Altars and Their Inscriptions

Book 1, Chapter 5, 296 AD to 410 AD – Christianity in Britain – Continued

The Roman altar consisted usually of a rectangular block of stone, with an inscription in front. On each side were carved ornaments, usually representing the instruments of sacrifice, the praefericulum, or pitcher, which contained the wine for the offering, the patera, a dish with a handle, used for throwing a portion of the wine upon the altar, the securis, or axe, with which the animal was slain, and the cutter, or knife, used in cutting it up, with a figure of a whole or part of the victim, usually the head of an ox. Sometimes other figures were introduced, emblematical of the deity to whom the altar was dedicated, or relating perhaps in some cases to the dedicator. The back of the altar is usually rough, which shows that it was intended to be placed against a wall. The upper part was the most elaborately ornamented, and in the middle of the upper surface a basin-shaped cavity was sunk in the stone, called the focus (or hearth), which received the portion of the victim that was offered up in sacrifice, and burnt in the fire kindled in the focus. The inscription set forth first the deity to whom the altar was dedicated, next the name and condition of the dedicator, and often concluded with stating the cause of the dedication. This was usually a vow.

Altar to Jupiter, Found At Tynemouth
Altar to Jupiter, Found At Tynemouth

The description will be best understood by comparison with the annexed cut, which represents a Roman altar dedicated to Jupiter, found at Tynemouth, in Northumberland, and now preserved in the museum of the Society of Antiquaries of London. It was dedicated by the prefect of the fourth cohort of Lingones, which, we are informed by the Notitia, was stationed at Segedunum, usually placed at Wallsend, of which Tynemouth is, probably, the site of an advanced outpost or perhaps, it may have been carried from the ruins of Segedunum among materials for the foundations of the celebrated monastery at the mouth of the Tyne. On one side, which is concealed in the perspective view, but given in the side sketch, are seen the praefericulum, the securis, or axe, and the culter, or knife, with the usual ox’s head. On the other side is the patera, supported by two serpents, which had, no doubt, a symbolical signification. The inscription commences with the ordinary initials of dedication to the chief deity of the mythology of Rome, I. 0. M., and must be read as follows:






“To Jupiter the best and greatest Aelius Rufus the prefect of Cohort the fourth of the Lingones.”

 Other altars dedicated to various deities, have been found at known Roman stations, and they sometimes perpetuated the nationality of the individual or the community by whom they were erected showing that the auxiliary troops were not restricted from offering homage to the gods of their forefathers. One found at Ribchester, and now preserved in St. John’s College at Cambridge, is thus inscribed:










“To the holy god Apollo Aponus, for the health of our lord (the emperor) the wing of Sarmatian horse of Bremetenracum, under Dianius Antoninus, centurion of the 6th legion, called the conquering. His native town was Eliber.”

 Sometimes an altar was dedicated to the genius of the place, as to an unknown god, whose favour it might be desirable to secure, and whose anger it might be as well to deprecate. Others were dedicated to the numen, or name, or divinity of certain emperors, to whom divine honours were paid; also to Fortune, Chance, Victory, and Good Events.

 In one passage of his Annals, Tacitus gives a string of prodigies, recounted to have happened in different parts of the provinces of Britain, immediately before the insurrection of Boadicea, just as the same events might have taken place in Italy, or in Rome itself. First, in the town of Camalodunum, the image of the goddess Victory, without any apparent cause, suddenly fell from its place, and turned its face round, as if giving way to the enemy. Then females seized with a sort of prophetic fury, would be heard mournfully calling out that destruction was at hand, their cries penetrating from the streets into the council chamber and the theatre. A representation in the air, of the colony laid in ruins, was seen near the mouth of the Thames, while the sea assumed the colour of blood, and the receding tide seemed to leave behind it the phantoms of human carcases. The picture is completed by the mention of the temple in which the Roman soldiery took refuge on the rushing into the city of their infuriated assailants of the undefended state of the place, in which the elegance of the buildings had been more attended to than their strength of another temple which had been raised in it to Claudius the divine and finally of its crew of rapacious priests, who, under the pretence of religion wasted every man’s substance, and excited a deeper indignation in the breasts of unhappy natives than all the other cruelties and oppressions to which they were subjected.

Chapter 5, Christianity in Britain

The Diocletian Persecution

Christianity in Britain

Remains of Roman Worship

Altars and Their Inscriptions

Chapter 5, Decline of the Roman Power

Decline of the Roman Power

Incursions of Northern Barbarians

Effect Upon Britain

Chapter 5, The Romans Leave Britain

The Romans Leave Britain

Condition of the Country and People When the Romans Left


Categories: Book 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: