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Contrast And Comparison Of Urban And Rural Religion History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This paper explores Roman Britain Religion namely the urban and the rural religion in the Romano-British Period. The archaeological examples which are of great value in finding contrast and comparison of the rural and urban religions help us to develop the theme of the paper. The paper is organized in such a way that it touches upon the main religious trends in Roman Britain ( two main religions: Pagan and Christianity which existed in Roman Britain).

Contrast and Comparison

of the Urban and the Rural Religion

in the Romano-British Period

The religious situation in the Roman Empire was rather difficult and complicated. All the variety of cults and religions which were represented in the Roman Empire can be divided into several groups. Among them are the cults which symbolize the main idea of the Roman Empire – the worship of Emperor. The other ones are “the worship of traditional Olympian Gods” and the religions of local people which were conquered by the Romes. (Ireland, 1986)

Religion in Roman Britain is of special interest. It is known from the history of Britain that Roman Britain which occupied some part of the island of Great Britain belonged to “the Roman Empire from AD 43 to AD 410”. It was one of the numerous provinces of Roman Empire. (Esmonde, 1989)

At that period there were such religions as pagan religion and Christianity. The goal of this paper is to find the contrast and comparison of urban and rural religions in the Romano-British period by means of different archaeological examples founded on the territory of Britain. (Hening, 1984)


There were several types of religion in Roman Britain which are represented by the following religious trends: the Graeco-Roman and Barbaric Paganisms, Mithraism and other Eastern Cults and Christianity. (Ward, 1911)

The Celtic Caste of Druids who were considered to be the first people of Britain were declared to be an outlaw by Claudius. Their defense of the sacred groves was a failure. The Romance ruined them on the island of Mona. Nevertheless, the worship of Celtic pagan Deities existed in the period of Roman rule.(Frere and Tomlin, 1991)


Different towns and cities in Roman Britain appeared in different periods of Roman rule. It is very interesting to find information concerning the activities, religions and monuments by the examination of the archaeological records which were found during numerous excavations carried out on the territory of Britain. (see fig.1) Of course, these records are “incomplete due to preservation and opportunity to excavate”.

(The Association for Roman Archeology)

Fig.1 Archaeological excavations at York. York Archaeological Trust

According to the research materials of the Association for Roman Archeology, the best preserved and explored Roman towns and cities are the following ones: Wroxeter, Silchester, Verulamium. (see fig.2) There are also some written sources which were found during the excavations. These sources tell about some “examples of events Aurelius Victor (about death of Severus in York) and Tacitus’ Anales”. (The Association for Roman Archeology).

Fig.2 Reconstruction of the center of the town in Roman Britain Wroxeter. You can find a bath house and the basilica in this picture. Illustration by Ivan Lapper. English Heritage

The Distinguishing Features of Towns in Roman Britain.

In order to compare urban religion and rural religion in the Romano-British period, it is necessary to find some distinguishing features of towns in Roman Britain. They include the following elements:

A great deal of houses for town dwellers

A center for the government of the town

Manufacture and trade buildings: shops, warehouses, workshops, markets, hospitals

places for different cultural activities such as theaters, bath houses, taverns, amphitheaters

a special religious places – temples and statuaries.(Millet,1990)

There are many streets in any town of Roman-British period. The cemeteries are situated around the town.


It is known that Roman rule allowed both the Romans and he local people who were conquered by them to worship numerous gods and goddesses. That is why there was a growth of temples and shrines to different deities. Before the advent of Christianity the Imperial Cult was considered to be one of the main religious aspects.(see fig.3) The Emperor was a so called “mediator between the people and the gods”. (Mattingly, 2000)

Fig.3. Bronze Bust of

Emperor Hadrian, The

British Museum

The town of Colchester was the most important place for the Imperial Cult. The main religious elements included temples, altars and shrines. (Collingwood, 1956)

Temples were special houses for the Gods. The action of worship took place at the altars where different outdoor rites were organized. Shrines were special places of God’s presence. For example, the complex at Colchester had typically Roman style buildings. (Collingwood, 1956)

It is interesting to notice that most of shrines were located in the country side and only some of them could be found in the towns. (The Romans in Britain)

The experts in the sphere of archaeology confirm that there was a wide fusion and adoption of Roman Gods to “the established local deities”. The people venerated to several Gods with the same attributes. For example, Sulis-Minerva at Bath. (Religion in Roman Britain)

A great number of temples and shrines to various deities were found in the towns and cities of Roman Britain:

The Capitolium in Verulamium which represented a shrine to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

An inscription to a Serapis/Osiris temple in York

London’s Mithraeum

Different epigraphical sources which referred to Cult centers of Cybele and Isis found in London

