Some of the most fascinating deities in Roman Britain are those for which we have no name, but whose cults seem to have been widespread and significant. The images we have of male figures on horseback, known as ‘rider gods’, seem to represent one such cult. The Roman invasion saw many classical deities enter Britain, but worship of native deities (sometimes on their own, sometimes syncretised* with Roman gods) continued unabated, particularly in rural areas.
A number of images of rider gods are known from Lincolnshire, in the form of copper alloy statuettes of warriors on horseback, enamelled copper alloy brooches and a stone carving. The depictions are all military in nature and a connection with the Roman war god Mars is commonly cited. No epigraphic evidence of this connection has been identified, however, and the native style of all of the depictions suggests that the deity was British in origin, even if a conflation with Mars was subsequently perceived. An alternative theory is that rather than a war god, a connection with hunting (a major pastime in both Iron Age and Roman Britain) could have been envisaged. Either way, the figures are certainly presenting an extremely masculine image which must have been central to the cult and the identity of its adherents. The artefacts discussed here are all believed to date to the 3rd and 4th centuries, making the cult one that became prevalent in the latter half of the Roman period.
Though none of these types of artefact are unique to Lincolnshire, their distribution is telling with regard to identifying areas of potential major cult activity. The map shows the distribution of each of these artefact types (discussed in turn below), with three main groupings clearly discernible. The first is a focus of activity around Sleaford, particularly of horse and rider brooches. The second is an association between bronze statuettes and the River Trent, and the third a smaller and looser distribution of brooches on the Lincolnshire Wolds. The lack of finds from Lincoln, at settlements north of south of the Colonia on the line of Ermine Street, or indeed around any other major settlement, is notable, suggesting that the cult did not feature in urban centres.
The bronze figurines are the least studied of the artefacts discussed here, but in many ways the most engaging. Some survive as complete figurines, others only as riders with legs splayed apart, their horses, cast separately, now lost. One of the examples is a horse statuette, which of course may never have had a rider and may not actually form part of this group, but for the sake of completeness is included here. The riders share a military style of dress, short tunics and banded lines across the midriff and / or shoulders, seemingly depicting armour. Some also wear a cloak, depicted billowing behind them as if in full flight. They wear helmets with raised crests and some have arms outstretched as if they originally held spears. Where the horses survive, they are lively, animated animals, front legs raised as if moving at a canter or energetically rearing up.
Horse and rider brooches are well attested across Britain, but attempts have been made to study their distribution and suggest locations for the worship of the deity they represent (though Mackreth has suggested that this deity may actually have differed at different foci). Catherine Johns proposed that they represent ‘pilgrim souvenirs’, purchased at shrines rather than deposited as votive offerings at them. The association of plate brooches and specific deities has long been recognised as a dangerous activity – for example is a brooch in the form of a cockerel a ritual item depicting a sacred symbol of Mercury, or just a piece of jewellery in the shape of a farmyard animal? The horse and rider brooches generically depict a stylised horse galloping to the right and bearing a large-headed rider. They share decoration in the form of enamelled panels. It has been suggested that subtle differences in design between brooches (such as the general level of detail and the pose of the horse) may be significant. There are too many horse and rider brooches from Lincolnshire to reproduce them all here, but below are two of the better surviving examples.
The stone carving from Stragglethorpe, known as the ‘Stragglethorpe rider’, is one of the most enigmatic artworks from the county. Depicting a mounted warrior spearing a serpent-like beast, it bears a resemblance to images of cavalrymen spearing barbarians seen on Roman tombstones, but here the victim is clearly mythological. This has led to a belief that the rider himself is not mortal but a military deity, perhaps the same god seen on the figurines and brooches discussed above. The short military tunic, crested helmet and horse with raised leg are certainly consistent.
Another stone carving, found at Long Bennington close to the copper alloy horse discussed above, is worth mentioning here, though it may seem unconnected at first sight. It depicts a male figure riding a bipedal phallus, with an arm raised above his head. Although clearly the ‘steed’ is very different, the iconography is in other respects similar. Could this image be in some way related to this hyper-masculine warrior / hunter cult?
*syncretisation is the merging of deities. The polytheistic ancient world contained countless gods, some very localised, and the Romans often saw their gods and local gods they encountered as being the same divine force, just worshipped and named differently. They could therefore be conflated together. The most famous example of this in Britain is the syncretised deity ‘Sulis Minerva’ at Bath – a combination of the native Sulis and the Roman Minerva. In Lincolnshire, the best example we have is the inscription to ‘Mars Rigonemetis’ at Nettleham, which I’ll blog about at some point in the future.