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Chapter 9
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Romano-British Buildings and Earthworks

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London
1911

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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Chapter 11

p234 Chapter X

TEMPLES, SHRINES AND CHURCHES

Few remains of Roman age in this country have been satisfactorily identified as temples. It is probable that now and again a temple has been imperfectly excavated and has not been recognized as such, because it has not conformed to the familiar classical models. It has been more than once pointed out on these pages that it is not safe to assume that what was true of the central provinces of the empire was necessarily true of Britain; and in the few examples of temples to follow, several differ considerably from the usual classical models.

The remains of a temple, which from an architectural point of view was perhaps one of the most notable buildings in Roman Britain, were partially excavated at the north-west corner of the Roman baths at Bath in 1790.1 Unfortunately no plan is extant, but sufficient of the sculptured stones of its façade were recovered to allow of an almost complete restoration. The pediment was of the steep form usual in Roman architecture, and its tympanum had for its chief feature a shield supported by two Victories — a frequent device in Roman art. On the shield was a Gorgon's head with the usual wings and serpents intertwined with the hair, and, curiously, a moustache and beard in addition; and this was enclosed with two concentric bands of oak leaves and acorns. The rest of the field was ornamented with military trophies, and on one of the remaining stones is an owl. The cornices were rich and were sculptured with flowers and fruit, and several pieces of half-capitals and drums of fluted columns of Corinthian design were found. The remains indicated a structure of about 26 ft. in width and of somewhat greater elevation. It is evident that we have a here a pseudo-peripteral p235temple of thoroughly Roman type so far as its main features were concerned, but its sculptures were singularly bold and free for the period. The Gorgon's head and the owl are the attributes of Minerva, so that it is practically certain that this temple was dedicated to Sulis, the goddess of the hot springs, whom the Romans identified with Minerva. Whether the moustache and beard had a local significance, or was a vagary of the sculptor (who presumably was a native), is uncertain.

Of different type were two temples, the remains of which were discovered in 1890 near the east gate, Silchester.2 Unfortunately their sites could not be fully excavated, but sufficient was disclosed to show that they were square structures, each enclosing a central square chamber or cella. The larger building was 73 ft. square. Its outer wall was 3 ft. thick, and remained to a height of about 5 ft. above the Roman level, the outer face being plastered and painted red. The inner wall was thicker, and remained to a similar height. The whole space within the outer wall was packed with sandy clay, on which, at a height of 7½ ft., were patches of a concrete pavement, which in the cella was composed of broken brick, dark limestone, and some other stone, while that of the surrounding space was of brick only. This raised platform was the podium of the temple, a characteristic feature of Roman temples and of Etruscan origin. That the superstructure was of an ornate description was proved by the fragments of Purbeck marble-linings and fine plaster mouldings about the site. The smaller temple was 50 ft. square and of similar construction, but in a more ruinous condition.

Messrs. Fox and Hope remark that similar buildings have been found in France, notably two at Poictiers within a common enclosure. These, as also other French examples, had the podium and were entered on the east side by a flight of steps. No steps were found at Silchester, but unfortunately the east sides could not be fully excavated. With regard to the superstructures, they were of opinion that while the outer wall of the larger temple was strong enough to carry the columns of a peristyle, the corresponding wall of the smaller temple was too thin for this purpose, and that in any case the roofs were of timber. As no fragments of stone columns were found about the sites, the columns, assuming their existence, were probably also of p236timber. If, on the contrary, these temples lacked peristyles, their retaining-walls were probably surmounted with openwork parapets. Both temples were in a walled enclosure, to the north wall of which were attached the remains of two small buildings, one of which consisted of an oblong room with an apse on its west side, and possibly was a shrine.

