Enchanted By Egypt: Egyptian Cultural Influences in the Roman Campagna

Although Rome conquered Egypt in 31 BC, Egypt and its culture had been fascinating the Latin peoples for centuries, generating considerable trade as far back as Alexander the Great and the beginnings of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

Much of this trade, along with that from Greece and the Cyclades, passed through Praeneste, a Latin city south of Rome, now called Palestrina, and its nearby seaport of Antium, known today as Anzio.

Praeneste grew rich on trade and became a town of wonderful temples honoring the gods of its many foreign merchants, including the Egyptians.

The greatest of the sanctuaries at Praeneste was dedicated to Fortuna-Primigenia, first-born goddess of luck and fate, in whose honor was built an immense hillside temple furnished with splendid art and sculpture that rivaled that at Pergamum and Lyndos of Rhodes.  But there was yet another renowned and remarkable temple at Praeneste, dedicated to the evocatively named composite goddess Isis-Fortuna and equipped with a stunning polychrome mosaic floor depicting the Nile in flood surging from mysterious sources and emptying finally into the Mediterranean at Alexandria.  We will analyze this pavement.

Fascination with Egypt was particularly acute among Rome’s elite, particularly the Emperors, who transported great quantities of art and sculpture from Egypt over four centuries, notably obelisks seen in Rome to this day.  Imperial admiration for Egyptian art reached a peak in the design and decoration of Hadrian’s Villa, near Tivoli, whose architecture we will explore in situ and much of whose sculpture now resides in the Vatican.

Foundational Roman ideas about death and burial resonated with Egyptian ideas.  Rather than focus on the well known pyramid of Caius Sextius in Rome, we will examine the recently discovered double tomb at Grottaferrata belonging to the wealthy matron Aebutia Quarta and her son Carvilius Gemellus, whose bodies were interred in an Egyptian manner.