Monday, 13 May 2019

Lydney Roman Temple

This Roman temple is on a precipitous hill in Lydney in Gloucestershire, overlooking the western bank of the River Severn. Rivers were Britain’s arteries in both a material and spiritual sense, and this site, overlooking the waters which dominate the view today and would have been even more spectacular in historic times when the river was a lot closer, was of strategic importance until the Medieval period.

The view from the Iron Age embankment towards the Roman site, with the River Severn in the distance.

The Roman buildings were built on the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, the latter dating to around 100BC. Both Celts and Romans extensively mined the hill for iron ore until the elaborate temple complex was built around 360AD. Its Roman name was Nemetobala, meaning ‘hill sanctuary’.

The temple was dedicated to Nodens, a Celtic God associated with healing, hunting, the river and fishing. Nodens has no other mention in the ancient world. This is probably unsurprising as in Celtic culture, as well as many other cultures worldwide, the true names of revered beings were rarely known and almost never spoken. Disguised names abounded.

Nodens has been linked to the Irish Nuada and the Welsh Lludd, and was probably associated with the healing God Asclepius by the Romans who respected and assimilated many foreign deities into their culture. Asclepius likely means ‘dog-man’, and several plaques and figurines of dogs have been found in the temple. Dogs were often kept in temples and would lick wounds to aid healing. This would have worked: enzymes in saliva are strongly antibacterial.

                           The Roman baths.

Near the temple was a bath house, probably for ritual use, and a long building comprising a series of rooms probably used as dormitories, dreams being powerful and prophetic and interpreted onsite by diviners. A mansio or guest house illustrates the importance of this site which attracted wealthy pilgrims from far and wide.

The temple was in use long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, after which the Iron Age ramparts were repaired and extended. Sometime during the 5th or 6th century, it was burned down and the roof and walls collapsed inwards, preserving its elaborate votive offerings and mosaic floors for posterity.

The remains of the ancient buildings remained visible for centuries and like many Roman sites the hill, now known as Dwarf Hill, was avoided as the haunt of fairies or dwarfs.

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