Roman Religion

The Romans believed in many gods. Some of these they brought with them, and some they acquired as the Empire expanded. Some of them reflected the beliefs of the Emperor at the time, and so the gods that they worshipped changed through the 400 years that they were here. In the second and third century for example, the worship of Jupiter [See Image 1] associated with Dolichenus, a storm god from modern Turkey, was very popular with the army.

Much of the evidence for religion comes from the altars erected by the army. The core of their religion was the public worship of the main gods connected with the government of the Empire. These were Jupiter (the king of the gods), Juno (his wife) and Minerva (goddess of wisdom and righteous warfare). The worship asked for the continuing well being of the Emperor and his family. Other celebrations were for imperial birthdays, and the anniversary of the foundation of the city of Rome. These last two have modern parallels in the, now secular, celebrations of the Trooping of the Colour to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday and the millennium celebrations.

The army also worshipped lesser gods. One of the most common was the Genius Loci, or spirit of the place. Genii were the gods associated with the male aspect of families, and by extension places and army units. There is a Genius figure from the Roman fort at Carlisle that was dedicated to the Genius of the Century (the army unit) by Bassilius Crescens. The heads from other figures found at the site have crowns in the shape of walls with gates and may represent the god of the fort itself. [See Image 2]

The inclusive nature of Roman religion allowed people to worship almost any god, provided it didn’t interfere with the public worship required by the state. This led to a wide variety of gods. Some came from far away, like the Syrian goddess Astarte, whose altar has a dedication in Greek. Others were more local like Cocidius, a north British god of hunting. [See Images 3 and 6]

Some personal ornaments may show the religious feelings of the wearer. This is true both in military and civilian areas. Third century sword belts often had an ornamental disc on them. Some of the more elaborate ones had Jupiter’s eagle in the centre surrounded by the words OPTIME MAXIME CON(SERVA) or May the greatest (that is Jupiter, whose symbol was the eagle) protect me. The whole thing was an amulet asking for Jupiter’s protection in battle. Civilians might have chosen the image on their seal ring because they wanted the protection of a particular god. [See Image 4]

Two of the religions that were imported into Britain are different from the rest, Mithraism and Christianity. Both of these are often called mystery religions because they were carried out in secret. Indeed, before the early fourth century it was illegal to be a Christian. This means that the evidence for Christians tends to be obscure. The tombstone of Flavius Antigonus Papias has been interpreted as having Christian significance. The wording states his age ‘plus minus’ and it says that he gave back his soul to the fates. These forms of words are different from most tombstones and similar to others that have definite Christian significance. [See Image 5]