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Roman Religion and Beliefs

The Romans and the religions of Britain

When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they found a country whose religion was based on local stories, superstitions and beliefs with no real order on consistency amongst the individual tribes. Their first port of call was the south east of England, which had a race that consisted of with their own beliefs and Belgic and Gallic people that had taken refuge in Britain. These immigrants had brought their own brand of worship with them.

The Romans were relaxed in their attitudes to the tribes, as they knew that their religion was fundamental to their existence. There was one tribe that the Romans despised because of their ways. This tribe was the Druids of Angelsey.

The Romans had become the sworn enemy of the Druids, claiming this was due to their barbaric sacrifices of humans at an altar. This attitude was kind of hypocritical in view of the legendary Roman gladiatorial battles and their treatment of the early Christians.

The Romans had two reasons for any action. The public statement of why their actions were justified, and the private political motives behind their stance. The Druids were no exception, and the Roman claim to justifiably wiping out this tribe on purely religious grounds was a a cover for their real motives.

The Druids had been driven out of Gaul and into Britain, then on to Angelsey by the advancing Roman army, acting under orders from the Emperor. The Druids had influential power in the Roman world, mostly because of the mystic fear that they installed in all those they encountered. They had become too vocal in matters of education and Roman politics and it was this that led to their persecution by the Romans.

Apart from Druidism, the remainder of the religions in Britain were largely untouched. Probably because the Romans knew that religion in Britain was regarded in very much the same way that it was in Rome. A basic fundamental principle of the way of life.

The introduction of Roman religion to Britain

One of the first acts that the new Roman government in Britain undertook was to introduce the Imperial cult to the island.

The Colchester Temple

Model of the Temple of the Deified Claudius, Camulodunum (Colchester)The first form that the introduction took was in the form of altar, a massive temple and a provincial centre in Colchester. Temples were usually dedicated to an emperor after he died, but what is unusual is that it commonly believed the temple at Colchester was dedicated to the Emperor Claudius while he was still alive. Why this happened is unclear, as Claudius had already spurned an attempt in Egypt to have him declared a god. But newer research has thrown light onto the matter and it is now generally agreed that the temple was not actually completed until after the death of Claudius.

The temple was destroyed during the Boudiccan rebellion, but it must have been rebuilt, both out of Roman pride in their religion, and also to avoid the remains becoming a focal point for those sympathetic to the Boudiccan cause. It was a grand structure and many in Rome were impressed by it's magnificence

It was constructed in the best classical manner on a raised podium and with an octastyle portico approached by a flight of steps. In the courtyard stood the sacrificial altar, which had statues on either side.

The temple would not have been just a religious place, but also a center for many public ceremonies that would have been held in full view of the oversized statue of Claudius.

 The structure of religion in Roman Britain

The imperial cult in Britain had an elected council that was chosen by the natives of the land. The council in turn nominated a chief priest whose duties were to arranges the ceremonies and festivities. The costs of this were met by the office holders. Tacitus records that before the Boudiccan rebellion, when civitas were few, the costs were met by a small band of people, and so this caused unrest amongst them. To ensure that a governor did not overspend, the council had the authority to communicate directly with Rome. This was rarely exercised, as the governor had spent a great deal of time and expense in elevating himself to his current position, and would not throw it away unnecessarily.

This council originally sat in the temple of Colchester, but it is believed that the cult had transferred to London (Londinium) by the end of the first century AD. This is entirely feasible, as, by this time, London had become the administrative capital for the whole country.

Along with the cult, came the official gods of the Roman religion, which are described below. These were introduced in the form of deities along with other abstract concepts such as Fate, Fortune and Victory.

