Ancient History & Civilisation


Official religion

Mention has already been made of the Feriale Duranum, the calendar of Cohors XX Palmyrenorum milliaria sagittariorum equitata, a text found at Dura Europus and most probably dating to c ad 225-27. The following are some extracts from the text which give an indication of the variety of festivals marked by the unit:

3 January. Because vows are fulfilled and made both for the welfare of our lord Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander Augustus and for the eternity of the Empire of the Roman People, to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and ox, to Queen Juno a cow, to Minerva a cow, to Jupiter Victor an ox, to Juno Sospes a cow.... to Father Mars a bull, to Mars the Victor a bull, to Victoria a cow...

19 March. For the festival of the Quinquatria, a supplication; similar supplications until 23 March...

4 April. For the birthday of the divine Antoninus the Great, to the divine Antoninus an ox...

9 April For the imperial power of the divine Pius Severus, to the divine Pius Severus an ox...

21 April For the foundation day of the Eternal City of Rome, to the eternal City of Rome a cow...

Two of the 17 altars dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (almost invariably abbreviated to IOM) found outside the auxiliary fort at Maryport on the Cumbrian coast. The altar on the left was dedicated by the commander of Cohors I Baetasiorum civium Romanorum, while that on the right was erected by Cohors I Hispanorum equitata.

The Quinquatria was a ceremony dedicated to Minerva and she, along with the remainder of the Capitoline triad of Rome’s most important deities, Juno and Jupiter, figure prominently in the calendar. Many of the festivals such as this and the celebration of Rome’s foundation had no specifically military associations and were simply part of the normal Roman year. No local deities are mentioned in the text, nor anything else specific to Cohors XX, and it is generally supposed that army units throughout the Empire celebrated the same round of sacrifices, supplications and feasts. Apart from the dates associated with subsequent emperors, especially the current dynasty, there is little in the calendar which could not have been established by Augustus.

Whether or not the Feriale Duranum in its preserved form was followed by every unit in the army, it is clear that many of the festivals mentioned were celebrated elsewhere. Outside the fort at Maryport on the Cumbrian coast in northern Britain, a series of altars was discovered buried near what is thought to have been the garrison’s parade ground. No fewer than 17 were devoted to IOM - Jupiter Optimus Maximus or ‘Jupiter Best and Greatest’. The texts carved onto the stone are very similar, for instance ‘To Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the First Cohort of Spaniards (Cohors I Hispanorum), commanded by Marcus Maenius Agrippa, tribune, set this up’ or 'To Jupiter Optimus Maximus, for the welfare of Antoninus Augustus Pius, Postumius Acilianus, prefect of the First Cohort of Dalmatians (Cohors I Delmatarum), set this up.’ Maenius Agrippa appears on three altars as leader, whilst Postumius Acilianus figures on two. Other commanding officers occur only once, whilst the tribune Caius Cabillius Priscus dedicated four altars. It is most likely that this series represents annual dedications of an altar to Jupiter for the good of the emperor, quite possibly on 3 January as at Dura Europus. As an aside, this then gives some idea of the length of postings held by equestrian officers with auxiliary units.

At such ceremonies the commanding officer represented the unit and his name is the only one to appear on the altar, but it is clear that he acted on behalf of the entire cohort. A fresco from Dura Europus seems to depict a ceremony of this sort. It shows a file of soldiers on parade, watching as their tribune, Julius Terentius, sacrifices before three statues. Although the latter have sometimes been identified as local deities, it seems more probable that they are members of the imperial family. The occasion appears much like a modern-day military church parade, an important means of confirming the soldiers’ sense of corporate identity as much as purely an act of worship. The days when the unit’s standards were formally decorated were another confirmation of esprit de corps, and the early Christian writer Tertullian felt that the army’s veneration of its standards amounted to religious worship.

A reconstruction at the Senhouse Museum in Maryport of the shrine or aedes which was at the heart of the principia in each auxiliary fort. Here the standards were carefully guarded. The statue is of Hadrian.

