C) The ‘Mothers’ in Britain

In Britain, the dedications to the Matres amount to approximately fifty inscriptions, all but a few from military sites, notably along Antonine’s and Hadrian’s Wall, and dedicated by soldiers. One of the few exceptions is the inscription to the Matres Ollototae, which is from the non-military site of Heronbridge, Cheshire.184 This suggests that the cult of the Matres and Matronae was brought to Britain by auxiliary troops from the Continent, such as by the Germanic legionaries of the Roman army.185 However, it does not mean that the Celtic peoples from Britain did not have any cultural notions of the Mother Goddesses, only that some particularities in the worship must have come with the army.

The cult of the Mothers in Britain is clearly Romanized, for they all bear Roman epithets, such as Transmarinae, Campestres, Domesticae or Fatae,186 apart from the Matres Ollototae and the Matres Suleviae. The Matres Ollototae are undeniably Celtic, for their name is composed of Celtic ollo-, ‘all’ and teuta, touta, ‘tribe’.187 They are thus ‘The Mothers of All the Peoples’. They are mentioned in an inscription from Heronbridge (Claverton, Cheshire): Deabus Matribus Ollototis Iul(ius) Secundus et Aelia Augustina, ‘To the Mother Goddesses Ollototae, Julius Secundus and Aelia Augustina (set this up)’,188 and in three inscriptions from Binchester (Durham): Deab(us) Matrib(us) O[l]lot(otis) T[i]b(erius) Cl(audius) Quintianus b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis) v.s.l.m., ‘To the Mother Goddesses Ollototae Tiberius Claudius Quintianus beneficiaries of the governor, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ ; [M]atrib(us) O[lloto(tis)] CARTO VAL MARTI Vetto(num) GENIO LOCI LIT . IXT, ‘To the Mother Goddesses Ollototae … Cavalry Regiment of Vettonians….’ ; I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(axiom) et Matribus Ollototis sive Transmarinis, ‘To Jupiter, Best and Greatest, and to the Ollototae or Overseas Mother Goddesses’ (fig. 7).189

Fig. 7: Three dedications to the Matres Ollototae (‘Mother Goddesses of All the Peoples’).
Fig. 7: Three dedications to the Matres Ollototae (‘Mother Goddesses of All the Peoples’). RIB 1031, discovered in 1600 and now lost, and RIB 1032, probably seen in 1599 and now lost, were discovered at Binchester (Durham). RIB 574 was found at Heronbridge (Cheshire). In the Grosvenor Museum.

As for the Matres Suleviae, they were venerated in Colchester (Essex): Matribus Sulevis Similis Atti f(ilius) ci(vis) Cant(ius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens), ‘To the Mother Goddesses Suleviae, Similis, son of Attus, a tribesman of the Cantii, willingly fulfilled his vow’, and in Bath: Sulevis Sulinus scul(p)tor Bruceti f(ilius) sacrum f(ecit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the Suleviae Sulinus, a sculptor, son of Brucetus, gladly and deservedly made this offering’ (fig. 8).190The Matres Suleviae are known from ten other inscriptions discovered in Rome.191 They are also mentioned without the term Matres in thirty-nine dedications from Britain, such as at Cirencester (Gloucester), Bath (Somerset) and by conjecture at Binchester Roman Fort (Durham), and from the Continent (Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Romania, France and the Netherlands).192 Contrary to what Olmsted and Green maintain, their epithet is not the plural form of the goddess name Sulis, who is honoured in thirty-nine dedications discovered at the curative hot spring of Bath, called Aquae Sulis.193 This erroneous etymological association has led to various inaccurate interpretations. For instance, Joan Alcock, who relates the Suleviae to Sulis, points out the possible healing abilities of these mother goddesses.194 While Sulis was certainly a healing goddess, for she was venerated at the thermal spring at Bath and associated with Minerva, the goddess of medicine, there is no evidence that the Suleviae performed such a function.195

According to Delamarre, the theonym Sulis is based on Celtic suli, ‘(good) sight’, which is cognate with Old Irish súil, ‘eye’.196 It is noteworthy in this context that an oculist stamp* was found on the site, which might tend to prove that the spring of Bath, around which was erected a temple to Sulis-Minerva and a complex of baths, had curative virtues for the eyes.197 Other scholars derive Celtic sūli from the IE root *sāuel-, suel-, ‘sun’, supporting the view that, in ancient times, the sun was the metaphor of the omniscient eye; a theory which is categorically rejected by Lambert.198 As regards the name of the Suleviae, Léon Fleuriot identifies a prefix su-, ‘good’ and a radical leu-, ‘to steer’, cognate with Old Irish lúi and Welsh llyw, ‘rudder', and Middle Breton leuyaff, ‘to steer’, and proposes to gloss their name as ‘Those who steer or lead well’; an etymology* which is accepted by Lambert and Delamarre as the most probable one.199

Fig. 8: Left: Altar from Colchester (Essex) dedicated to the Matres Suleviae by a dedicator Celtic Attus. In Colchester Museum.
Fig. 8: Left: Altar from Colchester (Essex) dedicated to the Matres Suleviae by a dedicator Celtic Attus. In Colchester Museum. RIB 192. Right: Altar from Aquae Sulis (Bath) to the Suleviae by a Celtic dedicator Sulinus. It is now in the Roman Baths Museum. RIB 151.