A smaller rectangular temple was excavated in Insula XXXVI, in 1907.3 It was 36½ by 35 ft., with external walls 18 ins. in thickness and an entrance in the east end, 9 ft. 10 ins. wide, in front of which was the projecting foundation of the steps up to it. The cella was nearly 16 by 14 ft., with thicker walls, and an entrance at the corresponding end. Near the opposite end was the brick edging of a low platform about 3 ft. wide. The floor of the ambulatory was of red mosaic, but its height is not stated, and the cella seems to have also had a mosaic pavement. Several fragments of stone capitals and shafts of different sizes found near the site, may have belonged to this structure. In the cella were some fragments of a life-sized male statue which apparently had been purposely shattered. As far as could be made out, the figure was in armour and held a cornucopiae. Several pieces of inscriptions were also found near the temple, and one conjecturally refers to Mars. Twenty feet to the east of the temple was uncovered the small foundation of apparently an altar.

A circular temple has also been found in Silchester.4 Each of the two rings of wall was a 16-sided polygon, the outer 2 ft. 5 ins. thick, and the inner slightly thicker, with quoins of blocks of ironstone. The whole structure was considerably reduced below its former floor-level, but a loose fragment of fine mosaic may indicate that its floor was of mosaic. It is evident that these thin walls could not have carried a heavy superstructure. The polygonal form is a favourable one for a peristyle, as the need for a curved architrave would thus be dispensed with. The roof of the cella may or may not have been raised above that of the peristyle, but in any case it would have been of timber construction and conical in form.

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Fig. 68. — Plans of Temples, square, polygonal, and circular.
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

The remains of an octagonal building, 63 ft. in diameter, were found nearly sixty years ago at Weycock,5 near Laurence Waltham, Berkshire, which so closely resembles the last Silchester p238example that it can hardly be doubted that it also was a temple. The walls were 3 ft. 6 ins. thick, and remained to the height of 8 ft.; but beyond this little more can be said of it, except that there were indications of many ancient buildings in the vicinity. More remarkable were the remains of a circular buttressed building, 65 ft. in diameter, discovered at West Mersea, Essex, in 1849.6 It resembled a cogged wheel in plan, with six spokes radiating from a small hexagonal cell, and the walls were of tiles, 3 ft. thick, and upon a concrete foundation. The site is described as somewhat raised, and many roofing-tiles lay scattered about. The twelve buttresses are strongly suggestive of being the supports of as many columns, which would be of timber, as no fragments of stone columns are reported. The six 'spokes' may have supported an inner ring of as many columns between the outer ring and the hexagonal cella.

In the foregoing examples of temples we may distinguish two types. The Bath temple and apparently the third Silchester temple, were of the normal classical model, that is, with a front and back architecturally distinguishable from the sides, and adapted for a gable roof. This may be conveniently termed the 'longitudinal' type. The other examples were square, polygonal, or circular, and while each must have had a front containing the access, this did not affect the all-round symmetry of the main fabric, nor probably the main architectural features. These we may distinguish as of the 'central' type.

At Caerwent and Lydney, Fig. 69, are the remains of two temples of the 'longitudinal' type, but differing in a marked degree from the foregoing. The dimensions of the first7 were 42 by 45 ft., and it lay to the east of the Forum and about 80 ft. from the main street. The cella had an apse at its north end, and its side walls were produced north and south to form pilasters, which had responds on the inner sides of the outer walls, indicating that the intervals had been arched or more likely spanned with the main longitudinal timbers of the roof. Externally the temple had six buttresses, three on each side. The spaces between the walls had been purposely filled up with broken building material and earth, to raise the floor. No remains of an entrance were detected, although the walls remained to the height of about 2 ft. above their footings, nor was there p239a trace of the flooring. That the former was in the south end was proved by the remains of a walled approach, 10 ft. wide, which possibly may have been roofed; and a plot of rubble of the same width between the outer wall and the cella was undoubtedly the foundation of the floor within the entrance. As it was about 18 ins. higher than the approach floor, it must have been reached by two or three steps, of which, however, only bare traces remained. At the opposite end of the approach was a narrow building, about 66 ft. long, on the street side. This structure had a mosaic pavement and an apse at the east end. It is clear that the approach was reached from the street by an entrance in the south wall, as here the mosaic pavement was much worn.


