painting was found. But it must hint at some kind of lararium ritual attended by the household in general – and at the formal stance they would have been expected to adopt during the proceedings, the Roman equivalent of ‘hands together’ for prayer.

As in the case of processions, the problem in reconstructing the religious life of the home is that rituals such as this very rarely leave any archaeological trace, apart from the lucky survival of a bit of ash. Only very occasionally can we detect religious action in the remains we find on the ground. At the back of one house, excavators found a pit filled with rubble and on top a tile marked FULGUR (i.e. ‘lightning’). Might this have been part of the process of appeasing the gods after a lightning strike? In the recent excavations of the House and Bar of Amarantus, other curious pits were found in the floor, in both the Roman and the pre-Roman phases of occupation on that particular patch of ground. The later ones contained sheep and cockerel bone, as well as charred fig and pine-nuts. The earlier ones included, for example, a newborn piglet, some cereals, whole fruits as well as fig and grape pips. The excavators saw here evidence of sacrifice (some of the piglet’s bones were burned, and knife marks suggested that some of it had been eaten), along with offerings of whole fruits and cereal, the remains of which were then ritually buried. This would be, in other words, rare evidence for some kind of religious rites in the home – unless, of course, it is one of those cases where, as the old joke has it, ‘religion’ is a convenient fall-back for explaining odd features we cannot easily make sense of.

Politics and religion: emperors, attendants and priests

Roman religion was a flexible and expandable system. New gods and goddesses were brought in from abroad. In fact there is a nice parallel to be drawn between the way Romans incorporated ex-slaves into their citizen body and the way they incorporated new gods into their pantheon. But new gods were also recruited from among mortal men: the boundary between humans and gods could occasionally be crossed. According to Roman myth both Hercules and Aesculapius had been born mortals. But it did not stop with myth. Many Roman emperors became gods.

That process was a complex one, and it took different forms in different parts of the Roman world, at different periods and on different occasions. Sometimes the Roman senate would officially declare a Roman emperor a god at his ‘death’, and would grant him a temple and priests. In some provinces religious worship of the emperor during his lifetime was the central way that loyalty to Rome was expressed. Sometimes the emperor would merely be likened to a god, given honours that were ‘equal’ to the gods, but not exactly the same. None of this is quite as crude (or silly) as it is often painted. In Rome the division between humans and gods was seen essentially in terms of power. There was almost bound to be a debate about where on that spectrum the all-powerful single ruler of the Roman world belonged. Or, to put it another way: if gods could be treated rather like overblown duoviri, then the infinitely more powerful emperor could, or must, be treated as a god. In a nutshell, divine or quasi-divine power was a way of understanding and representing human autocracy.

Emperors and the Roman elite could exploit this religious aspect of imperial power in all kinds of ways. As well as finding the ‘imperial cult’, as it is now often called, a useful means of channelling the loyalty of provincial communities, the first emperor, Augustus, took care to insert himself into the neighbourhood religious organisations of Rome. The traditional worship of the ‘Lares of the crossroads’ was refocused onto the ‘Lares of the emperor’, as an exercise in promoting the loyalty to the imperial regime of those slaves and ex-slaves who were the major participants in these local cults. Yet there was also a degree of quizzical and humorous reflection about the very idea of the emperor being a god. A skit about the doddery old Claudius trying to take his place in heaven (the Apocolocyntosis), perhaps written by the philosopher Seneca, is one of the funniest things to survive in Latin. The emperor Vespasian is reputed to have made a deathbed quip at his own expense: ‘Dear me,’ he said, ‘I think I’m turning into a god.’

