Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.42

Jaime Alvar, Los cultos egipcios en Hispania. Institut des sciences et techniques de l'Antiquité.   Besançon:  Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2012.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 9782848674186.  €26.00.  

Reviewed by Valentino Gasparini, Universität Erfurt (

At first sight, the title of the new book published by Jaime Alvar seems prosy, innocently traditional, if not actually old-fashioned. On the contrary, it is significantly representative of a much wider and complex historiographical phenomenon.

Half a century ago, in 1961, Maarten Vermaseren inaugurated the huge and ambitious project of creating a series to collect, on the basis of specific topographical areas, the archaeological, epigraphic and iconographical evidence of what, at the time, used to be called “the Oriental religions of the Roman Empire”.1 The first books of the series (the well-known Études Préliminaires aux Religions Orientales dans le Monde Romain) perfectly fulfilled this aim. One of the earliest was devoted by Antonio García y Bellido to Religions orientales dans l’Espagne romaine (1967).

Vermaseren’s project soon developed, departing from (already at the end of the ’60s) the preliminary analyses based on a strictly geographical perspective, turning to a thematic approach and even questioning, step by step, Cumont’s rigid differentiation between “Roman” and “Oriental” religions. This led in 1992, seven years after the death of its founder, to a change of name to Religions in the Graeco-Roman World. This process was not limited just to that series, which represented only the clearest expression of the particular historiographical Zeitgeist of that period.

The study of the reception in the Mediterranean of the Egyptian cults between the beginning of the 3rd cent. BCE and the end of the 4th cent. CE was not immune to this influence, and its development has moreover been assisted in the last fifteen years by very significant changes that have radically revolutionized its own methodology.2

Thanks above all to the work of Laurent Bricault, we now have at our disposal a systematic collection and careful commentary on the archaeological evidence, inscriptions, coins and, soon, literary sources (preferring in this way a typological, and again not geographical, approach to the sources themselves). Also, a massive profusion of topographical works has been produced, but mostly on a local or regional scale, focussing on very specific historical frameworks.3

Clearly, as many as fifty years after the first volume of the ÉPRO and forty-five years after the monograph on the presence of the “Oriental religions” in Spain, the publication of the book of Alvar, recovering a trans-regional approach to the study of the Isiac cults, represents a sort of implicit turnaround, innovative and very traditional at the same time.

Indeed, as summarized in its “Introduction” (pp. 15-17), the monograph collects the whole body of published material found in the Iberian Peninsula, organised according to a geographical-administrative order. It is immediately striking that, in these five last decades, the documentation has significantly multiplied from the 81 documents registered by García y Bellido in 1967 to the 235 collected by Alvar.

In his brief, probably too much brief, general comment upon this material (“Los cultos egipcios en Hispania”, pp. 19- 36), the author surveys the dynamics of introduction and spread of the Egyptian cults from the end of the 2nd cent. BCE: the cases of Emporiae and Carthago Nova reveal the fundamental role that Egyptian and Delian agents played in the process of appropriation of these cults in Hispania and their early association with the interests of privileged groups in the late Republican period. Once they had occupied important spaces in the main centres, the Isiac cults quickly became very popular in the territory during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and even more rapidly they disappeared. There are no testimonies of Isiac practices that can be dated after the mid 3rd cent.; one factor may have been a powerful earthquake which destroyed, for example, the temple of Baelo Claudia.

The catalogue of the material (“Catalogo”, pp. 39-146) is divided into three chapters each covering one of the three provinces of the peninsula: Lusitania (pp. 39-55), Baetica (pp. 57-93) and Tarraconense (pp. 95-146).

The first includes 13 settlements and 60 items, including 4 inscriptions, 8 sculptures, 3 mosaics, and 45 lamps. Most of the material (42 items) comes from Mérida. It is worth underlining the presence in the latter of two lamps with Isiac iconography found in a burial context, and in Pax Iulia (Beja) the epithet of Pantheus given to Serapis, as well as the discovery, attested at the end of 18th / early 19th century in a manuscript by Fr. Manoel do Cenaculo, of a statue of a mummified Isis.

The “religious landscape” in Baetica is more variegated: 28 settlements and 64 items (2 temples, 20 inscriptions, 17 sculptures, 3 mosaics, 3 decorations on pottery and 19 on lamps). Among the most remarkable Isiac epithets, there are the ones of Panthea, given at this turn to Isis, in Epora (Montilla, Córdoba), of Domina in Torre de Miguel Sesmero (Badajoz) and Bulsa (a hapax) in Alameda (Málaga). Whereas only a statue of Isis has been discovered near the theatre of Regina (Reina, Badajoz), an entire Isaeum and its facilities, recently excavated in 2009, were built in the 2nd century CE right inside the porticus pone scenam of the theatre of Italica (Santiponce, Sevilla). In the same theatre, a possible statue of Isis is documented in an Arab text of the 14th cent., while an original Egyptian sculpture of the 26th dynasty was brought to the light in the amphitheatre of the town. By contrast, the Flavian temple of Baelo Claudia (Bolonia, Cádiz) was built right next to the Capitolium which dominated the forum. An inscription found in the building attests to a supplicatio for Isis with the epithet of muromen, while two other dedications with plantae pedis are directed to Isis Domina, exactly as in Italica.

