More on literary sources for Isis

I’ve continued to collect ancient literary sources about Isis.  I have a set of working notes (in no particular order) here.  There seems to be a lot of wild talk around about Isis too.

Today my objective was to discover the attitude of Augustus to the cult.  I have read unreferenced claims that Augustus described the cult as “pornographic” — but have yet to find a source for this.  But I did eventually locate the source that showed that he pushed the cult outside the pomerium, not in Tacitus, as several books claim, but in Cassius Dio.

But there is still a lot to do.


5 thoughts on “More on literary sources for Isis

  1. Dear Roger,

    I do not recall ever noticing in any classical source the claim that Augustus found the cult of Isis ‘pornographic’; but my memory may be at fault. On the other hand, this may be one of those baseless ‘urban legends’ that spring up on the internet and are repeated unthinkingly by the credulous.

    I have just scrolled quickly through an online English translation of the Life of Augustus in the Lives of Suetonius, and only came up with one passage relevant to the enquiry:

    XCIII. With regard to the religious ceremonies of foreign nations, he was a strict observer of those which had been established by ancient custom; but others he held in no esteem. For, having been initiated at Athens, and coming afterwards to hear a cause at Rome, relative to the privileges of the priests of the Attic Ceres, when some of the mysteries of their sacred rites were to be introduced in the pleadings, he dismissed those who sat upon the bench as judges with him, as well as the by-standers, and beard the argument upon those points himself. But, on the other hand, he not only declined, in his progress through Egypt, to go out of his way to pay a visit to Apis, but he likewise commended his grandson Caius for not paying his devotions at Jerusalem in his passage through Judaea.

    It would seem from this passage that Augustus shared the common Roman view of exotic, foreign religions.

  2. Hi David,

    Thank you for looking for this. If you do a search on ‘Augustus Isis pornographic’ in Google you will find a shoal of sites, none referencing the claim. Interestingly some place “pornographic” in scare-quotes; others — earlier in the chain of transmission, I would guess — do not. It is probably a legend, derived from some article.

    The Suetonius is helpful for context — thank you! I will add it to my list of Isis sources.

  3. Augustus had a temple dedicated to Isis constructed in his name at Shahūr, Egypt, which is about 20 km north of Luxor. See:

    Willems, Harco O. 2007. “Die Theologie der Innenräume des Schenhurtempels.” In Sechste ägyptologische Tempeltagung: Funktion und Gebrauch altägyptischer Tempelräume; Leiden, 4.–7. September 2002, edited by Bernardus Johannes Jozef Haring and Andrea Klug. Königtum, Staat und Gesellschaft früher Hochkulturen 3,1. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. 277–290.

    Willems, Harco O., Filip Coppens, Marleen De Meyer, and Peter Dils. 2003. The temple of Shanhûr. Volume 1: The sanctuary, the wabet, and the gates of the central hall and the great vestibule. Orientalia lovaniensia analecta 124. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters and Department Oosterse Studies.

  4. Thank you very much for this.

    I’m not sure that we can infer anything about the policies of an emperor by the building projects done in Egypt itself. Won’t these always tend to reflect the ideas of ancient Egypt, and his status as surrogate pharaoh?

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