The cult of Isis in Benevento

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“Isis the Great, the God’s Mother, Sothis, Queen of the Gods, Lady of the Sky, the Earth, and the Netherworld. Regnal year eight, under the majesty of the Horus, the Strong Bull, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Two Lands, Horus, the God’s Son, beloved of all the gods, the son of Re, the Lord of Crowns, Domitian, ever-living: a splendid temple was built for Isis the Great, Lady of Benevento, and her Ennead“.

From the obelisks that once adorned the Iseum in Benevento, author’s translation

Benevento hosts an exceptional collection of Egyptian and Egyptian-influenced artefacts from the Hellenistic period, which were brought here by order of the emperor Domitian1, for reasons that have yet to be fully investigated. It is assumed that this collection, today largely preserved in the Sannio Museum, came from a single cultic centre that, in relation to the recurring subject of the sculptural representations, is identified with Isis. To the goddess Isis, therefore, the inhabitants of ancient Benevento used to ask for grace and protection.

The head of the goddess of the Benevento Iseum, dating from the Ptolemaic period, possibly part of a statue of Isis with the child god Horus

Domitian and the cult of Isis in Benevento

The cult of this Egyptian deity in Campania was not new: it had been introduced in Pozzuoli by merchants from Alexandria in the 2nd century BC2, and an important temple dedicated to her was located in Pompeii. However, a large community of worshippers devoted to Isis certainly also existed in Benevento; otherwise it cannot be explained why Domitian commissioned a sanctuary there, even bringing some sculptures from Egypt. The city, in fact, although located on the Appian Way, was not of such importance as to justify such a huge effort.

Nevertheless, the artefacts from Benevento attest to the emperor’s great devotion to Isis. Tacitus narrates that Domitian escaped his enemies who were burning Rome, during the civil war between Vitellius and Vespasian (69 A.D.), by wearing the robes of the Isiac priests3.

“Domitianus prima inruptione apud aedituum occultatus, sollertia liberti lineo amictu turbae sacricolarum immixtus ignoratusque, apud Cornelium Primum paternum clientem iuxta Velabrum delituit”.

“When the enemy first burst in, Domitian concealed himself in the house of a servant of the temple. At the ingenious suggestion of a freedman, he assumed a linen vest- ment, and passing unnoticed among a crowd of acolytes, found a refuge with Cornelius Primus, one of his father’s dependants, in a house near the Velabrum”.

Tacito, The History, III, 74, Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Sara Bryant. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. 1873. reprinted 1942

The emperor was grateful to the goddess throughout his life: after 80 A.D. he restored the Iseum Campense in Rome4, which Julius Caesar had commissioned in 43 B.C.5, since it was damaged by fire; thus we find visible evidence of that devotion in Benevento.

The lost temple

Nonetheless, despite the large number of artefacts found, the foundations of that ancient building dedicated to Isis have never been discovered in Benevento. Over time, hypotheses about its location have emerged, stratified like the ground that for centuries held the precious archaeological evidence.

First investigations

Almerico Meomartini claims that the temple stood in the north-eastern part of Benevento6, i.e. in the area where the Arch of Trajan is located. It seemed logical, in fact, that the sanctuary was on the limen of the urban area, near one of the entrances to the city, since the goddess Isis was the protector of travellers. Moreover, most of the remains, which had already emerged during the 1903 excavations, were found there, near the church of St. Augustine. However, despite various archaeological investigations in the area, no trace of the temple was found, which led to renewed speculations.

The Arch of Trajan in Benevento

Isis in Benevento and the hypothesis of different cult centres

Hans Wolfgang Müller, author of a detailed monograph on the cult of Isis in Benevento7, argued that three different buildings dedicated to Egyptian deities probably existed in the city: a temple of Isis Pelagia from the 1st century BC, in the Hellenistic style, of which the marble boat of the goddess and a depiction of the bull Apis in marble remain; a sanctuary of Isis of the Domitian age, to which the Egyptian sculptures belong; a Canopus for the cult of Osiris and Isis Menouthis, of more recent age and mentioned in an epigraph of the 3rd century, unfortunately lost, with which the college of the Martenses Infraforani thanked Caius Umbro Audrasto for having erected that building8.

