Touring the Temple of Isis

The Temple of Isis in Pompeii has always been an intriguing structure for those who work in the ancient city. Not only is it a clear representation of the influx (and acceptance) of foreign gods in Rome, it also has had a distinct place in the conversation regarding euergetism, the political advancement of the sons of freedmen, and the rebuilding of the city after the earthquake in AD 62. The temple, seemingly demolished in its entirety in the earthquake, was rebuilt quickly due to the generosity of a six year old boy named Numerius Popidius Celsinus. It was among the first structures to be excavated in Pompeii, discovered in 1764.

I was recently in Pompeii doing a bit of work on graffiti, and much to my surprise, found a few in the Temple of Isis that I had somehow never noticed before. This, much like last week’s post, isn’t ancient graffiti, but instead is something more akin to early modern graffiti. The small building just to the south of the cella identified as a purgatorium (you can see the plan of the temple complex here) is still fairly well covered with the original ancient stucco work.


The plaster has been used to record names of tourists and visitors, going back to the time the building was first excavated.


The earliest I found was the above, J. Broom, who carved his name in 1789. The majority seem to date to the last few decades of the 1700s and the 1800s. The latest specific date I saw was 1900. Whilst the majority of the names were Anglophone (hardly a surprise considering the popularity of the Grand Tour amongst the British at that time), I was pleased to see at least one Italian had also left his mark. A man named Giuseppe (I can’t quite make out the surname), was there in 1790.


I’ve already written about the seemingly inherent human desire to leave behind a mark (here and here), but there were a couple of other things that struck me about these particular graffiti. One is the handwriting. It is very obvious that most of these texts were written in a different era simply by the penmanship. This is particularly stunning in view of carving a name in stucco – few blocky large letters – but almost exclusively the fine cursive fonts of another century. It has the appearance of names having been signed with pen and ink rather than carved with a sharp object into a hard surface. Also, the specificity. A few people didn’t just record their names and the year, but also the month, and even the day.


These visitors to the temple in May of 1797 (specifically on the 24th for the one on the left), used the column as their writing surface, thus limiting themselves considerably on space.

I admittedly rather like this little collection of names and dates in the Temple of Isis, despite the fact that usually I am disgusted by the addition of graffiti by modern tourists to sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. Normally, I consider this defacement, and the destruction of irreplaceable ancient surfaces. This strikes me as particularly egregious when someone has written across a wall painting (what kind of tourist even brings a marker into the site?). Yet these texts, despite being defacement of an ancient monument, also tell a story about the site, about the history of the excavations and access, and about how Pompeii became a recognizable place in the world’s collective cultural mind. So whilst I am somewhat conflicted about their existence, finding them, searching for different years, looking at handwriting styles and names, was a few minutes of absolute joy, and a reminder of why I love doing what I do.


Scribblers and Scholars

Last weekend I finally got around to doing one of those Oxford things that one living here should do: despite my slight tendency to vertigo I climbed the very narrow, steep and winding stairs to the top of the tower of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Although it is believed that there has been a church in this location since Anglo-Saxon times, the current building is an assemblage of components built between the thirteenth and eighteenth century. The oldest part of the structure is the Tower, dated to 1280. Tourists (okay, and residents) climb the tower for the stunning views over the skyline of Oxford. Narrow walkways are on all four sides of the Tower, linked by small arched passageways. Within two of these corner passages, I discovered a wealth of inscribed names, initials, and dates. DSCF7643

The earliest date I found inscribed is in the above photo, 1612, carved deeply beneath a less visible 1791. An individual with the initials AR, in the upper right corner, carved his (I’m assuming) initials in 1676. The overlap of names and the wearing over time has rendered most of the scratchings fairly illegible. Whilst I have seen other churches (Gloucester Cathedral comes to mind) with graffiti inscribed by builders and craftsmen, the dates and use of the building suggest to me that the majority of these names belong to students or visitors to the university. The Tower, a few floors below this vantage point, contains the Old Library. Built in 1320, it was the first central university office and library (i.e. not college affiliated), and was used for meetings and research prior to the construction of the Bodlian Library and Divinity School, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the latest dated inscriptions I found were from 1811, when Messrs. Stone and Godfrey carved their names, well past the time when the Tower rooms would have still been used as originally intended.


One other aspect I found quite interesting is the obvious time and care that was taken in carving these names. Many have the letters blackened, a practice similar to using red paint as was common in Roman monumental inscriptions. In addition, a close look at the lettering indicates that on many occasions there were attempts made at style – adding serifs to the letters, creating the appearance of distinct fonts and handwritings. Compare, for example, the photo below, where both the ‘R’ and initial ‘W’ of the surname have distinct serifs, difference in thickness of the lines of the lettering, and show a replication of a monumental style of inscription. This is at odds with the penciled text beneath, clearly by a more modern hand, which lacks the same level of artistry all together.


I have written before about that overwhelming desire people have to record their name, or leave a mark. It would appear that on some level, the students of Oxford in centuries past were no different. What is remarkable, at least to me, is that such effort went into carving the letters and attempting to make them visible and lasting. This suggests a desire for permanence that isn’t all that surprising – it is exactly the thing that has led people to write on walls – whether in Pompeii two thousand years ago, in a church tower in Oxford four hundred years ago, or on an underpass over the motorway today.

The Legacy of Venus

A number of months ago I had the chance to go to the V & A for the exhibit ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ Whilst the exhibit as a whole was about more of the artist’s works than just Venus, both she and the similarly inspired by antiquity painting of Primavera were certainly a focal point of at least half of the collection on display. The artwork ran the gamut from Botticelli’s own paintings to modern works, fashion, dance, and performance art.

