Miranda Aldhouse-Green is one of Britain’s best-known specialists on Celtic and Romano-Celtic religion, with a prolific output from the 1980s onwards. This book is her latest survey of the evidence for religion in Roman Britain, and gives us a masterful picture of the nature of belief, worship and ritual in the province. As readers of her writings will know, the author’s research emphasis is on deities, ritual activity, depictions of gods and their worshippers, epigraphic evidence, and objects associated with cults and rituals. This is all covered here, mainly concerning indigenous religion, together with chapters on military cults, eastern religions and Christianity, and a full consideration of burial ritual. There is a focus on carefully selected sites, deities and forms of worship, drawing, for instance, on Nettleton, Lydney and Great Chesterford to illustrate different aspects of ritual at Romano-Celtic temple sites. The themes of the book are brought together in chapter 11, which has a more theoretical and sociological line of discussion; ‘In my opinion’, she says in an encapsulation of her thinking (p. 230), ‘what happened in Britain under Roman occupation was a complicated but dynamic set of negotiations, manipulations, understandings, misunderstandings, hostility and tolerances, the whole package laced with invention and reinvention of deities and faiths.’ Much of Roman colonial and imperial interaction with their conquered or incorporated peoples must have proceeded along these lines, not just in the realm of religion, so it is good to see a synthesis that brings the study of ancient provincial religion within more over-arching approaches to Roman history and archaeology of their provincial territories.
As mentioned above, Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s focus is on deities, depiction, objects, etc. The book has less emphasis on temple architecture and topography, though there is an acknowledgement of the importance of the landscape setting of individual sites. However, there are no site plans or maps, except one (p. 10) showing a now rather out-of-date version of the territories of pre-Roman peoples in southern Britain. It would have been good to include a distribution map of temples, for instance, or some of the many excellent site plans of shrines and their surrounding buildings. A surprising omission is the now well-studied and important sanctuary of Springhead in Kent, which has much new material deserving of wider publication in a survey such as this. That said, in terms of approach and the author’s deep understanding of her subject, Sacred Britannia gives us a very good overview of religion in the province of Britain, and will become, I am sure, a standard work.
Professor of Roman Archaeology
University of Winchester