The Romans in Britain - Religion
By Emily Johnston
The topic of the Romans in Britain has many different sub-topics, and lots of historians and academics debate about what life was really like in Roman Britain. We will try to cover many of these topics here on Archaeo-Logic in separate posts, so that you can build up a big picture of the different aspects of life in Roman Britain. This page will look specifically at religion in Roman Britain.
One of the main arguments between academics is whether the Romans imposed their beliefs, religion and gods on the Britons when they arrived. Romans had their own set of beliefs and a pantheon of their own gods. But so did the people in Britain, and the Celtic societies. Some scholars use a term called Romanisation to talk about the Romans imposing their beliefs and way of life on the Celtic societies, but this has not been agreed upon by all historians. The Romans allowed religions to continue in the places that they conquered, as long as there was also worship of their pantheon. In fact, many think that there was a mixing of the Roman and Celtic religions.
Many of the Roman gods were paired with Celtic gods, who had similar powers. The Roman gods were often paired with several Celtic gods, because they had many different powers and associations. This created a whole new pantheon of gods, and new places of worship were often built at places that were already sacred.
Thuribles discovered at Coventina's Well © English Heritage
It is also thought that the Romans brought other Celtic gods to different parts of the Empire. For example, the goddess Coventina has only been found at Carrawburgh, Hadrian’s Wall, where there is a well with an altar and dedications to her. To the left there are thuribles, which were used for burning incense, and was found at Coventina’s Well. They are now at Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall.
Similarities have been found between Coventina and goddesses worshipped on the continent, so it is thought that the army may have introduced new gods and goddesses to Britain, that were not only Roman.
The site of Bath, in England, is very famous because of the large Roman baths built on the natural springs. The sanctuary at Bath was built in the Neroian or early Flavian period and became a very important site due to the healing properties thought to be in the water.
This site was sacred before the creation of the Roman baths, and was dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sulis. She was thought to be a goddess with healing powers (her name means Sun, and the sun was believed to hold magical healing powers). In the Roman pantheon, the goddess Minerva (or Minerva Medica) was also a goddess of healing and medicine.
Inscriptions from Bath dedicate the site to Sulis Minerva, a combination of the two goddesses. This helps to show how Celtic religious practices and sites were still worshipped when the Romans came to Britain, and shows how the two religions were merged in some instances.
The thermal baths, Bath © Visit Bath
Relief of Rosmerta and Mercury © Green, 1989:59
Mercury and Rosmerta
This is a little bit of a cheat example, because Mercury and Rosmerta are two people, instead of one, and they are gods, not people. However, it is interesting to find out about them and how they link to religion in Roman Britain.
Mercury was a Roman god, who was linked to trade, and Rosmerta was a Celtic god whose name means ‘The Great Provider’. The two became linked in what is called a ‘divine marriage’. In images of the pair, Rosmerta often holds Roman objects such as a cornucopia. However, there are lots of images and inscriptions which refer only to Rosmerta, and she is always shown as the same size as (or, once, bigger than) Mercury, which historians argue shows she held a lot of the power in the relationship. Mercury and Rosmerta’s marriage helps to show that the Roman gods were introduced into the Celtic pantheon, but that Celtic gods, on their own, were still worshipped in Roman Britain.
Emily Johnston is a UK commercial archaeologist - and founder of this website! Throughout her degrees, she has been interested in Romano-Celtic religion and has produces several essays and posters on the topic.
She can be found on her personal twitter at @emilyrjohnston and instagram @emilyrebeccajohnston or on any of the archaeo-logic social medias & email!