The ROTAS Square of Cirencester

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Square in Cirencester.

The word square that suggests a presence of the Christian faith stretching as far as Britian during the time of Roman Empire.

The word-square at Cirencester is one of the seven known word-squares in existence. Believed to be evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain the word-square’s meaning has no definite answer. The letters were scratched into the red plaster in a Roman house in the town The word-square, its debated meanings and its relevance to Christianity in Roman Britain will be investigated hereafter.

Invocation of the Lord

The reason for the inscription was to invoke some power to the place it was written, for the same reason ‘Sanctus’ is written behind an Alter. It is an invocation to the Lord to make the Alter a Holy place. Although arguments can be made against the Christian representation of the inscription it is hard to prove that any other deity was meant to be invoked by this prayer. On account of the archaeological record of Cirencester, the devotion to other deities was not lost to Christianity in the 4th century after Britain was split into two provinces.

Christianity in Roman Britain

In the later 4th century a column was erected in honour of the old religion in Cirencester. This could mean one of two things; that non-Christian beliefs were still being practiced or that as a result of the dwindling belief in pre-Christian religions a column was erected in their honour. Richmond argues that this shows the governor of Britannia Prima’s opposition to the rise of Christianity in the state, which allows the interpretation that Christianity was expanding from what it was in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The arguments for the Rotas square at Cirencester as a Christian artefact are overwhelming and often in little doubt that it could have served any other religion. Until any significant archaeological discovery is made there is no great opposition to the Christian claim to the Cirencester word-square.

Evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain is sparse compared to many of the other Roman provinces, such as Gaul and Spain, though there is evidence for it none the less. It was brought to Britain first through merchants and then through the army stationed in the province. The late 2nd and early 3rd centuries are thought to be when Christianity was first introduced in Britain, though it is possible that previous interactions with merchants from Gaul could have introduced the teachings of Christ. The merchants and the armies brought Eastern “salvation cults” with them as they travelled to Britain, most notably Mithraism as well as Christianity. The followings of Mithraism and Christianity are often linked as it seems that the followers of Mithraism were the first or one of the first groups noted to adopt Christianity into their own religion.

Acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity was not, at first, accepted in the Roman Empire, as it required the worship of only one God. The first Commandment that, “Thou shall have no other gods besides Me,” was a complete rejection of the Imperial cult. The Roman government then saw this as a threat as the Christians would not honour the emperor as they would their God. It was only in 313 A.D., under Constantine, that it became an acceptable practice. Christianity spread at first through towns, among the lower class; which is why the Rotas square’s existence on the wall of a home inside the town of Cirencester linked to early Christian followers in Roman Britain is believable.

It wasn’t until the 4th century that the wealthier Roman villas began to see evidence of the adoption of the Christian religion. With that evidence it can be said that the Rotas square could have been inscribed some time in the late 2nd or 3rd centuries as it is not located in a rich area of the town, nor is it inscribed in marble or any other fine surface, assuming that the lower class were indeed the ones who inscribed the Rotas square on the red plaster wall.

Invention of the Word Square

The Roman Britain’s did not invent the word square, as there is evidence of two in Pompeii before the eruption of Vensuvius in 79 A.D. and in Dura Europos antedate 256 as the city fell to the Persians. With the death of Christ in circa 30 A.D. the teachings of the apostles could have reached Pompeii in 49 years with all the trading between countries in the Mediterranean. Placing the commonly believed Medieval charm well before it was seen in Britain. The voyage of the same pattern of letters from Pompeii to Britain, no matter the span of years, gives the Cirencester square a claim to its right to be of the Romano British period.

Sources:

  1. Green, M. Religions of Civilian Roman Britain, BAR 24. (Oxford, 1976)
  2. Richmond, I. Roman Archaeology and Art. (Oxford, 1969)
  3. Frend, W.H.C. “Romano-British Christianity and the West: Comparison and Contrast”, The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland, BAR 102. (Oxford, 1982)
  4. Webster, G. The British Celts and their Gods Under Rome (London, 1986)
  5. Dodd, B.E. & Heritage, T.C. The Early Christians in Britain (London, 1966)