Isis in Benevento
The boat of Isis Pelagia, at the Sannio Museum, is what remains of a larger sculpture. Next to it is a porphyry reproduction of the cista mystica of the goddess, a ritual wicker container with mysterious contents. Given the depiction of a snake enveloping the lid, it was assumed that it could contain this animal, a symbol of Isis.

Benevento shrines, according to Müller, were located near the area of the Cathedral of Sancta Maria de Episcopio, once the site of the Roman forum. Two red granite obelisks with dedications to the Emperor Domitian, more than three metres high, were found here and are now located in Piazza Papiniano and at the Sannio Museum. The place of the Cathedral itself could be a clue to a pre-existence of cults as an expression of the desire to reinterpret pagan beliefs, as was common in the early age of Christianity. Finally, the forum area was also a place of transit: it was a key road junction, located at the crossroads of the Latin Way and the Appian Way.

The obelisks and the hypothesis of a single temple

The inscriptions on the four faces of the obelisks found, which are the same for both, seem to suggest that all cults were finally unified in a single, imposing building, erected during Domitian’s reign. This was, from 88-89 AD, the home of Isis, whom hieroglyphics honour with the title “Lady of Benevento”: this attribute attests to how the cult of the goddess was already widespread in the region.

I) The Horus, “valorous youth, He who conquers through might”, the golden Horus “powerful of years and great of triumph”, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, “Autokrator Kaisaros”, the son of Re “Domitian”, ever-living;

II) Isis the Great, the God’s Mother, Sothis, Queen of the Gods, Lady of the Sky, the Earth, and the Netherworld: he erected for her an obelisk of granite, and for the gods of the city, Benevento, the legate of the Lord of the Two Lands, Domitian, ever-living, whose good name is Rutilius Lupus, that he be granted a long life in joy.

III) Regnal year eight, under the majesty of the Horus, the Strong Bull, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Lord of the Two Lands, Horus, the God’s Son, beloved of all the gods, the son of Re, the Lord of Crowns, Domitian, ever-living: a splendid temple was built for Isis the Great, Lady of Benevento, and an obelisk of granite was erected by Rutilius Lupus, the legate of the Lord of the Two Lands.

IV) Isis the Great, the God’s mother, the Sun’s Eye, the Lady of the Sky, Mistress of All the Gods: he made this monument for her and the gods of his city, Benevento, the legate of the Son of Re, the Lord of Crowns, Domitian, ever-living, whose good name is Rutilius Lupus, that happiness, life, prosperity, and health be granted to him.

Müller quotes the translation made by A. Erman9, which is updated here on the basis of F. Colin’s translation10. Translation from the book Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, Sara E. Cole, Getty Publications, 2018.

The inscriptions attest, in fact, that “a splendid temple was built for Isis the Great, lady of Benevento, and her Ennead”. They thus seem to refer to a single monumental complex, distinguished by different time phases or separate rooms. De Caro has hypothesised that this construction was erected adjacent to the Hellenistic theatre of the 1st century, similar to what can be observed in Pompeii11.

One of the two obelisks of the Iseum in Benevento, Sannio Museum

Another part of the remains was found in the area of Piazza Cardinal Pacca where, near the forum, stood the church of St. Stephen. It is interesting that in other places, such as nearby Pozzuoli, there had already been an overlapping of the cult of the Christian protomartyr with the Isiac cult. Moreover, this could be in line with the inscription on the Canopus of the Martenses Infraforani, which was supposed to be placed here.

Attributes of Isis

The dedication of a cult to Isis Pelagia is a plausible hypothesis, as this was the manifestation of the deity linked to navigation and trade in the Hellenistic age. In the figurative arts, the goddess was thus depicted driving a night boat, using her cloak as a sail. In the 2nd century BC Isis Pelagia was introduced to Campania perhaps as a result of trade with the island of Delos, where there was an important sanctuary dedicated to her.

