Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.05

Georgia L. Irby-Massie, Military Religion in Roman Britain. Mnemosyne Supplementum 199.   Leiden:  Brill, 1999.  Pp. xv, 387, 4 pl.  ISBN 90-04-10848-3.  $92.00.  

Reviewed by Anthony A. Barrett, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 1304 words

Roman Britain is the military province par excellence. It has provided a body of information on military architecture and the organization of the Roman army during the four centuries or so of its presence there that is unmatched by any other part of the Roman empire. It is therefore natural that we should turn to the evidence from Britain to understand better the religions practised by the Roman army. This is the task that Irby-Massie has undertaken in her comprehensive and useful study. She is not, of course, a pioneer. Much important work has already been done on religion in Roman Britain, which she acknowledges, but earlier studies have concentrated on specific topics. Hers is the first systematic treatment of the subject as a whole.

Her first chapter deals with the state religions, and covers the calendars and the official state cults, such as the Capitoline triad and the emperor and his family. State cults are particularly associated with the legions (as opposed to auxiliaries). Legionaries would tend to cultivate local divinities only if they were Roman in form or appealed to Romanized worshippers. Offerings to the numen of the emperor are widely attested, almost invariably in association with other divine entities, Jupiter or the Germano-Celtic gods. These attestations are concentrated in the Severan period -- perhaps the troops felt the need to express their loyalty to Severus after the civil war of the 190's.

Chapter Two covers the Eastern cults. No shrines of Jupiter Dolichenus are known in Britain but epigraphic evidence and the occasional relic indicate his worship in Britain, concentrated almost exclusively in the northern frontier area. This god is particularly associated with areas like Risingham that have iron ore deposits and iron working areas (a pattern observable elsewhere in the empire). Of the eastern gods none is better represented in Britain than Mithras, whose worship cuts across legionary and auxiliary lines. Unusually, Mithras is never found at the same site as Jupiter Dolichenus in Britain. By contrast, at Dura they enjoyed a shared temple. Most of the Mithraic material in Britain is military. An exception is the famous Walbrook Mithraeum in London, although I.-M. points out that the site would have been used by the soldiers from the nearby Cripplegate fort, and it seems to be generally the case that the religion practised by the Roman soldier and the Romanized civilian varied only a little. In Britain the cult of Mithras seems to have been favoured especially by the officer class.

In Chapter Three I.-M. turns to the Celtic cults. Romano-Celtic religion is difficult to assess as there is very little literary evidence. Also, in the absence of any unitary Celtic nation there was no centrally organized religion, and worship tended to be localised at the tribal level. This chapter, the most interesting, deals with the phenomenon of the cult of the horned warrior, one of the most prevalent figures in Britain, associated with various horned animals, such as stags. I.-M. focusses on five of these. She shows that the territorial extent of the distinct gods overlaps very little and that they probably exercised similar functions within their own areas. Yet there are differences in the pattern of worship. Most of them, especially Veteris and Belatucadrus were worshipped by soldiers from the ranks rather than by officers. The evidence comes mainly from the third century, and most of the dedicators have names that seem native to Britain (auxiliary units eventually filled vacancies by local recruitment rather than by drafts from their original homelands). The two exceptions are Cocidius and Antenociticus, who enjoy dedications from all the legions stationed in Britain and from senior officers of the auxiliary units. I.-M. notes that the dedications to these two show more Roman influence. The Latin spelling in their inscriptions, for example, is more regular; by contrast, in the fifty-six inscriptions that mention Veteris, seventeen variants are found in the spelling of the name. The data are assembled in the very useful tables appended to the chapter, listing sites along with the epigraphic attestations and the statistics on distribution. I.-M. suggests that the cult of the horned gods is reminiscent of Greek hero cults and may have been the Romano-Celtic soldier's answer to the eastern mystery rites, whose worshippers tended either to be fully Romanized or to belong to oriental units: Cohors I Hamiorum, for instance, worshipped Dea Hammia and Dea Syria at Carvoran.

Chapter Four covers the Celtic healing spirits, linked with specific healing shrines and mostly associated with water and springs. Coventina is probably the most famous. She was thought at one time to be exclusive to her famous spring at Carrawburgh, near Hadrian's Wall, but is now known to be attested in inscriptions in Hispania Citerior, and has even been identified with Quentin, a Saint worshipped in the Netherlands -- all perhaps suggesting that the cult was carried by soldiers from the north of England to the continent.

Chapter Five deals with the way in which Romanization tended to lead to the melding of religious activities. Roman soldiers identified Celtic gods with their own, and the native Britons saw Roman gods as manifestations of indigenous Celto-Germanic gods. Many local deities received temple cults on the pattern of Roman institutions. Before the Roman period Celtic holy places were natural sacred sites -- woods, streams and the like. The Romans brought with them the notion of an enclosed building. The Romano-Celtic temple was something of a compromise, and often involved a square structure, with a clerestory, surrounded by a portico. Canonical classical temples, such as that of Sulis Minerva at Bath, are found only rarely.

In Chapter Six the evidence for the later Romano-Celtic religion is considered, along with its history during the Christian phase. Traditional religions remained strong among soldiers and officers to the end of the Roman period. Christian objects from military sites are few in number, and there is no way of ascertaining whether they belonged to soldiers or to other groups such as merchants.

The book ends with a very valuable indexed catalogue of inscriptions, arranged by geography on the lines of RIB, also a catalogue of military units, both legionary and auxiliary as well as special units, such as numeri or limitanei, stationed in Britain. The inscriptional evidence and a brief bibliography for each unit is provided, and, where appropriate, a cross-reference to the catalogue of inscriptions, lists of governors, emperors and key events in the history of Roman Britain. Finally, a bibliography and index.

My one reservation about the book is that it is probably needlessly expensive. It is a work not for the general reader but for specialists either in Roman religion or in Roman Britain. The very general and fairly lengthy introductory sections inserted throughout will not satisfy these specialists, since it is impossible to make a general statement about ancient religions without opening up an academic can of worms. The surveys thus are intended to meet the need of people unlikely to turn to the book in the first place. I.-M. will draw her readers from the same pool as Fishwick's Imperial Cult, also a Brill book, and she could well have followed Fishwick's lead in simply assuming a certain degree of prior knowledge. Thus, about a third of the book could have been eliminated, reducing cost without serious damage to the solid and valuable core. This criticism is, of course, one that is inherently unfair, in that it advocates a somewhat different book from the one written. But it is a point worth making, since I.-M. suggests that her work might provide a model for a similar study of religions in other parts of the empire. I would urge this more limited approach should she choose to turn now to the military religion of another province, a task for which she is eminently qualified.

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