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The Roman Era in Britain
Religions Of Roman Britain
by Ward, John


The Graeco-Roman and Barbaric Paganisms Mithraism and other Eastern Cults Christianity

As intimated in the Introduction, the deities and divinities named on altars and tablets, rendered in sculpture, and figured on mosaics in this country, fall into several groups. There were those of the Graeco-Roman pantheon whose worship may be regarded as the official or state religion. There were those bearing barbaric names, mostly Celtic and German, some undoubtedly old British deities, others imported by the soldiery. There were the divine personages of Oriental religions Mithras, Isis, and the Great Mother of Phrygia of later introduction. And finally came the religion of Christ.

Of the greater gods of Rome, Jupiter, pre-eminently the patron of the state and its official machinery, is the most frequently named on the altars. His usual formula is I. O. M., 'Jupiter, the best and greatest'; and a dedication at Elleborough, I. O. M. Capitolino, specially connects him with his chief seat of worship the Capitol of Rome where, associated with Juno and Minerva, he was honoured as the divine head of the state. It is curious that of the Capitoline triad, no trace of the worship of Juno has been found in Britain. There are, however, several inscriptions to Minerva. She is associated with Hercules on an altar at Kirk Haugh in Northumberland; and at South Shields and Ribchester, tablets have been found recording the restoration of temples to her, and at Chichester, to her and Neptune.

The altars and sculptured representations of Mars are many, and, as might be expected, they have been mostly found among the military remains. The former are usually dedicated to the god, of the holy god, Mars; otherwise to him in some special capacity, as Mars the Conqueror, Mars the Pacifier, and Mars the Preserver (Marti Victori Pacifero Conservatori). He is occasionally and appropriately associated with Victory. Although very few altars to Mercury have been found, he was a favourite subject for sculpture, and is invariably shown with his caduceus and often with a purse. The sculptures usually take the form of small panelled reliefs, which were probably placed in the walls of workshops and other buildings devoted to trade and traffic, of which he was the patron. Apollo is usually associated or equated with other deities in Britain. At Ribchester, the dedication of an altar, Deo Sancto Apollini Apono, specially connects him with his famous shrine and oracle at Fons Aponi near Padua, which, like our Bath, was much resorted to for its healing waters. Fortuna, the goddess of good luck, was a favourite with the soldiery. More than a dozen altars to her have been found in Britain, on which she is addressed simply as Fortuna, or as Fortuna Conservatorix and Fortuna Redux; while on one at Chesterholm she appears as Fortuna Populi Romani, the tutelary goddess of the Roman people. There are fewer altars to Victoria, the goddess of victory, but she is a frequent subject in sculpture.

The following deities, to judge from the few remains that relate to them, were sparingly invoked. There are altars to Neptune at Newcastle and Chesterholm; to Diana at Bath, Newstead, and Caerleon, where also a tablet records the rebuilding of a temple to her; to Aesculapius at Lanchester and Maryport, while at Binchester he is associated with his daughter Salus, and she alone is the subject of an altar at Caerleon; and to Bellona, goddess of war, at Old Carlisle, and, according to Spartian, she had a temple at York. The Parcae or Fates have altars at Carlisle and Lincoln; and the god who brought undertakings to a successful issue, Bonus Eventus, is occasionally associated with Fortuna and other deities.

The tutelary goddesses of Rome and Britain and many genii were invoked. At High Rochester and Maryport are altars to Roma, and on another at the latter place she is styled Roma Aeterna. Britannia had altars at York (where also is part of a statue of her), Castlehill, and Auchindavy. Originally, a genius was the power which created and maintained a man's life, determined his character, and influence him for good something intimately blended with him, yet not himself, and in a sense his guardian spirit. The Genius of the head of the family the paterfamilias was ever associated with the Lar and the Penates in the Roman household worship. By a process of extension, nations, societies, cities, and even streets, baths, and places everywhere were deemed to have their genii. Hence we have altars dedicated to the Genius of the Roman people at Stanwix, High Rochester, and elsewhere; to that of Britannia at Chichester; and to that of the Emperor at Chesterholm and High Rochester. Legions, cohorts, alae, and centuries, the praetorium, and the standards, had their genii, and we have altars to all of them. More still were dedicated, Genio Loci, to the Genius of the Place.

