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Explores the depiction of deities in the Empire and on the Wall
We’re in the Great North Museum in Newcastle. And here you can see behind me a relief from High Rochester, one of the outpost forts of Hadrian’s Wall. Now when you first look at this, you think this is a really Celtic piece of art. You’ve got very pear-shaped females. It’s not the most beautiful piece of work. And certainly Venus looks extremely glum, if you look at her close-up. But then you realise with the details that what we have here is a classical scene. This scene is based on a third-century BC piece by the sculptor Diodalsas which shows Aphrodite– the crouching Aphrodite. Here we have her holding her hair. She’s kneeling by a stream. You can just make out the water here.
There’s a pot here also pouring water. There’s a tree behind her. And here, one of her attendants is holding her towel so she can be dried afterwards. This is a piece which has been carved by somebody who knows about the classical piece, but probably has never actually seen it– may have just seen a sketch of it, or has had it described to him– but has depicted it in a very Celtic way. And now I’d like to hand over to Jane Webster, who’s going talk about a really Celtic deity who comes from the suburbs of Newcastle. We’re here in the Great North Museum to think about some of the gods that are found on Hadrian’s Wall.
And some of those gods are gods that give us pause for thought about soldiers, and their understanding of religion along Hadrian’s Wall. So this deity is called Antenociticus. This head– and a leg and a couple of other bits from this god– were found at a small temple at Benwell on the Vallum– the ditch just behind Hadrian’s Wall. His name, Antenociticus, is a Celtic name. We don’t really understand what it means. It might mean “the great” something. And he’s only found on Hadrian’s Wall. You can’t find a description of him anywhere else. So that suggests he’s very localised to Hadrian’s Wall.
If we have a look at him, we can see that he looks like a Roman statue in the sense that he’s carved out of stone and he’s anthropomorphic– he has human-looking features. But some aspects of him are more Celtic than Roman. So he has these horns on the top of his head. He has these almond-shaped eyes. And around his neck there’s a little torc, or a necklace, that’s very much associated with Celtic religion. So we might say then that Antenociticus is a Romano-Celtic god. One of the big onlys there is that we only know about Antenociticus in the Roman period. We don’t even know for certain that he existed before the Roman period.
We always assume that’s the case with these gods, but we can’t be certain. So what did Antenociticus do? Well, that’s another a big problem as well. There are three altars to the deity. They’re all in the museum here. This is one of them behind me, and there are two more. All of them are made by quite high-ranking Roman soldiers. This is a god who’s been worshipped by soldiers who have come to Hadrian’s Wall from very different parts of the Roman world. None of them are Italian. One is Spanish, one is from the Balkans, and one is from Germany.
One of the three altars is made by a man called Tineius Longus, who has climbed his way up the Roman social scale to the point where he is now a sort of junior magistrate– a prefect. And he’s obviously giving his altar to Antenociticus to thank him for that social advance. But other than that, we don’t know whether this god had a particular function. It’s quite likely that he doesn’t. He’s a god of the place.
He is the deity that, when soldiers came to this part of Hadrian’s Wall, they wanted to find a deity to identify with– not just the deities that they brought with them, to kind of play safe with the heavens, if you like– to have a deity to worship here. And this is the one they fixed upon. So this vision of Antenociticus is the only one that we have, the only place that we know about him. And in many ways, he remains a complete mystery.
How should we interpret depictions of ancient deities? Iconography, the study, identification and interpretation of images, is of vital importance to the study of ritual and religion in the Roman world.
Lindsay Allason-Jones OBE and Dr Jane Webster examine representations of two very different deities, Venus and Antenociticus.
Discussing a depiction of Venus found at the outpost fort of High Rochester, Lindsay notes that the artist appears to have drawn inspiration from earlier works including the famous ‘Crouching Venus’ which captured the goddess rising from her bath. The original was carved in the Hellenistic period and is widely, but perhaps mistakenly, attributed to an otherwise unknown sculptor named Daedalsas on the basis of a corrupt passage in Pliny’s Natural History (36.35). But the High Rochester artist has nonetheless depicted the body shape, hair and composition rather differently to the classical models. Does the High Rochester Venus owe something to ‘Celtic’ north-western European aesthetic conventions?
Antenociticus is a much less familiar deity. The only depictions and dedications known to be associated with him come from the suburbs of Newcastle. His temple lies just outside of the fort at Benwell (see the map from Step 1.1). As Jane notes, Antenociticus adheres to some classical conventions, indeed the very fact that he is represented in human form in an area where such depictions were alien to Iron Age tradition. However he also has attributes that recall an earlier, non-Roman tradition.
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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