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What struck me about this collection of artwork is the enduring legacy of the image of Venus. It occurred to me that whilst I have previously written about Venus in her guise as a goddess of love in the graffiti of Pompeii, and her special role as the patron deity of Pompeii known as Venus Pompeiana, I have paid much attention to the image of Venus that was so prevalent both in antiquity and in the modern world.

The number of images (whether painting, mosaic, or statue) are far too numerous for me to catalogue here. What I am intrigued by, however, is the most recognisable form of Venus, in which she is depicted with emerging from the sea, usually from a shell, at the moment of birth. This is the image that Botticelli used in his painting, and is one that can be traced back to the walls of Pompeii.


In the peristyle of the eponymously named House of Venus in the Shell (II.iii.3), this is the precursor to the famous  painting of the Italian renaissance. But it isn’t the only such image that survives antiquity. A second century AD mosaic from Zeugma in Turkey depicts Venus (here as the Greek Aphrodite) in her shell, surrounded by ikhthyokentauroi (consider them the fish version of centaurs) identified as Aphros (Sea Foam) and Bythos (Sea Depths), obvious references to her birth story.


A late third century AD wall painting from Rome, found in the lower levels of the Case Romane del Celio, also depicts Venus in her shell, surrounded by erotes in small boats.


Of course Venus was not just depicted in painting, or by Romans, as is evidenced by this third century BC terracotta statue from Greece.


This image of Venus has endured for thousands of years, and Botticelli was not the only painter of the modern era that choose Venus as his subject. He will probably remain, however, the most famous. I have a number of theories as to why this version of Venus is so popular – her fantastical birth, the ability to depict her nudity as she wouldn’t be fully clothed in the sea – but one of the modern interpretations I saw at the V & A may hold the key to understanding this legacy of Venus.

David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

Here, the shell has moved to the forefront, and is used to shield the viewer from the genitalia of Venus. Concha, the Latin for shellfish or mollusc, has been used as a slang or derogatory term for a woman’s vagina in numerous languages and cultures. I cannot help but wonder, if in this context, the shell depicted in the many images of Venus’s birth across the millennia hasn’t been a nod to her sexuality, her guise as the goddess of (physical) love, and in fact has little to so with her birth story per se. Perhaps this is why this version of Venus has so long been the obsession of artists.


Duos Annos


It is now two years since I began my Leverhulme Trust funded project looking at social networks in Pompeii. Over the past year, my research has taken me off into a slightly different direction, particularly looking at some very specific aspects of political life in the ancient city, for which the way names are used is a fundamental component. Looking back at what I wrote to commemorate the first anniversary, I am pleasantly surprised by the increase in traffic, comments, and followers for this blog. To date, the site has been visited more than 18,000 times (more than twice the number of the first year), which is, frankly, astounding. I am sure this is in no small part due to the support of Blogging Pompeii and Napoli Unplugged, amongst others, who have frequently shared my posts, for which I am most grateful. I hope that the many people who come here continue to find my work interesting, as I certainly enjoy writing these posts.

And as such, as before, the five most popular posts published in the last year:

5. Losing my Religion (249)

4. Fools & Fakes (275)

3. Samnites in Pompeii (290)

2. Alma Tadema’s Imagined Connections (425)

1. Pompeii & Rome (441)

Losing My Religion

I recently completed an article I was invited to write for a special issue of Leidschrift that focuses entirely on Pompeii and Herculaneum. My contribution looks specifically at the connections that exist between politics and religion. In doing so however, I noticed something that rather surprised me: it is difficult to reconcile the architectural and epigraphic evidence in regards to religious activity. There is a disconnect between which gods had temples dedicated in their honour, and which had active worshipers according to written records.

This map, with temple precincts shaded grey, locates the majority of temples and religious sanctuaries, with the exception of the Temple of Venus just outside the city walls, in Regio VII and Regio VIII, in and around the Forum and the Triangular Forum.

From W. van Andringa (2012) ‘Statues in the Temples of Pompeii: Combinations of Gods, Local Definitions of Cults, and the Memory of the City’

The temples include the aforementioned complex dedicated to Venus, as well the Capitolium dedicated to the Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, Apollo, Isis, Aesculapius, Fortuna Augusta, Minerva/Hercules, Divus Augustus, and other small shrines and altars. The official offices of priests and priestesses (sacerdos, flamen, and pontifex) that survive in the epigraphic record are limited to only three divinities: Venus, Ceres, and the Imperial Cult. Numerous men are named as sacerdos Augusti or flamin Augusti in the texts. I have previously discussed the priestesses, primarily from the Augustan and Tiberian period, who served Ceres and Venus. The precinct of Venus is well documented, but the texts that survive naming her priestesses are either funerary in nature, or in the case of Eumachia and Mammia, survive in dedicatory inscriptions on public edifices in the Forum. Despite epigraphic evidence for Ceres, there is no known temple, at least not within the city walls. A complex containing three small temples from the suburban area of Pompeii, may contain a Temple of Ceres, but identification is based solely on the discovery of two female statues, one of which is thought to represent Ceres.

On the contrary, the Temple of Isis, which has long been considered one of the most important religious centres in Pompeii, not least because of its speedy re-building after the earthquake in AD 62, has no identifiable priest.