Less easy to define is the numen of the emperor, which frequently finds a place on our inscriptions, mostly in association with higher divinities. A numen seems originally to have signified any power higher than man; but ultimately the term was confined to the emperors, and perhaps the best English rendering would be the 'divinity' of the emperor. The soldiers were thus taught to hold the emperor's personality as sacred. Even his authority was deified. Two altars, the one at Walton in Northumberland and the other at Birrens, are dedicated, Disciplinae Augusti to the Discipline of the Emperor. The second altar was found in the principia, and it may well have come from the sacellum.

Of the rural divinities, the nymphs the benign beings who dwelled by springs and rivers, in woodlands and meadows, and on hills were much invoked. On an altar at Risingham is a curiously worded dedication to the nymphs to whom worship is due Nymphis verandis. By a process of metonymy, the water-nymphs are 'Fontes,' on an altar found near Chester, and the field-nymphs 'Campestres,' on one at Castle Hill. Silvanus, the woodland god, beloved of hunters, has several altars; and one at High Rochester is dedicated to the Mountain Deities, Dis Montibus; while at Risingham is one to the divine Fosterers or Cultivators of the place, Dis Cultoribus hujus loci.

Although the divine beings enumerated above were Roman in name, they were not necessarily worshipped as Roman. For instance, several altars, one at Caerleon, are dedicated to the Dolichene Jupiter, Jovi Dolicheno, and one at Appleby to Jupiter Serapis, thus equating Jupiter with a famous god, whose chief seat was Doliche in northern Syria, and with the Egyptian Serapis. Further evidence of his worship as Serapis are an inscription recording the erection of a temple to him at York and an altar to the Heliopolitan Jupiter at Carvoran. An altar at Chester to Jupiter Taranus, I. O. M. Tarano, may connect him with the German Thor or Thunor; or more probably with Taranucus or Taranucnus, a Gaulish thunder-god, to whom there are several Continental inscriptions. Two altars at Walton in Northumberland, dedicated to Jupiter, are carved with a thunderbolt, the attribute of Jupiter, and a wheel, perhaps thus equating him with a Gaulish sky- or war-god whose attribute was a wheel. This god is apparently the subject of a pottery intaglio recently found at Corbridge, which represents a warrior with a wheel at his feet. We have already noticed that the goddess of the hot springs at Bath was equated with Minerva. The remains of a temple to her have been found in that city, and on or near the site, a beautiful bronze-gilt female head, which, from the circumstance that it appears to have had a helmet, may have represented Minerva, or, strictly speaking, Sul-Minerva.

Several war-gods are equated with Mars in this country. One of these is the Gaulish Belatucadrus, to whom there are more than a dozen altars in the north, on three of which he is addressed as Mars Belatucadrus. There are about the same number to Cocidius, all also in the north. As he is unknown beyond our shores, he may well have been a British god, warlike and haunting the woods, for he is equated with both Mars and Silvanus. Apparently he had an important seat of worship in the neighbourhood of Carlisle, for thereabout the Ravenna chorographer places a Fanocedi, or, as in another manuscript, Fanococidi. At Bath, an altar to Mars Loucetius and Nematona was raised by a native of Treves, in which district, Leucetius, a god of lightning, and his consort Nemetona, were invoked together. In Irish tradition, the latter appears as Nemon, the wife of a war-god, Net; and somewhere in the south-west of England was Nemetotacis, according to the above chorographer, which may have been named after her. A bronze tablet found at West Coker in Somerset is inscribed to mars Rigisamus, a Celtic god, 'the most royal.' There is at Glasgow an inscription to Camulus, 'the warlike heaven-god,' who "appears in Gaelic myth as Cumhal, the father of Finn, and in British mythical history as Coel, a duke of Caer Coelvin (known earlier as Camulodunum, and now as Colchester), who seized the crown of Britain, and spent his short reign in a series of battles" (Squire). Although equated on Gaulish inscriptions with Mars, he seems to have been a warlike Jupiter, of whom, perhaps, Belatucadrus and Rigisamus were epithets. At Chester-le-Street, Carlisle, and Caerwent are inscriptions to Mars Ocelus and Mars Condate, probably also Celtic deities. Condate is an occasional place-name both in Britain and on the Continent. On one of the Caerwent inscriptions Mars Ocelus is equated with the German Lenus. In Hertfordshire, and at York and Old Carlisle, have been found inscriptions, Marti Toutati or Totati, apparently the fierce Gaulish Toutates referred to by Lucan.