Religion and the military

The military was the greatest observer of religious events and possessed a calendar detailing the dates and events that were to take place. These involved rituals and displays of faith, especially to the emperor and the god Jupiter. Each unit would erect a new altar to the deity on the edge of the parade ground. A time after the ceremonies were completed, the discarded pieces would be buried. They would also maintain a shrine which would hold the statutes relating to the military, and the Legion's standard when it was not being used. The rituals were observed meticulously by all involved, as it would be deemed an insult to the deity, so these ceremonies were taken most seriously.

The military was made up of Roman regulars and, as time went on, more and more recruits from the tribes. This led to a conflict of beliefs as those in the military who were native to Britain had their own gods and religious festivals to commemorate. Because the British tribal religions and the Roman beliefs were very much on a parallel, there was little trouble in integrating them into one common religion. The only religions that did not, and were not incorporated, were Christianity and Judaism. These religions were at odds with the accepted beliefs and were very much at a tangent to them, which was why they did not become integrated.

The fused religions

These fused religions were recognised by both the Romans and the British To the Romans it was a demonstration of the Romanisation of Britain, the interpretation Romana. To he British, it was an extension of their, already fragmented, beliefs.

Not all of Britain was under the same influence however. The further away from the built up towns, the stronger was the belief in the purely Celtic gods and ways.

The Mother Earth

Ceres, Goddess of HarvestCeres, Goddess of HarvestOne of the most important Celtic beliefs that survived the transition and Romanisation process, was the cult that believed in a 'Mother Goddess' What we call today, a Mother Earth. In the Iron Age, this god was known as Ceres. She was worshiped by a fertility cult, and as fertility was so important to the Celts, she was perceived as being all powerful and often portrayed in a triple, and sometimes quadruple form.

In these religions, the number three had a mystical importance and was used to denote the power of the deity. In Britain, the cult of the Matres was widespread and at Cirencester and Bath, the cult took the tile of the Sulevian Mothers. On one sculpture, they appear as three stern looking matrons sitting upright on a bench, nursing baskets containing loaves and fruit.

The cult of Mithras

Stone relief from Housesteads showing the birth of the god Mithras from an egg – the symbol of eternal time
Stone relief from Housesteads showing the birth of the god Mithras from an egg – the symbol of eternal time

Being superstitious people, both the Romans and Celts held religion in high esteem, so any cults that appeared were approached with apprehension. One of the most mysterious religions was the cult of Mithras,which was different from other religions in that it required it's followers to live their lives by a moral code. Entrants to Mithraism had to perform a series initiation tests that would test both physical and moral standards. Mithraism had many different initiation tests and depending on how well the applicant performed in these tests determined the grade that they were rewarded with. There were many grades such as Lion, Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Father, which were decided by undergoing tests involving ordeals by fire, water or fasting.

The cult of Mithras originated in Persia where it was known as Ahuramazda. This deity was depicted as fighting a constant battle against good and evil which was depicted as the power of light against darkness. In this constant battle, Mithras was aided by two torch carrying acolytes, Cautes and Cautopates who represented twilight and dawn. The religion is surrounded in mystery and was not east to understand due to it's complex nature.

Understandably, the main recruits into the cult were soldiers and merchants, probably two of the most superstitious classes in society. The group of Mithraea knew this and so concentrated their teachings and bases where they could influence the greatest number of potential converts.

London was the main centre for Mithraism as this was were the greatest congregation of merchants and military could be found., though there have been instances of inscriptions and images of Mithras found at Caernarfon, Housesteads, Carrawburgh which shows that the religion was very widespread across Britain.

The temple of Mitras in London

The temples were usually quite small, rectangular in shape and often had a small apse at one end. The London temple had this apse, while the temple at Carrawburgh had a recess, so they were not entirely uniform in their design. The temple was usually divided into three rows with the centre row serving as an aisle.