What impact did divine emperors have on the town of Pompeii? Just as in Rome the worship of the emperor seeped (or was pushed) into all kinds of traditional forms of religion. The conflation of Fortuna with the power of the emperor in Marcus Tullius’ temple is a typical case of that. In Pompeii we have no direct evidence that the crossroads cults took on an imperial aspect as they did at Rome. But a revealing series of inscriptions shows how other traditional deities could eventually be squeezed out by the presence of the emperor. Somewhere in the town – we do not know where – there must have been a shrine to the god Mercury and his mother Maia. What survives of their worship is a number of plaques recording, with a precise date, dedications made by the officials of the cult, who were overwhelmingly slaves and ex-slaves. In the earliest of these they record dedications to (or describe themselves as attendants of) just Mercury and Maia. Then the emperor Augustus joins them: ‘attendants of Augustus, Mercury and Maia’. After 2 BCE, Augustus completely takes over. There is no mention in any of the later dedications of the original pair of gods.

There were also entirely new imperial elements brought into local religion, including new priests. As we have already noted, the major priests of the city were drawn from the ranks of the elite, part-time officials dealing with the religious business of the state – sometimes, we may guess, conducting sacrifice, sometimes advising the council on religious decisions and actions. They might be attached to individual gods, to judge from one reference to a ‘priest of Mars’. Others, since the establishment of the colony, were members of what we might call priestly ‘committees’, modelled on the practice of the city of Rome itself. We know of augures who, on the Roman model, would have been concerned, amongst other things, with signs from the gods. There were also pontifices, who were supposed to advise on such things as religious law, the calendar and burial rules. Women, for once, had a formal role. There were public priestesses of Venus and of Ceres. Wealthy Eumachia was one such ‘public priestess’, another was Mamia. We do not know exactly what their religious duties were. There is some doubt whether Roman women were actually allowed to conduct sacrifice. But they certainly disposed of considerable cash and sponsored public works. As we have seen, to judge from a fragmentary inscription, Eumachia’s vast development in the Forum was bordered by another sponsored by Mamia.

To this repertoire was added a priesthood of the reigning emperor, held by some of the most prominent citizens, including Marcus Holconius Rufus. The duties must have included sacrificing on important imperial occasions and anniversaries. But it is very likely too that holding the priesthood of the emperor was a fast-track way to getting noticed by the imperial hierarchy in the capital. Far below that level, even if they had many other functions in the town, the Augus-tales, as their name suggests, must also have had some responsibilities for the worship of the emperor.

New shrines or temples were built too. As well as the Temple of Fortuna Augusta, there was also a building on the east side of the Forum devoted specifically to the imperial cult. It is from this temple that the altar with its scene of sacrifice comes. And it is, in fact, the altar itself that gives away the connection with the emperor Augustus: the design on its back features two of the honours (the oak wreath and laurels) voted to Augustus by the senate in 29 BCE; and the face of the sacrificer bears more than a passing resemblance to that emperor. It was presumably here that the priests of the imperial cult would conduct their imperial sacrifices.

The overall impression, then, is that the emperor was becoming a bigger and bigger part of the religious world of Pompeii. But perhaps not quite such a large part as some modern scholars have claimed. It is predictable perhaps that the more interested archaeologists and historians have become in the Roman imperial cult, the more they have found its physical remains at every turn. Put simply, there is a tendency to find what you are looking for. In Pompeii, this enthusiasm has combined with the lack of much evidence about what several of the buildings on the east side of the Forum were actually for to encourage at least three buildings, or parts of buildings, to be assigned to the worship of the emperor.

In addition to the temple with the altar, there is the building next door, often labelled on no evidence at all ‘Imperial cult building’ (though the alternative idea that it was a library seems no better to me). Then, at the back of the macellum, there is supposed to have been another shrine to the emperor. This view is largely based on the discovery in the early nineteenth century of a marble arm, holding a globe (an imperial figure?) and a pair of statues which some have identified as members of the imperial family – though others (such is the difficulty of putting names to faces) have seen them as a couple of local grandees. As if that were not enough, some imaginative scholars have argued that the lump of concrete at the centre of the piazza was the base of a large altar dedicated to the emperor.

