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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Religion in Roman Britain

It is notable that rather than an imposed religious system, Roman Britain experienced a unique and distinctly Romano-British phenomenon which came as the result of the merging of Roman and British cultures.

Because Roman belief in omnipotent gods was so strong, it is unsurprising that as the Empire expanded, the Romans were always wary of angering the deities of conquered lands. Consequently, unless a religion significantly threatened Roman rule, most indigenous cults were allowed to survive after adopting a Roman format.  

The emergence of a Romano-British religion, influenced by both Roman and Celtic traditions, also had political benefits as by encouraging the adoption of Roman cultural values, a deliberate policy of Romanization (cultural assimilation whereby indigenous peoples became more Roman) could be pursued without angering or alienating the Britons entirely. Romanization was important as it enabled a more peaceful conquest and reduced the risk of rebellion against Roman rule.

The name ‘Aquae Sulis’ (waters of Sul) suggests that the spring was a Celtic religious site prior to Roman arrival. Rather than replacing Celtic belief, Roman religion merged with the local cult of Sul to form something distinctly Romano-British.

Artist’s impression of the enclosed Roman Sacred Spring

Sulis Minerva, whose gilt bronze head was found in 1727, is an excellent example of this. Rather than being the product of one culture, she is distinctly Romano-British, a conflated deity composed the Celtic Sul and Roman Minerva, and therefore unique. The Romans had recognized in Sul several characteristics shared by their equivalent goddess Minerva who was one of the most important deities in the Roman world. By linking the two together, both Romans and Britons could worship at the spring and be united by religion. The temple remained as a major centre for worship in Roman Britain until the outlawing of paganism in the 4th century.

The gilded head from the cult statue of Sulis Minerva

A second example of uniquely Romano-British religion is figure from the temple pediment. Featured on alongside symbols of Minerva, the figure on the pediment is an intriguing mixture of both Roman and British religious symbolism.

Head from Temple Pediment

Initially the flowing hair was interpreted as the writhing snakes of the Gorgon, a mythical creature slain by Perseus with the assistance of Athena. Because Minerva is often equated with Athena, the presence of a gorgon on the pediment does not appear illogical. However, the Gorgon interpretation is undermined by the masculine nature of the face.

So who is the figure? Perhaps even the worshippers did not know. By remaining ambiguous and open to interpretation, the pediment remained relevant to both Celts and Romans, meaning everyone could worship together, and greater cultural assimilation could be achieved.

Bethan, Cardiff University placement

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