The regular marking of dates significant to the imperial family, and the close association of the family with the worship of Rome’s traditional gods and goddesses, was obviously intended to confirm the loyalty of the soldiers. In the first half of the 2nd century AD, a cult to military discipline (Disciplina) developed, quite possibly introduced by Hadrian during his inspections of the provincial armies. Such abstract concepts were not infrequently the object of formal worship in Roman society, and in this case it was clearly expected to promote not merely loyalty, but also military efficiency. The military oath (sacramentum) had distinctly religious associations, so much so that the spirit of the oath (genius sacramenti) was occasionally venerated.

Personal religion

Religion was everywhere in the Roman world, to a degree that is difficult to imagine from a modern perspective. Many activities of daily life involved some form of worship or ritual. Apart from the many gods and goddesses, including the deities of such abstractions as Fortune or Health, Romans might also revere even vaguer spirits, such as the genii or guiding spirits associated with a place, an occupation or, in the case of the army, a unit or rank. In the main our evidence for this important aspect of life comes from the physical remains, temples, altars with their inscriptions, and dedicated items. Whilst these tell us a great deal about the range of deities worshipped by soldiers, they are far less revealing about just what such cults meant to the participants. It is also evident that only the wealthier soldiers could afford to perform such rituals; and it will be virtually impossible to detect the presence of cults whose practices did not produce any physical remains.

Although soldiers took part in acts of worship organized by their unit, they enjoyed a good deal of freedom to perform religious acts as individuals. The Roman form of polytheism was very open, and able to accommodate without difficulty most other cults it encountered, including very often the religions of conquered peoples. It was not infrequent to combine a dedication to several deities, so that for instance an altar set up at Housesteads by a detachment of Legio II Augusta was to ‘Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the god Cocidius, and the Genius of this place’. Cocidius was frequently worshipped on Hadrian’s Wall, and appears to have been a Celtic war god, sometimes associated with Mars. Individuals sometimes of their own accord took part in what we might consider as official cults, associating themselves closely with Rome, its leaders, and the guiding spirits of the army. A remarkable series of four altars was erected in the second half of the 2nd century in Scotland by the same centurion:

An altar dedicated to the goddess Covventina in honour of a vow made by Coscianus, the prefect of Cohors I Batavorum.

'To Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and to Victorious Victory for the welfare of our Emperor and the welfare of himself and his family, Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of Legio II Augusta, [set this up].’

'To Diana and Apollo, Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of I-egio II Augusta, [set this up].'

'To the Genius of the Land of Britain, Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of Legio II Augusta, [set this up].'

‘To Mars, Minerva, the Goddesses of the Parade-ground, Hercules, Epona, and Victory, Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of Legio II Augusta [set this up].’

Dedications were made by soldiers to an immense variety of cults. Some men chose to worship essentially Roman gods, whereas others worshipped deities local to the places where they were stationed, or continued to revere the gods of their own homeland. Various aspects of Mars the war god were commonly worshipped, as were other local deities associated with martial virtues. Hercules enjoyed a particular popularity in the 3rd century ad, but was worshipped in various forms for most of the period as a personification of manly virtues of strength and courage. There is evidence for Roman soldiers, both legionaries and auxiliaries, making dedications at the Batavian temple of Hercules Magusanus at Empel. Yet at other times soldiers worshipped gods and goddesses with no obviously military associations. The cult of Cowentina, based around the goddess’s sacred spring, was revered by many soldiers from the garrisons in northern Britain. The army appears to have made little or no attempt to restrict this religious activity, and soldiers were free to worship as they wished in private, as long as they participated in the corporate religious life of the unit. Cult practices common in the pre-Roman Iron Age, such as the offering of pieces of metalwork, often military equipment such as helmets, by casting them into rivers or lakes, appear to have continued into the Roman period and been practised by soldiers. The burying of ritual objects, often in disused grain pits recorded at pre-Roman sites, for instance in the hillfort at Danebury in Britain, has parallels in Roman army bases such as Newstead. The practice of religion in the Roman world was extremely diverse.

