Sacred Britannia

The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain

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Miranda J. Aldhouse-Green
  • New York, NY: 
    Thames & Hudson
    , June
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780500252222.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Challenging the view held by ancient Romans, namely of Britannia as a barbaric and uncivilized nation, Miranda J. Aldhouse-Green draws upon archaeological evidence and “sacred material culture” (9) to demonstrate the complexity of Britannia in the age of the Caesars, and the impact of Roman occupation on their culture, particularly their “perceptions of the divine” (9). By extension, she provides a window into examining the changing nature of both British and Roman identities in the wake of the Claudian invasions of 43 CE. The majority (if not all) of the written sources about 1st century Britain are written from the Roman perspective. Writers including Caesar, Pliny, Lucan, and Tacitus present a portrait of British practices, particularly religious practices that give the impression of a savage, brutal people with primitive (by Roman mores), alien customs. These narratives were deeply political, betraying Roman anxieties over Romanitas, their own colonial ambitions, and native British resistance to Roman occupation and rule. At its core, this book is about indigeneity and the preservation of national identity in the wake of colonization. Religious practices and politics are the lens through which these things are examined. 

Sacred Britannia is divided into eleven chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Each chapter forefronts some aspect of religion and interaction between Britannia, Gaul, and Rome. Chapter 1 confronts the Roman image of the Druids as a barbaric priesthood engaged in horrific rites of human sacrifice. Aldhouse-Green notes that this was “a convenient smoke screen in order to justify the annihilation of a dangerously nationalistic priesthood” (16). Then, through an examination of archeological evidence, including sites of offering and devotion, she highlights how intensely Druids remained a powerful image of British power and independence, well into the 3rd and 4th centuries in Rome. In chapter 2, she explores the nature of Roman polytheism with its veneration of multiple deities, the significance of both regional cultus and emperor cultus, and Roman engagement with British gods, particularly the Roman formality of devotional structure and the introduction of new physical expressions of religion like the temple complex and formalized iconography (54) into Gaulic and British worship. This chapter also offers an extensive treatment of the Boudican rebellion. 

Chapter 3 focuses on the Roman military, specifically the way “Roman colonists, military or civilian, sought to construct environments both physical and emotional” and thus also religious “in which they felt at home” (59). Syncretism is a dominant underlying theme, taken up again in chapter 11 and through examination of surviving archeological evidence including inscriptions on Hadrian’s wall, votive offerings, and the archaeology of altars and shrines, Aldhouse-Green notes the appeal of certain British deities to Roman soldiers and speculates upon the how and why of their engagement while chapter 4 examines construction of urban centers and the impact of religious syncretism on religious cosmology (she specifically gives the example of Mercury acquiring an indigenous consort in the Goddess Rosmerta (83)). Aldhouse-Green explores how Romans and Britains navigated living together, working out tensions through shared religious activity. Chapter 5 delves into the cosmology of Roman Britain and this chapter in particular offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of British polytheism, one that will be of tremendous value not only to scholars and academics, but to those modern devotees of British and Gaulic gods as well. The modern restorations of Gaulic polytheism and Celtic polytheism today are significant movements within contemporary religious life in general and there is a dearth of useful material for practitioners. This book will certainly fill that need, touching as it does not only on the political exigencies of the Romano-British and Romano-Gaulic worlds, but also on the impact interaction had on the indigenous religions. This chapter continues the discussion of syncretism, how that worked in practice, and how it affected the religious landscape for both Romans, Gauls, and British. Special attention is given here to Bath and the site of the sanctuary of Sulis-Minerva.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the role of religious specialists including shamans, and diviners. They look at archeological examples pointing to practice, including religious sites, inscriptions, material items, analysis of healing sanctuaries in Roman Britain, the practice of votive offerings, and the similarity between Romans, British, and Gauls – Pagan and Christian-- in practices designed for healing or harm (130-133). These chapters also discusses the ubiquity of animal imagery, and British influence in Roman sculpture. 

Chapter 8 examines the multi-cultural and cosmopolitan nature of Romano-British cities, focusing on Londinium (London), which became a thriving hub of commerce from very early in its development (158). Through study of bones and extant sites, Aldhouse-Green examines the presence of shrines of Eastern deities like Mithras, the cult of Magna Mater, and Egyptian deities like the goddess Isis and the god Serapis throughout the British isles.

Chapter 9 discusses the impact of Christianity by the late 4th century through the lens of archaeological evidence: small private sanctuaries and portable votive objects (183). While she doesn’t focus on the religious events of the 4th -5th centuries, Aldhouse-Green does note Christian accommodation of Paganism, their appropriation of sacred sites and images (192), their later destruction of the same, and the persistence of indigenous Paganism alongside Christianity well into the early medieval period. She also notes the impact of Emperor Julian’s religious reforms on Britain.  Chapter 10 examines burial practices, looking at several specific grave sites for what they can tell us about religious beliefs concerning the afterlife.   

Finally, chapter 11 focuses on the complexity of interrelations between Romans, Gauls, and British, ongoing hostilities manifesting around religious practices and sites, and Roman antipathy toward Gallo-British Paganism. Co-existence was complicated and problems arose with toleration specifically with respect to cultus like that of Jupiter Optimus Maximus that were tied to fealty to Rome (219). The situation was complex and Aldhouse-Green does not elide that complexity. She discusses military gravitation to local gods specifically to evoke ties to lands being seized (220), Christian iconoclasm and desecration, and asks the question “to what extent did people worship together?” The answer, rooted in a systematic analysis of surviving archaeological material, is surprising. Finally, Aldhouse-Green notes that Roman occupation never destroyed a sense of British identity amongst the people of Britannia and nowhere is this more readily shown than in the way in which the idea and image of the Druids continued to be a symbol of valiant independence. Sacred Britannia fills a significant gap in extant scholarship on Roman Britain, highlighting the complexity of British religion and likewise the complexities of British and Roman interaction in the religious sphere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Galina Krasskova holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies from New York University and is currently pursuing a second Masters in Medieval Studies from Fordham University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Miranda Aldhouse-Green is Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University. She has published widely on the Celts, including for Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Exploring the World of the Druids, and The Celtic Myths.

Keywords: 

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