CIL X 846 = ILS 6367
N(umerius) Popidius N(umeri) f(ilius) Celsinus / aedem Isidis terrae motu conlapsam / a fundamento p(ecunia) s(ua) restituit hunc decuriones ob liberalitatem / cum esset annorum sex{s} ordini suo gratis adlegerunt.
‘Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, rebuilt the Temple of Isis from the foundations at his own expense which had collapsed from an earthquake. Because of his generosity, despite his age of six years, the decurions nominated him to the ordo without charge.’

This is one of the only surviving inscriptions found in Pompeii that actually names a temple as such. However, there is no evidence of a priest of Isis. The few other inscriptions from the temple precinct are dedicatory and say little, if anything, about Isis. For example, the plinth on which stood a statue of Isis, was inscribed with the following:

CIL X 849
L(ucius) Caecilius Phoebus posvit / l(oco) d(ato) d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Lucius Caecilius Phoebus placed (this statue). Place given by decree of the decurions.’

LRT_13700156000Whilst there might not be any evidence for those charged with the office of worshiping Isis, there are some dipinti that indicate that the goddess did have adherents.

CIL IV 787 = ILS 6420b
Cn(aeum) Helvium / Sabinum aed(ilem) Isiaci / universi rog(ant).
‘All the worshipers of Isis call for the election of Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus, aedile.’

CIL IV 3141
Isi[acis – – – ]is ubique.
‘The worshipers of Isis are everywhere.’

CIL IV 1011 = ILS 6419f
Cuspium Pansam aed(ilem) / Popidius Natalis cliens cum Isiacis rog(at).
‘Popidius Natalis, his client, with the worshipers of Isis, call for the election of Cuspius Pansa, aedile.’

That this last dipinto is commissioned by a member of the Popidii may give some indication that this family was heavily dedicated to Isis, but still fails to provide evidence for a priest. On some level, this may not be surprising. Priests of foreign – especially eastern or oriental – religions tended to live separately, often marked by distinctive clothing, shaved heads, and were not unusually foreigners themselves. Evilness aside, the characterisation of the Egyptian Arbaces in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii wasn’t entirely unfounded. This may go some way to explaining the lack of priests in the epigraphic record.

However, that is not the case for many of the Roman gods that also have temples in the city, many of which were more prominent in terms of location and within the Pantheon of Roman religion.  Apollo, Minerva, and Aesculapius all have temples but no named priesthoods. Jupiter, independently and as part of the Capitoline triad, has two named priests, albeit one is sligtly problematic. An inscription, dated to AD 37, has Greek on one side that names Gaius Iulius Hephaistion, a priest of the community of Frigi, who made  a dedication to Jupiter Frigio. The other side contains a fragmentary Latin text:

CIL X 796
I(ovi) [O(ptimo)] M(aximo) / pro salute [C(ai) Ca]esaris Augusti / Germani[ci I]mp(eratoris) pontif(icis) max(imi) / tribunic(ia) p[ote]stat(e) consulis / [- – -]octus p(ecunia) s(ua).
‘To Jupiter Best and Greatest. For the well-being of [Gaius] Caesar Augustus Germanicus, hailed as victorious general, chief priest, holder of tribunician power, consul, [. . .]octus at his own expense.’

Because the text specifically names the priest as belonging to another town, it is a bit tenuous to claim this represents a religious office in Pompeii. Likewise, one text, also dated to the Julio-Claudian period, that survives naming a priest of both Jupiter and Mars belongs to a man who had a rather illustrious career elsewhere:

CIL X 797 = ILS 5004
Sp(urius) Turranius L(uci) f(ilius) Sp(uri) n(epos) L(uci) pron(epos) Fab(ia) / Proculus Gellianus praef(ectus) fabr(um) II pra<i>f(ectus) curatorum alvei / Tiberis pra<i>f(ectus) pro pr(aetore) i(ure) d(icundo) in urbe Lavinio / pater patratus populi Laurentis foederis / ex libris Sib<u>llinis percutiendi cum p(opulo) R(omano) / sacrorum principiorum p(opuli) R(omani) Quirit(ium) nominis/que Latini qua<i> apud Laurentis coluntur flam(en) / Dialis flam(en) Martial(is) salius pra<i>sul augur pont(ifex) / pra<i>f(ectus) cohort(is) Ga<i>tul(orum) tr(ibunus) mil(itum) leg(ionis) X / loc(us) d(atus) d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
Spurius Turranius Proculus Gellianus, son of Lucius, grandson of Spurius, great-grandson of Lucius, of the Fabian tribe; staff officer twice; prefect of the curators of the Tiber channel; prefect with the powers of a praetor in charge of jurisdiction in the city of Lavinium; father of the deputation of the Laurentine people in charge of concluding the treaty with the Roman people in accordance with the Sibylline books, which relates to the rites concerned with the origins of the Roman people, the Quirites, and of the people of the Latin name, which are observed among the Laurentines; priest of Jupiter; priest of Mars; leading member of the Salii priesthood; augur and pontiff; prefect of the Gaetulian cohort; military tribune of the tenth legion (dedicated this) place by  decree of the decurions.’

One further example exists naming a flamen of Mars, but like Ceres, there is no known Temple.

CIL IV 879 = ILS 6364
M(arco) Lucretio flam(ini) Martis decuri//oni / Pompei[s].
‘To Marcus Lucretius, flamen of Mars, decurion of Pompeii.’

As the only two texts that name Mars consist of a man who had a long career elsewhere and a graffito, the worship of the war god in Pompeii remains somewhat speculative.

