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Romano-British Religion

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Religion of the Romano-Britons


Both Rome and Britain had polytheistic religions, in which a multiplicity of gods could be propitiated at many levels. At one end of the spectrum were the official cults of the emperor and the Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, linked to other Olympian gods like Mars. At the other end, every spring, every river, every cross-roads, lake or wood had its own local spirit with its own local shrine. The Romans had no problem in combining these with their own gods, simply associating them with the god(s) or goddess(es) who most resembled them.

Coins found at the Roman baths at Bath ©At Bath, the famous temple bath complex was founded on the site of a local shrine to the water goddess Sul of the hot springs. She was linked to Minerva, for her healing qualities, but images of other gods and goddesses were also set up in the temple, most especially Diana the Huntress, to whom an altar was dedicated.

Over 6,000 coins were cast as offerings into the waters of Bath, along with vast quantities of lead or bronze curse tablets, asking Sulis-Minerva to intercede on behalf of the worshipper. These were also nailed up on poles within the temple precinct and provide an interesting glimpse into the everyday (and not so everyday) lives of the people who visited the shrine. This did not just happen in Bath: two hundred curse tablets were recovered from the temple to Mercury at Uley - approximately one third of all such tablets known in the empire - and others were found elsewhere:

'May he who has stolen VILBIA from me become as liquid as water... who has stolen it or her. Velvinna, Exsupereus, Verianus, Severinus, A(u)gustalis, Comitianus, Minianus, Catus, Germanilla, Jovina.' (Bath)

'To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.' (Bath)

'Uricalus, Docilosa his wife, Docilis his son and Docilina, Decentinus his brother, Alogiosa: the names of those who have sworn at the spring of the goddess Sulis on the 12th of April. Whosoever has perjured himself there you are to make him to pay for it to the goddess Sulis in his own blood' (Bath)

'I curse him who has stolen, who has robbed Deomiorix from his house. Whoever stole his property, the god is to find him. Let him buy it back with his blood or his own life.' (Bath)

At the windswept hill-fort site of Lydney, where a temple was erected to the god Mars-Nodens in the fourth century, another curse tablet was found, which reads:

To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and promises half its value to Nodens. Among those named Senecianus, let none enjoy health until he brings it back to the temple of Nodens. - curse renewed.

It seems likely that both Silvianus and Senecianus had gone to Lydney for its healing properties. Both no doubt stayed in the adjacent mansio (much like the well-preserved guesthouse at Vindolanda), from which no doubt the latter walked off with Silvianus's ring. A further wrinkle is added by the find of a beautiful hexagonal ring bearing an image of Venus in the nearby Christian church at Silchester, on which was inscribed: 'Senecianus, may you live in God.' Is it too much to surmise that seeking protection against the curse upon him, Senecianus turned to the new religious power which the Emperor had recently adopted as the new state religion? Since the curse was renewed, the ring obviously stayed lost.