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Religion in Roman Britain: spreading the word of the gods

The Romans were only too happy to share their pantheon of deities with the native Britons – and learn a little themselves, too

Bronze figure of Sulis, the Celtic goddess
Published: May 26, 2022 at 12:43 pm
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Roman influence on Britain following the invasion in AD 43 is often portrayed as all-encompassing. Bringing Mediterranean style towns, innovative indoor heating and more, there’s an idea that the Romans sought to stamp their ‘civilised’ beliefs on subjugated native Britons in the imperial outpost, and so changed the course of Britain forever.

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But when it came to religion, the Romans didn’t seek to conquer or convert. Instead, they favoured a tactic known as syncretism, a merging of beliefs that saw existing pagan gods mingle with Roman deities, with temples sitting alongside spiritual sites in a multi-faith society.

In the fourth episode of our podcast series on the end of Roman Britain, David Musgrove considers the role of religion in late Roman Britain with Dr David Petts

Browse all episodes in our podcast series on the end of Roman Britain

Druids and deities

The picture of religion in pre-Roman Britain is a complicated one as Britons were spread across a series of distinct tribes, and while some were bound by common ties of art, custom and religion, there were many differences. Further ambiguity stems from the fact that pre-Roman Britain was essentially nonliterate, so there are few written sources from the time. However, archaeological discoveries suggest that pre-Christian religions in Britain were influenced by the natural world and with strong ties to the elements.

While there are hardly any remains of Iron Age temple buildings or places of worship, there is evidence of offerings of tools and jewellery on hilltops and rivers, showing that beliefs were connected to certain features in the landscape. It’s believed that these offerings were rituals performed to help seasonal challenges such as the harvest, or to ward off a hard winter.

A drawing imagines Roman soldiers (far right) stumbling across a druid sacrifice
A drawing imagines Roman soldiers (far right) stumbling across a druid sacrifice. In reality, historians remain divided as to whether ancient Britons engaged in such practices. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Like the Romans who had not yet reached their shores, people in Iron Age Britain believed in polytheism – the idea that as well as general gods, there were also local gods or spirits (known as genii loci) in every place. Ancient Britons believed in the need to honour these figures, and high-status Celtic metalwork found in rivers, streams and bogs suggests that many of their gods were associated with water (broadly speaking, water deities seem to have been female, while figures associated with the sky and air on hilltops were usually male). In some areas of western Europe, these offerings extended to human remains (such as the ‘bog bodies’ found in the wetlands of Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere), and the spiritual practice of human sacrifice was particularly repugnant to Romans. And so, with many accounts of Britons’ religion often from classical sources and with further detail hard to track down, these religions have often historically been dismissed as ‘primitive’ or ‘barbarian’.

Take the druids, a religious order mentioned by at least 30 authors from the Greek and Roman world. Slim evidence suggests that druids were teachers or priest-figures in Celtic religion, though Roman sources have them as purveyors of soothsaying and evil rituals, due to their reported practice of human sacrifice.

An account by Roman historian Tacitus of the Roman invasion of Mona (Anglesey) in AD 57 describes how the invading force were met by a group of naked and chanting people led by druids. Terrified by what they found, the Roman soldiers massacred the group; according to Tacitus “they smote all who opposed them to the earth and wrapped them in the flames they had themselves kindled”. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence that can be confidently linked to the druids in all of Iron Age Britain, though much is still made of the Romans’ suppression of the druids, and it lives on for some as an example of Roman religious persecution in Britain.

Borrowing beliefs

Druids aside, the Roman approach to religion in Britain was generally marked by tolerance, and in turn the invaders were open to being influenced. The Roman pantheon often adopted some of the gods of those they had conquered, and drew comparisons between Celtic gods and their own. Julius Caesar, in his account of the first-century BC Gallic Wars, De Bello Gallico, equated the Celtic god Lugus with Roman deity Mercury, as both were believed to bring light and enlightenment. Both native and Roman traditions believed in mother goddesses that could influence fertility and protection, and would often represent them in groups of three.

A statuette of Taranis, thought to have been a god of thunder
Taranis is thought to have been a god of thunder. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

It is often difficult to know which Celtic gods pre-date the Romans, and which were imported from elsewhere in the Roman empire, as beliefs mingled and borrowed from one another. Roman deities such as Jupiter and Minerva were worshipped in forts and temples, while archaeological evidence shows that figures worshipped by Britons also persevered.For instance, there is a surviving ritual well and carvings made at Romano- British site Hadrian’s Wall that honour the river goddess Coventina. Elsewhere, other communities in northern Britain and Ireland remained untouched by any Roman influence, and so Celtic religious practices continued unaffected.

This would all change with Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 312. After a reported religious vision, he made it legal for Christians to practise their faith openly, and though its arrival in Britain is difficult to date exactly, by the fourth century AD Christianity had become a much more visible presence among Britons. In the late fourth century, Emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the official religion of imperial Rome, and following Augustine of Canterbury’s famous mission in AD 597 from the Pope to King Æthelberht of Kent, to convert the Anglo-Saxons, Britain’s religious course had moved away from paganism towards a Christian future.

Adopted deities: 3 Celtic figures that turned Roman…

SULIS
Long before the Romans arrived and constructed a complex of baths, the site of the city of Bath was known by Britons for its hot springs, which they believed were the work of the deity Sulis, the Celtic goddess associated with medicine, fertility and healing.Her figure later merged with Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing, to create the super-deity ‘Sulis Minerva’.
COCIDIUS
Cocidius was another deity worshipped by the Britons to be represented in a dedication near to Hadrian’s Wall. Often depicted as a man with a spear and shield and wearing a helmet, the Romans equated the figure with Mars, their god of war. Similar comparisons were made with other Celtic battle gods such as Loucetius and Belatucadrus.
TARANIS
A more universal Celtic figure compared to the genii loci of hilltops and streams, Taranis is thought to have been a god of thunder, and is often depicted with a hammer and a wheel. This has led some to compare the deity to Jupiter, who was both a Roman sky god and god of thunder and lightning.

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This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast

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