Overall, the evidence for religious activity in Pompeii is simultaneously abundant and scarce. There are ample architectural remains by means of temples, the city’s walls are covered with images of gods and goddesses in a mythological context, but the epigraphic record does not reflect the kind of religious activity one would expect. What strikes me as a potential solution to this paradox is evidence I have thus far overlooked, but is perhaps far more prevalent than the large public temples or official offices of priesthoods. The most visible form of religious activity is on a much smaller, localised scale – that of the household, street and neighbourhood shrines dedicated to the lares and genius of individual families and vici. It is here that the daily worship of Pompeians can be seen, but that is a post for another day.

Ianuarius the First

Today marks the first day not only of the new year, but also of a new month. January, thought to be named for the Roman god Ianus (or more commonly in English, Janus), was the god of transitions, beginnings and endings, and thus was worshiped at the start or end of new years, new months, wars, harvests, marriages, and other times when a change occurred. He was depicted with two faces, one facing towards the past, and one the future.

janus_viennaRepublican coin depicting Ianus, c. 225-212 BC
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

Although there is some confusion about how exactly he was worshiped and how this evolved over time, Ianus was an important deity in the Roman pantheon. Whilst he had his own temple in Rome (the doors of which were closed during times of peace and open during war), there is little evidence for his worship in Pompeii. However, the name itself, Ianuarius (and of course, the feminine version Ianuaria), is found in abundance in both lapidary and non-lapidary inscriptions.  As per usual, many of the graffiti contain nothing more than a single name, so it is impossible to glean much information about either the status of the individual or the family he or she belongs to. But a number of the more formal texts, a few examples of which are contained herein, are more telling.

CIL X 1063 = ILS 5724
Thermae / M(arci) Crassi Frugi / aqua marina et baln(ea) / aqua dulci Ianuarius l(ibertus).
Baths of Marcus Crassus Frugus with seawater and baths with freshwater. Ianuarius, freedman.

These private baths have never been positively identified archaeologically, but the information in the re-used inscription found elsewhere in the city does indicate the baths were managed by the owner’s freedman, and due to the use of seawater, has been posited to be close to the coastline.

CIL X 1027  = ILS 6379
N(umerio) Istacidio Heleno / pag(ano) pag(i) Aug(usti) / N(umerio) Istacidio Ianuario / Mesoniae Satullae. In agro / pedes XV in fronte <p>edes XV.
To Numerius Istacidius Helenus, member of the pagus Augustus, to Numerius Istacidius Ianuarius, to Mesonia Satulla. Depth fifteen feet, fifteen feet in front.

This funerary epitaph, located on a relatively modest tomb outside of the Porta di Ercolano (21S), is believed to have belonged to a group of freedmen of the Istacidii family, who had their own, considerably more elaborate, tomb closer to the city gate (4AS). Although none of the individuals named here, including our eponymous Ianuarius, provide filiation, the membership in the pagus Augustus is one that is exclusively found for other former slaves in Pompeii.

Near another tomb (39AN), on the opposite side of the road, a columella was discovered which bore the following inscription:

CIL X 1022
Lucceia Ianuaria.
Lucceia Ianuaria.

 This tomb is typically identified as belonging to a man named Lucius Ceius Labeoni. If we follow Roman naming conventions for women, the name should be a feminised version of Ceius. What we have instead, in addition to the name Ianuaria, seems a conjunction of the names Lucius and Ceius. This in itself is rather odd, and combined with Ianuaria, may suggest she too is a freedwoman.

In the necropolis at the Porta di Nocera, a very young slave boy is found, both in the titular epitaph of the tomb of Lucius Barbidius Communis (15ES) and on a columella within:

D’Ambrosio and De Caro 1983: 15ES
L(ucius) Barbidius L(uci) l(iberti) / Communis mag(ister) / Pag(i) Aug(usti) Fel(icis) Suburb(ani), sibi et / Pithiae P(ubli) l(ibertae) Rufillae uxori, / Vitali et Ianuario l(iberis).
Lucius Barbidius Communis, freedman of Lucius, magistrate of the pagus Augustus Felix Suburbanus, [made this] for himself and Pithia Rufilla, freedwoman of Publius, his wife, [as well as] Vitalius and Ianuarius, children.

 D’Ambrosio and De Caro 1983: 15ES, n. 11
Ianuarius / v(ixit) a(nnis) II.
Ianuarius lived two years.

There is some disagreement amongst scholars as to whether or not the ‘l’ in the last line of the initial text should be expand as I have it here as liberis or liberti, meaning freedman. However, as both these are in fact children (Vitalius died at the age of three), and have only a single name, it is perfectly clear that they were still in fact slaves at the time of their deaths. There is one further columella of a slave, found some distance from the city, in the Fondo Santilli area.

NSA 1916: 303
Ianuarius / vix(it) an(nos) XXXV.
Ianuarius lived thirty five years.

 Again, we have a single name, indicating the enslaved status of the deceased. There is one final example, from a columella found in the same burial area, which seemingly negates the idea that this is a name used by those of servile origins.

ILS 7663 = AE 1894: 147
Laturnia / Ianuaria Calcaria / vix(it) ann(os) XXXXV.
Laturnia Ianuaria Calcaria lived forty five years.

Whilst it is not unheard of for a woman to have three names, it is a bit unusual in the time from which these burials seem to date and in Pompeii as a whole. One clue may come in the description of the lettering on this columella, which is described as ‘careless’. As there is no evidence for Ianuarius as a gens, it would appear that this text either contains a mistake, or this woman, likely a freedwoman, was given two names when she was a slave.

