Religion in Roman Britain


Worship of Celtic Gods

Well sculpture dedicated to Coventina at Carrawburgh

  • The sculpture was dedicated to Coventina, a local Goddess sacred to a well along Hadrian's Wall. It was put up by a prefect of the 1st cohort of Batavians.
  • Over 14,000 coins were found in her well, along with other votive offerings such as altars.
  • The sculpture shows Coventina reclining with a branch in her right hand.

Mother Goddesses from Housesteads

  • A group of three, which is how mother Goddesses are usually depicted.
  • Not very detailed, although these types of sculptures usually include baskets of bread rolls or fruit on their laps.

Genii Cucullati from Netherby

  • A group of three hooded spirits or Gods in this and most other sculptures, although occasionally there is a fourth one.
  • They are each holding an egg in their right hand, so they could symbolise fertility or immortality.
  • Sometimes they are shown with weapons.
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Worship of Celtic Gods 2

Temple of Antenociticus from Benwell, Newcastle

  • Simple, rectangular shrine (so-called Romano-Celtic temple).
  • He may have been a God of war, but this is his only temple to be found.
  • The head of the cult image has been preserved, and he has horns. Marks on the neck indicate that he was wearing a torc.

Silver plaque of Cocidius from Bewcastle

  • Shows Cocidius carrying a spear and shield; may have been a personal, portable shrine.
  • In the west he is linked with Mars, but in the east he is linked more with Silvanus, so could be a God of war or hunting (or both).

Altar to Belatucadrus

  • Dedications to Belatucadrus come from the western end of Hadrian's Wall, mainly from Roman forts. There are many horned God sculptures from the same area which may or may not be depictions of Belatucadrus.
  • Five altars link him to Mars so he was likely a God of war, but also with protective qualities, which was attractive to Roman soldiers.
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Worship of conflated Gods

Altar dedicated to Sulis Minerva from Bath

  • The altar was dedicated by the haruspex Lucius Marcius Memor.
  • A classical tetrastyle temple to Sulis Minerva was erected next to the spring at Bath.
  • Many offerings to the Goddess were found in the spring, including items of jewellery and a number of curses which were written on metal and screwed up to avoid being read.

Temple of Nodens at Lydney

  • Nodens is a Celtic God who it has been suggested is the same as the Irish Nuada and the Welsh Nudd.
  • The temple had a bath house and places to sleep, and may have had a dream interpreter.
  • The Romans built the temple on the site of an Iron Age hill fort.
  • Items such as bronze fingers, initial letters, and bronze dogs have been found here.
  • The cult has links with that of the Greek healing God Asclepius, and it is believed that people with illnesses might have come to sleep in the temple to be cured.
  • The temple was built after 364 AD, with occupation continuing well into the 5th century.
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Worship of conflated Gods 2

Altar to Jupiter Dolichenos from Corbridge, near Hadrian's Wall

  • Originally a weather God in Syria, there are dedications to this God in Britain.
  • The altar shows the God with a horn of plenty and a sickle.
  • The altar was set up by a centurion of the VI Legion, to Jupiter Dolichenos and also a local deity Caelestis Brigantia, and Salus.

Mars Taranis from Corbridge

  • A wheel God, featured on a mould for decorating a beaker. He has the wheel beside him, and a mould for a smith God equipped with hammer, tongs, and anvil found with the Taranis mould may be from the same potter.
  • Taranis was sometimes associated with Jupiter, who may have been the subject on a third damaged sherd.

Mars Alator from the Barkway treasure

  • A votive plaque made of gold, depicting the conflated war God surrounded by a classical pediment.
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Worship of classical Gods

Dediations to Jupiter Optimus Maximus

  • A detachment of Tungrian soldiers put up a statue of Jupiter holding a wheel in Carlisle.
  • Many altars dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus have been found in Cumbria, believed to be annual votive offerings.
  • The worship of Jupiter sometimes involved the erection of a Jupiter column, one of which was at Corinium (Cirencester). The base and capital of the column have both survived.

Temple of Claudius at Colchester

  • A huge classical temple which was seen by the Iceni as a symbol of their oppression.
  • During Boudicca's revolt, the temple was besieged for days before being torn down and burned.
  • The decapitated head of a statue of Claudius was found in the river Alde in Suffolk, and is believed to have been removed from the temple and thrown in the river by the Iceni.
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Worship of classical Gods 2

Statuette of Venus from St. Albans

  • A small bronze statue of Venus, this was found in the cellar of a private home, which may well have come from a shrine within the house.
  • Her appearance is reminiscent of Aeneas' meeting with Venus in a wood in the Aeneid.

