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The Sanctuary at Bath in the Roman Empire

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

The Sanctuary at Bath in the Roman Empire

By Eleri H. Cousins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. x + 227. $110. ISBN 978-1-108-49319-2 (cloth).

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The Roman sanctuary at Bath (Aquae Sulis), with its temple precinct, three sets of baths, and the hot spring that fed them, was located within the city walls of an unusual town—a town in which no domestic, commercial, or industrial spaces have been found (52). Since the first Roman finds from the site emerged in the 18th century, the sanctuary has generated a great deal of scholarly interest in terms of its function and the divinities worshiped there (e.g., B. Cunliffe and P. Davenport, The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, vol. 1, The Site, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology 1985), the iconography of the temple (e.g., I.A. Richmond and J.M.C. Toynbee, “The Temple of Sulis-Minerva at Bath,” JRS 45, 1955, 97–105), and the votive deposits found in the spring reservoir (e.g., R.S.O. Tomlin, “The Curse Tablets,” in B. Cunliffe, ed., The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath, vol. 2, The Finds from the Sacred Spring, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology 1988, 59–277; D. Walker, “The Roman Coins,” in Cunliffe 1988, 281–358). Cousins’ work reviewed here is one of a number of recent publications that reexamine and contextualize older evidence and question some of the traditional narratives about the sanctuary and its spring in the Roman period.

Developed from her doctoral dissertation at Cambridge (Constructing and Using a Sacred Place: Bath in the Roman Period, 2016), Cousins’ monograph specifically re-evaluates the archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic evidence for the Roman sanctuary at Bath in order to move away from the “entrenched and unquestioned” (2) view that the spring at Bath was curative in the Roman period (chapters 1–2). She instead seeks to create a more holistic understanding of the sanctuary’s position and purpose, one which, while still acknowledging its local context and role, better explores its relationship with wider socioreligious and cultural trends, particularly those in Britain, Gaul, and Germany (chs. 3–6).

One of the main strengths of this book is that it serves as an excellent reminder to us, whether new to the study of Bath or not, that we owe much of our interpretation to antiquarians with their own agendas and biases and that we need to re-evaluate our own assumptions and the evidence behind them. Cousins rightly stresses how the 18th- and 19th-century British male antiquarians’ perceptions and interpretations of Bath were influenced by their contemporary intellectual and societal environments, as well as by their own identities and social positions, and how the resulting biases could cause the archaeology and archaeological interpretation of the site to suffer. Such influences are evident in a variety of 18th- and 19th-century interpretations that Cousins lays out, for example in the uncertain identification of the image decorating the temple pediment, now recognized as a male gorgon. Similarly, the idea that the waters held a curative function in the Roman period was equally shaped by the lived experiences of the antiquarians at Bath (ch. 1). Cousins disagrees with this emphasis on the healing nature of the spring and sanctuary in the Roman period, instead seeing it as a cultural construct that continues to be, at the least, assumed, and, at the most, championed in modern scholarship (39–40, 48–49). While she does not give a full counterargument (as she acknowledges), she does re-examine the archaeological and literary evidence for a curative function to the waters or the sanctuary and finds no proof for such a role in the Roman period (ch. 2).

Cousins sees ritual transformation and deposition as the true significance and use of the waters at Aquae Sulis (ch. 5). In her view (ch. 3), like pilgrimage sites, Aquae Sulis possessed special qualities that placed it outside the “bounds of normal lived experience” (51) and allowed it to serve as the location where visitors could express and resolve social tensions (e.g., “feelings of loss or decay,” 110) via votive deposition of metal vessels, curse tablets, and coins into the reservoir (ch. 5).

Another strength of this book is Cousins’ ability to strike a balance between a “people-centric” (189) and a broader, comparative top-down approach—reading her evidence through what she calls “concentric circles of ever-increasing locality” (150). Even when discussing the sanctuary’s place within both local and wider religious and cultural networks, Cousins presents evidence (iconography, epigraphy, curse tablets, and more) in a way that clearly foregrounds the visitors’ (whether ancient or antiquarian) lived experience of the site. For example, she uses soldiers’ dedicatory inscriptions to explore how they used the sanctuary as a place to structure and express their identity and station within the wider Roman power hierarchy, even as the site’s imperialistic associations diminished (ch. 4). Similarly, when exploring Aquae Sulis’ religious iconography (e.g., the temple pediment, the so-called head of Sulis Minerva, and the so-called Temple Altar) and certain empire-wide ritual practices (dedicatory inscriptions, curse tablets) at the sanctuary, Cousins highlights that while these practices formed a part of larger networks and trends (especially in northern Gaul and Germany), they were also locally manipulated in ways that reflect their provincial setting and site-specific functions and usage (ch. 6).

The author’s study serves as a reminder of the importance of re-evaluating assumptions based on long unchallenged interpretations. She argues that should undisputable evidence for a curative function for the waters at Bath in the Roman period be found tomorrow, many of the conclusions resulting from her “thematic re-evaluation” (2) of the evidence would still be valuable to our understanding of the site, and she calls for similar reassessments at other sites.

Cousins’ clear and concise prose and her occasional conscious relegation of certain evidence to the footnotes (see esp. ch. 3) has resulted in a narrative flow that makes the book an enjoyable read. Moreover, her in-text discussions of previous interpretations and research (both antiquarian and more modern) make clear where her research fits with—and in some cases challenges—the wider scholarship on Bath, in particular and the use of hot springs in the Roman period and provincial religion more generally. Overall, the book is an engaging introduction for those who are first encountering the scholarship on Bath, while also proving useful to those who wish to deepen their understanding of the site’s local and wider roles.

Amanda Hardman
Department of Classics
McMaster University

Book Review of The Sanctuary at Bath in the Roman Empire, by Eleri H. Cousins
Reviewed by Amanda Hardman
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Hardman

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