What I find interesting is that, save the one somewhat suspect example, those who have this name are either slaves or of servile origin, and whilst it certainly is not unusual to find a specific name that is associated with a particular group, I am curious as to what it was exactly about the god Ianus that was attractive as a slave name. It has been claimed that the name Ianuarius was simply given to children born in the first month of the year (in which case, with a birthday in the next few weeks, I am much relieved my parents didn’t adopt that convention), but it would seem odd that only slaves are born that month. What I am wondering, though it is unlikely to be provable, is if some slaves were born with their fate already decided. Was a name derived from the god of transitions and new beginnings assigned to those who their owner one day intended to free?

This may assume far more forethought regarding manumission and slavery than the Romans should be credited with, but it is an idea I find quite attractive at the start of a new year, facing my own transitions, and setting off on a different path. It is sentimental, I admit, but somehow reassuring to think that as you moved through life, you knew, simply from having the name Ianuarius, that someday, you would be given the chance to start anew.


I never would have realised this myself, but WordPress just kindly wished me (or rather, this blog) a happy anniversary. I find it difficult to believe that an entire year has passed since I began looking in earnest at the networks of Pompeii as visible through the epigraphic record, and find it even more surprising that I have found evidence of so many types of networks, not just in the ancient city, but in Latin literature as well (watch this space for more on that).

I have been amazed that the blog as a whole has had such a  following – this makes the thirtieth posting, and the pages have been viewed nearly six thousand times. So, in looking back at the last year of my research project and this blog, I thought I would review the top five posts, in terms of popularity. (Note: I have excluded hits for pages such as the archives, about section, and the posts containing videos from the research seminar series held at the University of Leeds earlier this year, all of which had many hundreds of views.  If you missed them, you can find them all here: The Present and Future of Vesuvian Research).

5. Vergil Abuse (96 views)

4. This time, it’s personal (106 views)

3. The Herculanenses (133 views)

2. Venus Pompeiana (149 views)

1. Pompeii and Circumstance (351 views)

Venus Pompeiana


In addition to the pleas of the lovelorn one would expect to find addressed to the goddess of love, Venus appears in a number of contexts in Pompeii, both epigraphic and iconographic. Many of the images in particular are typical motifs for this deity: Venus at her bath, Venus lounging with Mars, or a marine scene of Venus and the sea from which she was born. One can only assume that Botticelli would have been pleased his own version of Venus resembled an ancient one, as found in the House of the Marine Venus (II.3.3).

Yet, Venus had a very special relationship with this city, separate from matters of the heart. She was the patron deity of Pompeii, and as such, took on a role here that is not found elsewhere in the ancient world. Venus’ appointment as patron goddess was a natural choice considering that the colony’s founder, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, claimed he was favoured by the goddess, particularly in her guise as Venus Felix, from which he took his cognomina. This is evident in the official name of the city as the Colonia Veneria Cornelia, as found in this inscription found in the Temple of Apollo:

CIL X 787
M(arcus) Holconius Rufus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) tert(ium) / C(aius) Egnatius Postumus d(uum)v(ir) i(ure) d(icundo) iter(um) / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) ius luminum / opstruendorum(!) HS |(mille) |(mille) |(mille) / redemerunt parietemque / privatum col(onia) Ven(eria) Cor(nelia) / usque at(!) tegulas / faciundum coera(ve)runt.
‘Marcus Holconius Rufus, duumvir with judicial power for the third time, and Gaius Egnatius Postumus, duumvir with judicial power for the second time, by decree of the decurions, paid 3,000 sesterces for the right to block off light, and say to the building of a private wall belonging to the colonia Veneria Cornelia.’

This name for the colony appears so frequently in the wax tablets of Iucundus it is often abbreviated as ‘c.c.V.C.’ (See, for example, CIL IV 3340.28, 3340.141, 3340.142, 3340.143, 3340.144, 3340.147, and 3340.148.)

Venus Pompeiana, as she was called locally, is a personification of the goddess that was wholly created by the inhabitants of this city. Likely a manifestation of her role as protector, the Pompeians clearly held their version of Venus in a special place, which is evident in both epigraphic and visual representations of the goddess. It was not unusual to call upon Venus Pompeiana for assistance or protection, as can be seen in the following texts.

CIL IV 26 = CIL I2 1664a
N(umerium) Barcha(m) IIv(irum) v(irum) b(onum) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) ita v[o]beis Venus Pomp(eiana) sacra [sancta propitia sit].
‘I ask you to elect Numerius Barcha, a good man, as duovir. May Venus Pompeiana (be favourable) to your offerings.’

CIL IV 538 (ILS 5138), underneath an image of gladiators
(H)abiat Venere <P>ompei{i}ana iratam qui hoc laesaerit.
‘May he who vandalises this picture incur the wrath of Pompeian Venus.’

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Another aspect of Venus’ localised personification comes in the conflation of the Roman goddess with an indigenous Italic deity, most likely, Mefitis. Both goddesses have characteristics relating to nature and the physical world, and both appear with the epithet Fisica. Mefitis Fisica is found outside Pompeii, in Grumentum:

CIL X 203
[—] Mefiti Fisicae [—]

Venus Pompeiana Fisica, or simply Venus Fisica, is found in a number of inscriptions around the city:

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
‘Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.’

CIL IV 6865
[—]ae nostrae feliciter. / [Perp]etuo rogo, domna; per / [Vener]m(-) Fisicam te rogo ni me / [reicias?] / [—]us. Habeto mei memoriam.
‘Greetings to you, our…I beg you incessantly, my lady; by Venus Fisica I beg you not to refuse me. Remember me.’

