Aquae Sulis: The Epitome of Roman Syncretization with the Celts
The Roman bath system was one of the most intricate and complex of the ancient world. Composed of various rooms for mental and physical cleansing, the Roman baths were more than a source of hygiene; they were an important source of culture as well. The Aquae Sulis became one of the largest and most renowned Roman baths in Britain, and is considered today the highlight of the Roman syncretization of the Celtic tribes as well as the highlight of the Roman bath system outside the city of Rome.
Located in the modern town of Bath in Somerset, England, the Aquae Sulis rose as one of the largest and most sought out Roman baths outside the Italian peninsula. Dedicated to the goddess Sul or Sulis, the Aquae Sulis represents the blending of both the Roman religion and culture with the religion and culture of the Celts. At this site Sulis, a goddess of water, healing, and fertility, was fused with Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, battle strategy, and in some accounts health as well. Prior to Minerva's arrival however, Sulis was revered by the Celts at the site of Aquae Sulis because its hot springs provided natural rejuvenating properties that convinced many Celts that this was a place of directly linked to the goddess.
Statue of the goddess Minerva in Old Town, Heidelberg, Germany. Source: BigStockPhoto
Use of the hot spring appears to have begun about 10,000 years ago according to what few archaeological records have survived following the Romanization of the region. It seemed the Celts arrived around 700 BCE and believed that the spring was one of the many pathways to the Otherworld—assumed because there was no perceptible source for its heat. They began erecting shrines to their deity Sulis soon after, viewing this as a place where they could speak and communicate directly with the goddess herself. It is unknown exactly how this area was used by the Celts, as their lack of written records prevents a full understanding of the specifics of their healing practices, but there is archaeological evidence that it was not uncommon to present curse requests to the goddess here as well. However, by 43 CE the Celtic purpose of the spring became obsolete as the Romans took an interest in the area and began preparations to take possession of it for the syncretization process.
A Roman curse tablet found in Bath, England. Credit: Roman Baths
When the Romans came to modern day Bath, they saw the hot spring as a way to appropriate the Celtic people into the culture of the Empire. As it was already a popular place that was religiously beloved by the Celts, there was ample opportunity to transform it into a place that suited Roman culture. Adapting such native traditions for the advancement of the Empire was a clever tactic the Romans employed everywhere they attempted to conquer. Transforming the hot spring into a proper Roman bath complex provided the Romans with a way to take over an extremely important Celtic location without completely destroying it and causing an uprising from the locals. The most important aspect that first had to be rectified, however, was the site's dedication to the Celtic Sulis. Their method of getting around this, which would also serve to introduce the Celts to their own religious pantheon, the Romans chose one of their goddesses to merge with Sulis. And so, the goddess Sulis Minerva was born.
What is interesting is that Sulis is one of the few Celtic female goddesses to have been fully syncretized with a Roman goddess. Generally the syncretization process happens with Celtic male gods, as was the case of Lenus Mars, with the females crossing over most often as merely the wife of a Roman god. Lenus was a god of healing in the Celtic pantheon. He was merged with Mars despite the fact that the Roman god was considered a war god. In the Gallo-Roman faith, Lenus Mars became a healer of infected wounds, fighting the disease rather than a war.
Sulis is the exception to this rule, most clearly evidenced by the solid bronze head of a statue of Sulis Minerva remaining from a temple erected to her at the bathing complex. As the Celts did not depict their gods or goddesses in human form, the Romans gave Sulis the same face as Minerva, blending their attributes so one became identified with the other at Aquae Sulis. Sulis also became a goddess of wisdom for the Celts, adopting one of Minerva's primary affiliations, just as the spring itself came to adopt Roman ideals by its expansive healing nature.