The Consequences Roman Contact Had on British Religion
by Alexis Eudy
Roman contact influenced and indeed, helped create, British Religion in major ways. While in many respects, Roman and Celtic religion combined to form a unique and diverse British religious system, there were several exceptions. One was the persecution and eventual dissolution of Druidic influence. While Celtic Paganism stayed alive, because Druidry was extinguished or pushed underground, it was missing a vital part. Yet, while Roman Paganism came to encompass aspects of Celtic Paganism, a new religion was arriving on the shores of Britain. That religion was Christianity. For the best part of the Roman occupation in Britain, Christianity was a minority religion. However, it managed to dominate the religious traditions in Britain, both old and new, just in time for the Saxon invasion.
The Druids filled a highly esteemed and vital role in Celtic society. They acted both as law makers and law enforcers, presided over sacrifices and religious functions, kept the history, mythology, and law system alive through memory and oral tradition, taught the youth, and influenced the nobility. It is no wonder that they posed such a threat to the Romans, yet, there has been much speculation on the specifics of why Rome was so threatened by them. So threatened, that she sought for years to put a stop to Druidic activity and religion.
One theory behind the reason for Druidic persecution is a sense of Roman civility, a duty to end the ‘barbarous’ practice of human sacrifice, widely described as Druidic. Yet, this reasoning is similar to the attempts of nineteenth century British colonialists in Africa, explaining their supposed main motivations were bringing Christianity to the non-Christian natives there. A noble goal, but a cynical mind can recognize that the Romans had little to gain from this, and therefore little motivation to outlaw Druidic religion on the sole basis of their associations with human sacrifice It may have been a factor of small significance, but it will not stand on its own, especially when one considers the fact that Rome only outlawed human sacrifice among Romans in 97 BCE, not long before Druidic persecution in Gaul began.
A more likely explanation for the reasoning behind this threat comes from a variety of factors, including, not in the least, the sheer influence the Druids had on the nobility. In Orations, Dion Chrysostom explains that ‘The Kings, who sat on golden thrones and lived luxuriously in their great residences, became mere agents of the decisions of the Druids’. It is also well attested in the Early Irish texts that nearly every King had a Druidic advisor.
Understandably, if conquest of the Gallic and British peoples was to be complete, such an influential class of people would have to be removed. Such people were officially destroyed after a series of steps were taken, ending in the destruction of the Druid sanctuary on Anglesey. Suetonius describes the major steps taken in Gaul before the attack of Iona. He claims that Augustus prohibited Druidic religion among Roman citizens, and Tiberius issued a decree of the Senate against the Gallic Druids. This happened before the destruction of Anglesey, and without a doubt, many Druids and other inhabitants of Britain would have been aware of this, and tried to prepare for it. In 54 CE, Claudius tried his best to abolish Druidry in Gaul, but it was in Britain that this was achieved. In 60 CE, troops reached Anglesey.
Two legions, some 4,000 Batavarians, and other light cavalry and infantry faced the Druids on their island. The Romans defeated the Druids, the men and women who had stood screaming curses in defense of their groves and raized the island verdant cornfields.
Anglesey had been, by this time, a well established Druidic sanctuary; its lake, Llyn Cerrig Bach, contained over 150 metal objects, presumably votive offerings, dating from the 2nd Century BCE to the 1st Century CE. Its destruction would have devastated the morale of the remaining Druidic communities in Britain, and even the every-day civilians, especially of nearby tribesmen and women. While this ended the Druidic religion in official terms, this presumably did not mean the immediate stop of Druidic activity or influence.
A lack or lessening of Druidic priestly influence could have done nothing to strengthen the sense of a purely Celtic religious identity. As a result of this, and other factors such as the gradual and near comprehensive Romanisation of the Celtic people, Roman Paganism and Celtic Paganism were bound to mix.
The two religions had quite a lot in common: both were polytheistic and highly eclectic or localized, both centered often around the deeds of a god-like hero, and both acknowledged the existence of Gods other than those being worshipped. Indeed, the Romans even held a belief in genii loci. It was believed that all communities, people, and places each had a resident spirit called a genius. The term genii loci refers to the local spirits of the place, and were often awarded the same honor as Roman deities. An example of this is on the Antonine Wall, where a Roman officer set up an altar to the ‘genius of the British land’.