Sometimes an ethnic group from within a unit chose to worship together. Amongst the altars set up by Cohors II Tungrorum at Birrens fort in southwest Scotland was a dedication to ‘Mars and the Emperor’s Victory’ by the ‘Raetian tribesmen’, another to the goddess Ricagambeda by the ‘men of the Vellavian district’, and one to the goddess Viradecthis by the soldiers from the ‘Condructian district’. Both Ricagambeda and Viradecthis were German deities, worshipped in the homelands of the two groups. At Carrawburgh in northern Britain an altar was erected ‘To the Genius of this place (by) the Texandri and Suvevae, from a detachment of cohors II Nerviorum.’ It is interesting to note that within a single auxiliary cohort there was a range of sub-groups consisting of men from the same ethnic groups. An early 3rd-century ad altar found near Housesteads was set up by the German tribesmen of Twenthe ‘To the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and to the Deity of the Emperor.’

Eastern cults and mystery religions

A number of cults which originated in the eastern Mediterranean spread remarkably widely throughout the Roman Empire. The storm god Dolichenus, worshipped since the Hittites at the cult centre of Doliche in Commagene (in modern Turkey), was associated with Jupiter by the Romans. A great number of inscriptions were set up to the god by units and especially individual soldiers in the 2nd and early 3rd centuries ad. The cult seems to have reached the height of its popularity under the Severi. It is difficult to say how it was originally introduced and spread, but it is clear that veneration of Jupiter Dolichenus went far beyond troops recruited from Commagene.

Auxiliary Cavalrymen of the Late 1st Century AD

This scene shows three auxiliary horsemen making an offering of an ornate helmet to a local deity in fulfilment of a vow. The practice of dedicating objects by throwing or placing them into water - perhaps a river, lake, pool or spring - was common amongst many Celtic and Germanic peoples in the late, preRoman Iron Age. Only rarely did the Roman Empire actively suppress any religion, and it seems clear that many auxiliaries continued to follow the cult activities of their own societies. A very high proportion of existing Roman helmets have been found in rivers. For a long time such finds were explained as due to accidental loss, but it seems more probable that they were deliberately thrown into the river as part of a ritual. Although the practice was probably initially more common amongst non-citizen soldiers, this, along with many other religious practices, seems in time to have spread more widely throughout the army.

A number of eastern cults required adherents to undergo a series of initiation ceremonies and bound them by solemn oath never to tell of the mysteries of their worship. Of these ‘mystery’ religions, several of which, for instance the cult of Egyptian Isis and Serapis, won many converts throughout the Empire, the cult with greatest appeal to soldiers was that of Mithras. Like many of these cults, Mithraism appears to have offered a stronger promise of an afterlife and encouraged a very personal relationship with the god. Also like the other mystery religions, the bar on recounting any of its core beliefs makes it very difficult to reconstruct the cult’s theology, although this has not stopped various scholars from attempting to do this. Mithras was an Iranian god, normally depicted wearing a Phrygian cap and associated with the sun. Apparently with the assistance of several creatures, which later gave their names to the grades of devotees in the cult, Mithras killed a bull in what appears to have been a creation myth. Temples, several of which have been discovered outside Roman forts, were poorly lit, narrow buildings constructed to resemble caves. Strength, courage and endurance were important aspects of the rites, and had an obvious appeal to soldiers. A high proportion of known altars were set up by officers, notably the equestrian commanders of auxiliary units, and it is quite likely that Mithraism was often the preserve of senior ranks. Apart from its religious importance for these men, it may also have helped to develop friendships and connections useful in their careers.

The Mithraeum (temple to the eastern deity Mithras) at Carrawburgh on Hadrian's Wall lies a short distance outside the ramparts of the fort. The three altars at the far end were each dedicated by the equestrian commanders of the garrison.

This reconstruction of a Mithraeum gives some impression of the cave-like interior of these buildings The worship of Mithras was a mystery cult, its adherents bound by solemn oaths not to reveal its practices One result of this is that we have only the sketchiest idea of its doctrines and rituals

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