Newcastle upon Tyne sits on an ancient site of human occupation. So it’s hardly surprising that offerings to Roman gods can be found among its archaeology. In 2018, I spotted these altars in the Great North Museum at Hancock. I’m fascinated by the way Roman gods show up in Britain, so I decided to delve further into two of the Roman gods of Pons Aelius.
The construction of the Swing Bridge in 1872 led to the discovery of the site of the Roman bridge (Pons Aelius). These two altars were found in the River Tyne, right at the spot where the Roman bridge crossed the river.
Fun fact: Pons Aelius was the only bridge outside of Rome named after an Emperor (Heslop 2011: 6). Yeah, the Romans got how important Newcastle was, even if the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has forgotten we exist.
Dedicated to the river god Neptune, the altar on the left bears his trident symbol.
Dedicated to the sea god Oceanus, the altar on the right bears an anchor. Both altars were dedicated by the Sixth Legion.
Some think the piers stood on either side of the bridge. According to Roman-Britain.co.uk, scholars believe the altars were dropped into the water as part of a dedication ceremony. It certainly explains their location in the mud of the river, which helped to preserve them. Let’s go and find out more about them.
The Romans come to Newcastle upon Tyne
Hadrian visited Britain in 122AD and realised his outpost needed a northern frontier wall. A fort at Newcastle guarded the eastern end of the wall. Initially, Pons Aelius only referred to the bridge that crossed the Tyne, but after a while, the name came to refer to the fort too.
Pons Aelius just means ‘The Aelian bridge’, after Hadrian’s family name. Obviously, the wall ended up extending further, out to Segedunum (now Wallsend).
The Castle Keep, built in 1167, stands on the site of the original encampment. On the below map, it looks pretty far from the river but it sits at the top of a steep slope down to the water.
Pretty handy if you’re trying to defend a site. If you’ve ever tried to power walk up either Dean Street or The Side, you know how steep that slope is.
But then, if your main goal is defence, then why not get the gods on your side too?
Neptune, God of the Sea
It’s unsurprising that the Romans would have chosen water-based gods for their new fort. So much about the city relates to water, including our use of seahorses as a common emblem. Neptune still lurks on the quayside, standing on the parapet of the old Fish Market (now a gig venue, imaginatively called the Riverside).
As the god of freshwater and the sea, Neptune is often twinned with his Greek counterpart, Poseidon. Scholars argue about his provenance, but plenty of inscriptions originally mention him near springs, lakes and rivers. His role guarding the sea may be a later addition.
It is however interesting to note that Neptune didn’t occupy the same position of power as his Greek counterpart, Poseidon. Poseidon was always part of the Greek pantheon and some saw him as Zeus’s second-in-command. In Roman myth, his brothers are Jupiter and Pluto (Zeus and Hades in ancient Greece).
Yet in Roman mythology, he doesn’t appear in either of the classic triads. The Archaic Triad involves Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus (Rome’s founder, Romulus). The Capitoline Triad is Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. So Neptune didn’t hold the same level of influence within the Roman pantheon (Apel, no date). Neptune only had one major festival, the Neptunalia, held at the end of July. They used this festival to plead for rains during the hottest part of the year in the Mediterranean.
Now, that’s not to say that he wasn’t important. Clearly, anyone who worked on or near the sea left offerings for him. He became more important as the Roman Empire spread throughout the Mediterranean. Thomas Apel points out that until the 1st century BCE, Roman admirals actually gave the credit for their naval victories to Fortunus, a god of luck, not Neptune. But by the time the Romans reached Britain, Neptune had found his place as a deity.
Neptune and his Myths
He’s always pictured with the trident, but his other symbols include the horse, dolphin, and bull. He was the god of horses and storms, as well as the sea. Neptune could sink ships by summoning mighty storms.
Usually characterised as a tempestuous figure, Neptune could be capricious but he also had a sense of what was rightfully his. In one myth, Neptune aided Laomedon in building the city of Troy. The king refused to pay Neptune so he sent floods through the lands. Neptune even dispatched a sea monster to the city. Laomedon offered his daughter, Hesione, as a sacrifice. Hercules turned up to kill the monster and save Hesione.
In the Aeneid by Virgil, the hero Aeneas battles to find a safe harbour in a furious storm. Juno, the goddess queen and wife of Jupiter, sends this storm, but in so doing, over-steps the boundaries. Neptune is furious at her disregard for his domain and calms the seas down so Aeneas can pass.
Neptune fell out of favour following the growth of Christianity. He wasn’t able to make the leap, unlike Fortuna and Justitia, who became Lady Luck and Lady Justice respectively. That said, he didn’t entirely lose his influence. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud report that fishermen continued to honour Neptune. They would cut a slit in a cork float attached to their net, and push a coin into it. This was apparently their way of telling Neptune they would buy any fish they caught (2003: 75).
Oceanus….also God of the Sea
You find Oceanus more often within Greek mythology. As a Titan, he personified the sea. He also acted as the god of freshwater. He’s a somewhat primordial figure, credited by Homer as being the original father of all things.
Sometimes Oceanus is depicted as being half man and half serpent. His wild hair and bull horns make him sound terrifying. But he was actually one of the more temperate of the gods. Charles Mills Gayley describes Oceanus’ palace as “beyond the limits of the bountiful earth, surrounded by gardens and all things fair” (1991: 55). He’s sometimes considered to be gentle and aloof, less interested in the world than other gods.
Son of Uranus and Terra, he and his sister-wife, Tethys, produced the river gods and ocean nymphs. He appears as a physical body of water in myths, but when he appears in human form, it’s as the father of rivers and streams. In one Greek myth, his daughter is the River Styx. Indeed, Martin Henig explains that Oceanus also appears as the great river encircling the world. Beyond it lay “nothing except the chill and sombre realm of the dead” (2005: 25).
Who better to placate if you’ve built a fort beside an important river?
If you look at the Roman gods family tree, Neptune is actually Oceanus’ nephew. Neptune’s father is Saturn, brother to Oceanus.
Why choose two Roman gods for the same thing?
Gayley believes Oceanus rules the sea as head of the Older Dynasty, while Neptune rules as part of the Younger Dynasty. If you wanted to hedge your bets, then making offerings to both would help to ensure you appeased the river.
Besides, both gods presented different aspects. Oceanus remained neutral in the war of the Titans. In one myth, Juno even appeals to Oceanus and Tethys during a spat with her husband, Jupiter. As arbiter, Oceanus appears fair and peaceful. A level-headed god, Oceanus avoids conflict and prefers diplomacy.
Neptune, on the other hand, represented the chaotic and unpredictable power of the sea. Always challenging the other gods in contests, Neptune is the deity who raped Medusa, leading to her transformation into a Gorgon.
Having altars to both of them may help you appeal to both calm sailing, and raw power. Both would come in handy when defending a riverside fort!
Which Roman gods appear where you are? Let me know in the comments!
Apel, Thomas (no date), ‘Neptune’, Mythopedia, https://mythopedia.com/roman-mythology/gods/neptune/.
Gayley, Charles Mills (1991), The Classic Myths in English Literature and Art, New York: Biblo & Tannen Publishers.
Henig, Martin (2005), Religion in Roman Britain, London: Batsford.
Heslop, David, McAuley, Zoe (2001), Digging Deeper: The Origins of Newcastle and Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne Bridge Publishing.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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