Some remarkable remains of a small temple were discovered on Chapel Hill at Housesteads in 1882-83, and among them were found two altars erected by Frisian Germans, the one dedicated in poor Latin, Deo Marti Thingso et duabus Alaisiagis Bede et Fimmilene et N. Aug., and the other, Deo Marti et duabus Alaisiagis et N. Aug. "To the god Mars Thingsus, the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmelena, and the numen of the Emperor." The chief sculptured stone on the site was the head of a doorway, with a central relief of Mars Thingsus, with one hand holding a spear and the other resting upon his shield, while at the feet was a goose or a swan; and on each side was a nude figure holding a wand or sceptre and a wreath the two probably representing the two divinities just named. According to Prof. Heinzel of Vienna, Thingsus is Tuis Things, the patron of the national assembly ('thing') of the Frisians, and he connects the two goddesses with the Bodthing, the general court of justice, and the Fimmelthing, the movable court.

Grannos, patron of healing-waters, an especial favourite of the Continental Belgae, was invoked as Apollo Grannus at Inversek. Several places famous for their thermal springs, as Aquae Granni, now Aix-la-Chapelle, Graux, and Grantheim, were named after him. Maponus, another Celtic Apollo, appears on several altars in Britain and on the Continent. In Welsh story he appears as Mabon, son of Modron, and a companion of Arthur. The name signifies a child, and Sir John Rhys remarks that the eastern Celts worshipped a juvenile deity, who in Dacia was styled Bonus Puer, and was sometimes identified with Apollo. There are altars at Risingham, Old Penrith, and Netherby to an obscure god, Mogon or Mogons, and on two of them he is specified as of the Cadeni, a tribe of the Vangiones on the Rhine, whose capital was Moguntiacum. A cohort of Vangiones was settled at Risingham and with little doubt his two altars there were raised by it.

Near Carrawberg was unearthed in 1882-83 the remains of a small temple and a number of altars to a water-goddess, Coventina. On one of the altars she is addressed in barbaric Latin, Deae Nimfa Coventine, and she is represented on two sculptured tablets, on the one as reclining on a water-lily, and on the other as attended by two nymphs. She was apparently identified with Minerva, for one of the altars is dedicated to that goddess. As no trace of her worship has been found elsewhere, it is probable that she was a local divinity, and that her name is a latinization of that of the stream at the source of which her shrine stood. The central feature of this temple was a rectangular well which received the water of the spring, and about its floor were many coins and small trinkets, cast in, as Mr. Clayton, the explorer of the remains, suggested, by "love-sick damsels . . . in the hope of obtaining the countenance of the goddess in their views." Similar offerings have been found on the sites of the shrines of several river-goddesses in France; and the pins which even to-day are dropped into reputed holy wells are a survival of the custom. The Egarmangabis, to whom an altar by a spring near Lanchester was dedicated, was probably a water-goddess; and the name of a nymph-goddess, Elauna, on an altar at Greta Bridge, is suggestive of a river. Another nymph-goddess, Brigantia, had altars at Chester, London, and several places in the north, on one of which her name is spelled Bergantia; and at Birrens was found, in 1731, a sculptured relief of a draped female, inscribed to the effect that one Amandus, an architect, dedicated it to Brigantia. This figure, however, is scarcely that of a nymph. It has been regarded as that of the tutelary goddess of the British Brigantes; but it would equally well represent the goddess of one of the continental Brigantias, of one of which cities Amandus may have been a native. Perhaps the Brigantia of the altars is the Gaulish Brigindu, who was also reverenced in Ireland, and is still, as St. Birgit.

