CUP (2020) h/b 228pp £85 (ISBN 9781108694735)
Bath (Aquae Sulis) was situated at the point where Fosse Way crossed the road from London to Portus Abonae. It was therefore a site of strategic importance. It was also a cult centre, because of the hot spring over which the Celtic goddess Sulis presided. The Romans adopted and monumentalised the sanctuary. In the late first century, they created a reservoir to hold the spring water. This was a massive engineering feat, since it involved sinking a ring of wooden piles into the waterlogged ground; removing the mud within; and constructing the reservoir walls with stone and lead. Nor was that the only engineering feat. They went on to construct the Great Bath, a complex of smaller baths and a substantial drain. Much of what they built, including the Great Bath and the drain, still functions today. The provincial authorities built a spectacular temple to the presiding goddess, whom they tactfully called Sulis Minerva, twinning the Roman goddess with the local deity. A roundel in the temple’s pediment included the—now famous—Gorgon’s head.
This delightful book is an account of Aquae Sulis and its place in the Empire. The early chapters provide an account of the discovery of Roman Bath in the antiquarian period. The Bath Gorgon and its surrounding architectural stonework came to light in 1790 during the construction of a new pump room. Sir Henry Englefield attempted to reconstruct the temple pediment from which this came and said that the head in the roundel was female, possibly the sun. Thomas Pownall, a retired colonial administrator, maintained that the head represented the sun, crowned by serpents. Drawing on his colonial experiences, he noted that in many societies the sun was associated with serpents. Richard Warner, a clergyman, published a history of Bath in 1801. He identified the head as a Gorgon, surrounded by an olive-branches. The reverend was right about the Gorgon but wrong about the surrounding wreath, which is in fact oak.
Charles Davis, the city engineer, and Richard Mann, his builder undertook major excavations throughout the 1880s. These revealed most of the ancient bath complex. James Irvine, an architect who was restoring Bath Abbey, was closely involved in the excavations. He produced meticulous drawings of the temple stonework. It was Irvine who discovered the drain which carried water from the bath complex down to the river Avon. Irvine also acted as mediator between Gibson and Mann when they fell out. The excavations at Bath served a commercial purpose as well as an academic one. After losing its role as a centre for the wool trade, the city reinvented itself as a pre-eminent healing spa. Eighteenth and nineteenth century physicians extolled the medicinal properties of the hot springs. They sometimes prescribed a stay in Bath as the best remedy for their patients. Antiquarians promoted the cause, by presenting Aquae Sulis as a healing sanctuary. So, the modern city was doing what it had always done for two thousand years. Scholars in the late twentieth century, pre-eminently Barry Cunliffe and Roger Tomlin, took the same line.
The author then comes to her central argument: there is no archaeological evidence that the sanctuary was curative in the Roman period. Of the eighteen altars and dedications set up to Sulis and other gods, none was giving thanks for healing. There are no dedications to healing deities such as Aesculapius or Hygeia. There are no requests for healing amongst the large number of tablets thrown into the sacred spring. None of the votive offerings left in the vicinity of the temple have any connection with sickness or healing.
The author develops her theme with a detailed and well-illustrated account of the structures which formed the sanctuary. She describes them as classicizing monumentality, adding that visitors ‘would never have seen such a quantity of architectural elaboration outside of the provincial capital’ (p. 59). The pediment of the temple was imperial in character. It emphasised Britain’s place in the Empire and its status as a Roman province. The roundel containing a head is similar to those found in Gaul and Spain, all echoing the roundel in the Forum of Augustus at Rome. At the same time the Bath Gorgon has some features of a water god, which symbolises the sacred waters of the nearby spring. Rome was effecting a cultural takeover of the sacred landscape.
Many of the altars and inscriptions at Bath were left by soldiers and recorded their roles. They ‘used the cult of Sulis as a means of clarifying and reinforcing their positions within the hierarchy of empire’. There are references to centuriones regionarii. These were legionary centurions who administered areas in which the civitas system of government had not (or not yet) been established. Accordingly, so the argument runs, the Bath altars must be considered in connection with military and imperial culture, rather than the healing rite.
There is, inevitably, a chapter on deposition in the spring waters, a practice which had continued since the Iron Age. The votive assemblage at Bath has similarities to those at other sites, but there are more metal vessels and intaglios at Bath than elsewhere. Also, of course, there are the so-called curse tablets, which would be better described as ‘judicial prayers’ (p. 183). The author suggests that the evidence from Aquae Sulis reflects ritual practices which may be found empire wide. The sanctuary at Bath may therefore be seen as part of a network of ritual knowledge.
This is a fascinating book, which has much to offer anyone who is interested in Roman Britain. Ms Cousins makes out a powerful case that the Roman authorities (or indigenous élites loyal to Rome) exploited the sacred landscape to assert imperial domination. Readers will make up their own minds as to whether or not whether some of the visitors to the sanctuary were seeking relief from illness, as earlier historians have maintained.
Rupert Jackson 1