This post concerns Ronald Hutton’s Gresham College lecture about Paganism in Roman Britain (1). In it, he summarises our current academic knowledge, and asks: how Romanised was British religion within the Roman Empire? It proves to be a hard question to answer, for three main reasons.
The first is that we know little about British religion immediately before the occupation, apart from the fact that Druids had a leading role in at least some religious activity.
The second is that, although the Romans generally honoured local gods and their worshippers, they made an exception for war gods and religious communities hostile to Roman rule. British Druids belonged to the latter category, so any ongoing British Druid activity is off the record. The Druids were in any case averse to written records about their calling.
The third is that we know the names of only a few people from this period, so get only occasional glimpses of individuals and their practices. Britons of any social standing tended to adopt Roman names, at least for the written record, but the records are too sparse to distinguish between the developing cultures of Romanised Britons and localised Romans. All we have is the Roman names. People who made do without Roman names go unrecorded.
These three limitations mean that we have limited knowledge, and that this knowledge is heavily tilted towards Roman practices and understandings. We do however have the names of a number of indigenous deities from the Roman period, and some understanding of their roles. According to Hutton, such deities tended to be highly localised, and connected to specific activities – like Coventina looking after the sacred spring at Carrowburgh not far from Hadrian’s wall. On the whole Goddesses were linked to the land, hills, rivers, springs and wells. Gods were concerned with war, protection, trade and travel.
Other gods were imported during the centuries of occupation. Continental Celtic culture brought Rosmerta, the Matres and Epona. Widely acknowledged Roman gods included Jupiter, Mars, Silvanus and Mercury. Other parts of the empire contributed Apollo, Bacchus, Mithras, Cybele and Athys, Isis and Serapis.
Hutton finds in both Romans and Celts a very different attitude to deity from that of the later arriving Christian faith. Pagan Gods asked for acknowledgement and respect. Beyond that they were not greatly interested in us. They did not make laws, issue commands or monitor our performance. The Latin word superstitio referred to excessive fear of the divine. Hutton characterises mainstream Roman British religion as largely transactional. Roman priesthood was a job for the local magistrates.
Hence, according to Hutton, there was no theology. If you wanted the gods’ help, and had the support and resources, you built shrines, enacted rituals and offered sacrifice. (Animal sacrifice was required to be swift and painless, or it did not please the gods.) If you looked for a deeper or more intense religious experience, and were deemed eligible, you sought initiation into a mystery school. If you were concerned with speculation about the cosmos and our place in it, or wanted a set of values and practices to live by, you turned to philosophy. The one religious demand made by the state was a public reverencing of the Emperor’s numen (the divine power within him) which the early Christians, other than Gnostics, risked martyrdom rather than acknowledge.
The lecture includes a discussion of hybridised (or ‘twinned’) deities and the high esteem in which they could be held – Sulis Minerva at Aquae Sulis (Bath), Apollo Maponus (with a major shrine a little beyond Hadrian’s Wall at Lochmaben) and Mars (or possibly Mercury) Nodens, at Lydney, close to the River Severn in the Forest of Dean.
Hutton ends with a rare opportunity to acknowledge a real, named person, Magnius. He is known to have been a Briton, a commoner with some resources. He had a tomb erected at Aquae Sulis for his daughter, who had died aged only eighteen months. A tomb for one so young was very rare, and the poignancy of this act reaches across the centuries to us, connecting humans who, from very different times and cultures, are united by the same capacity to love and to grieve. I found this a good note on which to end a lecture which provides some insight into a subject where much will always be unknown.
(1) https://www.gresham.ac.uk/ (Go to browse by series then lecture series 2022-23 then Finding Britain’s Lost Gods. The specific lecture is Paganism in Roman Britain.)
See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/10/06/learning-about-our-pagan-ancestors-and-learning-from-them/
Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, a specialist in Pagan and Druid studies, and enjoys a very high reputation within both the academic and Pagan communities.