Over at The Guardian, Pierre Le Hir reports on the discovery of an “enormous religious site” or temple complex in the French countryside near Le Mans, which during the first through third centuries common era (C.E.) was known as Vindunum. As viewers of HBO’s spectacular but short-lived series “Rome” and readers of Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico know, Gauls and Celts occupied this area before being subjugated by the Romans in a series of battles that took place in the first century B.C.E.
The Romans were justly known as wise administrators of conquered provinces, allowing native peoples to continue worshiping their own gods, while the Roman administrators and garrisons would build temples for Roman deities. This pagan tolerance often had syncretic effects so that over time the result would be something like what was found near Le Mans: a temple complex where Gallic-Celtic deities were worshiped alongside Roman gods and goddesses. It is highly likely that locals adopted some Roman beliefs and practices while the occupying Romans adopted some local beliefs and practices. Indeed, this is what the archaeologists have found:
“Given the size of the site, hundreds of pilgrims, possibly thousands, would have come here to honour the gods,” said Guillier. “They probably held other mass events here too.”
[The archaeologists] uncovered a marvelous selection of objects placed as offerings. They include Gallic, Celtic and Roman silver coins, bronze and silver-plated bronze fibulae (broaches), some jewelery including a gold ring with a green quartz representing a deity, as well as bronze keys, pottery and knives. They also found a dagger, sledgehammers and hammers, possibly offerings from soldiers and ironmongers, who held high-risk occupations requiring more divine protection than others.
But what gods were worshipped there? No statues or inscriptions have been found as clues, and the Gallic pantheon was as plentiful as the Roman one.
It appears that all kinds of deities were worshiped at the site, including one god — Mars Mullo — who had his own temple and was a synthesis of the Roman god Mars and the Celtic-Gallic god Mullo. The offerings of Roman soldiers, including daggers and hammers, were mostly likely made to Mithras, the imported Persian deity and mystery cult (often symbolized by a bull) that was Latinized and a long-time favorite of the Legions.
Unfortunately, archaeologists will not be able to work at this site for long, as the area is slated for urban development. It is a shame that this massive and informative complex will be subject to salvage operations only.
There is one lesson we can learn from this highly civilized and cosmopolitan “pagan” site right now: religious beliefs need not be exclusive and tolerance can be a virtue. This is an especially poignant point at a time when 60 million Americans schizophrenically believe their president is a closet Muslim and political discourse is dominated by fear mongering.