Head of Mercury from a temple at Uley

  • This head is purely classical in style and is very similar to the head of a marble statue of Hermes sculpted by Praxiteles at Olympia in Greece.
  • It is made of limestone, not as expensive as marble, and is identified at Uley by the animals that were with the head - a ram and cockerel, which are usually associated with his cult.
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Mithraism and Isis worship

Mithraeum at Carrawburgh

  • Immediately next to Coventina's well, there were three altars found here.
  • One altar has a hollowed recess behind the representation of Mithras, where a light was placed to shine through the God's crown. This was probably the main light in the temple.
  • The three altars were at the end of the central passage and beneath the tauroctony.
  • Housesteads also had a mithraeum.

Mithraeum at London

  • A marble head of Mithras was found here, along with the God's hand, and a silver casket.
  • A marble head of Serapis (Osiris) found here may link this Mithraeum with an Isis temple which has been attested as being in London (by a pottery sherd) but never been found.

Dedication slab to Serapis from York

  • Put up in York by a legate of the VI Legion, eastern cults are rare in Britain.
  • Cybele was also worshipped, as an ornate bronze clamp was found in the Thames.
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Chi-rho symbols appear on some of the items from the Water Newton treasure, and are made of gilded silver and one disc of gold. The Mildenhall treasure from Suffolk has the chi-rho and alpha and omega inscribed on several spoons. The chi-rho is on two silver spoons from the Hoxne (Suffolk) treasure. The Thetford treasure from Norfolk is of a similar date (4th century) but is completely Pagan, in stark contrast to the other hoards of this time. 

A very large chi-rho symbol is on a wall painting in the Lullingstone villa. Also in this room was a depiction of six men at prayer in a Christian fashion so it may have been a chapel. However, there is also a mosaic with pagan scenes within the room, such as the **** of Europa, and Bellerophon slaying the chimaera. 

The Hinton St Mary villa also has a mosaic of Bellerophon slaying the chimaera, and a mosaic believed to depict Christ, with a chi-rho behind his head (although his may be Emperor Constantine). The four corners of the room have four men in mosaics, who may be the apostles.

An acrostic, also known as a Christian word-square, has been found in Cirencester. It says sator arepo tenet opera rotas, which, when rearranged, says 'pater noster' twice (the first line of the Lord's Prayer), with two alphas and omegas left over.

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Temple shapes

Classical temples were rare in Britain, with only five known in the whole province. The Temple of Claudius and the Temple of Sulis Minerva were both classical in style, with eight columns above a flight of steps. The cult statue in the cella would be visible from the bottom of the steps. The heads of both of these cult images are believed to have been found.

The square, Romano-Celtic temple is the most common in Britain. An example of this is the temple at Caerwent, which has an apse at one end in which the cult image would have been housed. A lean-to corridor ran along outside the temple, with either columns or a wall to support the roof. The temple was within its own temenos (sacred courtyard).

The triangular temple at St Albans is a very rare type. The shape is because of its location, which is at the fork of two roads. The cella was at its centre, behind the trapezoidal courtyard, and on either side were rooms containing large cisterns for water. The temple was perhaps for the worship of an eastern cult, perhaps Cybele.

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After death

Tombstones were created by stonemasons from copy-books of similar designs. Military cavalry tombstones invariably show an armed horseman mounted on his horse above a cowering, naked, hairy tribesman lying on the ground. Stelae in memory of ladies usually show them seated, sometimes with children, and facing forwards. Some are shown enjoying a meal in the afterlife, an example of which is in Tullie House Museum.

Burials were usually in wooden coffins, but sometimes were made of lead or stone, which were much more expensive. Grave goods, often jewellery, or in the case of children, toys, were sometimes placed with the body in the coffin.

Cremations were common, and the ashes of the deceased would have been placed in a large earthenware or glass jar (an example of the latter is in Tullie House Museum). 

Pipe burials are sometimes found, in which the ashes of the deceased are placed in a lead urn. The urn would be buried, and a pipe leading from the urn to the surface of the ground would be used to pour libations of wine. An example of a pipe burial is in Caerleon Museum.

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We know little about the Druids because they did not leave any certain archaeological or written evidence. Roman sources, such as Caesar in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, claim that the Druids engaged in human sacrifice, which was abhorrent to the Romans. 

Modern scholars have debated the veracity of claims of druidical human sacrifice, suggesting that the Romans may have fabricated this to serve as propaganda, to prove that the Britons were 'savages' and 'uncivilised'. The Lindow man, found in Cheshire, may well have been a human sacrifice, although not necessarily a druidical one. His death dates to 2 BC - 119 AD, so could have taken place well after the Romans arrived in Britain.

Caesar also claimed that the Druids were one of the two most important classes in Celtic society, alongside the equites, or nobles. He described Druids as philosophers, religious leaders, judges and adjudicators, astronomers, and administrators.

Suetonius Paulinus led troops to the Isle of Mona (Anglesey) in 60 AD to kill the Druids. In Tacitus' Agricola the island is described as being a stronghold of the Druids and a refuge for British fugitives. The army were stopped in their tracks by the sight of the Druids, who were "pouring forth dreadful imprecations". The Druids were killed and their sacred groves were destroyed. 

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