Religion in Roman Britain: gods, deities and shared beliefs

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Roman influence on Britain after the invasion in AD 43 is often described as global. Bringing Mediterranean-style towns, innovative indoor heating and more, there is an idea that the Romans sought to impose their ‘civilized’ beliefs on the subjugated native Britons in the Imperial outpost, and so changed the course. of Britain forever.

But in matters of religion, the Romans did not seek to conquer or convert. Instead, they favored a tactic known as syncretism, a fusion of beliefs that saw existing pagan gods intermingled with Roman deities, with temples alongside spiritual sites in a multi-faith society.

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

Browse all episodes of our late Roman Britain podcast series

Druids and deities

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

Although there are hardly any remnants of Iron Age temple buildings or places of worship, there is evidence of offerings of tools and jewelry on hilltops and rivers, which shows that beliefs were linked to certain features of the landscape. It is believed that these offerings were rituals performed to help with seasonal challenges such as the harvest or to ward off a harsh winter.

A drawing imagines Roman soldiers (far right) stumbling over a druid sacrifice

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

Like the Romans who had not yet reached their shores, the inhabitants of Iron Age Britain believed in polytheism – the idea that in addition to general gods, there were also gods or spirits. local (called genii loci) everywhere. The ancient Britons believed in the need to honor these figures, and high-level Celtic metalwork found in rivers, streams and bogs suggests that many of their gods were associated with water (generally speaking, the water deities appear to have been female, while the figures associated with the sky and air on hilltops were generally male). In parts of Western Europe, these offerings extended to human remains (such as ‘bog bodies’ found in wetlands in Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere), and the spiritual practice of human sacrifice was particularly repugnant to the Romans. And so, with many accounts of the religion of the Britons often drawn from classical sources and with more details difficult 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 across the Greek and Roman world. Scant evidence suggests that the Druids were teachers or priestly figures in Celtic religion, although Roman sources make them purveyors of soothsayers and evil rituals, due to their reported practice of human sacrifice.

An account by the Roman historian Tacitus of the Roman invasion of Mona (Anglesey) in AD 57 describes how the invading force was met by a band of naked, singing people led by Druids. Terrified by what they found, the Roman soldiers massacred the group; according to Tacitus “they struck down all who opposed them and enveloped them in the flames which they themselves had kindled”. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence that can be confidently linked to the Druids in all of Iron Age Britain, although much is still said of the Romans’ suppression of the Druids, and this continues for some to be an example of Roman religious persecution. in Great Britain.

Borrowing beliefs

Druids aside, the Roman approach to religion in Britain was generally one of tolerance, and in turn invaders were susceptible to influence. The Roman pantheon often adopted some of the gods of those they had conquered and drew comparisons between the 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 the Roman deity Mercury, as both were believed to bring light and illumination. Indigenous and Roman traditions believed in mother goddesses who could influence fertility and protection, and often depicted them in groups of three.

A statuette of Taranis, considered a god of thunder

It is believed that Taranis was a god of thunder. (Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

It is often difficult to know which Celtic gods predate the Romans and which were imported from elsewhere in the Roman empire, as beliefs have mixed and borrowed from each other. Roman deities such as Jupiter and Minerva were worshiped in forts and temples, while archaeological evidence shows that figures worshiped by Britons also persevered. Coventina. Elsewhere, other communities in northern Britain and Ireland remained untouched by any Roman influence, and so Celtic religious practices were unaffected.

This would all change with the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312. After a reported religious vision, he made it legal for Christians to practice their faith openly, and although his arrival in Britain is difficult to date exactly, by the fourth century AD Christianity had become a much more visible presence among the British. In the late 4th century, Emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the official religion of Imperial Rome, and after 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 who became Roman…

SULIS

Long before the arrival of the Romans and the construction of a bath complex, the site of the city of Bath was known to the British for its hot springs, which they believed to be the work of the deity Sulis, the Celtic goddess associated to medicine, fertility and healing. Her figure then merged with Minerva, the Roman goddess of healing, to create the super-deity “Sulis Minerva”.

COCIDIUS

Cocidius was another deity revered by the British to be depicted in a dedication near 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 have been made with other Celtic battle gods such as Loucetius and Belatucadrus.

TARANIS

A more universal Celtic figure than the genii loci of peaks and streams, Taranis is said 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 a god of thunder and lightning.

This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC story revealed

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