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Lauren Hackworth Petersen, professor of art history at the University of Delaware, was the featured speaker at the Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture at Casadesus Recital Hall on Nov. 2.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Art historian discusses significance of Egyptian goddess
November 5, 2012Tweet
The visual landscape of ancient Italy may suggest that Isis, an Egyptian goddess, meant much more to the people of Rome than historians have previously let on.
Lauren Hackworth Petersen, professor of art history at the University of Delaware, spoke about old and new stereotypes of Isis and discussed the social, ritualistic and political meanings she held for Romans at the 21st Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture on Nov. 2.
“Historians have attempted to explain Roman worship of Isis by otherizing her, so that she can be manipulated to fulfill ancient political agendas, meet the hedonistic needs of so-called ‘bad emperors,’ speak to the marginalized, or be an object of exotic display,” Petersen said. “Such a paradigm, which posits Isis as the other, regulates to the margins any understanding of how belief, no matter how strong or how tentative, might have been part of everyday encounters with Isis.”
Petersen described the fascination with Egypt in Roman life and how Isis became popular in Rome as a fashionable cult following. Festivals were held in Rome for Isis and her husband, Osirus, which shows that Isis, like Roman gods, received public observance.
As relations with Egypt worsened, however, Isis became a polarizing figure, and ancient writers declared the goddess the “antithesis of Roman gods.” The first Roman emperor, Augustus, manipulated the image of Isis to show Rome’s dominance over Egypt and banned worship of her.
Still, Augustus used the image of Isis in his Campus Martius, a publically owned area in ancient Rome, which Petersen argued means that Isis was instrumental in asserting Augustus’ political power.
“Traditionally, the Egyptian pair Isis and Serapis was charged with the transmission of power among Egyptian royalty,” she said. “In the context of Augustus’ Campus Martius. ... This couple, now inhabitants of the Roman Empire, may well have symbolically overseen the newly devised dynastic ambitions of the first Roman empirical family.”
Isis’ following continued to strengthen despite the complex relations between Rome and Egypt. While Petersen said most historians point out the ‘bad’ Roman emperors who worshiped her, such as Nero and Caligula, there is evidence in Roman art that ‘good’ emperors worshipped her as well.
Petersen said that images of Isis in shrines in Pompeii, as well as images of Isis in Rome’s sanctuaries and funerary monuments, point to ritual and suggest devotion to the goddess.
“Perhaps we would do well to consider Isis as a Roman deity, not just for demonstrative, cultic members, but one of many gods that individuals, whether emperor, freed slave, wealthy Roman and so on could worship,” Petersen said.
For the Romans, Isis was not just a politicized, polarizing goddess who represented a fascination with exotic Egyptian culture, Petersen explained. To many, she was also a mother figure and a protective deity, easily assimilated into Roman beliefs.
“Isis, like most women gods, could move in and out of the lives of Romans, whether in the political, social, cultural or religious realms, and this is precisely where Isis’ strengths lie,” Petersen said. “At once a foreign deity, she was decisively instrumental in shaping the ideals of Roman-ness while meeting Roman society’s needs and desires.”
The Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture Series was endowed in 1984 by the Romano family to sponsor lectures at Binghamton University by speakers in history, economics, art history and medicine. Richard Romano, son of Mario and Antoinette and Binghamton University alumnus, attended the lecture.
“This lecture series means a lot to me,” Romano said. “It is part of the legacy of my parents. My parents always believed in giving back to the University. They didn’t have a lot of money, but what little they did have they gave away.”