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Fig. 69. — Plans of Temples at Lydney Park and Caerwent.
(40 ft. to 1 in.)

The temple at Lydney8 was not only remarkable in itself, but it formed part of a remarkable group of buildings. The north side of the Severn valley at this place is of old red sandstone, rising to a height of 500 ft. or more, and is deeply indented by small streams from the north. On two of the intervening precipitous spurs are prehistoric camps of the 'promontory' type, strongly intrenched across the necks which connect them with the higher ground behind; and within the larger of these are the p240remains of the group of buildings mentioned above. The temple stood within a large enclosure, bounded on the west and south by a wall which crested the brow of the spur; on the east by a spacious house or hospitium; and on the north by a long range of rooms with a portico in front, most or all with rich mosaic pavements; while in the north-east corner of the space was a gate into a large paved yard with an extensive bath-house along its north side. The enclosure was reached by a gently ascending road which entered it through a wide gate at the south-west angle.

The temple was 88 by 62 ft., and resembled the Caerwent example, except that it had four chapel-like enclosures, two on each side, within projecting recesses, and three internal shrines at the north end of the cella. The former enclosures were separated from the ambulatory by thin walls which probably supported cancelli or parcloses, and were entered at their south ends. The temple was entered at the south, where are the foundations of apparently a flight of steps. On the east side of the entrance was a small square recess in the external wall, and beyond this a square room, attached to the east wall of the temple, which may have been the sacristan's abode. On the west was a strongly constructed apsidal chamber at the south-west corner of the cella. The floors of the cella and the chapels were of ornate mosaic, as probably also was that of the ambulatory — all on the same level, which, in consequence of the natural slope of the ground to the south, was about 3 ft. above the ground at that end, and slightly below it at the opposite end.

Little can be gleaned as to the structures of these temples above their floor-levels. The external buttresses of both, the internal pilasters of the end walls at Caerwent, and the chapel projections at Lydney, are hardly consistent with the view that the outer walls supported peristyles. More likely they were carried up as walls, and the buttress-like projections as pilasters. The roofs, we may be sure, were of longitudinal form and ended in pediments. There must have been windows or other openings in the outer walls to admit light to the ambulatories; and if each temple had a single roof, it is probable that the cella had skylights or borrowed light through side openings from the ambulatory. The four broad internal pilasters of the cella at Lydney evidently mark the positions of the roof-trusses, and would be structurally advantageous if the intervening walls p241were pierced. If reconstructed on these lines, these temples would agree in all essentials with the familiar classical peripteral type, with the difference that the open peristyle of the latter has become a cryptoporticus, a change which might very well have come about in a cold climate.

The most interesting feature at Lydney is the wealth of inscriptions, votive tablets, and other objects relating to the deity to whom the temple was specially dedicated — Nudens, Nodens, or Nodons, as his name is rendered in these inscriptions. These are latinizations of the British Nudd, or Lludd, the 'Silver-handed,' benign dispenser of health and wealth. He was essentially a river-god; hence the appropriateness of a temple on a knoll overlooking the Severn. The god is depicted on a thin bronze tiara, which may have adorned the officiating priest.9 The most interesting feature of all, however, was a portion of the border of the mosaic pavement of the cella that remained in front of the recesses at the end. Its decoration consisted of fishes and sea-monsters, and it had an outer band containing a circular hole, 9 ins. in diameter, set in the midst of an inscription. This hole was bordered with red and blue bands, and simply opened into the ground below. It may have received libations offered to the god, and may have been, like the cleft at Delphi, the source of an oracle. The inscription, according to Mr. C. W. King, was to the effect that the pavement was defrayed out of contributions and placed there by Flavius Senilis, the head of the religion, under the superintendence of Victorinus, "the interpreter of the Latin tongue," but this reading is doubtful. Altogether we have in this remarkable group of buildings a sanctuary of the first importance, and one worthy further investigation.