If all this were true, the Forum of Pompeii in 79 CE could only be described as a monument to dynastic and political loyalty, on a scale that would impress the most hard-line, one-party regimes of the modern world. Happily there is hardly a shred of evidence for any of it.

Mighty Isis

Were there Christians in Pompeii? By 79 it is not impossible. But there is no firm evidence for their presence, except for an example of a common Roman word game. This is one of those clever, but almost meaningless, phrases which read exactly the same backwards and forwards. It also turns out to be (almost) an anagram of PATER NOSTER (‘OUR FATHER’) written twice over, as well as two sets of the letters A and O (like the Christian ‘Alpha and Omega’). Some of the later examples of the same game do seem to have Christian connections. This one may too ... or it may not. The charcoal graffito which was said to include the word ‘Christiani’, but faded almost instantly, is almost certainly a figment of pious imagination. There is stronger evidence for the presence of Jews. No synagogue has been unearthed. But there is at least one inscription in Hebrew, a few possible references to the Jewish bible, including the famous reference to Sodom and Gomorrah (p. 25), and a sprinkling of possibly Jewish names – not to mention that kosher garum.

There were nonetheless other religious options for the people of Pompeii beyond the traditions we have already looked at. From as early as the second century BCE, there were religions in Italy which offered a very different kind of religious experience. These often involved initiation and the kind of personal emotional commitment that was not a crucial element in traditional religion. They often held out the promise to the initiates of life after death. This again was not an issue of great importance within the traditional structures of religion, where the dead did have some shadowy continuing existence and might receive offerings at their tombs by pious descendants – but it was certainly not a very desirable existence. These religions were commonly served by priests, or occasionally priestesses, who were more or less full-time, had a pastoral role with their followers and – unlike the augures and pontifices of Pompeii – lived a specially religious life. They might, for example, wear distinctive clothes or be shaven-headed. They often had an origin overseas, or at least defined themselves with recognisably foreign symbols.

It has proved very easy to misrepresent, and to glamorise, these religions. They were not direct precursors of Christianity. Nor did they arise in complete opposition to traditional religion, to provide the emotional and spiritual satisfaction that Jupiter, Apollo and so on did not. Nor were they practised predominantly by women, the poor, the slaves and other disadvantaged groups attracted by the promise of a blissful afterlife to make up for the wretched conditions of the here and now. They were very much part of Roman polytheism, not outside it, even if they had a shifting and sometimes awkward relationship with the authorities of the Roman state. So, for example, the worship of Bacchus (or Dionysos) and the Eastern goddess Cybele (also called the ‘Great Mother’) had both a civic and a more mystical version. The mystical, initiatory cult of Bacchus was severely restricted by the Roman authorities in 186 BCE, not far short of a total ban. Priests of the Egyptian goddess Isis were on several occasions expelled from Rome, but later Isiac religion received official sponsorship from Roman emperors.


109. Bronze hands, like this one found in Pompeii, are commonly associated with the Eastern god Sabazius. Its meaning and use is uncertain, but it is decorated with symbols of the cult (for example, the pine cone at the end of the thumb). One idea is that these hands were displayed on poles and perhaps carried in procession.

Several of these religions were known, even if not fully organised, at Pompeii. We have already looked at the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries which, though baffling and impossible to decode completely, certainly evoke some aspects of the cult of Bacchus, with its revelation of secret objects, and the sense of an ordeal that the initiate must undergo. One house not far from the Amphitheatre turned up various objects connected with the cult of the Eastern deity Sabazius (Ill. 109) – though whether the house was a fully fledged shrine of the god, as is often claimed, is a moot point. But by far the most prominent of these religions at Pompeii was the worship of Isis and other Egyptian deities.

