– There is very little physical evidence for any religious practice in Roman South Yorkshire
– There is surprisingly little burial evidence to be found at either the Doncaster fort or Templeborough fort
– There is zero explicit evidence for the presence of Christianity in Roman South Yorkshire
– The only significant evidence for religious change is found in the main settlements
– Key pieces of evidence in South Yorkshire include: the Doncaster Altar (to the Mother Goddesses), and the Bawtry Shrine (indicating paganism into the third and fourth centuries)
– Key pieces of evidence in wider areas than South Yorkshire include: the Greetland Altar (demonstrating the potential fusion between Roman and Brigantian deities), the head of Constantine the Great in York (an example of Emperor worship), contemporary evidence stating the presence of Christianity in both Lincoln and York, and cemeteries in York suggesting the continuation of grave goods in general graves as well as in a seemingly Christian burial
A. After over a quarter of a century since Buckland complained there was little ’other than a scatter of burials’ and the Doncaster Altar on the religious practices of Roman South Yorkshire, despite new discoveries, the process of investigating the extent of continuity and change still encounters large difficulties from the sheer lack of evidence (Buckland, p.49). To therefore best answer the question of continuity and change, it becomes necessary to use wider sources across Yorkshire to detect if there may be any comparable differences that can indirectly shed light on religion in South Yorkshire. Due to the lack of knowledge of the pre-Roman South Yorkshire religious trends, this section will be forced to focus on the extent of change of clear Roman origin. Events therefore, such as the imperial religious sea change from paganism to Christianity around the beginning of fourth century, which is seen as a major turning point for Christianity itself, act as a good measure to analyse imperial influence in South Yorkshire by changing the very definition of Roman-ness. This section will be divided into firstly looking at urban and rural differences in religious practice, followed by a broad analysis of the religious practices themselves. It will conclude that the greatest element of change advanced most within an Roman urban setting, and that change affected both Romans and Brigantian peoples, but that most change was driven by imperial power.
Firstly a look at the differences between urban and rural populations will indicate the places in which change would be most likely to occur, and therefore how religion might have changed. Overall in the rural areas, archaeology suggests continuity with broad pagan practice (Roberts, p.76). Paganism would have accounted for an estimated ninety-five percent of settled people in Britain (Thomas, p.193). This simple summary is supported logically considering it was in the rural areas where Rome was much less able to impose, especially evident with the strong continuation of other traditional rural practices in agriculture. Roman influence on urban life existed almost entirely linked to the vicus, as a place for the construction of temples and other essential parts of daily life, where differing beliefs gained the opportunity to interact. The only sufficient evidence of change is found in the main Roman settlements, but even the size of these settlements were small and short-lived in South Yorkshire compared to elsewhere in Britain or even North Yorkshire, as discussed in the Urbanisation section. The limited amount of Britons experiencing religious change however does not inform about the nature or significance of these changes it is necessary to understand.
Some of the best clues to pre-Roman religion to judge the significance of change can seem surprisingly obvious, such as being part of Brigantian territory whose patron deity was the Goddess Brigantia. However, the only real evidence about South Yorkshire’s religious background is the Doncaster Altar (RIB 618), whose inscription translates as:
‘To the Mother Goddesses, Marcus Nantonius Orbiotalis freely and deservedly has fulfilled his vow’ (Collingwood, p.207)
The lettering on the altar is suggestive of the late second or third century. Other evidence, such as the recent discovery of the Bawtry Shrine is a rare find, which contained over 650 shards of high status third and fourth century pottery, as well as items resembling ‘curse tablets’, flattened pieces of lead similar to others found in Nottinghamshire (Roberts, pp.76-77). From these it can be presumed that paganism was dominant, the cult of the ‘Mother Goddesses’ being particularly popular in South Yorkshire, and that institutionalised forms of pagan practice continued until at least some time in the fourth century, after the imperial adoption of Christianity.
