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See You at the Spa! January 28, 2000
by Christine Finn

The baths and temple complex at Bath, a prime stop-off point on a tour of Britain's archaeology, have long been considered symbolic of the might with which the Romans asserted themselves. According to one Oxford archaeologist, however, the baths in Bath were built not by Romans but on the order of a native Celtic king who wanted to show his gratitude to the emperor Claudius and his general, later emperor, Vespasian.

A re-analysis of the site's iconography and new archaeological interpretations on how the Romans related to the Britons led Martin Henig of Oxford University's Institute of Archaeology to envision the spa as a place used both by Romans and aspiring native Celts. "We can look at central-southern Britain not as a place full of newcomers, but locals becoming Roman," said Henig, who thinks the spa's iconography is pregnant with meaning; carved images of the maritime god, Neptune, and his half-man, half-fish courtiers, suggesting the manner in which the Romans came to Britain across the English Channel. Other iconography, says Henig, commemorates military victory--a sculpture of a shield of virtue held aloft by two winged female figures.

Henig believes the baths and temple complex were built by order of Togidubnus, the most important political leader of tribal Britain and king of the Atretabes tribe of what is now the county of Sussex in southern England. Togidubnus was pro-Roman and benefitted from the conquest in A.D. 43. His residence at a magificent villa at Fishbourne was a reward for his loyalty to Rome and friendship with Vespasian. It is also likely that the Romans gave him Bath as part of his extended, autonomous kingdom. In return, he commissioned the baths as a fitting tribute to the emperor Claudius.

Vespasian became emperor at the time of the baths' construction. Two sculptural reliefs of "civic crowns" of oaks leaves and acorns signify the enduring respect Togidubnus showed the emperor. The temple at Bath was dedicated to Minerva, the virgin goddess of wisdom, another shrewd move by Togidubnus, as she was one of Vespasian's favorite deities, which is revealed by classical sources and Roman coins of his reign.

It is likely the site had been used previously as a shrine for the Celtic deity Sulis. The only hot spa known in Britain, it would have served as a place of worship and healing, where native people would have been schooled in the Roman way of life. Henig suggests the spa would have been a place where the cultures could meet--"soldiers, villa owners, ordinary people."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America