Isis came in many guises, from protector of sailors to the mother of the gods. But one crucial element in her myth was her resurrection of her husband Osiris, who had been killed and dismembered by his brother Seth. Isis put his body together again and even went on to become pregnant by him with their child Horus. Hers was a story and a cult that offered hope of life after death. Something of the flavour of the religion for Roman worshippers is captured in the second-century CE novel by Apuleius, The Golden Ass. In this, after a series of terrifying adventures, the narrator Lucius is finally initiated into the Isiac cult. He describes the beginning of this process: the ritual washing, the abstinence (no meat or wine), the presents given by other worshippers, the dressing up in new linen. But of course he does not reveal the ultimate secret: ‘You may perhaps, attentive reader, ask anxiously what was then said and done. I would tell you if I could; you would find out if you could be told. But your ears and my tongue would be equally punished for such rash curiosity.’ But he does go on to make it clear enough that what was promised by the religion was the conquest of death: ‘Having reached the boundary of death ... I was borne through all the elements and returned.’


Figure 21. Temple of Isis. Unlike the traditional civic cults of Pompeii, the Temple of Isis included room for a community of worshippers, and probably domestic quarters for the priests.

The Temple of Isis at Pompeii is one of the best-preserved, and least looted, buildings in the town (Fig. 21). Tucked into a small site right next to the Large Theatre, which looms above it, it had been recently completely rebuilt and was in full working order in 79 CE. It was hidden from the street by a high curtain wall, broken by a single main entrance up two steps and with a large wooden door. Enough survived of this for the eighteenth-century excavators to see that this door was made in three pieces. Just the central section would have given day-to-day access. It would, presumably, have been thrown wide open on festival occasions.

The door opened into a colonnaded courtyard (Ill. 110). In the centre stood a small temple, with other structures round about and further rooms off the courtyard. The temple was constructed of brick and stone, its outside stuccoed and painted. The walls of the courtyard itself were covered in frescoes. Hardly a spot was left undecorated. Statues were placed around the courtyard and in niches on the temple building itself. We quickly meet here again the old problem of labelling and reconstruction. Archaeologists have examined these remains for centuries, trying to match them up to descriptions given by ancient writers of the rituals and organisation of the cult of Isis, and to name the various parts. So, for example, the large room to the west is usually called by the Greek nameekklesi-asterion (‘assembly room’), and assumed to be the place where the initiates met. It may have been. But the important thing is to see how this complex differs from the traditional civic temples of the town, and how the different decorations and finds in the different areas may point to different functions.

The first thing to emphasise is that it was not open to public view, and the entrance was not welcoming to all-comers. This was religion for initiates. Secondly the building was catering for more congregational religious use and possibly a resident priest or two. Whether or not the assembly room really was for meetings of the members of the cult, there were places here for people to congregate and do things together. There were also a large dining room and a kitchen, and spaces that could be used for sleeping. As we have seen in other places, lighting was an issue. Fifty-eight terracotta lamps were found in one of the back storerooms.

The precise function of some parts is clear enough. The temple itself originally contained the cult statues of Isis and Osiris. These were not found in place on their podium inside. But an elegant marble head, found in the so-called ekkle-siasterion near some other marble extremities (a left hand, a right hand and arm, the front of two feet), may well be the remains of the acrolithic cult statue from the temple. The temple’s altar is outside in the courtyard, and opposite it is a small square structure, marking out a sunken pool. Whether or not archaeologists are right to give this the title purgatorium, it does very likely relate to the stress on washing and cleansing we find in ancient discussions of Isiac rituals. And not just any water would do. In theory at least the initiates of Isis bathed themselves in water brought specially from the Nile.

Meanwhile, whatever happened there, the decoration of the ekklesiasterion and that of the room next door marked them both as different from the rest. There were a few specifically Egyptian religious scenes in the decoration of the courtyard, but much of it seems to have had no particular relevance to the temple’s cult or Isiac myth. By contrast, in both these rooms the flavour is decidedly Egyptian. The ‘assembly room’ originally included at least two large mythological panels. One was a perfect emblem to greet new initiates: it depicts the Greek heroine Io, in flight from the goddess Hera, being welcomed to Egypt by Isis herself (Plate 18). The other room displays paintings of Isiac symbols, of the goddess herself and her rituals. In addition to the fifty-eight lamps, it was full of various pieces of religious equipment and Egyptian memorabilia, from a little sphinx to an iron tripod.