When we use these ideas as a basis from which to understand change, we can observe the Roman influence on the Brigantes’ belief, but also that of Brigantine religion on the occupying Romans, firstly from Roman paganism, and secondly Christianity. The term ‘pagan’ originates as a broad derogatory term used by Christians to describe non-Christian faiths which has caught on through history. Paganism in reality covered many polytheistic faiths which were often highly malleable, mixing with other Gods from other pagan religions, or having different names from place to place. With the influx of Roman citizens in the army arriving in Britain, importing a new variety of faiths, it is logical to expect the fusion of these different pagan strands of belief. Evidence of the Goddess Brigantia on various altars is often conflated with Roman deities Victoria or Nike (potentially similar marital goddesses). An altar found in Greetland (RIB 627) best expresses the available fusions of belief, combining local and Roman beliefs, as well as the beliefs of the Emperors in power:
Greetland Alter, ‘To the goddess Victoria Brigantia and to the Deities of the two Emperors, Titus Aurelius Aurelianus gave and dedicated (this altar) to himself and his family, while he himself was master of sacred rites, in the third consulship of Antoninus and the [second] of Geta’ (Collingwood, pp.210-211)
Whilst the Roman name on the Doncaster Alter might suggest the conversion of Romans to the local religion, the more prominent phenomenon of Emperor worship, highly typical of the Roman Empire combining religion with loyalty, provides the clearest example of natives embracing imperial beliefs, even if to some extent opportunistically. The head of the Emperor Constantine in York is an exemplar of the strength of the cult of Emperor, worshiping a Christian Emperor who had began an effectively post-pagan Empire (Norman, p.148). The Roman influence can therefore be seen as both strong, in its associations with loyalty to the Empire, but also weak, to even overrule its own former practices and therefore at best influencing broad slow trends.
After determining imperial influence as a key factor in the change to pagan practices in urban centres, the second major religion which experienced Roman support was Christianity. Early Christianity similarly to paganism was not a unified but a diverse grouping of beliefs across the Empire including Donatism and Arianism. How Christianity was associated with the Empire is a key question. Christians had often been persecuted by it prior to the fourth century, and the potential introduction of Christianity to Britain by the Empire was indirect at best. There exists no explicit archaeological evidence for Christianity in South Yorkshire. Nor do we have evidence from an area as urban as York (Norman, p.152). Written documents note the presence of Christianity in both York and Lincoln, as two of the three bishops from Britain which were present at the Council of Arles in AD314, which would at least suggest some experience of Christianity in South Yorkshire, even if just from being caught in the middle of York and Lincoln. The restrictive amount of evidence in these areas however denies any sense of the size of the Christian communities, leading some to suggest Christianity may have mostly existed as an exotic religion. Evidence of urban Church building across Roman Britain suggests a remarkably slow pace compared to the rest of the Empire, which would support this thesis (Clarke, p.590).
Inexplicit evidence therefore is the only remaining option, which implies, as with paganism, that even Christianity was open to local adaptation. It becomes necessary again to refer to further afield for evidence, as Templeborough and Doncaster have produced surprisingly few finds of burials (Buckland, p.50). Using grave goods as an indicator of pagan practices, at face value the imperial switch to Christianity does not appear to have had a largely significant impact, evident from finds in a cemetery near York where over one fifth of the coins found were issued between AD330-375. The distinction is however never this clear cut. Discoveries of gravestones carrying seemingly Christian phrases were also accompanied by grave goods including coins, suggesting no complete break with burial customs (Norman, pp.151-152). Despite the lack of archaeology, some of Christianity’s strength is clearly evident in its ability to outlast the many competing beliefs (Thomas, p.353). The influence of imperial support will have had relatively less time to help Christianity entrench itself, due to the Roman Empire’s early decline in Britain, as much as Rome’s previous pagan preferences, which enjoyed state backing throughout most of the Roman Empire’s period of ascendency in Britain. It would be wrong however to potentially underestimate the role the Empire will have played in building the Church into an institution able to expand its own influence, creating arguably the Empire’s most lasting legacy for Britain.
A. In conclusion, this section has found the greatest change to have been in an urban and not rural context. It has primarily found a striking similarity between the adaptability of Christianity and Paganism, which also both enjoyed a significant boost of support when sharing identification with the regime (Norman, p.153). It would be wrong to reduce religious changes to a simple process of Romanisation. Instead they represented a much more complex process of exchange, evolution and moderation between Roman and Brigantian society. This Brigantianisation played a role in the religious change in Paganism and Christianity, and is especially apparent in South Yorkshire. Particularly with Christianity, the seeming flexibility of Christian practice in a city as integrated imperially and engaged with Christianity as York, helps portray the more rural, resistant, and pagan South Yorkshire as one that Christianity, if it had featured at all, in all likelihood would have been smaller and even more flexible than compared elsewhere in Britain.