Venus Fisica is even credited with inspiring offerings to other Roman gods, as seen in this votive dedication:

CIL X 928
Imperio Veneris Fisicae Iovi O(ptimo) M(aximo) / Antistia Methe / Antisti Primigeni / ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘At the behest of Venus Fisica, Antistia Methe (of) Antistius Primigenius (dedicated this) to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. By the decree of the decurions.’

The worship of Venus Pompeiana, unlike Diana and Ceres, has been linked to a dedicated temple. Located outside the city walls, on a promontory that would have once looked out to sea, the sanctuary had a sacred grove in addition to the temple building. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that a temple stood on the site prior to the one dedicated to Venus – some have tried to link this to pre-colonial worship of Mefitis, in attempt to further the link to later adoption of Venus – but this remains tenuous.

With the temple, one would expect to also find evidence of priestesses dedicated to the adoration of Venus. Surprisingly, there is only one woman, a member of the Alleii family, who is specifically named as a priestess of Venus:

[A]lleia Mai f(ilia) / [s]acerd(os) Veneris / et Cereris sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accordance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

There are, however, four women who are identified as sacerdos publica in inscriptions that do not specify the deity worshipped. As Venus is the patron goddess of the colony, it seems a logical conclusion that any woman named as a ‘public priestess’ was in fact charged with honouring Venus on behalf of the city. That the women known to us – Eumachia (CIL X 810-813), Mammia (CIL X 816 and 998), Holconia (CIL X 950), and Istacidia Rufilla (CIL X 999) – all come from prominent families of the Augustan period perhaps reinforces this conclusion.

There are two further texts that refer to the worship of Venus, both from columellae in a funerary context:

CIL X 1023
Iunoni / Tyches Iuliae / Augustae Vener(iae).
‘To the Juno of Tyche, (slave) of Julia Augusta, worshipper of Venus.’

CIL X 1054
Mesciniae |(mulieris) l(ibertae) / Veneriae.
‘To Mescinia, freedwoman (of a woman), worshipper of Venus.’

One further aspect of Venus Pompeiana worth mentioning is her iconographic persona, which is something that is entirely separate from that of the goddess of love. Gone is the nude imagery of the goddess normally on view – even within Pompeii – and in her place is a very different figure. Venus Pompeiana is fully clothed, wearing a crown, and holding a sceptre in one hand and a rudder in the other. As she is still accompanied by Eros, as is usual for the more familiar version of Venus, there is no doubt as to her identification. One of the best examples of this was found in the House of Verecundus (IX.7.6), in which Venus Pompeiana stands in the prow of a boat being drawn by four elephants:



A similar figure is found in another painting, from the House of Venus and the Four Gods (IX.7.1):




The rudder is still present despite the lack of the boat. Some scholars have equated this with Pompeii’s function as a port on the Sarno River. This aspect of relating Venus to the sea, not just as her place of birth, but specifically for its importance to Pompeii and the natural world may be another aspect of the characterization of Venus Pompeiana Fisica. This can be seen in a painting from the Domus of Lesbianus and Numicia Primigenia (I.13.9) wherein Venus Pompeiana appears to be steering a boat:



Similar images of Venus Pompeiana, distinctive in her clothing, crown, sceptre and rudder can be found in the House of the Labyrinth (VI.11.9), House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), the House of M. Fabius Rufus (VII.16.22, pictured above) and a shop at V.4.6.

The epigraphic and iconographic evidence clearly demonstrates that in some sense, two different images of Venus existed for the inhabitants of Pompeii. One was the traditional deity of the Roman pantheon, but the other was far more familiar, and was a localized personification of the goddess. Although for all intents and purposes the two were one and the same, the specific manifestations of Venus Pompeiana, particularly in her imagery, illustrates that the Pompeians had their own view of Venus in her guise as the protector and benefactor of the city which was all their own.

Venus, Weaver of Webs

Venus enim / plagiaria / est; quia exsanguni / meum petit, / in vies tumultu(m) / pariet: optet /
sibi, ut bene / naviget, / quod et / Ario sua r(ogat).

‘Venus is a weaver of webs; from the moment that she sets out to attack my dearest (of my blood) she will lay temptations along his way: he must hope for a good voyage, which is also the wish of his Ario.’
CIL IV 1410


This graffito, found in the cubiculum of the House of Hercules (VI.7.6), is a brilliant example of one of the most enduring relationships the Pompeians had with this goddess: negotiating for assistance in the name of love. Venus is by far the most ubiquitous of the goddesses worshiped in Pompeii (and may even, when all evidence is considered, be the most popular deity full stop): her adoration comes in both texts and image, but also represents a variety of personifications and different relationships with the inhabitants. She served as the patron goddess of the Roman colony established in 80 BC, thus having a clear and distinct role as a protector. That alone may have made her extremely popular, but it is her guise as the goddess of love that makes her so often invoked, particularly on the walls of the city.

The graffito above is thought to be written not by a suspicious lover, but by a concerned mother, Ario, worried for her lovesick son. Found beside an image of a snake, a symbol of protection in the Roman world, the text was scratched into a wall that had a nail driven into it, which has led some scholars to suggest it was meant as a magical ritual.

Venus graffito

Regardless of the significance (or lack thereof) of the nail, the message itself is clear, and not an uncommon one. Venus, goddess of love, can relieve the suffering of those caught in her grasp:

CIL IV 1824 (CLE 947)
Quisquis amat, veniat. Veneri volo frangere costas / fustibus et lumbos debilitare deae. / Si potest illa mihi tenerum pertundere pectus / quit ego non possim caput i[ll]ae frangere fuste?
‘Let all who love go to blazes! As for Venus, I want to break her ribs with cudgel blows and maim her loins. If she can pierce my tender heart, why shouldn’t I split her head with my stick?’

