Isis and Valerius Maximus

I’ve started to think about sources for Isis.  In particular I was wondering when the cult came to Rome.  I stumbled across a statement[1] that Tiberius repressed the cult, while Caligula built a temple on the Campus Martius.  This led me to this link, by a certain Stephanie Dray, apparently an author of historical fiction (although one unknown to me), which at last offered some sources! —

… we learn from TertullianCassius Dio, Valerius Maximus, Josephus and others, they cracked down on Isis worship too.

The female-centric Alexandrine cult promoted unorthodox ideas about gender roles, war and slavery; it was thought to be a threat to the moral fiber of Rome. Writers like Juvenal and Cattullus propagated the idea that the religion was obscene and orgiastic. Certainly, Isis was a favorite amongst prostitutes, which couldn’t have earned her any points with the musty old conscript fathers in Rome.

Valerius Maximus tells us that the authorities attempted to purge the cult from Rome, going so far as to destroy her temples–though none of the workmen would take up an axe so the politician in charge had to remove his toga and start trashing the temple himself. Isis enjoyed a brief reprieve under Julius Caesar and Mark Antony–which may have had something to do with the fact that both men were sleeping with Cleopatra VII of Egypt, the New Isis.

The article continues. But what makes it praiseworthy — at least compared to the majority of stuff I have seen online — is that at least it links to some sources. 

The Cassius Dio link is to Bill Thayer’s Lacus Curtius site.  The reference is in Cassius Dio, book 40, ch.27, discussing events during the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

But it seems to me that that decree passed the previous year, near its close, with regard to Serapis and Isis, was a portent equal to any; for the senate had decided to tear down their temples, which some individuals had built on their own account. Indeed, for a long time they did not believe in these gods, and even when the rendering of public worship to them gained the day, they settled them outside the pomerium.

I’m not sure what the year is, but the account is followed by mention of the murder of Clodius.

The Tertullian reference is to the Apologeticum, chapter 6.  The following is the ANF translation:

The consuls Piso and Gabinius, no Christians surely, forbade Serapis, and Isis, and Arpocrates, with their dogheaded friend, admission into the Capitol— in the act casting them out from the assembly of the gods— overthrow their altars, and expelled them from the country, being anxious to prevent the vices of their base and lascivious religion from spreading.

The Josephus reference I remember, for it is in Antiquities book 18, chapter 3, immediately following the Testimonium Flavianum.  The reference is too long to quote here — it’s online here — but basically concerns a scandal where the priests were bribed to allow a man to seduce a respectable married woman in the temple by pretending to be Anubis.  The following is from the end of the Whiston translation (and why is this the only translation online?).

So he [the husband] revealed the fact to the emperor.  Whereupon Tiberius inquired into the matter thoroughly by examining the priests about it, and ordered them to be crucified, as well as Ide [the female pander], who was the occasion of their perdition, and who had contrived the whole matter, which was so injurious to the woman.

He also demolished the temple of Isis, and gave order that her statue should be thrown into the river Tiber; while he only banished Mundus [the seducer], but did no more to him, because he supposed that what crime he had committed was done out of the passion of love.

And these were the circumstances which concerned the temple of Isis, and the injuries occasioned by her priests.

From this we learn that none of the priests were Roman citizens; and also that Anubis featured in the temple in Rome.

But what about Valerius Maximus?  For those who do not remember who he was, he wrote 9 books of anecdotes, and evidently one of them concerns Isis.  I couldn’t find an English translation online, but, thanks to Andrew Smith of, I found a French translation at here.  In book 1, chapter 3, verse 4:

4.  The senate decreed the demolition of the temples of Isis and of Serapis, but none of the workers would stretch out their hands to do so.  The consul P. Aemilius Paulus, taking off his toga praetextus, took a hachet and struck the doors of the temple with it. 

A real English translation does exist.  A new Loeb edition by D. R. S. Shackelton-Bailey — who did so much for Cicero translations — appeared in 2001. Sadly I can’t find a PDF of it.  But, since it’s the kind of gossippy book that I like to dip into, I have just ordered the first volume (and 50% more expensive than I expected it was too, thanks to all the “quantitative easing” going on).  This should arrive this weekend, thanks to the wonder of Amazon.  We shall see what he has to say!

  1. [1]L.H. Petersen, The Freedman in Roman art and art history, p.245, n.67.

2 thoughts on “Isis and Valerius Maximus

  1. Thank you very much for your very helpful page — it is one of the better online sources!

    I’ve started to compile literary sources. But I think that there must be archaeological reports on the Isaeum Campanense — the big temple in Rome.

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