The Independent Archive: Roman `villas' may have been religious centres

22 September 1988: Two leading ancient historians have cast doubt on the function of Roman Britain's villas, reports David Keys
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MANY OF Britain's so-called Roman "villas" may not have been villas at all.

Instead, it seems that some were probably pre-Christian religious centres, often dedicated to the worship of Bacchus. Archaeological research is challenging the traditional view that all Britain's Roman villas were posh rural residences.

Excavations at Littlecote, near Hungerford, Berkshire, are revealing that what had previously been described as a Roman villa may in fact have been the Bacchic equivalent of a monastery.

So far a team at Littlecote, led by Bryn Walters, has unearthed two bronze busts of Bacchus, a pottery face of Bacchus, and two other pieces of ceramic with Bacchic iconography, as well as what is being interpreted as a sacred enclosure, including a bathing suite. That is in addition to a Bacchic mosaic floor which archaeologists have known about for years.

The larger of the two busts is being described as one of the finest pieces of Roman bronze-work ever found in Britain. When it was used at Littlecote in the fourth century AD, probably as an item of furniture, it was already a 200-year-old antique. The bust is a portrayal of Bacchus in the form of Zagreus-Bacchus, a pagan deity whose story of suffering and re-birth has much in common with the story of Christ.

The combined god Zagreus-Bacchus - the son of the classical supreme god Zeus - was murdered by his enemies and was born again as Bacchus.

As in Christianity, death and resurrection are central to the Bacchic story, and there is also a strong hint of the oneness of Father and Son. The Greek author and philosopher Plutarch described Bacchus as "the god who is destroyed, who disappears, who relinquishes life and then is born again".

An added twist to the meaning of the Littlecote bust of Zagreus-Bacchus is that it doubles as a portrait of Antinous, the emperor Hadrian's young male lover whose drowning in the river Nile in AD 130 led the emperor to deify him. In the bust Zagreus-Bacchus, in the form of the deified Antinous, is seen being reborn out of the flower bud.

A leading authority on Roman Britain, Dr Graham Webster, and a specialist on Roman religion, the Oxford archaeologist Dr Martin Henig, both now believe that at least seven major sites in Britain may have been pagan religious centres.

Gadebridge "Villa", Hertfordshire, where the main structure was an elaborate 68ft-long pool, probably designed for ritual bathing - near to which a cache of votive offerings was discovered.

Chedworth "Villa", Gloucestershire, a probable pagan centre with votive altars, bathing facilities and probable accommoda-

tion for pilgrims, where archaeologists have identified religious sculpture portraying seven pagan gods, including Bacchus and the Romano-Celtic god Lenus-Mars, as well as a fragment of a bronze hand of the Anatolian god Sabazius, who in Roman times became amalgamated with Bacchus.

The site - most likely a healing centre - was probably connected with one of Britain's biggest Roman temples, a 70ft-long building on a hillside 1,000 yards to the east.

Great Witcombe "Villa", Gloucestershire, where again, the main structure was an elaborate bath house. The centre was built on the side of a hill on top of a spring, and included a substantial tower - probably a shrine.

Lufton "Villa", Wiltshire, a cult centre - located on a limestone bluff, riddled with springs - where archaeologists have identified pagan religious sculpture of Neptune and other gods and even the silver eye of a cult statue.

Framton "Villa", Dorset, rich in Bacchic mosaics - with three images of Bacchus - and with no domestic structures such as bedrooms or kitchens.

Brading "Villa", Isle of Wright, another apparently Bacchic site with mosaics of the Bacchic prophet Orpheus and the paganised version of the Jewish God Yahweh - the Roman deity Iao, who is sometimes identified with Bacchus.

The Bacchic evidence at some of the sites is particularly important, because in late Roman times, when paganism was facing competition from Christianity, the Bacchic cult developed into a sort of monotheistic paganism in which a whole array of deities were merged into and absorbed by a supreme deity in the form of Bacchus.

From the Home News pages of `The Independent', Thursday 22 September 1988