Some remains in a valley to the west of the Roman fort of Carrawburgh, from which a copious stream formerly issued, had long been supposed to relate to a bath, but proved upon excavation in 1876 to be the remains of a temple dedicated to a water-goddess.10 The structure was 46 ft. long and 44 ft. wide, and its external wall 3 ft. thick. The soil within was raised above the surrounding ground, but its original height was greater. In the centre of the space was a massively constructed p242cistern, 8 ft. 6 ins. by 7 ft. 9 ins., and 7 ft. deep. This was the place where the spring gushed out a few years before. Within the past century there were many worked stones and the shaft of a column on the site, which probably belonged to the superstructure. Piecing all this evidence together, we seem to have here a temple of distinctively Roman type — raised on a podium, with a peristyle, and, to judge from its oblong shape, surmounted front and back with a pediment. We are left in uncertainty as to the cella, whether it was represented by the walls of the cistern, or was of larger extent and enclosed the cistern.

The cistern yielded a remarkable assemblage of sculptured and inscribed stones, altars, coins, brooches, rings, and other objects, and the inscriptions proved that the temple was dedicated to the goddess Coventina. On one of the stones she was represented as resting on the leaf of a water-lily, and holding in the right hand a palm-like branch; and in the inscriptions she was referred to as Dea Nimfa Coventina, Dea Sancta Covontina,º Covetinaº Augusta, and simply Dea Coventina. The general testimony of the various objects showed that the temple was in existence as early as Pius and as late as Gratian. Temples similarly dedicated to water-deities have been found on the Continent. One specially referred to by Mr. Clayton as having yielded a similar large assemblage of altars, sculptures, and offerings, was found at one of the sources of the Seine in the Department of the Côte d'Or, and it was dedicated to the goddess Sequana, the ancient name of the river. As no other dedication to Coventina is known, she was probably a local deity, and possibly her name was derived from a forgotten name of the stream of which her spring was the source.

What was described as a small temple was discovered at Benwell on the Wall of Hadrian in 1862.11 It was a square structure with an apse on the south side and indications of an entrance on the north, the total length being about 16 ft. On either side of the apse had stood an altar which had fallen, the one dedicated to Anociticus and the other to Antenociticus; but probably the same deity was intended. The life-sized head of a male, and some fragments of possibly another and female statue, as also a small piece of an inscription, lay on the site. Outside were found portions of the capitals and shafts of columns. It is p244probable that the structure was the cella of a temple, as "a little apart" from the east and west walls were two lines of foundation which, it was conjectured, supported a portico.

Although numerous inscriptions and sculptures bear witness that the worship of Mithras was firmly planted in Roman Britain, only one undoubted 'cave' has been discovered. This was a small but typical example about a quarter of a mile south of Housesteads, a portion of the remains of which were discovered in 1822, and the rest in 1898.12 This mithraeum was constructed in an excavation about 50 ft. long and 20 ft. wide in the side of a hill, at a spot where a spring issues — an essential in the worship of this eastern god. The depth of this depression increased to 5 ft. at its west end, through the rise of the ground in that direction. The remains were found in 1898 to be in a very reduced condition, but sufficiently showed that the internal dimensions were about 54 by 16 ft. The west end, which would contain the vestibule, was almost entirely gone. But the middle portion or body of the structure still retained the central passage or nave, 6 ft. 6 ins. wide, between the two raised platforms or 'aisles,' upon which the worshippers knelt during the celebration of the mysteries. Each platform was constructed of hard clay on a foundation of broken stone and supported by a retaining-wall, which probably had been surmounted with a parapet. The original height of the platforms was at least 2 ft. The nave was flagged; and on its north side towards the west was a sunk tank to receive the water of the spring. About the middle of the building were the remains of a higher floor on oak planks resting on stone chippings, of such a width as to leave a space or gutter on either side to carry off the overflow from the trough. The discovery of 1822 was certainly that of the inner cell or shrine at the west end of the building. It seems to have been entered by a narrow doorway a trifle north of the middle of its east wall, and in the west wall was a wide but shallow recess.

