Let us begin by clearing up a point that causes confusion. It was only in the fourth century AD, late in the story of Hadrian’s Wall, that Christianity, a monotheistic (belief in one god) religion, became a significant feature of frontier life.
Up until that point the wall communities were polytheistic (worshippers of many gods) and many remained so. We will talk further about Christianity on the Wall later. For the moment, let us consider polytheism.
At one level, many of the classic deities of Roman polytheism seem familiar. Mars the god of war, who was frequently honoured by soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall, is a well-known example. Less well known is the fact that he was also believed to have protected crops, so that farmers venerated him too. Even familiar deities could actually be viewed in different ways by different communities.
The relationship between the Romans and their gods can seem straightforward at first. It is often described as contractual. An individual called upon a god to help him or her meet a certain goal (to survive battle, become pregnant, gain promotion etc.), and vowed to give something to the god in return (for example, to sacrifice an animal, erect an altar or statue, or make a pilgrimage). This relationship is encapsulated in the letters VSLM (votum solvit libens merito or ‘willingly and deservedly fulfilled his/her vow’) often seen on altars dedicated to the gods. This sense of contracts (vows or pledges made by mortals to gods in return for services rendered) is vitally important. We should not forget, however, that behind it lay a spectrum of conviction, belief and interpretation.
Students beginning their study of the ‘pantheon’ or members of Roman gods, will often start with Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (the Capitoline Triad). Jupiter, the king of the gods was often given the epithet Optimus Maximus (‘best and greatest’). Juno was his consort, and a protector of the state. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and the arts. This Capitoline Triad enjoyed a special place in the rituals of the Roman state.
Other principal Roman gods include Mars (discussed above), Venus (goddess of love and fertility), Diana (goddess of the hunt and the moon), Neptune (god of the sea) and Mercury (god of commerce and trade). These principal gods were accompanied by many others, much less well known.
Minor gods had specific functions: there was a deity for everything in the Roman world, from shepherds to infant mortality, from beekeeping to woodlands. Many of these lesser gods were worshipped principally in Rome itself, but some of the principal gods, including Mars and Mercury, were worshipped across the Empire. In the provinces, they were often twinned with indigenous (local) deities. On Hadrian’s Wall, for example, Jupiter and Mars were sometimes paired with other gods.
As we shall see, as the Empire expanded, many ‘local’ gods were incorporated into the belief systems, and some (particularly those from the Near East) came to be worshipped across a wide area. Deities in this group include Mithras and Sol Invictus. This was a great strength of polytheism, new gods could readily be incorporated into existing beliefs.
Finally semi-divine beings were also widely worshipped. These were the offspring of gods and their human lovers. Hercules (son of Jupiter or his Greek equivalent, Zeus, and a mortal mother) is a well-known example.
Partly linked to this belief that gods and mortals could unite is another significant development in the rituals and beliefs of empire. Of great importance was the cult or cults of the Emperor, whose authority came from the gods. This divine sanction was recognised via the Imperial Cult, first seen in the reign of Augustus. The numen (spirit) of the Emperor was often worshipped too. As we will see, whilst many emperors were divinized, some had their memory obliterated (damnatio memoriae) when they died.
In the quiz that follows, we look at the features and attributes associated with deities and test your ability to recognise them.
If you are particularly interested in reading more about the gods and religion in Roman Britain, we recommend Henig, M. 1995 Religion in Roman Britain, Routledge: London
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