Sacred Britannia by Miranda Aldhouse-Green

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Miranda Aldhouse-Green is a specialist in Romano-British studies and Iron Age archaeology and has written other books on myth and religion in this period, so you know you’re in safe hands as she draws together a wealth of information from archaeological finds dating from the 18th century to 2015 in this splendid and approachable book.

What the book basically does is take the gods and religious practices of the Romans and the gods and practices of the Britons and looks at their interaction in the context of the Roman occupation of Britain, starting from Caesar’s expeditions to the country in 55/54 BC and finishing at what is traditionally seen as the end of Roman Britain in the early 5th century AD. The chapters are themed, looking first at the role of the Druids in the whole thing, then the role of the Roman Army, which was the most definitive example of the spreading of Romans through Britain but also probably the most diverse group of “Romans” hailing from all parts of the empire, in both spreading news of their gods and taking up use of the Britons’. Related to this, there’s a whole chapter on Eastern cults which got absorbed into Roman culture then imported into Britain: the cult of Mithras and others. There’s a fascinating chapter on ancient British symbols such as horns and triple figures being absorbed into Roman iconography, and the use and re-use of different symbols and indeed individual statues and images is continued in the chapter on Christianity. It concludes with the assertion that evidence presents:

a tapestry of religious cults and worship whose interaction, negotiation and mutual appropriation resulted in a series of new religious movements on the western edge of the Roman Empire.

One rather obvious point is that the Romans had a look at the local deities and then matched them to the pantheon of Roman gods. But there’s fascinating evidence that the gods then ended up with a hybrid Romano-British name or even as pairs of local gods with a male and female, one from each tradition. There’s a whole chapter on this and the combination of gods’ iconographies. But other uses of religious culture seemed to include soldiers wholly adopting local gods from the areas in which they were posted. Gods also had their central characters changed within the process. The chapter on Christianity is perhaps clearest on the way that material culture was used to move the Britons towards the religion at a time when Christianity itself was still forming and becoming coherent, with lots of muddying of the waters and re-purposing of themes and objects. Some fascinating mosaics with very mixed iconography are illustrated and examined here. It’s also made clear that none of this was a rapid or completed process: there were temples to British gods such as Nodens in classical style right at the end of the period and:

Paganism died hard, and was periodically resurrected in Britain for many centuries to come.

The book is very carefully and closely woven together. Examples – some rather disturbing – of body finds and iconic pieces are mentioned throughout the book in different contexts, making it read as a whole rather than as a series of articles. Some of the events and objects are familiar and others less so, and certainly if you haven’t kept up that well with archaeology in recent times there are some surprising and fascinating finds and theories to keep the reader interested. There’s a running thread on cursing tablets – defixiones – and how these little pieces of folded lead were used to ask the gods for both help and healing and revenge.

The author is very careful with her sources. She makes it clear that we don’t know much about pre-Roman religious beliefs and practices because they were not recorded (or the records haven’t survived) and although they can be characterised as “sporadic, non-formalized and largely personal expressions of worship” which were then overshadowed somewhat by the Roman habit of installing large temples and other buildings on or near religious sites, our view of the older religions is thus seen through the lens of the occupier. However, the cultural interaction was a “two-way street” and Aldhouse-Green cites the persistence of the local beliefs and their spiritual ties with Gaul as an example of it certainly not being a wiping-out of the local customs, and in fact there’s evidence that worshippers made their own local deities more visible through the new, more public ways of expressing their devotion to their particular god. When she is engaging in what she calls “mild speculation”, she makes sure she makes this clear, and the mild speculation of such an expert with wide-ranging sources at her fingertips obviously still has power and value.

Aldhouse-Green spends a certain amount of the book referencing modern events and attitudes as she talks about the tensions between occupiers and inhabitants and the interweaving of their lives and religions. As she says in the introduction, “The resonances between past and present can be very loud”.  This is powerful in her discussion of the growth of Islam in Europe, and works well, brings ancient times into modern relief and provides a different viewpoint than just a standard history. She also pulls in some modern fiction to illustrate her points, and I have to admit I found it a bit odd to come across a comparison between possible oracle stones found in a Roman excavation and Tolkien’s prophetic palantiri; however, I can see this is another effort to make the topic of the book more relevant and accessible and am sure this is just a personal quirk on my part. After all, her references to classical literature didn’t bother me at all.

There’s a satisfyingly good infrastructure to the book, with comprehensive notes, bibliography and index. There are two sets of colour plates plus black and white illustrations throughout the text, making it an attractive reference book or gift.

Liz Dexter used to do a bit of archaeology. Unlike everyone else, she never wanted to find a skeleton, but was happiest with a Roman tile fall. Liz blogs about books at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain (Thames & Hudson, 2018). 978-0500252222, 256 pp., ill. Hardback

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