It was easy for both the Celts and the Romans to take on aspects of the others’ religion. Unlike Christians, the Pagan Celts had little or no objection to burning incense or making animal sacrifices to the Divine Emperor. This participation in the Divine Cult was not threatening to Celtic polytheistic religion. In the same respect, it was not unusual for Roman citizens to adopt partial or full worship of Celtic deities. The Romans themselves were prone to having several versions of one deity, known for different things, or several variations on the spelling of one name. Similarly, the Celts had no universal Gods, and therefore had an abundance of them, many bearing close resemblance in name and function to others. Worship seems to have been very localised, with many different Gods being worshipped and no specific reasoning behind this, besides perhaps the isolation of the Celts from each other.
It is in the amalgamation of deities, and specifically the building of unique Romano-British temples that we can begin to see the merging of the two religions. R. G. Collingwood says that, ‘Both unofficially and officially, the Roman was ready not only to tolerate Celtic religion, even in its humblest local manifestations, but to join in it.’ The Romano-British temples, sometimes called Romano-Celtic temples, may be examples of this, as they are temples built traditionally in Roman form, but often associated with Celtic deities. Examples of this are found in Maiden Castle, home of an unknown deity temple, and Lydney, home of the temple to Nodens. Another example is the temple of Aquae Sulis in Bath, which also demonstrates the joining of Roman descriptive names with Celtic deity names. (Sulis being a Celtic Goddess, Aquae being the Roman word for a natural spring.) One of the best examples, however, must be the temple to Apollo Moritagus at Mont-Auxios. Apollo is one of the chief deities. in the Olympic pantheon, and Moritagus is a Celtic deity It is probable that the temple had both Celtic and Roman patrons, aware of the other’s influence.
One of the best examples of Roman influence on the British is the story of Macsen Wledig, told in the collection of sacred Welsh tales, The Mabinogion. Historically speaking, this tale is probably based on a Spanish Roman soldier named Maximus, who helped defend the British people against the Saxon invaders. He was proclaimed Emperor, along with several other proclaimed Emperors, and ruled for a short while before being defeated and executed. However, the Welsh tale tells a different story, a myth in sacred context, where Macsen is wed to Elen of the Hosts, a woman who magically symbolizes the power and fertility of the land. Macsen, like so many other archetypal Celtic heroes, defends the land, but he also brings the glory of Rome to the Celts.
However much the Roman and Celtic Pagan religious paths converged, they were not ever completely united into one cohesive system. It may have been partly due to the want of unity and an established ‘single culture’ that Christianity began to spread.
Christianity, like Mithraism, found its way to Britain through Rome, though Mithraism was more central to the soldier and Christianity more central to the citizen. And so it was that Christ became the center of yet another Roman cult, a deity brought along like Isis or Cybele, in the way that worship of Epona, a Celtic Goddess of Gaul, was sent along to the other parts of the Empire.
While Christianity may not have appealed to the bulk of Pagan Britain, It’s spread was inevitable. Guy de la Bdoyre states that Christianity was ‘popular amongst the urban poor who had the least to loose and the most to gain’, because of its ‘congregational style’, and because ‘it was open to anyone and combined a rejection of the secular with the promise of a glorious afterlife’. Slowly, Christianity made its way throughout the classes of the Roman citizens of both Roman and Celtic descent in Britain. When Constantine, a British born Roman Emperor, adopted Christian religious beliefs, the rest of the Empire tended to follow suit.
Rome brought the Church to Britain, and it strengthened, slowly. In a brief span of years there was however, enough time for a distinctly Celtic Church to develop, so that by the time the Saxon hordes invaded Britain, their Pagan religion would rival and only temporarily overcome the newly established Christian one.
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Collingwood, R.G. Myers, J. N. L., Roman Britain and the English Settlements, (Oxford1936):261-273
de la Bdoyre, The Golden Age of Roman Britain, (1999): 99-110, 145-147
Guest, Lady Charlotte E., trans., The Mabinogion, (New York, 1997): 52-58
Hutton, Ronald, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy,(Oxford,1991)
James, Simon, Exploring the World of the Celts, (London, 1993): 88-95, 118-151
Koch, John T., ed, in collaboration with John Carey, the Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Europe and Early Ireland and Wales, (Malden, 1994): 23-30
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