The best books about Roman Britain and its religions

Miranda Aldhouse-Green Author Of Sacred Britannia: The Gods and Rituals of Roman Britain
By Miranda Aldhouse-Green

The Books I Picked & Why

The Druids

By Peter Berresford Ellis

Book cover of The Druids

Why this book?

This is a highly readable and fascinating work that collects all known classical references to this mysterious priesthood that flourished in ancient Gaul and Britain, and nearly caused the province of Britannia to be abandoned under the emperor Nero. I go back to it time and time again for reference and simply for interest. The book is compact and easy to negotiate, and readers will find it hard to put down because of its content and the author’s readable style.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon

By Piers Vitebsky

Book cover of The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul - Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon

Why this book?

Because of its beautiful presentation of this complex topic, the stunning illustrations and the superb, world-class knowledge the author brings to an enigmatic subject, in which the ability of certain individuals to access the spirit world is discussed. The theatre in which the author performs is worldwide, and, although shamanism differs hugely from the Americas to Siberia, from India to southern Africa, and way beyond, he brilliantly presents a cohesive and totally enthralling picture of the essential ingredients of shamanism: shape-shifting, ‘soul-flight’, healing through contact with the spirits, are just some of the themes covered in this short volume. The book engages academics as a sound starting-point for the understanding of what a shaman is but its concise style and gorgeous colour images will engage anyone remotely interested in world religions.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Thetford Treasure: Roman Jewellery and Silver

By Catherine Johns, Timothy Potter

Book cover of The Thetford Treasure: Roman Jewellery and Silver

Why this book?

In 1979 a magnificent hoard of late Romano-British gold and silver objects was discovered at Thetford, Norfolk. This is an incredibly important archaeological find, partly for the beauty and superb workmanship of the treasure but also for the information its presence provides concerning what was going on in the late Roman period in Britain. The hoard dates from the early 4th century AD, and its place of burial is at almost exactly the same location as, three centuries earlier, the tribe of the Iceni built a huge sacred timber structure, at the time of the Boudican rebellion in AD60. This was also a place of tribal assembly and after the Romans defeated Boudica, their army deliberately dismantled it as though it had never been, so as to erase their near-defeat by a British queen. The treasure itself is fascninating: for me the most intriguing objects were the more than thirty gilded silver spoons, inscribed with names of obscure British deities: my favourite of these is the god ‘Medugenus’, meaning ‘the mead-begotten one’. Why did those who buried the treasure choose this precise spot? Could it be that memories were long and that, far from being wiped from history, the fate of the ancient and holy assembly hall has passed down the generations and was finally marked by a gift to the gods so many centuries later?

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

English Heritage Book of Shrines & Sacrifice

By Ann Woodward

Book cover of English Heritage Book of Shrines & Sacrifice

Why this book?

This well-illustrated and highly readable book (available in hardback and paperback) is a comprehensive discussion of archaeological evidence for sacred buildings in late Iron Age and Roman Britain: ranging from grand Classical public sanctuaries, such as the temple of Claudius at Colchester, to rural, more intimate shrines, such as the temple dedicated to Apollo Cunomaglus at Nettleton in Wiltshire. Many sanctuaries, particularly in south-west England, seem purposefully to have been built within a day’s walk of each other and (sometimes, perhaps) within sight of one another, and it is tempting to see these ‘chains of sanctity’ as pilgrim routes, akin to the Camino trails of southern France and northern Spain. Reconstruction drawings in this book cause the ruins of Roman Britain’s shrines to spring into life, and make it easy to imagine what it must have been like to visit and worship at these holy places. The finds, also, tell us so much about the priests who presided over them and the devotees who prayed there. Religious regalia such as headdresses and sceptres, which were worn and carried by religious officials; incense burners that might have brewed psychotropic substances to send priests (and supplicants) into trance states; images of the gods that formed a focus for worship: some Roman, some local, and some a combination of both; the remains of animal sacrifices, and the trophy-arms of defeated enemies all bear witness to the life of these sanctuaries. Votive offerings, whether of personal possessions or models of parts of the bodies of the sick, offered to the gods in the hope of reciprocal healing, all contribute to understanding the vibrancy of ritual behaviour that was at the very heart of Romano-British life.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Pagan Celtic Britain

By Anne Ross

Book cover of Pagan Celtic Britain

Why this book?

Because it was the first book that really drew me into the fascinating world of British religion and belief during the Roman period, and started me on my own path of discovery about religious traditions that steadfastly maintained their ‘Britishness’ even after the Roman occupation. The material collected in Ross’s book – often previously unpublished and unrecognised for what it was – made me think hard about the ways that cults and rituals from two very different ethnic groups might change each other and, even more importantly, came to evolve into a merged set of Roman and British deities and cult practices. Pagan Celtic Britain throws light on temples, the cult of the head, animal cults and gods of war, water and healing, and so much more. The book is a treasure trove of archaeological findings and ideas on their interpretation. Despite its publication more than fifty years ago, this volume remains as an inspiration to its subject, and the superb line drawings and black-and-white photographs are an invaluable archive in themselves.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists