Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.24

Julia Budei, Gallorömische Heiligtümer: neue Studien zur Lage und den räumlichen Bezügen. Studia archaeologica Palatina, 2.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016.  Pp. 137.  ISBN 9783447106252.  €24.00.  

Reviewed by Eleri Cousins, University of St Andrews (

Table of Contents

This volume, based on the author’s 2015 doctoral thesis, is a useful though occasionally somewhat cursory overview of the so-called ‘gallo-römisch’ or ‘Romano-Celtic’ temple type (i.e. temples consisting of a cella surrounded by an ambulatory), focusing in particular on the place of these structures and their sanctuaries in the natural landscape.

Chapter One gives a brief historiography before setting out the work’s intentions. Budei makes clear that she is not attempting a comprehensive study of this temple type, but has chosen temples for discussion based primarily on their publication and excavation status, but also with an eye to having a representative sample from the whole distribution area roughly from Britain to the Danube (a distribution which makes the traditional appellation for these temples as ‘gallo-römisch’ all the more obviously flawed). Rather frustratingly, however, neither here nor anywhere else does she list the sites chosen; a map on page 7 shows their locations but is unmarked with names and keyless.

Chapter Two turns to an overview of the structure type, examining first patterns of orientation before discussing potential meanings and use of the temple ambulatory and sanctuary boundaries more generally. Here, as elsewhere, a clearer accounting of Budei’s site selection process would have helped frame her presentation of the material. When she argues that such temples are almost always roughly oriented to the east, for example, is she basing this claim only on her sample, and if so, how can she be sure the sample is representative? This question is particularly important given her claim that this consistent orientation is to be linked to a long-standing (i.e. pre-Roman) tradition of solar worship in the north-west provinces of the empire. With respect to the meanings of the ambulatories, she is surely correct to ascribe at least part of their purpose to demarcation of degrees of sacred space within the already sanctified temenos zone, although her reasons for dismissing any sort of processional purpose to the ambulatories are rather unconvincing.

Chapter Three, which comprises almost half the book, analyses in turn various location categories for ‘gallo-römische Heiligtümer’, namely mountain/hilltop sanctuaries, water sanctuaries (subdivided into spring, sea, lake, and river), sanctuaries associated with villas, sanctuaries in towns, and sanctuaries associated with roadways. Each section begins with a more general and anthropological discussion of the reasons behind veneration of such places; for mountain and water sanctuaries, this is followed by sub-sections on relevant cults and deities in Roman, Celtic, and Germanic culture. These sections vary considerably in their strength and utility. The more general discussions, which verge on the phenomenological, raise some interesting albeit not culturally specific points concerning human experience of mountains and springs in particular. She argues, for instance, that mountains represent a meeting point between divine and human planes of existence, and highlights the experiential qualities of springs, e.g. greenery, and, in the case of mineral springs, their smell and steam. These observations are perhaps not groundbreaking, but are an important reminder of the role of nature in the creation of sacred space. However, the sections on particular cults and deities overall are too short to offer much in the way of either new information or new analysis, and are discouragingly reliant on Tacitus and Caesar when it comes to identifying the ‘most important’ Germanic and Celtic deities (ethnic categories which in themselves are quite problematic).

Following these introductory sections, Budei moves on to broader discussions of the place of Romano-Celtic temples in each landscape zone. These sections consist primarily of descriptions of examples of sites for each category. The information for each site, drawn from published excavation reports, is clearly presented and well illustrated with plans or reconstructions, and overall the examples give a good sense of the range and variety inherent in this temple type. What is harder—and where Budei does not entirely succeed—is to make these site descriptions more than the sum of their parts. Ultimately, despite the contextualizing discussion at the beginning of each section, this chapter functions less as an analysis and more as a catalogue or a gazetteer.