In addition to the fact that very few Mothers bear Celtic bynames*, other indications in the epigraphy lend weight to the hypothesis that the cult of the Mothers was imported from the Continent into Britain. The various dedications to the Matres Transmarinae, literally ‘the Overseas Mothers’, known from Lowther, Plumpton Wall (Cumbria), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Tyne and Wear) and Risingham (Northunmberland), illustrate that the worship of the Mothers transcended the seas.200 The Matres Ollototae (‘Mothers Of All the Peoples’) probably refer to the Mother Goddesses venerated on the Continent, for they are compared to the Transmarinae in an inscription from the Roman Fort Binchester (Durham): I(ovi) O(ptimo) M(aximo) et Matribus Ollototis sive Tramarinis Pomponius Donatus, b(ene)f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis) pro salute sua et suorum v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Iupiter, Best and Greatest, and to the Mother Goddesses of All the Peoples, or Overseas, Pomponius Donatus, beneficiaries of the governor, for the welfare of himself and his household willingly fulfilled his vow’ (fig. 9).201 Moreover, other dedications pay homage to Mothers of foreign countries, such as the ones from York, dedicated to the ‘African, Italian and Gaulish Mothers’, from Winchester to the ‘Italian, German, Gaulish and British Mothers’ and from the vinicity of Hadrian’s Wall to the ‘German Mothers’.202

Finally, it can be noticed that the names of the dedicators are all Latin and those of soldiers,203 apart from a few, such as the dedicator from Doncaster (Yorkshire), who has names of Celtic origin: Matribus M(arcus) Nantonius Orbiotal(us) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the Mothers, M(arcus) Nantonius Orbiotalus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 9).204 If his first name Marcus is Latin, his two other names, Nantonius (‘Valley’) and Orbiotalus (‘Forehead-of-Heir’), are Celtic.205 Similarly, in the inscription to the Suleviae from Colchester, the dedicator’s father has a Celtic name Attus.206In the inscription from Bath, the dedicator and his father also bear Celtic names: Sulinus, clearly derived from the goddess name, and Brucetus, the meaning of which is unknown.207 This Sulinus, son of Brucetus, is besides the one who offered a dedication to the Suleviae in Cirencester, which is about fifty kms from Bath.

Fig. 9: Left: Inscription to the Matres from Doncaster (Yorkshire).
Fig. 9: Left: Inscription to the Matres from Doncaster (Yorkshire). RIB 618. Right: Dedication to the Matres Ollototae sive Transmarinae from Binchester (Durham). RIB 1030.

Therefore, the cult of the Matres in Britain seems to be mostly Romanized and imported. Apart from Ollototae and Suleviae, the Matres’ epithets are all Roman and the dedications come from military sites. Moreover, the dedicators are prominently Roman citizens, holding honorary functions or titles, such as Tiberius Claudius Quintianus, who honoured the Ollototae in Binchester, and soldiers in the Roman army. It would appear, however, that pre-Roman worship did survive, for epigraphic evidence has been discovered of people of Celtic stock paying homage to Mother Goddesses bearing Celtic bynames*.


Bémont, 1981, pp. 67-68 and note 8 ; Biró, 1975, pp. 13-58 ; Holder, ACS, vol. 2, pp. 463-465 ; Paulys, vol. 14.2, pp. 2214-2215 ; Barnard, 1985, p. 242 ; Anwyl, 1906a, pp. 45- 51.


RGA, vol. 19, pp. 438-439 ; Daremberg & Saglio, p. 1636 ; Webster, 1986, pp. 63-65 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 289 ; Barnard, 1985, p. 237.


These inscriptions to the Matres Domesticae, Campestres and Fatae are studied in the last part of this chapter.


Olmsted, 1994, pp. 414-415 ; Delamarre, 2003, pp. 241, 295-296 ; Sterckx, 2000, p. 76. For the etymology* of the Ollototae, see infra. See also the Matres Mediotautehae.


RIB 574 is engraved on an altar in red sandstone, discovered in 1931 on the Roman site in Red House Croft, near Heronbridge, beside the Roman road to Wroxeter. On the right side of the altar is engraved a jug, on the left side a patera*.