However, the cult of Isis was considerably older and the origins of her figure are lost in the mists of time. In the Old Egyptian Kingdom (c. 2700-2100 BC), the myth of Osiris, in which the goddess played a fundamental role, was already widespread. The first mentions are found in the Pyramids Texts. Isis and Osiris were spouses and siblings, children of the Sky (Nut) and Earth (Geb), and together they ruled the world wisely, teaching men agriculture.

Priests of Osiris, Sannio Museum

The first attribute of the goddess was thus queenship, an evidence that is even found in her name since the hieroglyphics on the cartouche included the figure of a throne12. Isis was then the deity associated with fertility, the supreme mother of birth and rebirth. Her generative power manifested itself on earth as in the underworld. Indeed, she had the function of a psychopomp in that she carried the souls of the dead to the afterlife in her boat.

The Myth of Isis and Osiris

The myth says that the evil Seth killed Osiris out of envy and mutilated his body into fourteen parts, which he threw into the Nile. However, Isis reassembled the corp of her husband and resurrected him for a short time, during which they conceived Horus13. He is the child-god destined to defeat Seth to avenge his father. Osiris instead survived in the Underworld, becoming its ruler for eternity.

Horus as a falcon, Sannio Museum, Benevento

Figuratively, the myth was reflected in the depiction of the goddess Isis who, from the XXVI dynasty (72-525 BC)14, held the infant Horus in her arms.

The architecture of the Temple of Isis in Benevento

We know little about the cult of the goddess in Benevento since, in the Hellenistic age, it had a mystery character. Only priests were initiated into the Isiac secrets and there are few historical sources that help us understand the ritual aspects. Apuleius makes a brief mention of it in the Metamorphoses15, and Clement of Alexandria merely describes the hierarchy of the priestly caste16.

Depiction of the Isiac cult on a fresco from Herculaneum (inventory 8924), now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples

More plausible are reconstructions of the temple structure that housed this cult, especially on the basis of stylistic and architectural comparisons with similar buildings that still exist today.

The dromos

The discovery of the two obelisks and at least ten sphinxes, attributable to the Domitian age in relation to a similar sculpture in the Capitoline Museums17, suggests that the Iseum of Benevento had a dromos-shaped entrance corridor similar to the Egyptian ones. Sphinxes, depictions of the sovereign in the guise of a lion, flanked the entrance corridor, marking the separation between sacred and profane space. It was also customary to place a pair of obelisks on either side of the temple entrance as ornaments, engraved with dedicatory inscriptions to the deity.

The cella

The sanctuary in Benevento was therefore commissioned by Domitian following the Egyptian ones, albeit in a Hellenistic style, as was done in Rome in the Iseum Campense18. We know that he compared himself to Horus since this identification of the sovereign with the god is evident on the inscriptions of the obelisks. Thus, the emperor acquired the royal title of son of Isis. It is possible that two statuary representations of the ruler were placed in front of the divinity’s cella, as observed in a 1st century Roman fresco found at Herculaneum and now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples (inventory 8924). The temple was probably similar to the one in Pompeii, then prostyle tetrastyle on podium19.

Isis in Benevento
The Iseum of Pompeii

Inside the cella was a statue of the enthroned deity, probably also visible from outside. A fragmentary head of Isis, preserved in the Sannio Museum, is believed to belong to this simulacrum. The wall covering of the Iseum was made of marble, with bas-reliefs in the Egyptian style. At least two fragments belonging to the interior were found – part of a depiction of the ruler presenting an offering to the deity and part of a scene in which Isis protects the bull god Apis with her wings – and one, lost, relating to the exterior of the building.