In Chapter Four, ‘Vorgängerbauten’, Budei considers the evidence for earlier structures on the site of Romano-Celtic temples, in an attempt to trace potential cult continuities from the pre-Roman period. She examines in turn temples that were constructed on the site of earlier ‘Celtic’ sanctuaries, on necropolis sites, and on the site of pre-Roman settlements. The conclusions she is able to draw concerning the significance of sanctuaries built on pre-existing sites are ultimately rather uncertain. In the case of Romano-Celtic temples built at earlier sanctuaries, their construction may well be rooted in a continuing conception of the site as ‘sacred’ by the local population, but, as Budei makes clear, equally important to trace are the ways in which the ritual landscape was transformed in the Roman period. The significance of funerary contexts for temple sites is more ambiguous. Budei distinguishes between temples built over cemetery sites with multiple burials, e.g. Nitry in Champagne, and temples associated with the burial of a single individual, for instance Folly Lane at St Albans. For the former category, she tries to differentiate, with limited success, between sites where the graves became the focus of ancestor-cult, and sites where the temple phase was more disconnected from the cemetery phase. For the latter category, she argues more convincingly that these are sites which grow out of the veneration of a locally important, elite, individual. For Folly Lane, this is certainly true, although it is worth pointing out that Budei’s discussion of this site throughout the book is rather confused. In Chapter Two, she suggests it as a possibility for a pre-Roman example of an ambulatory-style temple, which, given the central place of Roman goods in the grave furnishings at Folly Lane, and consequently its importance for our understanding of the use of Roman material in the construction of British elite identity in the pre-conquest period, is slightly baffling; meanwhile, in Chapter Three, she lists it amongst temples associated with villas, a categorization which is simply erroneous.

When it comes to temples on the location of earlier settlements, Budei argues that on the whole the site’s previous use seems largely unrelated to its later ritual purpose, given in particular the usually quite long lapse between the settlement’s abandonment and the re-use of the location as a sanctuary setting. In the case of temples in former oppida, she argues that the connection is likely to be coincidental and connected instead to the fact that hilltops and higher ground were favoured as locations for both temples and oppida. However, she does suggest that the presence of visible ruins may have added to a location’s sense of sacrality in later periods; this is an intriguing proposal, although there is little evidence for it.

In the final chapter before the conclusion, Budei turns to the later history and use of sites with Romano-Celtic temples. She looks first at sites where the ambulatory temple was later replaced by a classical temple, and quite rightly dismisses previous suggestions that the ambulatory form became ‘taboo’, and also surely correctly puts these transformations down to local initiative, rather than any centralized program from Rome. From here she turns to their eventual abandonment in Christian late antiquity. Overall the reasons for abandonment seem to be both varied and hard to define with exactitude. Very, very few temples become the site of later churches, and she suggests that when this does happen, it is more likely to be for practical reasons, e.g. re-use of convenient building materials. She does argue that Christian veneration of holy springs is descended from pre-Christian water cult; however, against this one might place her arguments in Chapter Three that veneration of water is a universal human trait.

In the concluding chapter, Budei emphasizes again the importance of understanding the landscape context of temples, including not only their connections with natural features such as hills or springs, but also their visibility and sight lines, as well as prior use of the site for ritual purposes. She then moves on to a brief, and largely under-theorized, discussion of ambulatory temples and Romanization, before concluding with a call for further investigation of the significance of natural spaces in ancient societies.

Overall, this book is a useful resource, and serves in particular as a good testimony to the variety of sites and locations where Romano-Celtic temples can be found. Its abundant illustrations, mostly site plans and reconstructions reproduced from other sources, but also including the author’s own photographs illustrating landscape settings, are particularly welcome, since they enable the reader to compare and contrast a large number of different sites with ease. The emphasis on landscape and nature is also refreshing. It could go considerably further, however, in its analysis of both the religious and the social roles of these structures in the north-west provinces. Given the broad geographical scope, I am troubled, too, by the lack of attention paid to potential regional variations in temple use and meaning. The paucity of citations relating to broader topics on both ancient religion and the construction of provincial society is telling. The discussion of ‘Romanization’ in the final chapter, for instance, relies almost entirely on Woolf (1998), ignoring more recent debates.1 Meanwhile, to return to the Folly Lane example, Niblett’s 1997 site report has been used,2 but not the important discussion in Creighton (2006), which would have been particularly valuable for her evaluation of the site’s connections to elite burial.3 Overall, however, this is a worthwhile addition to the literature on ‘Romano-Celtic’ temples, and hopefully will serve as the springboard and inspiration for further contextualized studies.

The volume on the whole is very well-produced, with few errors and generally clearly-reproduced illustrations. On page 18, the caption for Figure 14 should presumably be Forêt d’Halatte, not Lamyatt Beacon (it would appear the caption from Figure 13 has been accidentally repeated).


1.   Woolf, G. (1998). Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2.   Niblett, R. (1999). The Excavation of a Ceremonial Site at Folly Lane, Verulamium. Britannia Monograph Series 14. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
3.   Creighton, J. (2006). Britannia: The Creation of a Roman Province. Abingdon: Routledge.

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