How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis
Lily of the Nile, is Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the much more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Only ten years old when her parents committed suicide, Selene was taken prisoner by the Romans and marched through the streets in chains. Her life was spared, however, and Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, took her into his household, where she had to curry favor to survive.
Like her mother before her, Selene was a worshipper of Isis, the all-powerful sorceress and mother-goddess of the Nile. Unlike her mother, however, Selene practiced her faith in a time during which it was politically disadvantageous, and perhaps dangerous, for her to do so.
Generally speaking, the Romans employed a liberal philosophy when it came to religion. If a conquered nation submitted to Roman civil authority, they were free to worship their native gods. There were notable exceptions to this policy, however. The early Roman hostility towards Christianity is well-documented. Druids were persecuted and effectively wiped out. During the Augustan Age, Rome was also particularly antagonistic to the worshippers of Isis.
Augustus had a special enmity for the Isiac faith, no doubt owing to the fact that Isis was the patron deity of his arch rival, Cleopatra. Like the Ptolemaic queens before her, Cleopatra embraced Isis, presenting herself as a veritable living incarnation of the powerful mother-goddess. The worship of Isis often eclipsed that of her husband Osiris and her son Horus, such that she made a perfect symbol for queens seeking to rule on their own. Cleopatra knew this and made great political use of the Isiac priesthood to further her political aims.
By the time Rome declared war upon Cleopatra, Isis worship had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, so Cleopatra’s religious influence was a genuine threat. However, Augustus remained hostile towards Isiacism even after Cleopatra’s death.
This was almost certainly because the Isiac temples promoted values antithetical to the “back to family values” political campaign that Augustus was waging to consolidate his power base. In short, Isiacism wasn’t simply the worship of some foreign goddess, nor even simply posthumous support for his conquered enemy, but the promotion of a set of political and religious philosophies that Augustus did not want to spread.
For the Romans, religion was typically public business. Roman temples were generally open and visible to the street, and their private chambers were generally limited to an inner sanctum for the cult statue. By contrast, Isiac temples typically fostered a more intimate atmosphere by enclosing the temple by walls so as to preserve the privacy of the worshippers. This sense of privacy was greeted with mistrust by some Romans who considered Isiac temples a hotbed of conspiracy where the disaffected could gather and secretly plot against the state.
Moreover, during the Augustan Age, Isis worship promoted a more egalitarian relationship between the sexes and admitted both men and women into the priesthood. While there is evidence that Isiacism promoted chastity and periods of abstinence, Isis was a great favorite amongst prostitutes and was also associated with sexual license and mysterious fertility rites.
All this ran counter to Augustus’ policy of preserving the social hierarchy and his place as the religious leader of the state. At a time when he was regulating sex, marriage, and the role of women to conform with traditional values--or what he imagined those traditional values to be--Isiacism was an obstacle. That it was a popular religion made it only worse; he closed Isiac temples, forbade the worship of Isis within the old sacred boundary of Rome, and eventually sent his second-in-command, Agrippa, to put down an Isiac rebellion of some sort and prohibit the worship of Isis in Rome and her surrounds.
That this assault on Isis worship happened during Selene’s lifetime--much of it while she was actually living in Rome--is nothing short of astonishing when we recall that she was, like her mother, an important figure to Isiacs. For her mother’s partisans, she represented a chance to return to power and for Isis worship to flourish where Augustus tried to stamp it out. As Cleopatra’s daughter, a surviving Ptolemy, and an heir to that dynasty, Selene was also, undoubtedly, the faith’s most prominent adherent.
Under the circumstances, especially considering that her survival depended upon Augustus’ good will, one might have expected Selene to renounce her patron’s least favorite goddess. But if the numismatic evidence of her reign is any indication, Selene never wavered in her faith. This little captive princess eventually became Queen of Mauretania where she explicitly adopted Isis as her goddess. Selene’s coins--the currency of her realm, all but guaranteed to be seen by Augustus himself--repeatedly would display Isis symbols. Moreover, Selene and her husband Juba II would go on to establish in Mauretania a giant temple of Isis where sacred crocodiles were kept.
As the most prominent client queen of the Augustan Age, Selene’s actions would have made her an influential religious dissident. Whether she paid a political price for this is unknown, but if Augustus ever considered returning her to the throne of Egypt, this may have tipped the scales against the idea. With apparent determination, Selene expanded the reach of Isiacism into Western Africa and created a safe-haven for Isis worshippers at a time when their cult was imperiled. What’s more, Selene’s spiritual influence may have reached into Augustus’ own household.
Though Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, was also hostile toward the Isiacs to the point of crucifying some of them, the other emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty gave Isis an elevated status in the Roman world that would last for hundreds of years. Claudius, Nero, and Caligula all descended from Selene’s half sisters, the Antonias, leading one to speculate whether or not these women were receptive to Selene’s religious ideas and passed them on to their sons. Moreover, Selene’s beliefs may have influenced Augustus’ daughter, Julia, whose villa featured a painting of flamboyant priestesses of Isis wearing high headdresses and shaking rattles. One can only speculate what her father may have thought of that.
It is possible that the persecution of Isiacs only made her worshippers stronger in their faith and that the religion would have grown even without Selene’s active participation. However, the Queen of Mauretania’s unambiguous support of Isiacism must have encouraged worshippers throughout the Mediterranean and may well have protected the faith during the Augustan Age so that it could later flourish. This is especially relevant since Isis is a living faith even today and Cleopatra Selene is one of its unsung heroines.
Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.
She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.
Some might argue that Augustus was not Rome’s first emperor, but given the outcome of his climb to power ended the Roman Republic, I always refer to him as such.
In spite of this hostility, he appears to have allowed himself to be portrayed in reverence to Isis in carvings throughout Egypt. Historian Diana E. E. Kleiner suggests that this is because the power of Isis iconography was so influential in Egypt that it was easier for Augustus to portray himself as Cleopatra’s successor in Egypt than her conqueror. In the rest of the empire, the political situation differed, and Augustus marked the Isiacs as his enemies accordingly.
One of the ironies of the Augustan Age is that while Rome’s first emperor apparently held deeply misogynistic ideas that would be used to oppress women for the next two thousand years, his wife Livia was one of the most powerful women in history.
Why Agrippa needed to restore order by suppressing the Isiacs isn’t well understood. Whether Isiacs were protesting their treatment or involving themselves in intrigues against the state isn’t known, but it is significant to note that this occurred in 22 B.C. following a period of famine and food riots. Perhaps the Isiacs were agitating for charity. Or perhaps they had involved themselves in the Murena-Caepio conspiracies surrounding Augustus’ new regime. They may even have been angry or emboldened by the invasion of Egypt that year by the Kandake of Meroe.
While the worship of Isis was not unknown in the amorphous area then known as “Libya,” the dominant goddess was Carthaginian Tanit. That Selene clung to Egyptian Isis even while trying to win over her new Mauretanian subjects is a testament both to her faith and her intention to re-found her mother’s dynasty.