CIL IV 1520 (CLE 354)
Candida me docuit nigras / odisse puellas odero si potero sed non invitus / amabo / scipsit Venus fisica Pompeiana.
Blondie has taught me to hate dark girls. I shall hate them, if I can, but I wouldn’t mind loving them. Venus Pompeiana Fisica wrote this.

CIL IV 5092 (CLE 44)
Amoris ignes sentires, mulio, / magi(s) properares, ut videres Venerem. / Diligo puerum Venustum; rogo punge iamus. / Bibisti: iamus, prende lora et excute, / Pompeios defer, ubi dulcis est amor / meus es [- – -].
‘Driver, if you could only feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love young Charmer; please, spur on the horses, let’s go on! You’ve had your drink, let’s go, take the reins and crack the whip…take me to Pompeii, where my sweet love lives.’

As is seemingly always the case where love is concerned, the majority of these texts are poetic in form, and some not all that different in tone from what the Romantic poets would pen hundreds of years later. The fleeting nature of love, desire, and pain of separation, all at Venus’s behest, is a typical theme:

CIL IV 5296 (CLE 950)
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere / braciola et teneris oscula ferre labellis. / I, nunc ventis tua gaudia pupula crede: / crede mihi levis est natura virorum. / Saepe ego cu(m) media vigilare(m) perdita nocte / haec mecum medita(n)s: multos Fortuna quos supstulit alte / hos modo proiectos subito praecipitesque permit. / Sic Venus ut subito co(n)iunxit corpora amantum / dividit lux et separees qui{d} ama[nt].
‘Oh, if only I could hold my gentle arms around you and press my kisses on your tender lips. Go now, girl, confide your joys to the winds: believe me, flighty is the nature of men. These things I’ve often mediated lying awake in despair in the middle of the night: many has Fortune raised on high, then suddenly let fall headlong, oppressing them with worst duress. Likewise though Venus in a moment unites the bodies of lovers, the first light divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 9123 (CLE 2292)
Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo / cum bene sol nituit, redditur Oceano; / decrescit Phoebe quae modo plena fuit. / Venerum feritas saepe fit dura levis.
‘Nothing can last forever: When the sun has glittered all day, it returns to the ocean; the moon, that awhile ago was full, now wanes. Even the fierceness of Venus often becomes a puff of wind.’

Venus and her impact on the human heart is not always the subject of disparagement, but she is also praised and beseeched for lasting love and good fortune:

CIL IV 2457
Methe Cominiaes atellana amat Chrestum. Corde [si]t utreisque Venus Pompeiana propitia et sem[per] concordes veivant.
‘Methe of Atella, slave of Cominia, loves Chrestus. May Venus Pompeiana smile favourably on their hearts and let them always live in harmony.’

CIL IV 4007 (CLE 233)
Tu, pupa sic valeas, / sic habeas / Venere Pompeanam / propytia / Munn [—] / [—]
‘May you always be in good health, my darling, and may you have the goodwill of Venus Pompeiana.’

Varone wrote of Venus that the Pompeians ‘manifest their sincere devotion to the goddess by asking her favours and making promises ex voto at moments of crisis in their lives.’ This is understandable considering Venus’s personification of love, desire, and all matters of the heart. Perhaps the importance of Venus to the inhabitants of this city is best summed up in a Greek text found on one of the walls of the city:

CIL IV 9867
Αφροδείτη σώζουσα
‘Venus the saviour.’

Cereri Sacrum


In addition to Diana, one of the other three Roman goddesses of some prominence in Pompeii was Ceres. Although not worshiped or invoked with the same popularity as Venus, one of the two known positions of public priestess* was dedicated to Ceres, which suggests she held some importance to the locals. As the goddess of agriculture, grain, fertility and motherhood, it is no surprise that she should hold a place of esteem in a city surrounded by some of the most fertile land in Italy.

What is surprising though, is that a temple dedicated to the goddess has never been found, despite the fact that there are numerous inscriptions naming various women who took up her priestesshood. In addition, unlike Diana and Venus both, there is very little imagery of Ceres, and what little there is, is on the walls: no statuary has ever been identified.

Seven women are known from monumental inscriptions, some funerary, some dedicatory, as having served as priestesses of Ceres. Two of them, members of the Alleii family, proclaim their religious role in their epitaphs:

CIL X 1036
M(arco) Alleio Luccio Libellae patri aedili / IIvir(o) praefecto quinq(uennali) et M(arco) Alleio Libellae f(ilio) / decurioni. Vixit annis XVII. Locus monumenti / publice datus est. Alleia M(arci) f(ilia) Decimilla sacerdos / publica Cereris faciundum curavit viro et filio.
‘To Marcus Alleius Luccius Libella senior, aedile, duovir, prefect, quinquennial, and to Marcus Alleius Libella  junior, decurion. He lived 17 years. The place for the monument was given publically. Alleia Decimilla, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, oversaw the building on behalf of her husband and son.’

EE 8.315
Alleia Mai f(ilia) / [sacerd(os) Veneris / et Cereis sibi / ex dec(urionum) decr(eto) pe[c(unia) pub(lica)]
‘Alleia, daughter of Maius, priestess of Venus and Ceres, to herself, in accor- dance with a decree of the town councillors, with [public] money.’