Tarraconensis moreover boasts the largest number of Isiac documents, with 36 settlements and 74 items (3 temples, 26 inscriptions, 24 sculptures, 15 lamps, a mosaic and a painting, 3 fragments of pottery, a pair of Augustan coins). In Emporiae (Ampurias, Gerona), a sanctuary was dedicated by the Alexandrian Numas to Isis and Serapis already at the end of the 2nd cent. BCE: its cult statues were probably produced in Delos. Another temple was built at much the same time in Carthago Nova (Cartagena, Murcia) by Titus Hermes, maybe involved in the trade with Delos and the Aegean. A senator from Perge in Pamphylia was responsible of the transformation, at the end of the 2nd – beginning of the 3rd cent. CE, of the indigenous rock sanctuary of Panóias into a cult place dedicated to all the gods and goddesses, the numina, the Dii Severi and Serapis. A mystery route, equipped with water facilities, fireplaces, etc., was created amid several worked and inscribed rocks. Out of these three main settlements, it is remarkable the presence of the epithets of Pelagia from Saguntum (Sagunto, Valencia) and mironymo from Asturica Augusta (Astorga, León), the reliefs of Acci (Guadix, Granada) and Quintanilla de Somoza (León), and the inscription from Valentia (Valencia) testifying a sodalicium vernarum colentes Isidem.

An appendix (“Fuera de catálogo”, pp. 147-166) gathers both the documents preserved in Spanish museums but not found in Hispania and those found abroad but suggestive of Iberian Isiac devotees, for a total of 37. Among those whose Isiac identification is rejected, are the altar found in the Castra Caecilia (Cáceres), in Lusitania, which was used by Filippo Coarelli to stress his identification of the Isaeum Metellinum with the sanctuary placed in the regio III at Rome,4 and the sanctuary of Ituci Virtus Iulia (Torreparedones, Baena, Córdoba), in Baetica, formerly considered the oldest testimony of the Isiac cult in Spain.

The volume is completed by abbreviations and bibliographical references (“Abreviaturas y bibliografía”, pp. 167- 188), a list of the 106 images (“Lista de ilustraciones”, pp. 189-192) and a large map of distribution of the material by Georges Tirologos.

This is a fair work, a good collection of the published material (with very useful colour images) and a sensible synthesis of the dynamics of appropriation of the Isiac cults in Spain. The author rightly criticizes the alleged derivation of the Isiac cults in the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa and suggests finding the origin of these vectors directly in the Egyptian and Aegean contexts. This does not entail that Mauritania had no influence; in particular in the Imperial epoch and in Lusitania, this influence is shown by the diffusion of lamps and by the involvement of some African devotees, as in the case of the dedication in Italica of a golden bust of Isis Domina by the flaminica Vibia Modesta, from Mauritania.

Another important aspect underlined by Alvar is the close connection between the presence of Isis in the peninsula and the colonizing action of Rome: the goddess (p. 32) represents a powerful instrument of expression of Romanness and of integration in a provincial context, mostly as an urban phenomenon (but see the interesting eccentric collocation of the sanctuaries of Italica and, maybe, Tarraco).

Less attention has been dedicated to terminology, whose use remains sometimes inaccurate: e.g. the appropriateness of expressions like “Alexandrian deities” or “Alexandrian cults” (pp. 15, 19, 21, 24, 26) have been already questioned by Michel Malaise.5

Even the differentiation between the materials that are expression of cultic preferences (i.e. temples, inscriptions and some statues) and the ones that probably are not, or at least not necessarily (i.e. mosaics, lamps and ceramic decorations, ushebtis, frescoes, coins, theophoric names), is quite fragile, arbitrary, and not clearly solved through the creation of an appendix collecting not-Isiac material.

Finally, some of the specific interpretations given by the author are not convincing: it is difficult, for example, to identify the object (p. 122) carried by Anubis (or by a priest masked as such) of the relief of Acci as a Osiris- Canopus over a little column (which is not testified on an iconographical basis), or to interpret the presence of some plantae pedis next to the channel of evacuation of a basin in the rock sanctuary of Panóias (pp. 145-146) as image of the god Serapis over an allegorical Nile.

In conclusion, these last elements of discussion do not damage the overall quality and utility of this work. It is rather regrettable that the author did not, in the general comments, include a deeper and more contextualised analysis of the material, even put in relation with the other (not-Isiac) items.


1.   See, in this respect, the introduction by Corinne Bonnet and Laurent Bricault of the Proceedings of the International Conference “Panthée. Les mutations religieuses dans l’Empire romain" (31 mai - 1 juin 2011), forthcoming.
2.   For a detailed status quaestionis, see L. Bricault, R. Veymiers, “Quinze ans après. Les études isiaques (1997-2012): un premier bilan”, in L. Bricault, M.J. Versluys (eds.), Egyptian gods in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean. Image and reality between local and global, Suppl. Mythos 3 (2012), pp. 1-23.
3.   See now C. Häuber, The Eastern Part of the Mons Oppius in Rome: the Sanctuary of Isis et Serapis in Regio III, the Temples of Minerva Medica, Fortuna Virgo and Dea Syria, and the Horti of Maecenas, forthcoming.
4.   With the exception of L. Bricault, Atlas de la diffusion des cultes isiaques (IVe s. av. J.-C. – IVe s. apr. J.-C.) (“MemAcInscr” 23), Paris 2001.
5.   M. Malaise, Pour une terminologie et une analyse des cultes isiaques, Bruxelles 2005, pp. 127-180.

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