The Rise of Christianity

At the same time as Mithraism was gaining momentum, so Christianity was increasing in strength. Both religions had the common factor that both had foundations in countries outside the Roman Empire and it was many years before they became known in Britain. Whereas Mithraism was accepted by the Roman world, Christianity was not and was the subject of extreme persecution by the Romans. This was due to the refusal of the Christians to swear allegiance to the Roman emperor. The Mithras followers did take the oath. and therefore were accepted into Roman society. The Romans saw the Christian refusal to take the oath not as a religious insult, but as one on the Roman state in general. This was treason, a view that made the Romans believe the persecution of all Christians as right and proper.

The Romans were also suspicious of people who formed groups, for whatever purpose. Any association was monitored closely any group that was seen to congregate too often was interviewed at length.

Before the Edict of Toleration in 313 AD, little is known of Christianity in Roman Britain, but there is an interesting inscription that was found in Cirencester that had been carefully scratched onto the painted surface of the wall plaster, which dates back to the second or third century.


Translated it means 'The sower Arepo guides the wheels carefully'.

Symbolically, the wheel can be translated as a reference to eternal life. But if all the letters are rearranged, they spell the work 'PATERNOSTER', which are the opening words of the Lords' prayer with two A's and two O's left. In early Christian symbolism AO meant Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The beginning and the end of the revelation of St. John.

Only a year after the edict had been issued, no less than three bishops, the metropolitans of London, Lincoln and York together with, possibly Cirencester, attended a council of the Church of Arles. So it appears likely that the Christian church had been organised for some time before 313 AD.

In the fourth century, there is much more evidence in the form of the chi-cho (which looks like a cross with the letter 'P' vertically through the centre) appearing on as a monogram on personal possessions. This symbol s made up of the first two letters of the Greek work Christos.

The Roman gods

Fortuna The Roman goddess of fate, is frequently shown on military inscriptions, such as distance slabs on the Antonine Wall. In legionary bathhouses she protected soldiers against the evil eye (and perhaps also contributed to their success in dice games).

Hercules Primarily a soldier's god of strength and virility, was also popular in civilian settlements. In Britain he was associated with the Celtic god Saegon ("all-conquering") and was also a healing deity.

Jupiter Normally depicted as a powerful bearded figure with a thunderbolt and eagle, Jupiter was essentially a sky divinity and the head of the Roman pantheon. He was invoked each year at forts as "Jupiter Best and Greatest" (luppiter Optimus Maximus).

Mars Originally a god of agriculture, then became the Roman war god. Popular in Britain, he was associated with a number of Celtic war deities, some (Belatucadrus, Alator, Condates) unique to Britain, others (Camulos and Toutates) also appearing on the continent. Mars was also linked to healing gods such as Nodens and Lenus.

Mercury The Roman messenger god and patron of commerce has dozens of representations in Britain where, as in Gaul, he was often syncretized with local Celtic deities. As Caesar remarks in the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars (Bk 6, chap. 17), "They have many images of Mercury, and regard him as the inventor of all arts . . . and to have very great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions."

Minerva The Roman goddess of wisdom and artisans, was also a deity of war and patroness of the clerical staff of the Roman army. At Bath, where she was merged with the local water deity Sulis, a dedication was made to her by Roman engineers who built the temple.

Silvanus Originally an agricultural god and a variant of Mars, presided over fertility, forestry, farming, land-clearing, and the prosperity of cattle. He lived in forests and mountains. Altars to Silvanus occur at many British sites, mostly in the north.

The Genii were abstract powers or spirits of individual places or people. They are commonly represented holding a cornucopia and patera over an altar, such as in a genius loci.

Dedications to Near Eastern Gods, including Mithras, Cybele, Atys, Isis, Serapis, and Sol Invictus have been found in London, York, and many other settlements.

Cybele, a mother goddess, originated in Phrygia (now Turkey). Her cult, introduced to Rome in 205 BC, was legalized by Claudius. Atys was her shepherd consort, each year reborn as part of a fertility ritual. Also associated with bull sacrifice was Mithras, an Indo-Iranian sun god. In the mid-3rd century AD, another sun god, Sol Invictus was endorsed by Aurelian.

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