Cultural interactions and religious diversity in Roman Britain makes for an interesting subject. Many believe that the Romans conquered not only the lands of Britannia, but also the native religion. However, once you look closely at the archaeological remains, one can find examples of native religious beliefs as well as Roman and others from all over the Empire. For this, we shall look at several examples of religious diversity along Hadrian’s Wall.
The first example where we can see this diversity is the coin and stone relief evidence of Coventina from Coventina’s Well. This water-goddess had her cult surrounding an area around Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall and can be seen as a native deity, although she was worshipped by the Roman soldiers later on (Aldhouse-Green). In 1876, an archaeological excavation of a well yielded a hoard of coins (over 16,000) as well as a mass of other Roman artefacts (Aitchison, p. 276). From dating these coins, it suggests that Coventina’s cult flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. There are also several inscriptions dedicated to the goddess. One being,
NVS P R COH
I BAT L M
This translates as, “To Coventina Goddess, Titus D(unclear) Cosconia, The First Batavian Cohort Prefect, freely gives this dedication stone” (Allason-Jones & McKay). From this inscription, we can clearly see that the Romans paid this native goddess respect, although we cannot tell from this whether Titus D Cosconia actually believed and worshipped her. What is clear, however, was that the native deities of Britain were paid homage to by non-native believers.
The god Antenociticus is another example of a native god being worshipped along Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, there is only one site where he actually appears. At the fort of Condercum, three altars were found dedicated to the god, and since there is no mention of him anywhere else, he can be identified as a native British deity (Museum of Antiquities). During the excavation of the fort, the head of the statue of the god Antenociticus was found with three altars. One of these altars was erected by Tineius Longus, which dates the temple to around 180 CE. This could be argued that the native deity was held in high regard by the incoming Romans.
Another example of religious diversity was the cult of Mithras. Mithras was the Persian god of light and truth and was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, mainly by the soldiers. Mithraea, small basilical buildings resembling caves and ceremonies performed inside, have been found in several countries during the Roman Empire, including one at Carrawburgh along Hadrian’s Wall. The first phase of the temple was build in the 3rd century CE and then phase II was the enlargement not long after. “A fire and possible deliberate destruction followed, and then it was reconstructed for renewed use (Phase III) as a mithraeum until the mid/late fourth century CE” (King, p.354). From this we can see that the cult of Mithras, originally a Persian deity, thrived throughout the years of Roman occupation in Britain.
What we can see from these examples, is that the native deities were not erased by the incoming Romans, but were actually worshipped and respected by the Roman soldiers, merchants and civilians who lived and passed through along Hadrian’s Wall in the time that the Romans occupied Britain. In many instances, the religious beliefs of both the native and Roman people intertwined and became Romano-British.
Aitchison, N.A. (1988) Roman Wealth, Native Ritual: Coin Hoards within and beyond Roman Britain, World Archaeology, Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Allason-Jones, Linday & McKay, Bruce (1985) Coventina’s Well, a shrine on Hadrians Wall, Trustees of the Clayton Collection, Chesters Museum.
Kind, Antony (2005) Animal Remains from Temples in Roman Britain, Britannia, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/