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18 June 2014
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Roman Bath's Celtic acquisition

The development of Aquae Sulis

The combination of the Romans' engineering skill and the sacred waters of Sulis Minerva meant that by 100AD, Aquae Sulis had become a busy leisure, religious and social centre and developed into what historians describe as the "most sophisticated town in Roman Britain".

The baths became so popular that pilgrims were regular visitors to the town, to pay their respects to Sulis Minerva, and a plethora of boarding houses developed in the periphery of the bath house to accommodate the never-ending stream of eager bathers. The bathing complex underwent major expansion and improvement and by the late Roman period it was a sophisticated sequence of pools. The network of pools with water of different temperature, the large heated swimming pool and the gymnasium had come a long way since the ferny grotto of the Celts.

Artefacts found in the spring
Artefacts recovered from the sacred spring
© Courtesy of Bath and North East Somerset Council
The popularity of Roman baths is well documented. However, what set Aquae Sulis apart and made it so overwhelmingly popular was its healing and sacred associations. Over 6,000 coins were thrown into the waters as offerings to Sulis Minerva. Lead and bronze tablets recovered from the site carry requests to the deity, including requests for curses to be placed on people who had done them wrong! One victim of crime wrote:

"To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood"

Aquae Sulis is an intriguing example of the methods used by the Romans to colonise Britain. Their appropriation of the sacred waters and the native Celtic deity reveals a shrewd pragmatism that helped them conquer and Romanise Britain. We only know about this process of adaptation thanks to the survival of a few pieces of evidence: folklore and excavated Celtic coins. Without this evidence we may have wrongly identified the site as a purely Roman one. Who knows how many other stories of Roman adaptation have been lost?

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