How the Romans civilised Britain

The London Mithraeum shows that Britain wasn’t a dreary backwater of the empire (Getty)

Sacred Britannia
by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £19.95

The wisest words about how the British behaved under Roman rule came from Tacitus. They were in his book about Agricola, his father-in-law, Governor of Britannia in the early AD 80s. We gullible British fools fell for Roman fashions – from the toga, to hot baths, to elegant dinner parties. We called it civilisation – humanitas, in Tacitus’s words – but in fact it was servitude.

The same was true of religion, as Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s authoritative, if heavy-going, book explains. The Romans spread their gods across England, Scotland and Wales. And, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century AD, so, too, did Britannia embrace the cult of Jesus.

As the spectacular Mithraeum in the City of London – newly restored to its underground lair beneath Bloomberg’s billion-pound headquarters – shows, Roman religion in Britain was an extremely sophisticated operation. Contrary to earlier opinions, Britannia wasn’t a dreary backwater of the empire. Just look at the beauty of the religious images recovered from the Mithraeum on the banks of the River Walbrook leading down to the Thames.

A bearded river god tilts his curious, questing head up to the heavens with a brilliance of artistry that puts our pre-Roman, Celtic efforts to shame. Even more extraordinarily at the Mithraeum, there was a head of Serapis, the Egyptian god of birth and rebirth, sporting a modius, or corn measure, with a hole in his skull to hold real ears of corn. In Southwark, a ceramic flagon has been found with a scratched inscription to a temple of Isis.

The Roman Empire was a huge sponge for local deities it absorbed into Roman religious practice, and then exported to expanding corners of the Empire. Empire also brought a vast influx of people from different countries. Funerary inscriptions from Corinium, Roman Cirencester, refer to a Swiss soldier from a cavalry unit in the Moselle Valley in Germany, and a Frisian from the Netherlands, who belonged to a mounted unit from Thrace.

It was a brilliant way of ruling by consent, rather than by the sword. Why bash up the Egyptians or the British Celts, and ban their cults? Much better to absorb those cults into your own religion, and let local chieftains jump into the caldarium before donning a toga and becoming quasi-Romans. Bingo! Empire on the cheap, with minimal disruption, Boadicea’s rebellion notwithstanding.

And so the Romans in Britain absorbed local British cults (and British names – inscriptions show people with Roman names giving their children Gallo-British names). At the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman soldiers built a rectangular, stone sanctuary to a local British god, Antenociticus. His stone head, with wild, staring eyes and curly horns in his hair, survives.

At Birrens in south-west Scotland, there’s a charming, monumental relief of an apparently British goddess, Brigantia, worshipped by the Brigantes in a vast area stretching from Yorkshire to Dumfries and Galloway.

Even the most famous of Roman Britain’s spa resorts, Bath, was probably sacred to a British god. As all schoolboys used to know, the Roman name for Bath was Aquae Sulis – “the waters of Sulis”. Sulis was, it seems, a spring deity in the region. As the Romans often did, they made a hybrid deity, Sulis Minerva, with British Sulis considered a good match for the soldier-goddess Minerva – the deity of war and wisdom, who, in Bath’s holy waters, specialised as a protector against disease and misfortune. One stone relief of Minerva in Bath shows a woman with a thick, woollen robe and a Minervan head of Medusa on her breast, along with a Celtic face, flame-like hair and a very British sculptural feel to it. The perfect religious match of Britannia and Roma.

Aldhouse-Green writes in rather leaden academese, but her earnest tone is matched to a seriousness and an admirable refusal to oversex the rituals of Roman and pre-Roman Britain. So she gives you Pliny the Elder’s gripping description of druids who sound just like Getafix in the Asterix books: “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak.”

But, at the same time, she confesses that there’s no solid archaeological evidence for the presence of the druids in Iron Age Britain – while fairly acknowledging that it was Julius Caesar who said: “It is thought that the doctrine of the druids was invented in Britain.”

She’s also cautious in dealing with the gruesome fate of the deliberately defleshed skull of an adolescent boy found, along with a puppy and a whetstone, in a deep shaft in front of a Roman shrine in St Albans – Roman Verulamium, the former Iron Age town of Verlamion. Was this barbaric human sacrifice a Celtic practice sanctioned by the new Roman rulers? Who knows? We do know, sadly, that all too often humans lose track of their humanitas, whether they’re Romans or ancient Britons – or modern ones, for that matter.

Harry Mount is the author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)