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Ian Stone, historian | Religious life on the edge of the Roman Empire
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Religious life on the edge of the Roman Empire

The early history of Christianity in Britain is very obscure indeed. We have sources which tell us that there were Christians in Britain as early as the second century AD, but these are problematic texts and who exactly these Christians might have been is far from clear. The population of Roman Britain at that time may have numbered 3 to 4 million people and it is hard to suppose that any more than a few thousand of them could or would have professed this new religion. In third-century Britain, probably, SS Alban, Aaron and Julius were martyred, most likely at St Albans and Caerleon – certainly martyr cults developed subsequently at these sites – but what we know of these events comes only through reports of uncertain authenticity and accuracy. We are on slightly firmer ground in the fourth century after the birth of Christ. In 313 the emperor, Constantine, issued the edict of Milan, which gave Christianity an official status throughout the Roman Empire – including Britain. One year later, three British bishops attended a Church council at Arles, and more attended the Council of Rimini in 359. In the British Museum is a mosaic dating from this century, too, which was found at the site of a villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. This mosaic contains one of the oldest, if not the oldest mosaic picture of Christ, complete with the Greek Chi-Rho monogram behind his head. The same monogram has been found on church plate, which possibly dates from the fourth century, found among a hoard of Christian silver at Water Newton in Cambridgeshire. Then, towards the end of the fourth century, we can begin to trace the careers of Pelagius and Patrick, the two most famous Romano-Britons of all, and through their writings shed a little light on the people and practice of Christianity in Roman Britain.

The faint picture which can be discerned through these sources appears to be, then, one of the steady acceptance of Christianity by an increasing number of Romano-Britons throughout the period of Roman rule. Something, perhaps, confirmed, by other sources. We have from fourth-century Britain, for example, Christian wall-paintings from Lullingstone Villa in Kent, with what might be the first representation of the Cross in monumental art, and evidence of a Christian cemetery, again from Dorset. What we lack, however, are any certain remains of church buildings from Roman Britain. There may have been a late fourth-century or early fifth-century church or baptistery at Richborough in Kent, but this is far from a definitive designation. There are plenty of reasons why we lack such evidence, not the least the fact that the passing of so many centuries had taken its toll on the archaeological record. It would be wrong, moreover, to assume that the early Christians actually met in churches, as we understand them at least. Indeed, why would they? Prior to 313, contrary to modern popular belief, Christianity was for the most part officially tolerated, but there were periods of persecution which could be quite savage. Besides, official toleration is not the same thing as popular acceptance. It is instead quite easy to imagine that Christians were held in some suspicion by their neighbours. After all, to outsiders this was a religion which preached a message which was in many ways quite radical, and which had at its heart a mysterious ceremony involving the body and blood of its founder. Before 313, discretion was almost certainly the better part of Christian valour, and when the faithful met they did so in inconspicuous meeting houses, the remains of many of which have been found across the Empire. Indeed, it is possible that this is one of the functions which Lullingstone performed, although that is, again, far from certain. True, after 313 Christians, now more confident in their religious freedom could, and indeed did, build churches across the Empire, some of which were impressive structures indeed. Unsurprisingly, however, the earliest of these churches tended to be built at the centre of the Empire, in Rome, Constantinople and the Holy Land, not on the periphery. It was only at the end of the fourth century under Theodosius (379-95) that the pagan temples across the Empire were closed. Of course, by this time Roman rule in Britain was under severe pressure, and the absence of evidence for church construction in fourth-century Britain may speak more to specific pressures and problems in this most northerly of Roman provinces than any other factor.

That is not to say, however, that we do not have surviving evidence of Romano-British places of worship. In fact, the remains of pagan temples have been found at scores of sites. One of the most famous of which is the London Mithraeum. The Mithraeum was built from Kentish ragstone around AD 240, close to the Walbrook stream which flowed through the heart of Roman London. Its construction was no mean feat. London has no available supply of stone which can be quarried locally; the Romans were the first to transport stone dug from the quarries around Maidstone in Kent to London, with which they built not just the public works which we associate with Roman London, for example the city walls, the amphitheatre, the fort, baths and forum, the vestiges of some of which are still visible today, but also many private houses. Indeed, it is likely that the Mithraeum itself was built in the private garden of a wealthy citizen. The London Mithraeum, one of about 100 which have been found across the area covered by the Roman Empire, was only re-discovered in 1954, when much of the historic heart of London was rebuilt following the devastating effects of World War II. The town planners of the 1960s often come in for criticism for their unsympathetic and unimaginative treatment of the urban fabric. It is hard to think of a more egregious example of such behaviour than the recreation of the temple of Mithras which opened in 1962. The Mithraeum was relocated to a bleak and uninspiring corner of London 100 yards away from its original site, where it sat above a car park adjacent to a busy road, rather unloved and purposeless for almost five decades. The opportunity to do something better with the temple came in 2010 when Bloomberg acquired a 3.2 acre site at Bucklersbury for their new European headquarters. This Mithraeum’s original home was on this site and the temple was reconstructed in a much more appropriate setting a great deal closer to its initial location. The Mithraeum opened to the public again in 2017 and I booked my visit immediately.

