What was the temple like?
The temple in Bath followed the classical Roman form and decoration. It stood on a podium in a courtyard and was approached by a flight of steps. Four large Corinthian columns supported a frieze with the triangular pediment above. The central snake-haired head would have looked down from a height of 15 metres above the visitor. Behind the columns was a large door to the inner room or cella where the cult statue of the goddess Sulis Minerva was kept. A larger-than-life-size bronze head is all that now survives of the statue.
The pediment was discovered, broken into pieces, in the 18th century, during construction work in the city of Bath. It is made from local stone and was probably carved by skilled sculptors from Gaul (now France). It shows two winged victories, standing on globes. Below them are a helmet on the left and a small owl on the right. The victories hold a wreath of oak leaves surrounding a shield with a snake-haired head at its centre. The head has snakes entwined within its beard, wings above its ears, beetling brows and a heavy moustache. In the corners are Tritons, half men and half fish.
Minerva was the Roman goddess associated with healing. Her wisdom is symbolised by the owl carved on the pediment, and the helmet refers to her military powers. The Roman Minerva was the same deity as the Greek goddess Athena. Athena wore the head of the snake-haired gorgon Medusa on her breastplate, so the snake-haired head carved on the pediment should refer to the head of the gorgon. However, the gorgon is depicted as female and here we have a distinctively male face.
Local and Roman religions
Before the Romans arrived in Britain, the hot spring on the site was associated with Sul, a local deity linked to fertility and healing. Sulis Minerva was the combination of the Roman goddess Minerva with Sul. Roman religion was flexible enough to accommodate the worship of native gods and to assimilate those gods into new mixed forms. At Bath the Romans built a classical Roman temple dedicated to a Roman goddess, but adapted to and incorporating elements of local British beliefs. The carving may therefore show a local deity, to balance the very Roman cult statue of Minerva inside, or may transform an attribute of the Roman deity – the gorgon’s head - into a local style.
In general, the response of native peoples to the introduction of Roman gods was not uniform. Where a Roman god could be associated with a local one, the two might be combined into a new deity. Worship of local gods that presented no challenge to Roman rule probably continued as normal. Most native religions could accommodate the two required aspects of Roman religion: the worship of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and participation in the cult of the emperor. It was the followers of religions which would not accept these requirements, notably the Christians and the Jews, who came into most conflict with Roman rule. In Bath, the temple of Sulis Minerva remained a focal point for worship until late in the fourth century AD. Then, under the emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire and all the temples to the Roman gods and goddesses were closed. The temple in Bath fell into a state of disrepair and eventually collapsed.
The Roman Baths Museum
An article about Roman religion from BBC History – click through the nine images in the gallery.
Early religion in Britain
A brief introduction to religion in Britain before the Romans.
Resources for teachers
This teachers’ pack (in PDF format) contains background information about Roman Britain, including religion.
Diversity in ancient Rome
A short article on diversity in the Roman empire.
Gorgon roof ornament
A terracotta roof ornament from Italy showing a gorgon head.
Early Christian mosaic
A History of the World in 100 Objects: the mosaic of Christ at Hinton St Mary, Dorset. Listen to the programme or read the transcript.