Isis in Benevento
Two fragments of the marble covering of the Temple of Isis

The end of the Temple of Isis in Benevento

The cult of Isis was widespread throughout the empire: Apuleius in the 2nd century AD defined Rome as the “sacrosanda civitas” of the goddess20 and Caracalla promoted her public celebrations. With the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, by which Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the state religion, devotion to the goddess was banned, like other pagan beliefs. This act probably also marked the end of the Isis sanctuary in Benevento. Like similar places of worship, it was destroyed. The materials were reused for the construction of civil buildings, churches and the Longobard walls, as evidenced by findings in the city.

The arrival of the Longobards and the conversion to Christianity

In the mid-6th century, the Longobards arrived in Benevento. Here they established an important administrative centre, the seat of the duchy of Langobardia minor and, following their conversion to Christianity, also a religious centre. In fact, St. Sophia complex in Benevento is attributed to them.

A 9th-10th century legend, the Vita sancti Barbati episcopi Beneventani, narrates that St. Barbatus converted the Longobards to Christianity, convincing them to abjure the pagan rites that still persisted in the city. According to the hagiographic text, Duke Romuald asked Bishop Barbatus to intercede for the salvation of Benevento, as he feared that the troops of the Byzantine emperor Constant II could besiege it. The saint and the duke then walked to an old walnut tree, with the aim of cutting it down: that was the place where the Longobards, of Germanic origins and heirs to Celtic traditions, performed their pagan ceremonies. And between the roots of the tree appeared a tangled snake, symbol of the goddess Isis.

Pagan ceremonies involved sacrifices, ritual dances and night bonfires similar to ancient mystery cults. They were attended by female figures in ecstasy: priestesses whose role was to invoke the deities but, in popular tradition, also witches. Thus originated the myth of the janare, heirs of those rites that the Longobards officiated around the walnut tree, and of the goddess Isis, lady of Benevento.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. R. Pirelli, Il culto di Iside a Benevento, in Il culto di Iside a Benevento, Milano 2007. ↩︎
  2. M. L. Nava, L’eredità egizia del mito di Iside, Catalogo della mostra Mater, Parma 2015. ↩︎
  3. Tacitus, The Histories, III, 74. ↩︎
  4. Eutropio, Breviarium ab Urbe condita, VII.23.5. ↩︎
  5. Cassius Dio, Roman History, XLVII.15.4. ↩︎
  6. A. Meomartini, O. Marucchi e L. Savignoni, Benevento, in Notizie degli scavi di antichità, vol. 1, 1904. ↩︎
  7. H. W. Müller, Il culto di Iside nell’antica Benevento, in Saggi e studi del Museo del Sannio. Traduzione di Silvio Curto e Donatella Taverna, Benevento, Officina grafica Abete, 1971. ↩︎
  8. M. R. Torelli, Benevento romana, Roma, L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2002. ↩︎
  9. Adolf Erman, Obelisken roemischer Zeit, in Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. Römische Abteilung, Roma, Loescher, 1893. ↩︎
  10. F. Colin, Domitien, Julie et Isis au pays des Hirpins, CIL IX. 1153 et l’obélisque de Bénévent, in CE 1993. ↩︎
  11. S. De Caro, Lo sviluppo urbanistico di Pompei, in Atti della Società Magna Grecia, 1992. ↩︎
  12. M. Tosi, Dizionario enciclopedico delle Divinità dell’Antico Egitto, vol. 1, Torino, Ananke, 2004. ↩︎
  13. C. Lombardi, Il Grande Inno ad Osiride della Stele di Amenmose (Louvre C 286): la dea Iside, 2010. ↩︎
  14. Ibidem note 2. ↩︎
  15. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 2 century A.D. ↩︎
  16. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis VI.36.2. ↩︎
  17. K. Lembke, Das Iseum Campense in Rom. Studie über den Isiskult unter Domitian, Heidelberg, 1994. ↩︎
  18. A. M. Roullet, The egyptian and egyptianizing monuments of imperial Roma, Leida, 1972. ↩︎
  19. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  20. Ibidem note 15. ↩︎
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