Sacred Britannia

by Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £19.95

The wisest words about how the British behaved under Roman rule came from Tacitus. They were in his book about Agricola, his father-in-law, Governor of Britannia in the early AD 80s. We gullible British fools fell for Roman fashions – from the toga, to hot baths, to elegant dinner parties. We called it civilisation – humanitas, in Tacitus’s words – but in fact it was servitude.

The same was true of religion, as Miranda Aldhouse-Green’s authoritative, if heavy-going, book explains. The Romans spread their gods across England, Scotland and Wales. And, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century AD, so, too, did Britannia embrace the cult of Jesus.

As the spectacular Mithraeum in the City of London – newly restored to its underground lair beneath Bloomberg’s billion-pound headquarters – shows, Roman religion in Britain was an extremely sophisticated operation. Contrary to earlier opinions, Britannia wasn’t a dreary backwater of the empire. Just look at the beauty of the religious images recovered from the Mithraeum on the banks of the River Walbrook leading down to the Thames.

A bearded river god tilts his curious, questing head up to the heavens with a brilliance of artistry that puts our pre-Roman, Celtic efforts to shame. Even more extraordinarily at the Mithraeum, there was a head of Serapis, the Egyptian god of birth and rebirth, sporting a modius, or corn measure, with a hole in his skull to hold real ears of corn. In Southwark, a ceramic flagon has been found with a scratched inscription to a temple of Isis.

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