Review – Sacred Britannia: the gods and rituals of Roman Britain

5 mins read
Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Thames & Hudson, £19.95
ISBN 978-0500252222
Review CH

What did the Romans do for us? Aside from sanitation, roads, and many other technological and engineering innovations that were introduced to these shores during imperial occupation, their arrival also transformed Britain’s religious landscape. With the Roman army came not only knowledge of the Classical pantheon, but also more exotic mystery cults and gods from the eastern fringes of the empire – including Christianity.

How these new ideas impacted on the ritual practices and beliefs of Iron Age Britons, and how far we can reconstruct Britain’s pre-Roman religion, are questions that lie at the heart of a wide-ranging and snappily written book by Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Spanning the period from Julius Caesar’s invasions of 55/54 BC to the formal ‘end’ of Roman occupation in the early 5th century, this is an absorbing critical analysis of literary, archaeological, and iconographic evidence in which the author tirelessly teases out clues, but also discusses the limits of these sources.

The main difficulty of reconstructing Iron Age ideologies is that the pre- Roman population of Britain was not literate, meaning that we are relying on the (often rather condescending) observations of outsiders to learn about their religious activities. Many Roman accounts are shaded with perceptions of Britons as ‘barbarians’: our archipelago lay across the waters that they thought bounded the limits of the known world, so Britain was literally outside civilisation. Yet despite this tendency to portray Britons as an alien ‘other’, without Roman writings we would not have records of the druids, nor the names of some of the British deities.

Aldhouse-Green, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Archaeology at Cardiff University, deftly dissects these texts to glean insights into Iron Age practices and complements this with a thorough examination of what archaeology can add to the picture. Much of the evidence is rather ephemeral – while Classical temple architecture is sufficiently standardised (and durable) to be easily recognised, archaeologists have identified only a handful of pre-Roman shrines or sanctuaries in Britain with any confidence. Cult practices and ritual objects are equally tricky to interpret and, despite the political authority and influence that Roman sources attribute to them, no solid material evidence that can be firmly linked to the druids has yet been found in this country (though the author’s discussion of the Llyn Cerrig Bach metalwork – see CA 273 – makes a persuasive case). This book painstakingly pieces together a fascinating jigsaw, however, drawing together fleeting hints of religious practices and exploring diverse topics from evidence for human sacrifice to whether imposition of the imperial cult played a role in provoking the Boudican uprising of AD 60/61.

Later chapters illuminate Romano-British practices, exploring how Britannia’s religious sphere became as diverse as the island’s increasingly melting-pot population. In London, for example, we find evidence for the worship of the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis, as well as the Persian god Mithras, while the Roman tendency towards syncretism is reflected in the hybrid names of deities like Sulis-Minerva and Apollo-Cunomaglus.

This apparent tolerance for difference should not be taken too far, however. There was still a hierarchy of beliefs, with the imperial cult uppermost, and some religions – notably, in its early days, Christianity – were banned or ferociously persecuted. The rise of this latter faith forms the focus of Chapter 9, which traces Christianity’s journey from its quiet arrival into Britain in the late 2nd or early 3rd century, via fierce imperial opposition and the death of Romano- British martyrs like St Alban of Verulamium, to the appearance of small private sanctuaries and house-churches, and finally Christianity’s elevation to state religion under the emperor Constantine.

Questions of tolerance and diversity are a recurring theme in this book: throughout its pages, Aldhouse-Green explores ideas of ‘us and them’, and of humanity’s inclination towards mistrusting unfamiliar cultures, beliefs, and ideologies. Rarely has a book about the ancient world felt as relevant to our present times.

This review appeared in CA 344.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.