Building inscription honouring Numerius Popidius Celsinus for rebuilding the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, through private benefaction, following an earthquake in 62 BCE.
Inscribed marble plaque set above the entrance to the Temple of Isis complex at Pompeii. The inscription was discovered in 1766, in 37 fragments.
Although the inscription appears to reveal that the primary motivation of the rebuilding of the temple by Numerius Popidius Celsinus and his father was political, there is also a religious aspect to their benefaction that should not be ignored. The Egyptian cult of Isis, along with several other Egyptian deities, had been introduced into Italy in the 2nd century BCE; her followers believed that her cult promised eternal life after death, and by the Roman period in Pompeii she had become associated with ideas of resurrection and as a Mother Goddess (Berry, The Complete Pompeii, p. 204). The cult of Isis found particularly strong support in the Campanian region, with many private homes containing references to it within their own household shrines, or lararia. It is clear that the cult was of particular significance to this servile branch of the Popidii familiy; the father also dedicated a statue that was excavated from the temple, and their names appear in the floor mosaic of the court of the temple, the ekklesiasterion. It is perhaps striking that such an obviously foreign religious cult found such prominence amongst Roman citizens in Italy, especially given the early ban by the Senate of the active worship of cults such as that of Bacchus, which had been outlawed in Italy in 186 BCE. However, Isis appears to have appealed to the entire social spectrum of Pompeii. The statuettes of Dionysus and Venus that were excavated from the temple complex also ‘point to the syncretism of the Isis cult with Graeco-Roman cults connected with fertility and regeneration,’ and perhaps therefore explain her popularity (Small, “Religion in the Roman period”, p. 188). Although public euergetism and benefaction might more commonly be seen in public buildings of more obviously ‘Roman’ culture, the approach demonstrated by the father of Numerius Popidius Celsinus here establishes the extent to which the individual might attempt to better one’s status according to the expectations and limits set by the Roman state; although foreign, the Temple of Isis was still a public temple, on public land, and therefore ‘as plausible a vehicle for social advancement as that of Fortuna Augusta’ (Beard, Pompeii, p. 307). The temple was also situated within a local context, and its activity governed by the town council, not directly by the Senate in Rome, meaning that the application of regulations may have been less stringently, or perhaps variously applied. The contribution of the Popidii to the rebuilding of the temple communicated the core civic values and ambition of good Roman citizens, and their devotion to the cult of Isis was indicative of the strength of their piety and commitment. The cult did not need to be more visibly ‘Roman’ for their benefaction to communicate a message of familial and municipal responsibility.