Roman Religion in Britain - Sarah Woodbury

Roman Religion in Britain

Question: There’s been a lot written about Roman religion. What’s different about it in Britain?

While you’re right that the Roman religion is something we know a lot about, it didn’t just get transplanted to Britain whole cloth and didn’t look in Britain the same as what it looked like in Rome. The reason for this is that the Romans who conquered Britain were almost exclusively male, they were members of the Roman army, and many were not actually Roman by birth. This shaped which gods and goddesses they focused on in their worship.

Secondly, as I mentioned in an earlier video, the Celtic religion syncretized to some degree with the Roman, in part because the Romans worked so hard to eliminate the druids and native religious beliefs. By the end of the first century AD, as far as the Romans were concerned, there were no druids left, and Celtic religious worship was leaderless. For anyone to advance in Roman society, whether British or Roman, he had to show that he followed the basic Roman religious practices.

At the same time, it remained acceptable to worship local gods privately, as long as they were aligned with the Roman pantheon. For example, archaeologists have found evidence of 17 different manifestations of the worship of Mars, each aligned with a local war god.

According to English Heritage: “the Romans were largely tolerant of other religions, provided that the conquered populace incorporated the Imperial Cult into their worship. The Romans sought to equate their own gods with those of the local population. People worshipped these hybrid gods, together with ancient local deities and exotic new cults.”

Thus, while believers in the Roman religion in Britain worshipped the standard pantheon of Jupiter, Juno, Minvera, Hercules, etc., along with the cult of the emperor, underneath, Celtic practices remained, such as the focus on sacred wells, horned gods, and goddesses in groups of three, the existence of which I touched upon last week in regards to the worship of the “Glanicae” –the Celtic mothers–in Glanum.

After the conquest of the Romans, not only did Glanis continue to be worshipped alongside Roman gods, like Apollo, Mercury, and Hercules, but one of the Glanicae was too, as she was, according to local beliefs, reincarnated into Valetudo, the Roman goddess of health.

Another example of this syncretization is from Bath, which started out as a sacred well for the Celts, dedicated to the goddess Sul. With the arrival of the Romans, she was transformed into Minerva and the pool was expanded into an ornamental pond, with mineral baths nearby. Minerva and Sul were used interchangeably by worshippers.

The ease at which the Romans accepted—to the point of encouraging—the incorporation of their pantheon of gods and goddesses and religious practices into existing, native belief systems is probably one of the reasons they were so successful for so long. They didn’t just conquer lands. They conquered people’s hearts and minds as well.

One Reply to “Roman Religion in Britain”

  1. A very cool curse tablet (defixio) was found in Aquae Sulis written in Old British, the ancestor of modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. It is the only written example of the language (all other such tablets are in Latin); otherwise, Old British is only known from personal names and place names in Latin texts. Picture of the tablet.

    The most likely reading is Adixoui deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai and the most likely interpretation is ‘Divine Deieda, may I, Windorix, defeat Andagin at/for Cuamenai.’ There are a few uncertainties. Andagin may be a personal name or may mean ‘the worthless woman’, and if the first word (the verb) is actually a borrowing from Latin adigere rather than a native British word, it would mean ‘bring to justice’.

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