RIB 1031; RIB 1032; RIB 1030.


RIB 192 is engraved on a green sandstone base, found in 1881 in Colchester, in Balkerne Lane, west of the west wall of Roman Colchester. RIB 151, was discovered in 1753 in Bath on the west side of the lower part of Stall Street.


CIL VI, 31140-31142, 31145, 31146, 31148, 31149, 31171, 31174, 31175.


Britain: RIB 1035 (Binchester): Sul[e]vi[s] ( ?) [ala] Vett[on(um]) CANN v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the Suleviae the Cavalry Regiment of Vettonians … willingly and deservedly fulfilled its vow’. This inscription is now lost. It was inscribed on an altar found about 1760 ; RIB 105, 106 (Cirencester): Sule(v)is Sulinus Bruceti (filius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the Suleviae, Sulinus, son of Brucetus, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ ; Sulevis [P]rimus […], ‘To the Suleviae, Primus …’. The first inscription was found in 1899 in the north-west part of the town with two reliefs* of three Matres. The second inscription was discovered in 1902 at the foundry, Cricklade Road, outside the south gate of Cirencester. There are both in Corinium Museum. RIB 151 (Bath). See RDG, p. 64 to get all the references.


Olmsted, 1994, pp. 362-363 ; Green, 1992a, pp. 200-202.


Alcock, 1965, p. 2.


Jayne, 1925, p. 519.


Delamarre, 2003, p. 287.


Lambert, 1980, p. 176.


Lambert,1980, p. 175 refuses this derivation and proposes *su-wli-, with su- ‘good’ and wel- ‘to see’, while Bammesberger, 1982, pp. 155-157 supports the idea that it is linked to the ancient metaphor ‘eye-sun’ ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 363 derives the names of the goddesses Sulis and Suleviae from IE *suel ‘sun’ ; Green, 1992a, p. 201 says that their name is etymologically linked to the sun ; see Delamarre, 2003, p. 287 and Olmsted, 1994, pp. 362-364 for more details and other examples.


Fleuriot, 1981, p. 105 & 1982, p. 126: Su-leviae would be in Modern Welsh *hy-lywydd-, ‘the Ones who steer well’ ; Lambert, 2006, p. 55 ; Delamarre, 2003, p. 286.


CIL VII, 303, 319, 499, 994 ; Barnard, 1985, pp. 242-243 ; Rüger, 1987, p. 11 ; Fleuriot, 1982, p. 126.


RIB 1030 is engraved on an altar, on the right side of which a patera* and a jug are drawn, and on the left side, a knife and an axe. It was discovered in 1891, south of Binchester fort. It is now in the Black Gate.


RIB 653 found in 1752 in Micklegate, opposite Holy Trinity Church, York. Now in the Yorkshire Museum: Mat(ribus) Af(ris) Ita(lis) Ga(llis) M(arcus) Minu(cius) Aude(n)s mil(es) leg(ionis) VI Vic(tricis) guber(nator) leg(ionis) VI v(otum) s(olvit) l(aetus) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the African, Italian and Gaulish Mother Goddesses Marcus Minucius Audens, soldier of the Sixth Legion* Victrix and a pilot of the Sixth Legion*, willingly, gladly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow’ ; RIB 88 was “found in 1854 near the south end of Jewry Street, Winchester, in demolishing a boundary wall of the old county jail.” It is now in the British Museum: Matrib(us) Italis Germanis Gal(lis) Brit(annis) [A]ntonius [Lu]cretanius [b(ene)]f(iciarius) co(n)s(ularis) rest(ituit), ‘To the Italian, German, Gaulish, and British Mother Goddesses Antonius Lucretianus, beneficiaries consularis, restored (this)’ ; RIB 2064 was found “before 1839 at some site presumably at Hadrian’s Wall. ” It is now in the Black Gate: Ma[tribus] Ger[manis] M(arcus) Senec[ia]nius V[…], ‘To the German Mother Goddesses Marcus Senecianus V…’.


Bémont, 1981, p. 80.


RIB 618 was discovered “in 1781 in digging the cellars for a house in St Sepulchre Gate, which leads southwards from the site of the Roman fort”. On the right side of the altar is engraved a jug and on the left side a vase with flowers. It is now in the Yorkshire Museum.


Delamarre, 2007, pp. 138, 145, 228 ; Delamarre, 2003, pp. 232, 243, 288 ; Evans, 1967, p. 107, 238-239, 259-261 (for Orbiotalus).


Delamarre, 2007, pp. 32, 212. As for the dedicator, he bears a Latin name Similis, meaning ‘similar’, ‘like’.


Delamarre, 2007, pp. 174, 49: Bru-cetus (?), with bru- (‘eyebrow’)? ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 363.