Altars are the places where people had an opportunity to worship outdoor. There were numerous inscriptions on the altars which named the God or Gods to whom they were sacred. The inscriptions consisted of short sentences and had abbreviations. For example, V.S.L.M. – Votum solvit libens merito which means He fulfills his vow, willingly, dutifully. (Frere&Tomlin, 1991)

Archaeological examples of altars in the towns of Roman Britain are the following:

Altar to Mother Goddesses of the household by Gaius Julius Crescens, Nunnely Lane which is situated in York

Altars to Fortuna, Aesculapius, Salus and Genius Loci which is located in Chester

The altar which commemorates the rebuilding of the temple of Isis by Marcus Martianius Pulcher located in London

Our knowledge of Christianity in the Romano-British Period is taken mainly from the literary sources. So, the archaeological examples are scarce. The only one is a Christian Church which is situated at Silchester. It was a very small building in the center of the town that means the Christian Community had no local influence.


It is known that most people in Roman Britain lived in the country side. They lived in small villages. Those who were rich built large houses in a Roman style which were called villas. (Persival, 1976)

Fig.4 Reconstruction Illustration of Bignor Villa in Sussex.

A villa is a large beautiful house in a roman style which has tall stone walls and fabulous mosaic floors, with a bath house and gardens.(see fig.4,5)

Fig.5 View of Rockbourne Villa (Hampshire). Country Council Museum.

Rural religion included religious festivals when the peasants prayed to the Gods and Goddesses for having good harvest and healthy domestic animals. (see fig.6) It was very important for agriculture in the country side. It is impossible to find some written sources about the rural religion in life in the works of British writers.

Fig.6 Mosaic which shows Ceres, the Goddess of Harvest. From Broading Villa.

All the data concerning the rural life we can get from the archaeological excavations. The archaeologists found the remains of farm and villa buildings, the bones of domestic cattle, seeds of crops. There are two well-known villas in Roman Britain: Chedworth situated in Gloucestershire and Bignur which is situated in Sussex. (Salway, 1993)

Fig.7 Map of town and regions of Roman Britain

The most important religious festivals took place each season of the year. The festival of Lupercalia celebrated in the middle of February was devoted to spring’s awakening. The God Pan at Lupercalia or Faunus defended domestic animals (caws and sheep) and the shepherds. (Salway, 1993)

The first Christians in the country-sides of Roman Britain persecuted that is why they worshiped in houses they lived. According to some archaeological data, Lullingstone Villa had the walls of a private chapel with pictures of people who were praying. (Hening, 1984)

Fig.8 The Wall picture from the Christian Chapel in Lullingstone Villa, which shows people at prayer. The British Museum

The archaeologists found a mosaic at a villa in Dorset which showed Jesus Christ with a symbol “chi-rho” behind his head. The orange fruits stand for the symbol of plenty. (see fig.9)

Fig.9 The head of Jesus Christ painted on a mosaic from the villa at Hintin St.Mary in Dorset. The British Museum

The archaeologists found a lead tank of the 4-th century from Walesby in Lincolnshire. It proves the fact that in order to become a member of the Christian Community it is necessary to be baptised with water by a priest. (see fig.10)

Fig.10 A small part of a lead tank from Walesby which was used for Christian Baptism which shows people who are preparing for a babtism. City and Country Museum in Lincoln.

The other interesting archaeological finding represents Roman silver vessels and spoons used in communion service.(see fig.11)

Holy Communion is a significant part of Christian worship in with the members of the community believe that the priest must change wine and bread into Jesus Christ blood. (Millet, 1990)

Fig.11 Church plate and silver vessels found in Water Newton,

Cambridgeshire, the 4th century. The British Museum.

Christians began to built churches in the 4th century. It is known that they had an apse which represented a small semi-circular area at the east part where the altar was located. (see fig.12)

Fig.12 Reconstruction illustration of a Roman Church in Colchester. The apse is at the end of the building. Illustration be Peter Foster. Colchester Archaeological Trust


In the Roman Britain towns played an important role. They were the centers of trade, culture and government. It is known that in Britain before the Romans rule there were no towns or cities. All the towns were built by the Romans in different parts of Britain. For example, such towns as Colchester, Gloucester and Lincoln were built instead of legionary fortresses. The retired soldiers lived there. The towns in Roman Britain were not large (about 10000 people). Religion in the towns and cities of Roman Britain was more idealized than in the country-side. The temples were built mostly in the towns. Speaking about the villages in Roman Britain, it is necessary to say that rural religion was represented by the local culture and worship saved from the Iron Age. Rural religion fell behind urban religion. Moreover, there was a great difference in language too. In some remote mountainous regions, the people spoke Celtic language while in the towns the soldiers and traders spoke Latin. Nevertheless, rural religion which was mostly Pagan religion, later could be replaced by the Christianity. The above mentioned archaeological examples prove the obvious growth of Christian elements in the life of country-side in Romano-British period.

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