No divinities of Roman Britain are more interesting and attractive than the 'Matres.' Nearly three dozen altars and inscriptions to them have been found, mostly in the military centres of the north.1 The 'Mothers' are typically represented as a triad of seated young women with benign countenances, clad in long robes, and holding baskets of fruit on their laps; but there are many variants. Sometimes the middle goddess alone has the fruit; and not seldom the basket is omitted. Occasionally the triad was made up of three single figures. These goddesses were not Roman, nor is there any allusion to them in classical mythology; nevertheless, their worship was extremely popular, especially among the German and Celtic peoples, and many reminiscences of it lingered far into the Middle Ages. There is no evidence of it in Britain before the conquest; on the contrary, there are inscriptions which tend to prove that it was introduced by the soldiers. Here and there in the north is an altar to the Transmarine Mothers, Matribus Tramarinis, and one at Newcastle reads, Deabus Matribus Tramarinis Patr(i)is, which may be rendered, 'To the Mother-goddesses of our fatherland beyond the sea.' Soldiers at Port Carlisle raised an altar to Our Mothers; and at York, to the Mothers of Africa, Italy, and Gaul. However introduced, the worship of these beneficent dispensers of the kindly fruits of the earth, who were ever watchful over the affairs of men, became as popular in this country as on the Continent. There were the Domestic Mothers and the Mothers of the fields, of cities, and of nations. There was a temple to the Mothers of all nations at Walton in Northumberland.

Akin to the Matres were the Sulevae, who were worshipped in Rhineland and elsewhere on the Continent, as well as in Britain. Altars to them have been found at Colchester, Bath, and Cirencester. Those at the second and third places were erected by the same man, Sulinus, a sculptor. The Cirencester altar was found associated with several carved stones which, from their new or unfinished appearance, left little room for doubt that the site was that of the workshop or yard of Sulinus. One of the carving was a typical Matres group, each figure holding a basket of fruit; another also shows three seated females, but they are attended by little boys, and the central figure alone has fruit on her lap, and in addition a lamb or kid. It is probable that this group is the Sulevae, who certainly resembled the Matres, and were probably often confused with them.

A notable example of the Romanization of a native cult is furnished by the great shrine of the Britain Nudd or Lludd at Lydney on the banks of the Severn. The 'silver-handed' Nudd, benign dispenser of health and wealth, here appears under the latinized form of Nodens or Nudens. He is represented as the classical Sol, drawn in a car by four horses. Zephyrs and tritons, emblematic of his dominion of the winds and the waters, attend him. The whole treatment is Roman; as also that of the votive tablets with their Latin inscriptions, and the mosaics of the temple.

There yet remain a few inscriptions to barbaric divnities of whom little or nothing is known. An altar at Carvoran is dedicated to Epona, a goddess who is represented on the Continent as riding a mare, or as seated between two foals, and was specially invoked by horsemen and charioteers. Of Anociticus or Antenociticus, to whom two altars have been found on the site of a temple at Benwell, Matunus at Elsden in Northumberland, and Vanauntris at Walton; and of the goddesses, Ancasta at Bittern, Harimella, Ricagambeda, and Veradecthis at Birrens, and Seltocenia at Ellenborough, little or nothing is known, beyond that they appear to have been Celtic or German deities. Jalonus, altars to whom have been found at Folly and Overborough, Lancashire, may have been a Spanish god; possibly also Gadunus at Plumpton Wall in Cumberland.

