Religion in Pompeii


Private worship

  • Each house in Pompeii had a lararium, a shrine for household Gods (lares). The pater familias would lead the family in worship around this shrine every morning. Some houses had images of a genius, a spirit of the pater familias.
  • Evidence of personal belief is that most Pompeiians took their household Gods with them when they fled the city during the eruption.
  • The house of Octavius Quartio has an image of a Priest of Isis painted on the wall in one of the rooms, which may be the owner himself.
  • Quartio's house also has paintings of Isis and Egyptian mythology, as well as a huge garden with temples, and a canal meant to represent the River Nile. 
  • Other houses have paintings of mythology, including Gods, on the walls, such as the House of the Mysteries, which has extensive paintings of a Bacchic initiation rite, and the fresco of Venus and Mars from the House of Venus and Mars. 
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Women and religion

  • Women could only be priests in cult religions. Women were denied political status but could become Sacerdos Publica (public Priestesses) ~ the inscription on Eumachia's building indicates that she was a public Priestess of Pompeiian Venus. 
  • The Cult of Isis was a popular cult with women because Isis was a protector of women. Nearly one third of the worshippers mentioned in inscriptions on the Temple of Isis in Pompeii were women. 
  • There is considerable evidence to suggest Isis worship in Herculaneum, but as yet no corresponding temple has been found there. 
  • Everyone was expected to worship the Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), including women. 
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Temple of Isis

  • The Temple of Isis was built in the late 2nd-early 1st century BC. It is near the theatre and the city walls in Pompeii's south side. It was one of the first temples to be rebuilt after the earthquake of 62 AD. 
  • The cult was popular with the wealthy as well as slaves and women. 
  • The worshippers were cleansed with water from the river Nile in the purgatorium.
  • There was also an ekklesiasterion, a room for the performance of sacred plays, which contained paintings and stucco reliefs of Egyptian subjects.
  • Cult objects such as the sistrum (rattle), situla (bucket for sacred milk), statues, and dedications were also found in the temple. 
  • Numerius Popidius Celsinus, a 6-year-old son of a freedman, rebuilt the temple at his own expense after the earthquake, and in return was elected onto the town council for free. 
  • The temple had a painting of Io arriving at Canopus, being received by Isis who has a snake wrapped round her wrist. Io is wearing cow horns and is being carried by a dark-skinned Egyptian God.
  • There is also a painting of a Priest of Isis reading out a scroll of papyrus in front of him. He has a shaved head, like Egyptian Priests. 
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Temple of Isis 2

The temple is built on a rougly square, raised podium with a colonnaded portico and a cella. It was surrounded by a rectangular colonnade. The enclosure contained altars dedicated to Harpocrates Anubis. 

Fourth style wall paintings inside depicted Isis, as well as other Egyptian Gods such as Osiris, Bes, and Anubis, set in Egyptian landscapes. Hieroglyphic texts carved on a slab were also found.

The inscriptions inside saying that space for statues was given by decree of the town councillors (see inscriptions revision tool) suggest that the temple was owned by the council, as does the inscription on the temple which says the young boy was elected to the council for repairing it.

The temple is decorated with an external relief of dolphins, floral decorations, and other images associated with Isis.

The Isis worshippers held some political sway in Pompeii ~ electoral slogans found all over the city state that 'all the Isis worshippers' were supporting Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus to be elected as an aedile. 

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Temple of Apollo

This temple predates the forum and goes back to the 6th century BC. It has a rectangular plan and is surrounded by an astonishing 48 columns.

The temple is set on a raised podium, opposite to which was a sacrificial altar. The central area, which contains Apollo's altar, is also surrounded by columns. It is adorned with two statues depicting Apollo shooting arrows, and Diana. 

One of the columns had a sundial.

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Temple of Jupiter (Capitolium)

Set in the north side of the forum, this temple was originally dedicated to Jupiter but later dedicated to the whole Capitoline triad (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva). It was built in the 2nd century BC. On one side was the Arch of Tiberius, on the other, the Arch of Germanicus. 

The cella of the temple was divided into three chambers to accommodate statues of the three Gods. It was set on a raised podium and surrounded by a colonnade.

In the earthquake of 62 AD the building was badly damaged, and was still being repaired when the eruption occurred, so it was not in active use. 

Parts of statues were found in the temple, which suggests it may have been used as a storage space or statue workshop between the earthquake and the eruption.

There was space below the temple which may have been used for storing sacrificial offerings, and the town treasury, but this was empty when the temple was excavated.

The Temple of Jupiter Meilichios in the south of the town appears to have been where worship of the Capitoline triad was focused after the earthquake ~ it is much smaller, and had terracotta statues of Jupiter and Juno, along with a bust of Minerva.

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Foreign Cults in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Graffiti of Judaic names found in Pompeii suggest that Judaism may have been followed in Pompeii. 

There is no evidence to support there being a following of Christianity in Pompeii.

Several bronze hands of Sabazius, a Thracian and Phrygian God of vegetation, have been found in Pompeii. The fingers are arranged in a gesture of blessing and a figure of Sabazius is seated in the middle.

A fresco of the Old Testament story of the Judgement of Solomon from the House of the Physician in Pompeii further suggests that Judaism was followed there.

A fresco showing the worship of Isis was found in Herculaneum. It shows bald priests making open air sacrifices to the Goddess, with ibises (sacred Egyptian birds) in the foreground. Sistra and sphinxes are also depicted, as well as a golden vessel containing sacred water from the Nile.

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