Alleia actually holds the priesthood for two goddesses, serving Venus in addition to Ceres. Dated to the Neronian period, she is the only woman for whom this dual role is recorded.

Clodia  and Lassia are also known from funerary inscriptions, on a tomb found somewhere in the suburbs of Pompeii, now lost:

CIL X 1074a
Clodia A(uli) f(ilia) / sacerdos / publica / Cereris d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Clodia, daughter of Aulus, public priestess of Ceres, by decree of the decurions.

CIL X 1074b
Lassia M(arci) f(ilia) / sacerdos / publica / Cereris d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘Lassia, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, by decree of the decurions.’

There were clearly two members of this family dedicated to the service of Ceres, but how exactly they were related is not certain.

The only dedicatory inscription naming Ceres which survives comes from the Eumachia Building in the Forum, which names three priestesses of Ceres, two with the same name:

CIL X 812
Eumachia [L(uci) f(ilia)] / sacerd(os) publ(ica). // et // Aquvia M(arci) [f(ilia)] Quarta / sacerd(os) Cereris publ(ica). // [et] // [Heiai Ru]fulai / [M(arci) et L(uci) f(iliae)] sacerdotes / [Cer]eris publ(icae).
‘Eumachia, daughter of Lucius, public priestess, and Aquvia Quarta, daughter of Marcus, public priestess of Ceres, and (two) Heia Rufulas, daughters of Marcus and Lucius, public priestesses of Ceres.

There are two graffiti, one of which contains nothing more than an invocation to sacred Ceres:

AE 1951: 168
Cerer(i) s[acr(um)]
‘Sacred to Ceres.’

The second, found in the Villa of the Mysteries, has nothing to do with the divine Ceres, but rather with a woman named for the goddess. This text is a variation on a theme offering prosperity to those who love and punishing those who are unable to or hinder love, seen elsewhere in Pompeian graffiti, most notably in CIL IV 4091, an elegiac couplet from the House of Caecilius Iucundus (V.1.23-26).

CIL IV 9202
Ceres [m]ea / si quis am(a)t valea(t), quisquis ve[t]at, male perae(t). / [Led]a(m) amavi, at quo quis lubebit. [T]i(beri) Cl(a)udi, va(le), sal(utem) plurimo. Amavi Leda(m), / (pu)ella(m) Sami.
‘My Ceres, may he who loves prosper, who forbids love may he perish badly. I loved Leda, but in a manner in which it is pleasing (or: where it was acceptable?). Greetings, Tiberius Claudius. I loved Leda – the girl from Samos.’

Varone suggests ‘we may detect a certain amount of mockery towards a ‘guardian’, Ti. Claudius, from whose control a certain Ceres has apparently escaped, to the writer’s benefit.’ In a sense, the tone of this text is reminiscent of many similar graffiti addressing Venus in her guise as goddess of love, and it is purely the coincidence of name that predicates its inclusion here.

The final text, also found in the Villa of the Mysteries, is classified as instrumenta domestica – a fragment of roof tile with the following inscription:

CIL I2 3471
Cerer(i) sac(rum) // Scapula
‘Sacred to Ceres. Scapula’

Like both Diana and Venus, Ceres appears in two street shrines dedicated to the pantheon of Twelve Gods found at VIII. 3.11 and IX.11.1.  However, this is the only public art that depicts Ceres. The only other images of Ceres, four to be exact, are found in private domestic settings. One of these (photo above), that found in the House of Castor & Pollux (VI.9.6), was removed to the Naples Archaeological Museum soon after excavation in 1828, and thus remains well preserved.  Discovered in an area leading to the peristyle of the house, it was one of two painting flanking a doorway (the other was Saturn), it depicts Ceres holding a long torch and a basket full of grain, which is typical iconography for the goddess of agriculture. A similar image of Ceres with a crown of grain, holding a torch and a sheaf of grain, was found on a garden wall in the Casa della Regina d’Olanda (V.3.7). Now completely lost to the elements, the figure stood in an aedicula, undoubtedly meant to depict the goddess in a temple or shrine.  Ceres appears with a second figure in the two remaining images. In the House of Meleager (VI.9.2), Mercury is handing a purse to a seated Ceres, who is also holding her telltale torch.  On the north wall of the fauces of the House of Marcus Lucretius (IX.3.5), Ceres stands with another figure, but as only the lower halves remain, it is impossible to determine who she is with.

For a divine figure who has her own dedicated priestesshood, the archaeological evidence for Ceres is surprisingly sparse. The majority of the evidence for her worship comes from the monumental inscriptions naming her priestesses; there is very little in terms of graffiti or imagery. What this seems to indicate is that unlike Diana, who is a popular figure for both public and private artwork, prevalent in statuary and wall painting alike, or Venus (forthcoming!) who is depicted with such abundance she is easily the most popular goddess in Pompeii, Ceres’ role is somewhat less tangible. She has a clear place in the officially sanctioned religion of city complete with a dedicated priestess, but she lacks a temple, and does not often appear in either public or domestic art. For some reason, Ceres does not seem to hold the same place in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this city as the other goddesses. Perhaps though, that is the clue: city-dwellers might not have tied their fortunes to the goddess of agriculture in the same way those living on a farm might. To find the true importance of Ceres in this region, the answer likely lies in the countryside, beneath meters of volcanic debris.

* There are a number of women, such as another Clodia, Eumachia and Holconia, who are attributed as sacerdos publica  in texts that do not specifically name the goddess that was served. For the purposes of clarity, I have not included here any of the numerous inscriptions in which women are identified as a more generic public priestess without naming the divinity being honoured.