Antenociticus bears the most marvellous Roman-sounding name. Yet there’s a very good chance he’s actually a local deity, adopted by the Romans once they arrived in Britain.
So who is he and why does he have a single temple in the whole of the United Kingdom? Come on then, let’s find out!
The Temple to Antenociticus Stands in a Housing Estate
Head west out of Newcastle upon Tyne’s city centre on the imaginatively named West Road. You’ll pass through Benwell, the true home of Byker Grove. (Yes, true story. The Mitre, used as the Byker Grove television set, is in Benwell. Not Byker. Totally opposite side of the city. And no, I don’t mind shattering your illusions)
Benwell’s Roman name was Condercum, and it was one of the 13 permanent forts along Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman heritage of the area lives on in Condercum Road, just off the West Road.
Beyond Condercum Road lies a 1930s housing estate. The land originally belonged to Benwell Little Park, owned by George Wightwick Rendel. In 1862, he excavated on his land and discovered a Roman temple.
60m west lay the original Condercum fort. None of it remains, no doubt swept away by the Victorian building craze. Yet the Temple to Antenociticus somehow still survives. It stood in the vicus, the civilian settlement next door to the fort.
And you can still pay a visit.
It looks a bit odd to see the remains of a Roman temple beside a normal back garden. But that’s Newcastle for you.
The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne removed the original altars. They’re now on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock. Those on view in the temple remains are concrete casts, replaced in around the 1930s.
So What’s The Deal with the Temple?
Experts believe the temple dates to 178-180 AD. Cavalry prefect Tineius Longus dedicated the altar to Antenociticus. He’s not mentioned anywhere else in Britain, or the rest of the Empire for that matter. Many believe he was a local deity adopted by the Romans. There’s not a lot written about him, but the word “inspirational” often appears. Others believe he was a favourite for interceding in military business.
Which makes sense if you’re based in a Roman fort.
The excavations unearthed the head of a god, as well as the altars. The dig also revealed a lower leg and parts of a forearm. That implies a full statue of Antenociticus once stood in the temple. Great North Museum note that “giving gods a human form was a Roman practice and was rare in pre-Roman Britain”.
Archaeologists found a similar head during excavations at Binchester Roman Fort, County Durham. They can’t name theirs as Antenociticus but the resemblance is there. The artistic style is a combination of classical Roman and a regional variation.
A coin dated to the period of Marcus Aurelius also emerged during the excavations. Evidence of burnt timbers suggested arson destroyed the temple in the 2nd century.
The dig found three skeletons in the temple’s apse. They lay “side by side, the heads west, the feet east. The width of the recess is but five feet, and the remains shewed that the bodies had been slightly bowed to get them into their resting-place” (Rendal 1865, p. 169). Evidence also suggests a small nearby cemetery was later used by Anglo-Saxon settlers. That’s unusual in northern England.
Why is Antenociticus important?
You might argue that a Roman god with a single temple isn’t important. I disagree. The style used to carve his statue shows a local willingness to adopt Roman stylings. And it must have be the work of a local. I doubt the Roman army had many sculptors among their camp followers. You see similar evidence in jewellery, combining regional styles and Roman influences.
But having an entire temple, albeit a small one, dedicated to a local deity? For me, it demonstrates the Roman tendency to turn up in a new place and fold new deities into their own pantheon. They didn’t always impose their belief system on their new subjects. Instead, they let the influence go both ways.
Antenociticus, God of Mystery, or Mysterious God?
Yes, he might not have the epic backstory of Neptune or Aesculapius. The dedication to Antenociticus baffled the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. During an 1863 meeting, they noted that “[t]he most popular god amongst the Brigantes and Ottadini seems to have been Cocidius. A dozen altars, at least, have been found dedicated to him” (Clayton 1865, p. 197). They weren’t sure what Cocidius ‘did’, and the same went for Antenociticus.
We can guess at his use by the local population or those living at the Roman fort.
Newcastle University make the point that Iron Age Britons couldn’t read or write. They had no way of preserving their deities. The Romans did, so by adopting local gods, their descendants (i.e. us) could learn about them.
And speaking as a folklore blogger, I’m really glad they did!
Learn more in this short Youtube video by Tyne & Wear Museums;
Enjoy this post? Sign up below to be notified every time I publish a new article about folklore or mythology. You’ll even get two short stories based on changeling folklore as a welcome gift!
Clayton, John (1865) ‘Monthly Meeting, 4 November, 1863’, in the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (eds), Archaeological Aeliana: or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Vol. 6, Newcastle upon Tyne: William Dodd, pp. 195-197.
Rendal, George Wightwick (1865) ‘The Benwell Discoveries’, in the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne (eds), Archaeological Aeliana: or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Vol. 6, Newcastle upon Tyne: William Dodd, pp. 169-171.
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get my folklore podcast recommendations for your listening pleasure!