Towns in the Roman Empire did not develop primarily through centralised state support. Although certain actions, such as the construction of defensive walls, may have required specific imperial permission and in some cases received official support from the provincial government or army in the form of money or manpower, most public structures relied instead on the benevolence of prominent local citizens. This act of giving one’s own resources to improve the communal urban environment is known as ‘euergetism’.
We would of course be naive to think that those giving large sums of money to construct or repair public buildings were not aware of the benefits that accompanied such benevolence. Indeed, the social contract was clearly understood – the populace enjoyed an enhanced urban environment and the donor received increased prestige and patronage along with the potential for commercial and social advancement which they brought. Many acts of privately funded building work may have been enacted by serving magistrates as part of the obligations associated with their position. Even building works commissioned by the Ordo (the town’s governing body) using tax income were publicly connected with the individual magistrates overseeing the project (Horster 2014) and may have involved what we might today term public/private financing.
Such communally minded activity was not random, even in Britain, but part of the nature of urban settlement in the wider Roman world, encouraged by the Roman provincial authorities. The historian Tacitus tells us that his father in law Agricola, when governor of Britain between AD77 and 84:
gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. (Tacitus, Agricola, 21)
Thus, not only were the burgeoning towns of Britain gaining the suites of buildings that might be expected of prominent Roman settlements, but the upper echelons of local society were encouraged to spend their wealth publicly, competing with each other to be the most generous. In reality, we have too little epigraphic evidence to accurately assess how common such public benefaction really was in Britain compared to continental provinces, but it clearly occurred to some degree, as the inscriptions discussed below attest. We must also consider the possibility for such acts to have been recognised in a manner other than through inscriptions, and not surviving as part of the archaeological record. We must also remember at this point that the money the Britons were spending was not necessarily their own. Large loans were made in the early years after the conquest by wealthy Romans such as the philosopher Seneca. The unexpected recall of these loans was one of the trigger factors of the Boudican uprising (see my post here on that subject).
So what evidence do we have of this practice in Lincolnshire? Our examples are, unsurprisingly, exclusively epigraphic – the donor literally writing their name on the building they have paid to be built or restored. At the time of writing there are three such examples known, one from Lincoln, one from Lincoln’s hinterland at Nettleham, and one from the town of Ancaster. All three relate to religious buildings. Although our sample is small, it does suggest that certain types of structure may have been preferable to donors. A temple or shrine, bringing succour to its visitors, might have been perceived as conferring a fraction of that good feeling onto the benefactor compared to a secular structure, and would certainly have been cheaper than building an amphitheatre!
The rebuilding of Lincoln’s temple to the Imperial Cult (RIB 3173)
I have mentioned this particular inscription before, in a post about slavery in Roman Lincolnshire, as the donor paying for the rebuilding of this central and important religious structure was a freed imperial slave. I discussed the interesting social phenomenon of a freed slave wishing to rise in the ranks of the society which enslaved him in that post.
Discovered during excavations at St Paul in the Bail in 1978, the inscription had been re-used in the foundations of the 11th Century church on the site. Assuming that the inscription was recycled in a position close to its original use, it provides valuable evidence for the location of Lincoln’s temple to the Imperial Cult (the existence of which is evidenced both by this inscription and the altar set up by Sevir Augustalis (priest of the imperial cult) Marcus Aurelius Lunaris). The possibility exists that the forum complex at Lincoln, rebuilt in the late 2nd or early 3rd Centuries was actually a double precinct with a temple complex adjoining the southern edge of the main forum (Jones 1999). Although such a form is not otherwise attested in Britain, it is known in Italy and North Africa. The reconstruction drawing by David Vale, below, shows how this hypothetical structure may have appeared.
The costs involved with sponsoring the rebuilding of such a major structure must have been considerable, though the fragmentary inscription does not allow us to know whether this individual was the sole financer of the entire project, or the funder of a specific element of the temple or its precinct. Tomlin et al (2009) have suggested that the benefaction was made to commemorate his election to major public office, either becoming one of the Colonia‘s two top officials (a Duumvir) or becoming a priest of the Imperial Cult (Sevir Augustalis).
The inscription is made on polished Purbeck marble, unlike the other two examples discussed below which are of the local limestone. This in itself indicates the prestige of the structure and the quality of its exterior appearance.