We now turn to the Oriental cults in Britain. Chief of these was Mithraism, the worship of the ancient sun-god of Persia, which, modified by Greek influence, took firm root in Rome in the 1st century, was diffused throughout the west in the 2nd, and was one of the most fashionable cults in the 3rd. In Graeco-Roman art, Mithras was represented as an Apollo-like deity, clad in Phrygian costume and cap. A conspicuous feature of his shrines were the so-called 'taurine' sculptures, in which he was shown kneeling on a prostrate bull and plunging a dagger into his neck, the scene being enacted in a cave or grotto. This was the mystic sacrifice the slaying of the bull, the first created of living things, in order that all other animals might be made out of his blood, a symbol also of the great final sacrifice which was to renew the life of mankind. As accessories in this composition were usually the god's attendants, the Dadophori Cautes and Cautopites, the one holding a torch upright and the other reversed; below the bull, a dog and a serpent moving towards the issuing blood as if to drink it; and above the cave, the sun and moon, often personified and drawn in chariots by horses, the one chasing the other away. The two torches appear to represent the summer and the winter solstices, and these, with the sun chasing the moon, symbolize the conflict of light and darkness of good and evil in which the god engages, and in which his followers must participate only to become victorious through sacrifice and probation.

An almost complete taurine slab has been found at York, and fragments of another on the site of a Mithraic temple or 'cave' at Housesteads, where in its perfect condition it occupied a recess at the end of the inner sanctuary. In front of the latter stood another characteristic sculpture between two altars, dedicated to the Invincible Mithras, Lord of the Ages. This stone presented the god at the moment of his mystic birth, within an oval or hoop on which were carved the signs of the zodiac. A fine but small taurine slab has been found in London.2

The remains of other 'caves' have been found at Rutchester and Burham in Kent, and an inscribe at High Rochester records the erection of one there. On his inscriptions, his epithets are the 'Invincible' and the 'Lord of the Ages,' and he is often identified with the sun, as on an altar found at Housesteads Deo Soli Invicto Mitrae Seculari. On another altar from the same mithraeum he is identified with Apollo; and on yet another he usurps the title of Jupiter D. O. M., Invicto Mitrae Saeculari 'To the god, best and greatest, the Invincible Mithras, Lord of the Ages.'

Of the worship of the Great Mother, whose chief seat, being Hieropolis in Syria, was commonly known as the Syrian Goddess, there are only a few traces in Britain, and the most conspicuous of these are at Carvoran, where a cohort of Hamian archers from Syria or Arabia erected altars to the Syrian and Hamian goddesses. But the most remarkable relic of her worship at Carvoran is a tablet with a long inscription in iambic verse, which Dr. Bruce rendered as follows:

"The Virgin in her celestial seat overhangs the Lion,
Producer of corn,3
Inventress of sight, Foundress of cities,
By which gifts it has been our good fortune to know the deities.
Therefore the same is the Mother of the gods, is Peace, is Virtue, is Ceres,
Is the Syrian Goddess poising life and laws in a balance.
The constellation beheld in the sky hath Syria sent forth
To Libya to be worshipped, thence have all of us learnt it;
Thus hath understood, overspread by thy protecting influence,
Marcus Caecilius Donatianus a war-faring
Tribune in the office of prefect, by the bounty of the Emperor."

The Syrian goddess, like Isis, gathered into herself all the chief goddesses of the ancients, and was herself identified with that goddess. Apuleius, in describing an initiation into the mysteries of Isis, makes the Queen of Heaven reveal herself to the devotee thus: "The Phrygians call me the Mother of the gods at Pessinus; the Athenians, Cecropian Minerva; I am the Paphian Venus in Cyprus; Diana Dictynna to the archers of Cretae; the Stygian Proserpine to the Sicilians; I am the ancient Ceres at Eleusis. To some I am Juno, to others Hecate. Only the Ethiopians and Arians, illumined by the sun's dawning light, and Egypt powerful in her ancient lore, honour me with the ritual proper to me, and call me by my true name, Queen Isis." On the Carvoran tablet, Isis is viewed from the Syrian point of view: "The constellation (Virgo) beheld in the sky, hath Syria sent forth to Libya to be worshipped. Thence all of us learnt it, etc."4

It is probable that a fine statue of a draped female, found at Chesters, may represent the Magna Mater. Unfortunately the head and arms are missing, and it stands upon a large animal which is also headless, and the legs are broken off. If this animal is a lion, as has been supposed, the figure is almost certainly that of Cybele, who was early identified with the Syrian goddess; if an ox, it may represent Isis. There are, however, no certain traces of the worship of the latter, whose ritual singularly anticipated that of the Catholic Church, in this country; but we have already noted a temple and altars to Serapis, her brother, with whom she was often associated in worship.

