What evidence remains at Chedworth Villa that the Romans adopted Christianity while occupying Britain?
It’s long been assumed that, having forced themselves on Britain, the Romans abandoned this insignificant island to deal with more pressing problems at home. However, I don’t believe that this was the case.
This vast lead tank has been restored to its original state but when I first saw it, I was at the bottom of a Roman well and the tank lay there like a crumpled milk carton.
I remember thinking why on earth didn’t they melt it down and reuse this valuable lead? Why dispose of it in this deliberate fashion? What was so special about this tank? The tank is decorated with a symbol which combines the Greek letters chi and rho, a sign of very early Christian worship.
This is Constantine the Great. Near this spot in July 306 he was made emperor of Rome. He later went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was a time of immense political change that foreshadowed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.
Constantine encourages Christianity
By encouraging Christianity in Britain, Constantine gave his subjects something that would become more powerful than Rome itself. Constantine’s conversion came towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. By which time, the structure of society had begun to change.
Guy de la Bedoyere “During the late third century and on into the fourth, the super-rich stop spending money on public buildings for the benefit of the population, they spend it on themselves. The big-money moves out of the towns. It’s a pattern we’ve seen in our own time, wealthy people tend to take money to their country estates.
The great villas were scattered throughout southern Britain. There we have these people right out on the fringe of the Roman world aping a classical world from hundreds of years ago. These people put references to classical mythology and literature on the floors in their houses.”
These mosaics hold a key to the way in which beliefs in Britain changed. Chedworth Villa, Gloucestershire, was one of the richest of these houses. The historian Phil Bethell showed me around.
Phil Bethell “This was, probably, one of the the top 10 richest, most opulent houses, in the whole of Britain in the fourth century. All along this corridor, there would have been a continuous mosaic floor. Nearly 80 m long. They had everything that money at that time could buy.
Mosaics in every room, underfloor heating systems, to bathhouses, their very own in-house water shrine. This was all designed to show you ‘I’m rich and I’m powerful’. So this was actually a little temple.
Here was part of their daily religion, where they’d worship. In time-honoured fashion, going back to the Celtic origins of the Romano-British religion, they’d worship the spirit of the spring. They seem to have recreated a bit of their earlier cultural history. The idea that this was a Roman from Rome living here seems unlikely.
The Roman Empire, it was a bit like a sort of a franchise! The sort of opened a branch of Rome out here in Britain. And the people who did the day-to-day running of the country were by and large natives, in this case, native Britons, from families that were important before the Romans came. In Gloucestershire, there wasn’t a big conquest.
Consorting with the Enemy
The local tribe, the Dobunni seemed to play along with the Romans when they invaded. That may be why it became a very wealthy area. Rich people who lived here already took advantage of that system to increase their wealth.”
Some of the mosaics that covered the floor of Chedworth Villa have been destroyed. But many British mosaics have been preserved in architectural drawings. From a society who didn’t leave many written records, these mosaics are unique insight into the complex minds of the Romano-Brits and the beliefs that changed their world.
Some of the mosaics contain an odd mix of Christian and pagan symbols, which have long been dismissed as clumsy mistakes. But, in actual fact, these images are connected to the mystery of the lead tank. He ought to look at mosaics like we look at stained-glass windows in churches. When you go to Chartres and look at the windows of the Gothic church, each image up there says something. We have to see this as being illiterate and learned society, and elite society, with time on their hands, who were reading the classics and they are trying to make sense of the world they live in.
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