The construction of an arch at a shrine to Mars Rigonemetis at Nettleham (RIB 3180)
This large and well carved inscription, decorated with ‘pelta’ motifs, once adorned the archway leading to a shrine c.3 miles to the northeast of Lincoln, in what is today the village of Nettleham. It was discovered in 1961 during the digging of a drainage trench at a house. Architectural traces of the shrine complex itself have not been discovered, but ceramics of 2nd to 4th Century date were found with the inscription. Stylistically, Tomlin et al (2009) have dated the inscription to the Antonine period (AD98-192). Unlike the Lincoln temple dedication, the inscription is complete, and reads:
DEO MARTI RIGONEMETI ET NVMINIBVS AVGVSTORVM Q NERAT PROXSIMVS ARCVM DE SVO DONAVIT
This translates as:
“To the god Mars Rigonemetis and the spirits of the Emperors, Quintus Neratius Proximus gave this arch at his own expense”
Although nothing is known of the complex, we can imagine that it consisted of a central shrine, probably of Romano-Celtic form with a square cella surrounded by a covered walkway, with a larger enclosure forming an outer boundary and enclosing the sacred temenos – dividing the secular from the sacred. It is into this outer boundary that an arched gateway likely stood, with this inscription set prominently and visibly above.
The deity that the shrine was dedicated to, Mars Rigonemetis, is only known in Britain at this site. The deity was a syncretisation between a native deity, Rigonemetis (whose name translates as ‘King of the Sacred Grove’) and the classical deity Mars. Although more famous as a war god, Mars was traditionally an agricultural deity, and it was probably this aspect of the god that was being invoked.
The dedicator himself, Quintus Neratius Proximus, was a Roman citizen (having three names) and doubtless someone with commercial and political connections in Lincoln. The name Neratius is uncommon, and Tomlin et al (2009) have suggested that his family’s citizenship may have been granted by the governor of Britain Lucius Neratius Marcellus in the very early years of the 2nd Century.
A copper alloy sceptre terminal in the form of Mars has been discovered in more recent years in a field just to the north east of the findspot of the inscription, and may be part of the priestly regalia used at the shrine.
The building of a temple to Viridius at Ancaster (RIB 2242)
This inscription, of lower quality than the Nettleham inscription discussed above, was coincidentally discovered in the same year – 1961. It was found during grave digging in the modern cemetery that overlays the Roman cemetery to the west of the Roman town of Ancaster. The stone had been re-used as a grave cover in a late Roman burial, resulting in the last line of the inscription being half cut off.
The inscription, very similar in form to the Nettleham example, reads ‘DEO VIRIDIO TRENICO ARCVM FECIT DE SVO DON(AVIT)’, which translates as ‘To the god Viridius, Trenico made this arch and gave it at his own expense.’
The lettering is of distinctly lesser quality than that seen on the Nettleham stone, suggesting a lower cost of inscription and perhaps also of benefaction, though the specification of an arch means that we can expect it to have occupied a similarly prominent position in the shrine. The name ‘Trenico’ is Celtic in origin, indicating that the benefactor was not a Roman citizen, though of course we should not assume that citizenship and wealth went hand in hand.
Again, we sadly have no other archaeological evidence of the remainder of the structure, but we do have other references to the deity Viridius, a god only known at Ancaster. A second inscription was discovered during excavations carried out by Time Team in 2001 (watch it on YouTube here), coincidentally also re-used in a later grave in the same cemetery. This fragment simply reads ‘DEO VRID[…] SANCT[…] – ‘to the holy god V(i)ridius’. A life sized fragment of a draped torso discovered in the same cemetery in the early 1960s may depict the back of the deity in classical form, though again the stone had been altered for later re-use as a grave cover. Analysis has suggested that the figure was standing in a frontal position with the weight on the left leg and the right arm raised (Huskinson 1994)
So what can we say about these three individual benefactors? Apart from the imperial connections of the freedman who rebuilt the Lincoln temple, we have no indication of their status in terms of the holding of official office, or what business interests they may have had to provide them with the required wealth. Their choice of building projects doubtless had an element of personal choice, either in the more general decision to support a religious building, or perhaps through more personal connections to the specific deities involved. An imperial freedman dedicating a temple to the Imperial Cult carries an obvious connection, but any personal feelings Proximus and Trenico held were not deemed appropriate for incorporation in their inscriptions and are now lost to us.
Jones, M. J. 1999. Lincoln and the British fora in context. In Hurst, H. (Ed.) The Coloniae of Roman Britain: New studies and a review. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 36
Huskinson, J. 1994. Roman Sculpture from Eastern England. The British Academy
Tomlin, R.S.O., Wright, R. P. and Hassall, M.W.C. 2009. The Roman Inscriptions of Britain Volume III: Inscriptions on stone. Oxbow