Londinium Lite


Eastern religions

Flagon with graffito found in Southwark
Graffito on a 1st-century flagon reveals the existence of a temple of Isis

The worship of eastern deities spread from Asia and Egypt to the western part of the Empire. The religions of the east soon proved more popular when conventional Roman religion could no longer satisfy the emotional needs of Roman Londoners.

These were mystery cults offering much greater emotional satisfaction than the traditional religions by promising life after death. Organised as secret societies, they soon became popular in cosmopolitan London.

Altar found in the Roman Riverside Wall, commemorating restoration of the temple of Isis
This 3rd-century altar celebrates the restoration of the temple of Isis

The evidence for a temple to the eastern goddess Isis is indicated by graffito on a 1st-century flagon found in Tooley Street, Southwark which reads LONDINI AD FANVM ISIDIS, or ‘To London at the temple of Isis’.

The existence of the temple is confirmed by an altar inscription which confirmed that the temple that had ‘fallen down through old age’ had been restored. The 3rd-century altar, found reused in the riverside wall (BC75), had been dedicated by Marcus Martiannius Pulcher, a hitherto unknown provincial governor. London is the only place in Roman Britain that has evidence for a temple to Isis and her cult must have remained an exotic exception to the other religions in the province.

Marble head of Serapis found on the site of the London Mithraeum
Serapis, consort of Isis

Numerous small artifacts celebrate the presence of the worship of Isis in Roman London. There are decorative bone hairpins and a lead weight depicting Isis as well as small bronze figurines of the goddess and of her son, Horus or Harpocrates. 

Her consort Osiris, also called Serapis, was one of the marble heads found buried in the Mithraeum (WFG44). As a group the family represented the power of creation and Isis, in bringing Serapis back to life, became one of the gods of the underworld.

Excavations at a cemetery site in Great Dover Street (GDV96) also yielded evidence of another Egyptian god of the underworld – Anubis, also closely associated with Isis. Three lamps in an unusual cremation burial depicted the jackal headed Anubis and are rare finds from Roman Britain.

The goddess Cybele was a great mother goddess adopted by Rome from Asia Minor. Her worship, like Isis, was popular amongst women. The worship of Cybele had emotional appeal, offering salvation and priests of the goddess castrated themselves in her service. A bronze castration clamp found in the Thames at London Bridge, now in the British Museum, is believed to have been used in the cult of Cybele. The clamp is decorated with busts of Cybele and her lover Attis while busts of other Roman deities represent the days of the week.

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