Roman Bath: a new history and archaeology of Aquae Sulis

For me, the crux of this book comes on page 132. Peter Davenport explains that ‘the plan of the Classical temple [was altered] into something quite similar to the more usual plan of temples in the north-west of the empire, the so-called Romano-Celtic temple…’. It is not the first time that this change has been noted, as the detailed excavation report of 1985 covers the issue as well, but such is the hold of the Classical temple reconstruction on the visitor’s imagination, ever since it was first proposed in the 19th century, that we envisage Bath as being solely in a Classical style of architecture. It may have started out that way, from the late 1st until the mid-2nd century AD, but there was significant change and redevelopment of the sanctuary after that, into a temple that may have had the tower cella and surrounding portico of the Romano-Celtic temple form.

Davenport makes a convincing case for a very ‘Roman’ temple and baths at first, possibly with strong military connections, and then 2nd-century alterations marking a sea-change in the layout and architecture to a more ‘native’ or provincial style. This may well have coincided with a greater civilian and priestly administration of the sanctuary. At this time, a probable theatre was added, and the three springs that form the focus of the religious cults became more formalised – the main one to Sulis Minerva, the Hot Bath perhaps to Diana (or a local equivalent goddess of hunting), and the Cross Bath to Aesculapius, with its association with medicine and healing. Davenport also makes the convincing suggestion that the late 2nd-century bank around the temple and baths was not a defence, as we would usually think, but a sacred enclosure, the temenos or nemeton of the sanctuary.

What Davenport brings out very clearly in this fine new survey of one of our premier Roman sites in Britain is the sense of chronological development of a site (I hesitate to call it a town) that changed markedly over the Roman period. He also gives us much needed clarity on the layout of the Roman roads, the surrounding suburban villas, and the roadside settlement (vicus) immediately to the north of the enclosed temple area. The road system effectively avoids the temple area, and we have a dual aspect to this settlement – the temple, baths, and springs on the one hand (Aquae Sulis or Fons Sulis), and the more regular roadside settlement on the other, whose name we do not know. Although tempting to equate Roman Bath with its Georgian spa-town successor, the picture painted in this book makes us think again about such easy comparisons, since the Roman settlement was probably very different from the urban glamour of Bath in its early modern heyday.

A word or two must be said about the name Sulis, as applied to the goddess worshipped at the temple, Sulis Minerva. It is linked to the meaning ‘eye’, and is equivalent to Old Irish súil. This is not really a goddess name in its own right, but is more like an epithet, thus ‘Minerva the all-seeing one’, or maybe ‘Minerva of the eye’ (that is, eyesight and cures thereof), equivalent to the Greek Athena Ophthalmitis of Sparta. Given the very small quantity of evidence for an Iron Age presence at Bath, is the goddess name actually coined and applied to the cult after the Roman conquest? If so, this would have happened during the earlier Classical phase of the sanctuary. Later, Minerva is often dropped, leaving only Sulis on many of the curse tablets; a reflection, perhaps, of the trend to more Romano-Celtic architecture in the temple building itself.

There is much more in this book than I can comment on in a short review. It is a definite purchase for anyone interested in one of the most significant and interesting sanctuaries in the Roman world.

Review by Anthony King
Roman Bath: a new history and archaeology of Aquae Sulis, Peter Davenport, The History Press, £20, ISBN 978-0750995566.