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Fig. 70. — Plans of Mithraicº 'Caves' at Housesteads and Burham.
(20 ft. to 1 in.)

This cell when discovered had standing in situ near the back a curious sculptured slab, representing Mithras emerging from the mystic egg — his miraculous birth — with outstretched arms and holding a sword and a torch, the whole being encircled with an oval frame carved with the signs of the zodiac. This stood between two altars dedicated to the Invincible Mithras, and in p245the north-west corner was a smaller one to the Sun. Besides these there appear to have been several small uninscribed altars. Scattered about the floor were several fragments of a large 'taurine' slab which with little doubt originally occupied the recess at the back of the cell. The slab depicted Mithras in the mystic cave in the act of slaying the bull, the first-born of creation, in order that the rest of animals and plants might be born of his blood, and on either side a youthful attendant garbed similarly to the god, the one with a torch upright, and the other with one reversed, probably emblematic of the summer and winter solstices.

At Rutchester,13 in a similar situation to the south-east of the fort, some indications of a mithraeum were discovered in 1844. About the site were found five altars, of which four were inscribed and were dedicated to Mithras. A short distance away is a large cistern 12 ft. long, hewn out of the rock, and locally known as 'the bath.'

A curious subterranean chamber, discovered at Burham in Kent, in 1894,14 was almost certainly a Mithraic 'cave,' although there were no remains of altars or other objects to indicate that it had a religious use. It was built of dressed chalk blocks in a sandbank, and its internal dimensions were 39 ft. 6 ins. by 19 ft. 6 ins., with a passage entrance 4 ft. wide at the west end. It had been covered with a barrel vault, the lower portions of which remained at a height of about 5 ft. 9 ins. from the floor. Across the middle were the remains of a transverse groin of the same width and height as the main vault; and in the north wall below the groin was a wide splayed opening at the bottom of an upward shaft for the admission of light. Most of the entrance passage had fallen away, but sufficient remained to show that it had a zigzag form, evidently to prevent the interior of the chamber being seen from the outside. It had an arched roof and a total height of 11  ft., while the height of the chamber must have been somewhat greater. At the opposite end of the latter, and about 3 ft. 6 ins. above the ground, were three round-arched niches, 4 ft. 8 ins. high, 2 ft. 10 ins. wide, and 2 ft. 2 ins. deep. The floor of the apartment seems to have been of brick-concrete; and that the structure was of Roman age may be inferred from p246the fragments of Roman pottery and a coin of the Constantine period found within. A small spring made its appearance outside the west wall during the excavation.15

Sanctuaries, Shrines, etc.

Under this head are grouped various small structures, other than temples, where religious worship of some kind or other was rendered. The remains of these in this country are too few to admit of satisfactory classification, and they are too vague to be studied apart from the elucidation afforded by the kindred structures in Pompeii and elsewhere in Italy. The best course will be to begin with domestic shrines.

Every Roman house, at least in Italy, had its guardian spirits and divinities, the Lares, Penates and Genius, to which worship and offerings were daily rendered, and sacrifice on special occasions. The Lares were the beneficent guardians of the household, and were represented as two youths clad in short tunics, lightly stepping, and holding uplifted in the one hand a drinking-horn, from which wine streamed into a patera held in the other. The Penates were the protectors of the stores and the storehouse, and were those gods to whom the family was specially devoted. The Genius was the tutelary divinity of the head of the household, and was represented as robed in a toga, which was drawn over the head as in the act of sacrificing. The Lares and Genius were especially associated, and were usually grouped together, the latter standing between the former. They were shown either as little figures or as paintings, which in Pompeii were generally enshrined in a small niche in a wall of the atrium, kitchen, or dining-room, with an altar or shelf below for offerings, and on each side of this was a serpent gazing at or approaching the offerings. The last were nearly always depicted in paint, as sometimes was also the altar. Whatever these serpents originally signified, they came to be regarded as personifications of the Genii of the master and mistress of the house, that of the former being distinguished by a crest; and if the proprietor was unmarried, one serpent only was shown. This p247was the domestic shrine in its simplest form. The niche may be elaborated into the façade of a small temple; or take the form of one on a raised base or podium, attached to a wall of the atrium, or, more rarely, the aedicula stood free in the garden. More rarely still, the shrine was enclosed in a chapel, which might be a special room in the house or a detached building. The place or the room where the shrine was set up was the lararium.

