Temples and Shrines of Roman Britain

In Roman Britain there were two broad types of places of worship, temples and shrines. Classical temples were mostly erected in urban centres while shrines and Romano-Celtic temples were often located in rural areas.

Shrines in Roman Britain

A shrine was also holy place dedicated to a spirit of god while a temple was dedicated to a religion. A shrine would also have meant a less formalised religious structure. Shrines are far more varied in form, ranging from formally constructed buildings such as the semi-circular structure associated with the temple at Coleshill, (Warwickshire), through minor structures such as nymphaea, to other foci, for example the Bronze Age barrow at Irlingborough (Northamptonshire) that became a focus for coin offerings, or the Iron Age Ferry Fryston (West Yorkshire) ‘chariot burial’ barrow which attracted offerings of cattle for up to 500 years, into the 2nd century AD.

Household Shrines (lararium)

Many people had shrines in their houses, called lararium with a figure of their favourite god or gods. This was a shrine to the guardian spirits of the Roman household. Family members performed daily rituals at this shrine to guarantee the protection of these domestic spirits, the most significant of which were the lares. Household Gods would have included Janus (God of doorways and beginnings), Vesta (Goddess of ritual and hearth fire), the Penates (spirits of the pantry/household provision) and any other Deities of the home. A good example of this would have been Lullingstone (Kent) Roman villa.

Temples of Roman Britain

There are three basic forms of Roman temple: Classical, Romano-Celtic and Basilican.

Classical Roman Temples of Britain

There are a limited number of classical rectangular stone-built Roman temples in Britain. The archetypal characteristic of a Roman classical temple were a cella (from Latin for small chamber) that was raised on a podium and a pedimental roof (gables, usually of a triangular shape) supported by columns of both Corinthian and Iconic orders and there could be much use of marble and stone panelling.

Aquae Arnemetiae (Buxton), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), Viroconivm Cornoviorum (Wroxeter), Londinium (London), Verulamium (St Albans), Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester), Colonia Camulodunum (Colchester)(associated with the Imperial Cult of the Divine Claudius) and Aquae Sulis (Bath) (the temple to Sulis Minerva), while the latter also include small classical-type temples from the military vici of the frontier zone (outside the forts of Benwell and Housesteads).

A further 11 sites have smaller examples or have sanctuaries which could be classed as being of classical-type.

Romano-Celtic Temples of Britain

Most temples in Roman Britain were of a Romano-Celtic design. This was a much less elaborate structure than its classical predecessor. These temples were found throughout the northwest of the Roman Empire and usually consisted of a central cella and a surrounding concentric ambulatory.

Since a large part of the cella of the temple of Janus at Autun, near Dijon, is extant, we know that Romano-Celtic temple cellas were tower-like, and that the ambulatory had a pitched roof built into the cella walls. However, the proportions must have varied from place to place.

In some cases flanking Chambers were built onto the structure, as at Bruton (Lamyatt) Temple (Somerset), and this modification seems to have been adapted for use at Bath, where flanking chambers and a possible ambulatory’ were built around the classical temple, creating a very curious hybrid form of temple. Romano-Celtic temples rarely produce any trace of architectural embellishment, even mosaics, although painted wall-plaster is known.

Less Grandiose [than classical temples] but more plentiful in Britain were the smaller buildings usually described as Romano-Celtic temples. Each normally comprised a small box-like cella of varying height lit by windows placed high up in the walls; the sanctuary of a god and not intended to hold a congregation. Inside there was a tiled or mosaic floor and the walls were decorated with wall-paintings. The outside walls were also plastered and painted and they were protected by a verandah surrounding the cella on all four sides, and consisting of a low sloping roof sometimes supported by dwarf stone or wooden pillars standing on a low wall or platform. …

Above excerpt from Britain in the Roman Empire by Joan Liversidge (London 1973 p.439).

In Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966 fig.46), the types of Romano-British Temples were split up as follows:

    Subtype a
Solid Inner
Outer Colonnade
Subtype b
Solid Inner
Outer Half-Colonnade
Subtype c
Solid Walls Throughout
Subtype d
Inner Half-Colonnade
Solid Outer
Subtype e
Inner Colonnade
Solid Outer
Type I
Temples with Central Tower
  Temple Type Ia
Type Ia
Temple Type Ib
Type Ib
Temple Type Ic
Type Ic
Temple Type Id
Type Id
Temple Type Ie
Type Ie
Type II
Temples Covered by a Single Roof
  Temple Type IIa
Type IIa
Temple Type IIb
Type IIb
Temple Type IIc
Type IIc
Temple Type IId
Type IId
Temple Type IIe
Type IIe
Type III
Temples with Cella Open to Sky
  Temple Type IIId
Type IIId
Temple Type IIIe
Type IIIe

Romano-Celtic temples were built throughout Britain in a variety of contexts, from the relatively isolated temple on Maiden Castle to the urban examples at St Albans and Caerwent (Venta Silurum) Temple. It is rarely clear to whom any one temple was dedicated, especially as many examples were built on sites that had been sacred in prehistory.

At Wanborough (Surrey) there was undoubtedly an Iron Age shrine. By the late first century a stone circular temple had been built, later replaced by a Romano-Celtic temple built beside it in the mid-second century.

At Harlow (Essex), Bronze Age burials and numerous Iron Age coins have been found. The Roman-period temple was built in the late first century in one half of a double precinct. By the early third century, Harlow’s precinct had been enclosed with stone walls, and additional chambers were built onto the temple. More recent excavations have produced a stone head of Minerva as well as an altar dedicated to the Imperial Spirits. Given the site’s history, a now-anonymous Celtic deity must also have been worshipped here. The variety of classical gods represented by statuettes at Lamyatt Beacon emphasizes the flexibility of pagan cult centres.

Basilican Temples of Britain

Basilican temples are conventionally oblong apsidal (resembling an apse) structures that represent a functionally defined sub-group of a standard Roman-period building form – similar plans can be observed in military headquarters building (principia) and forum basilicas in towns.

The key element of a basilican temple is the presence of an aisled nave and many have a square or semi-circular ‘apse’, and some a narthex or antechamber between the entrance and nave.

The size of a Roman Basilican temple can vary considerably from the London mithraeum (20 m by 8 m) to Carrawburgh (8.5 m by 6 m).

Examples of this is the late-3rd century the temple at Thistleton villa.

Villas also had apses and basilicas which makes the issue of determining whether or not the structure was a church even more problematic (Witts, 2000 p.296). 

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