110. The little Temple of Isis still captures the modern imagination much as it did that of eighteenth-century visitors. Because it was in full working order at the time of the eruption, and not looted in the years that followed, it offers the most vivid picture of a religious centre in the town.

The overall impression is one of cultural mix. Here, for example, standard classical portraits (such as the bronze of mime actor Norbanus Sorex) and sculptures of traditional deities such as Venus rub shoulders with ‘real’ Egyptian bric-a-brac, such as a fourth-century BCE tablet from Egypt inscribed in hieroglyphs – presumably intended to evoke ‘authentic’ Egypt. We see this mixture too in the best-preserved image of Isis from the complex (Ill. 111). This statue was made in the first century CE, adopting a Greek style of sculpture of several hundred years earlier. She is hardly Egyptian at all, but for the characteristic rattle or sistrum she carries in one hand, and the ankh, or Egyptian cross, she once carried in the other. It is hard to resist the feeling that this cult is treading a fairly safe line between its traditional civic Italian links and its mystical Egyptian ‘otherness’. That is the message too from all those Egyptian deities who shared space on the household lararium with little models of Lares, or Hercules, or Mercury.

The traditional aspects of the Isiac cult are well illustrated by the inscription above the main entranceway, recording the restoration. It reads: ‘Numerius Popidius Celsinus, the son of Popidius, restored with his own money the Temple of Isis, from its foundations, after it had collapsed in the earthquake. On account of his generosity, the decurions co-opted him onto the town council, without fee, although he was only six years old.’ There are other signs of this family’s benefactions in the temple. Celsinus’ father, ‘Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, senior’ donated a statue of Bacchus. Their names also used to appear in black and white mosaic, along with that of Corelia Celsa (presumably wife and mother) on the floor of the ekklesiasterion.

As we have already seen, it looks as if the elder Popidius was using the restoration of this temple to launch his young son into the Pompeian political elite. We do not know for sure that Popidius Ampliatus was an ex-slave and so precluded himself from political advancement in the town, but a man of that name does appear among the ‘attendants of Augustus’, who were predominantly slaves or ex-slaves. So that seems very likely. What is more interesting though is that restoration of the Temple of Isis so easily counts in the game of benefaction and generosity that characterised civic advancement in Pompeii. Initiatory, foreign and strange, the Isiac cult may have in some respects been. But the bottom line was that it was a public cult, on public land, as plausible a vehicle for social advancement as that of Fortuna Augusta. Isis was one religious option among several for the inhabitants of Pompeii.

In the 1760s, the Temple of Isis was among the first buildings fully excavated on the site. It was a lucky find and it instantly captured the imagination of European travellers. True, a few killjoys found it disappointingly small. But for most it offered double excitement: simultaneously a glimpse of ancient Egypt and of ancient Rome. Exotic and a little bit sinister, it gave Mozart, who visited Pompeii in 1769, ideas for the Magic Flute. Fifty years later, it gave Bulwer-Lytton the idea for the nasty conniving villain of hisLast Days, the Egyptian Arbaces – who was written up with all the predictable racial stereotypes. But it was responsible for even more powerful myths too. For it was the pristine state of the temple, almost undisturbed, that helped to create ‘our’ myth of Pompeii, a city interrupted in mid-flow.


111. A nice illustration of the cultural mix represented by the cult of Isis at Pompeii, straddling the traditions of Egypt, Greece and Rome. This nineteenth-century painting shows a statue of the goddess herself, holding Egyptian symbols. But the figure itself looks back to a recognisably Greek style of sculpture.

In fact, the last sacrifice was still burning on the altar here when the pumice started to fall. Or so they said.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!