Our knowledge of Christianity in Roman Britain, unlike that of its paganism, is mainly derived from literary sources, the archaeological evidence being singularly meagre. The only remains which have been certainly identified as a Christian church are at Silchester. It was a tiny building, smaller than any of the temples found there, smaller indeed than any of the houses; but as it occupied one of the best positions near the centre of the town, we may conclude that the Christian community was neither poor nor without local influence. The 'chi-rho' monogram has been found, associated with pagan subjects, on a mosaic pavement at Frampton in Dorset, cut or scratched in the masonry of a house at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, and engraved on several pewter vessels and objects of personal adornment. A ring bearing a Christian motto has been turned up at Silchester, and out of a large number of tombstones, the inscriptions of only two or three have a Christian cast. These represent the only definite witnesses to the presence of Christianity out of the vast number of relics of the Roman era that have been found in this country, and it would seem that, so far as archaeological evidence goes, the heavy atmosphere of paganism hung over our land from first to last.

Yet if we credit the statements of early writers, there was a vigorous Christianity in this island, planted by the apostles themselves, contributing hundreds of martyrs under the Diocletian persecution, and in the 4th century the dominant religion, fully organized, and represented by its bishops in the great ecclesiastical councils of that century. The evidence for the apostolic foundation of the Romano-British church, however, is vague and contradictory, and it is based upon the statements of writers of a later and uncritical age. However and whenever introduced, we stand upon surer ground from the beginning of the 3rd century onwards. Tertullian, writing about that time, states that parts of Britain were already subject to Christ; and in the 4th century, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Chrysostom, and Jerome, all refer in high terms to the faith and discipline of the British Church. The lists of the clergy who were present at the ecclesiastical councils of Arles, Sardica, and Ariminium in the same century, include British bishops, and those who attended the first are specified as the bishops of London, York, and Caerleon, or perhaps Lincoln. But perhaps the best evidence that Christianity had taken firm root in Roman Britain, was the existence of a native church in the 5th and 6th centuries in those parts of the island which were not affected by the English conquest. It is impossible to regard this church as otherwise than a survival of Romano-British Christianity.

But how is the witness of history to be reconciled with comparative silence of archaeology? As yet no satisfactory answer is forthcoming. It may have been but there is no evidence for it that the Romano-British Christians belonged exclusively to the poorer classes of society, and that their churches were constructed of timber and wattle, and so have perished entirely. Or, that in what is now England, the Faith survived the English conquest to a greater extent than is commonly supposed, and the many of our existing churches of most ancient foundation had a Roman origin. St. Martin's at Canterbury, according to Bede, "was built when the Romans were still in the island," and the churches of Reculver, Dover Castle, and Lyminge have been instanced as Roman churches, but all that can be said of them is that they are partly built of Roman materials. Too little is known of Romano-British Christianity to render it at all certain whether the basilica-type was as rigidly adhered to as on the Continent. In both Silchester and Caerwent, buildings have been found which might very well have served for churches.

The absence of churches in the rural districts is less difficult. With a small population and only a portion of it Christian, it would rarely happen that there would be a sufficient number of Christian families in any one district to maintain a church. The Christian proprietor of a villa probably had his domestic chapel, a large room in his house, where he, his family and dependants assembled for worship. If wealthy enough, he had a chaplain; otherwise he would depend upon the visits of a missionary-priest. In the natural order of development, the room in the house would give place to the separate church, and the villa would be recognized as its parish; but perhaps this stage was rarely reached in rural Roman Britain.

The Author's Notes:

1. For list of remains relating to this cult in Britain, see Arch. Aelian., xv, p314.

2. Archaeologia, lx, p46.

3. "Bearer of an ear of corn," an allusion to the bright star Spica in the constellation of Virgo, just as we have an allusion to that of Libra in the balance referred to in the fifth line.

4. Dr. Thomas Hodgson gives a more literal translation of the inscription in Archaeologia Aeliana, xxi, 289, and he regards it as virtually an apotheosis of Julia Domna, wife of Severus, a Syrian lady.


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