Our knowledge of Mithraism, the cult celebrated in these temples, is far from extensive. In the absence of many contemporary written sources, much of what we can know must be conjectured from the iconography and archaeology. What now seems clear is that the cult was male-only and was particularly popular among soldiers and merchants – which of course helps to account for its diffusion across the Empire, that it may have involved perhaps quite dramatic initiation ceremonies, and that Mithras was a Roman deity whose persona owed a great deal to the ancient Persian god Mitra. The Mithraeum at London was subterranean, a feature typical of Mithraea across the Empire. It would probably have been a windowless building, with all of its light provided, instead, by torches and braziers. Consequently, the effect on all the senses of those inside must have been quite intense, with the sound and smell of these objects burning, not to mention the heat which they provided. The modern visitor to the Mithraeum is given a small taste of what that experience may have been like. Inside the subterranean structure lights, voices and mists all come and go, creating an ephemeral and evocative atmosphere.

Outside hundreds of the 14,000 objects recovered from the site of the new Bloomberg building, ranging in size from tiny nails and hairpins, to larger items such as plates and sections of hypocaust and mosaic are displayed in a public space. Visitors are offered iPads, with which one can look up the story of the individual artefacts. These iPads could have felt gimmicky, but thankfully that was not the case. Instead, they were a good medium through which one could learn more about the very first Londoners. Perhaps the most valuable objects from among the thousands recovered on site are the hundreds of writing tablets, which provide, among other things, the earliest hand-written document recovered in Britain (AD 57), the first written reference to London (AD 65-80), and perhaps evidence of the first school in the British Isles.

At some point in the fourth century the Mithraeum appears to have been rededicated to another Roman god, Bacchus Against the picture given above of the steady growth of Christianity in Britain, one might expect that the temple would have become a Christian church. However, the conversion of temples into churches was still centuries away. The first known pagan temple to be repurposed as a Christian place of worship was the mighty Pantheon in Rome, and this would not happen until 609. Then with the collapse of Roman rule in Britain early in the fifth century, just like the other structures of Roman London, it fell into disuse and disrepair until its discovery 1500 years later.

The Mithraeum is a wonderful source for historians. It reminds us that the picture of religious life in third- and fourth-century Britain was much more complicated than a simple one in which one imagines the slow spread Christianity across the land. At a time when British bishops are first recorded, when Christian iconography was perhaps first created in Britain, and when Britons began to be buried in Christian cemeteries, full-throttled pagan worship continued in the middle of the province’s largest town. Indeed, relating the history of Mithraism and Christianity to each other when one considers religious life in Roman Britain is especially useful, as these were two cults which appear to have had next to nothing in common. Where Christianity was attractive to many of the humbler sort across the Roman world, Mithraism was popular with merchants and soldiers; where Christianity was popular among women, only men appear to have participated in Mithraic ceremonies. Perhaps most importantly, Christianity was monotheistic (for which its followers often suffered as a consequence), in contrast to Mithraism, which accommodated itself easily within the contemporary pantheistic religious world. And yet nor were they completely dissimilar. In the first place, both Mithraism and Christianity were just two cults – and most probably minority cults at that – of many that were celebrated and worshipped in Roman Britain. Second, both Mithraism and Christianity were alien imports into Roman Britain from lands far to the east: the one from Palestine, and the other, vicariously at least, from Persia. Both would, perhaps, have appeared to many in Roman Britain as exotic and mysterious usages. That both could establish themselves in a land on the very edge of the Roman Empire tells us that, when it came to religious devotion at least, Romano-British society was receptive to influences from afar.

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