Several domestic shrines have been identified with more or less certainty at Silchester.16 The best example was furnished by House 2, XIV, where the lararium was a narrow room projecting into the main corridor. Within, and set back towards the farther end, were the foundations of a small oblong structure, 6 ft. 3 ins. by 6 ft. 9 ins., in front of which was a decorated panel in the mosaic floor. There is little doubt that this structure was the podium of an aedicula; and probably a fragment of a small column found close by belonged to it. In the upper end of the courtyard of House 1,17 in the same insula, were the foundations of a square structure of similar size, with a wide step in front, which seems to have been an open-air aedicula. The next example, from its larger size, should perhaps be regarded as the chapel of a shrine, rather than a shrine itself. Its remains were found near the courtyard of House 2, XXIII,18 and related to a building about 13 ft. 6 ins. square within, which appears to have had a timber floor and an open front flanked by two pilasters. This building replaced an earlier and smaller one on the same site, and was in its turn altered by the addition of a porch-like structure to its front. It was observed on page 160 that the domestic shrine at Chedworth was probably at the end of a narrow lobby, from which the principal room was entered. Similar narrow spaces may be seen on the plans of many of the larger houses of the era, sometimes with their upper portion entered by a doorway, and on the other plans are small rooms adjacent to the principal rooms. It is not unlikely that some of these were lararia. The occasional small room attached to the entrance lobby may also have been a lararium, for in late Roman times the shrine was sometimes placed near the entrance.

The evidence for the worship old Roman domestic gods in this country is thus very meagre; but if the general Pompeian rule of placing them in niches prevailed here, this is p248not surprising, as the houses with us are reduced to too low a level for these to remain. Nor can the fewness of the figures of presumably domestic divinities which have been discovered be regarded as evidence of much weight, for these divinities may often have been represented by paintings, or have been of wood; or, as has been suggested, Christianity may have made sufficient headway for the general abandonment of their worship.19

The evidence for public shrines is perhaps a little stronger. Just as the Roman houses had their lares, so had the streets and cities theirs — Lares compitales and Lares presides; and besides these, there were other public shrines. The street shrines of Pompeii were as varied as the domestic, and in a general way resembled them. A niche in a wall containing the several divinities and a shelf or altar for offerings, in part or even the whole simply rendered in paint — such was the ordinary street shrine; but occasionally it was enclosed in a chapel or sacellum. The Sanctuary of the City Lares was an imposing building on the east side of the Forum, in which the guardian divinities were enshrined in a large apse surmounted with a semi-dome, with a square court open to the Forum, on each side of which were niches presumably for the penates.

It has been supposed that the large female figure with the turreted crown, which appears to have stood in front of the central apse of the Basilica at Silchester (p219), represented the Genius of the town, and that this apse was the shrine. Doubtless it personified the town; but the analogy of Pompeii rather points to the large shallow apse on the north side of the Forum as the site of the municipal shrine. In a similar position in the Forum at Caerwent has recently been discovered what appears to be the remains of the podium of a temple. The only other remains that were in a marked manner suggestive of a public shrine at Silchester were on the north side of Insula VII. These consisted of a small room on the street side with an apsidal back, between two smaller rooms, but they were too fragmentary for it to be determined whether the middle room had been open to the street.20

p249 Some remarkable remains found at Caerwent, in 1901,21 were suggestive of a public shrine and its sacellum of a rude description. They indicated a room about 17 ft. square, with a row of mortice-holes in a strong kerb along the front, and with a space along the back divided off by a wooden partition containing a door, this space having been subdivided into two small chambers. In front of the partition, and on one side of the door, was a platform of mortar and gravel 4 ft. square and 18 ins. high, with three steps in front. On this platform lay a rude sandstone head, less than life-size, and flat at the back as though it had been placed against a wall. The mortice-holes may have received the tenons of a fence or screen, and possibly the platform was the podium of an aedicula, in which the figure of a god was placed at the back. Rude as were the remains, their resemblance to a street sacellum in Mercury Street, at Pompeii, is by no means remote.22

