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.
Gilt bronze head from the cult statue of Sulis Minerva. Found in Stall Street, Bath, in 1727. (Wikimedia Commons)
Taking what was already provided, the Romans expanded the hot spring into a full-functioning bath facility. Within it, there was a system of pools that succeeded the atrium, a changing and exercise room, that were each called the frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium. As their names suggest, the frigdarium was a cold water pool, the tepidarium warm, and the caldarium hot. By passing through each bathing area in this particular order, the bather received a full and thorough cleansing, soothing for both the body and the mind. Following the last room, it was customary to have a swimming pool for recreational purposes or a palaestra for further exercise, and in such a large location as the Aquae Sulis, this was able to be implemented. Thus, not only did the Romans appropriate the spring but they were able to expand its purpose, stretching its healing space much further than the Celts had previously done and thereby further integrating the Celts into Roman culture.
Aquae Sulis in Bath, England. Source: BigStockPhoto
Just one of many ways the Romans assimilated the Celts into their society, the Aquae Sulis stands as the most poignant monument of this unification. Combining both the Celtic site of healing with the Roman standard of physical and mental cleansing, the Romans were able to achieve a relatively smooth integration of ideals and gods. Instead of a complete loss of culture, the Celtic goddess Sulis continued to thrive in this community, preserving the religion of the natives and preventing the Celts from being completely overrun by the Romans.
Featured image: Aquae Sulis in Bath, England. Source: BigStockPhoto
Blagg, T.F.C., "The Date of the Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath," Britannia, 10.1, (1979), pp. 101-107.
Cunliffe, Barry, "The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath," Archaeology, 36.6., (Nov./Dec., 1983), pp. 16-23.
Dark K.R., "Town or 'Temenos'? A Reinterpretation of the Walled Area of 'Aquae Sulis,'" Britannia, 24.1, (1993), pp. 254-255.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain Book II:10-11. trans. Michael A. Faletra (Broadview Press: Canada, 2007.)
"Immigration and Emigration: Roman Bath's Celtic Aquisition." BBC Legacies. Accessed January 3, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/immig_emig/england/somerset/article_1.shtml.
"Minerva," BMJ: British Medical Journal, 315.7115, (Oct., 1997), pp. 1104.
Revell, Louise, "Religion and Ritual in the Western Provinces," Greece and Rome, 54.2 (Oct., 2007), pp. 210-228.
By Ryan Stone
Aquae Sulis in Bath is an amazing place to visit - many thanks for the article, you have made me want to visit the Baths again! Well worth taking time to see, if you're in the area.
Love the Tacitus quote from Scoutonymous!Aquae Sulis Aquae Sulis Aquae Sulis Aquae Sulis Aquae Sulis Aquae Sulis in Bath
Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk
“And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptations of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as civilization when in fact they were a feature of their enslavement.” (Tacitus)
There is no way to be certain whether the face is Medusa or a bearded male. The carving is ambiguous and the lines below the chin could be beard or could be more rays, snakes, like those above. Anyone can have their own opinion and feelings in reaction to it, but there is no way of deciding the matter beyond individual preference.
Celtic spring shrines however were generally associated with female spirits, genia loci, goddesses. The Celts linked the Sun with femaleness, gold, and measurement. The Moon was male.
Bladud is legendary, and with very little inforrmation about him. he is listed in medieval Welsh genealogies as an early British king and founder of Bath. Other information is 16thC.
Shan Morgain www.mabinogistudy.com
Best interpretation I've come across so far. The bearded face on Bath's pediment is so obviously NOT a gorgon!
The Celtic divinity Bladud (or Bladdud), who was reputed to have founded the first settlement at Bath after discovering the waters' healing properties, was associated with heat, fire and the sun. This 'Sun God' image suggests, therefore, that the word 'Sulis' may be a corruption of the original Roman designation of the site as 'Aquae Solis', i.e, 'Waters of the Sun'.