Roman Gods on the German Frontier

According to N. T. Wright, “In Paul’s day, the cult of Caesar was the fastest-growing religion in the Mediterranean world.” Perhaps so, but there was still plenty of plain-old-paganism to go around. The remnants of Roman idolatry are on permanent display in the little town Ladenburg, just down the road from my home.

Ladenburg is situated between Heidelberg and Mannheim near the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers. Ladenburg evolved from Roman frontier town of Lopodunum. Pictured here is a Jupitergigantensäule. The original was discovered in Ladenburg in 1963. Alamanni invaders had tossed it in a well approximately 1800 years ago.

Jupiter columns like this one are among the most prevalent Roman religious artifacts found in the Upper Rhine. The Ladenburg column follows the standard pattern almost exactly. The column is about 4 meters high. A Latin inscription dedicates the monument to the god Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest) and Juno Reginae (Juno the queen). Atop the column, Jupiter rides a horse and carries a lightning bolt in his right hand. The horse treads on a giant. The capital is adorned with the images of four women. The column is carved with patterns to look like scales.

The base of the column is a Viergötterstein (four god stone) with images of Juno, Minerva, Mercury and Hercules. These characteristics are common to hundreds of relics found in the territory of Germania Superior (but, surprisingly, not outside the region).

When I first saw the column, I immediately recognized the triad of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno and Minerva. These are often referred to as the Capitoline triad. The temple to Jupiter on Rome’s Capitoline hill contained shrines to all three deities. Roman colonies often built similar temples dedicated to the Capitoline triad. The worship of the triad was the most important part of the Roman public cult, and every Roman city would recognize these central Roman gods in some way.

Ladenburg began as a Celtic town. By the time the Romans arrived, the Celts had been replaced by Swabians (a Germanic tribe) as the predominant power in the area. The Romans established a small outpost guarding the trade routes along the Neckar in 74 AD. In 98 AD, the emperor Trajan removed the military garrison but elevated the town to the status of civitas. He named it Civitas Ulpia Sueborum Nicrensium. Ulpius was Trajan’s family nomen. Sueborum Nicrensium means something like “Swabians on the Neckar.”

By the end of the second century, the town had a basilica for legal and commercial purposes, a theater and a forum. It was engaged in the wine trade and in pottery manufacturing. Even though the city lacked a temple, columns like this one paid tribute to important Roman deities. Several historians suggest that the columns were more than just works of art; they may have marked the site of altars where gifts were offered to the gods.

The column’s inscription identifies one Novanius Augustus as the monument’s patron. The family name Novanius appears on several monuments in the region, which may indicate that the column was erected by a man of some wealth and influence.He offered it “in honor of the divine house,” a phrase associated with the imperial cult. This particular inscription was so common in the upper Rhine during the late 2d century that only the Latin initials are inscribed: IN H D D (IN HONOREM DOMUS DIVINAE). “Divinity” was a rather elastic concept in the Roman world and is beyond the scope of what I can address here.

If the Jupiter column exemplifies the persistence of the traditional Roman public gods – and the tangential but growing influence of the imperial cult – it also reveals how Roman religion melded with local religions.The bearded rider with lightning in his right hand is similar to the Celtic god Taranis. The pairing of male and female deities on the dedication – Jupiter and Juno – is more characteristic of Celtic religion than Roman. The treading of the giant, the female heads on the capital and the scroll work on the column may also be characteristic of Celtic influence. Roman ruins at Ladenburg also shows archaeological evidence of the presence of the cult of Mithras and the cult of the Celtic mother goddess Sulevia. This one little town reveals some of the broad range of deities worshiped in the ancient Roman world.

The pictured Jupiter column and the Mithras shrine are reproductions. The worn and weathered originals are also located in the Ladenburg museum.