It would be strange if here and there some wealthy proprietor did not grace the spring or stream which supplied him with water, and honour the divinities who dwelled in or by it, with a shrine. The freedom-loving nymphs of founts, grottoes, forests, and meadows were favourite subjects in art, and were frequently delineated on the mosaic pavements of this country. We have referred to a little edifice at Chedworth as a nymphaeum (p161). It was rectangular externally, with an open front, two side walls of no great elevation and an apsidal back, the internal dimensions being about 19 ft. in width and 25 ft. in depth. The apse was probably surmounted with a semi-dome, and the interior appears to have been painted a bright red. In the midst of its floor was a sunk octagonal basin, about 9 ft. in diameter, which received water by a stone channel from an orifice in the apse, and a similar channel received the overflow on the opposite side of the basin. These, however, were not parts of the original structure. There was an earlier floor at a lower level, and this had a small triangular receptacle for the water on one side of the front; while on the other side was found a plain altar with a diminutive focus, buried under the later floor. This altar goes far to prove the sacred character of the place. This left edifice must have been a pleasant retreat in its day, the silence p250broken by the musical plash of the water and the song of the birds.

Christian Churches

South-east of the Forum at silence were uncovered in 1892, the scanty remains of a small Christian church.23 "Centuries of ploughing," wrote Messrs. Fox and Hope in their report for that year, "have wrought such havoc with the walls that only in the apse and in the north chamber does anything remain above the floor-level, and here only to the height of some inches. Owing to the slope of the ground, the rest of the walls are reduced to mere foundations. It is therefore somewhat difficult to say with certainty what were the arrangements of the building." The plan, Fig. 71, is consequently very imperfect — no doors or windows are shown, nor the usual colonnades of an early Christian basilica.


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Fig. 71. — Plan of Church at Silchester and conjectural restoration.
(15 ft. to 1 in.)

It was a small edifice, being only 42 ft. long and 27 ft. wide. As a width so narrow could have been easily spanned with a single roof, it may be reasonably inferred that the basilica was already the conventional form for a church. The pagan temples, although occasionally utilized for churches, were not adapted for the congregational worship of the Christians. The civil basilica, on the other hand, was designed for the concourse of people, and from long usage had come to be regarded as peculiarly the type for halls of assembly. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Christians should have eventually adopted the type for their own assemblies. The tribune became the chancel, a word derived from the screen or cancelli which divided distant from the hall. The praetor's chair was now occupied by the presiding priest, and the seats on either side by the lesser clergy. The heathen altar was replaced by the eucharistic table. The body of the hall with allotted to the choir and the different orders of the worshippers, the division into nave and aisle helpfully contributing to the groupings, and so coming to have a ritual significance. The church was entered through a space extending the full width of the building. This in the West usually took the form of a portico, forming at first the fourth side of an open court — the 'atrium' — through which the main building was approached. p251When the atrium disappeared, the fourth side was retained, not only because it formed an agreeable vestibule, but because it was the part to which certain grades of penitents were admitted. In the East, however, it was represented by a closed-in narthex, which was structurally within the main fabric. In the atrium, or somewhere in the open space in front of the building, was a large basin or fountain — the cantharus — where the people washed their hands before entering the church.

p252 The Silchester nave had a plain mosaic floor, except that immediately in front of the apse — the normal site for the holy table — was a square panel of finer work, with a centre of black and white checks, surrounded with a border of red and grey lozenges on a white ground and between black bands. Apparently no trace of flooring was found in the aisles and transepts, so that it is probable that they were of less enduring materials; but a patch of red mosaic was left in the narthex. Between the mosaic panel and the end of the apse there was sufficient space for the officiating priest, who, according to the custom of the time, faced the people when celebrating. The transeptal spaces appear to have been screened from the aisles, but to have had openings to the nave. They were probably used by those who helped in the ministrations of the church, being the prothesis and diaconicum of early Christian writers. The excavation revealed little else except that the walls had been decorated in colours.

In the open space in front of the narthex was a foundation of tiles about 4 ft. square, and close to its west side a shallow pit lined with flints. This foundation probably supported the cantharus, and the pit would receive its waste water. No trace of the usual atrium was found; but as the church stood in the centre of an oblong space, 130 by 100 ft., bounded on three sides by streets, it may, contrary to the rule, have stood within the atrium. The western direction of the apse presents no difficulty. While it was customary for the early churches to range east and west, the eastern position of the altar was not insisted upon as in later times. In Rome alone many of the early basilicas including those of St. Peter, St. Mary Maggiore, and St. Clement, had a western orientation.

This little Silchester building is the only one in Britain that has been identified as a church of the Roman era. Some existing churches have been supposed to be of this era, as St. Martins, Canterbury, and those of Reculvers, Dover Castle and Lyminge, but all that can be said of them is that they are built of Roman materials; there is no evidence that they even occupy the sites of Roman-British churches. That the remains of only one undoubted church of this era should have been discovered is remarkable; but so little is known of Romano-British Christianity, that it is quite uncertain whether the basilica type was rigidly adhered to. In Silchester, the remains of several small buildings p253have been found which conceivably were churches, one in particular, at the south-east corner of Insula XXI — an oblong building with an apse at the north end and a doorway on each side at the opposite end. It approximates to the basilical form, and seems to have been a little assembly hall of some kind.24

In 1909 a small building was discovered at Caerwent, which has some claim to be regarded as a church. It consisted25 of a rectangular apartment without any traces of pillars, with a wide opening on its west side, which possibly may have been arched, into a transeptal space with a western apse. We have here the elements of an early church, without any structural division of its body into nave and aisles, and without a narthex; but the north and south recesses of the transeptal space answer to the prothesis and diaconicum. Attached to its south side was a yard with two rooms on the west. This structure was preceded by other buildings on the site, and had in turn been destroyed and built over by others. We know that the Diocletian edict of A.D. 303 ordered all churches to be destroyed — may not this have been one of the destroyed churches?


The Author's Notes:

1 Lysons, Rel. Rom. Brit. Victoria History (Somerset), i, p229.

2 Archaeologia, LII, p744.

3 Archaeologia, LXI, pp206, 474.

4 Ib. liv, p206.

5 Arch. Journ. vi, p114.

6 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xvi, p426.

7 Archaeologia, LXII, p4.

8 Bathurst and King, Lydney Park; and personal examination.

9 For further particulars of Nodens and his cult, see Roman Era in Britain, Chap. vi.

10 Arch. Aelian. N.S., vii, p20.

11 Arch. Aelian. N.S., vi, p169.

12 Arch. Aelian. O.S., i, p263; N.S., xxv, p255.

13 Bruce, Roman Wall, p127.

14 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xvi, pp105, 248; xvii, p96.

15 For inscriptions recording the erection or restoration of temples in Britain, see Roman Era in Britain, Chap. vii.

16 Archaeologia, LV, p237.

17 Ib. lv, p224.

18 Ib. lvii, p234.

19 A sculptured Matres group with a small altar in part, all resting on a slab and found at Ancaster in 1831, probably belonged to a shrine. Collect. Antiqua, v, p149.

20 Archaeologia, LIV, p204.

21 Archaeologia, LVIII, p149; and personal observation.

22 Mau, Pompeii, p229.

23 Archaeologia, LIII, p563.

24 Archaeologia, LVIII, p95.

25 Personal observation.


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