Religion and the rise of christianity in Roman Sardinia

Religious life in the Roman period on Sardinia was very diverse because of the different influences through time. Native sardic elements in religion survived of which some cults were even encouraged by the Romans. There were phoenician-punic influences, cults and gods that became associated with Roman deities. New cults that thrived in imperial Rome were imported and spread to the island, the most famous example being christianity that became the religion of the state. The new oriental cults were imported because Sardinia was the place where people adhering to other religions that defied the power of the emperor were banned to. The diversity of religions and cults has left its traces in the archaeological record and in the historical sources of Roman times and still today these diversities can be seen in traditions and religious feasts, like the processions in honour of the martyrs and saints where pre-roman heathen traditions were interwoven to bring the Sardinians closer to the christian beliefs.

Original Sardic religious traditions

Sardic cults had undergone little change where the punics had not extended their influence, mainly in the interior of the island. Carthage never succeeded in dominating the whole island. Cult sites in the countryside where the Punics did manage to gain control underwent changes in that hellenistic elements were introduced. Under the Romans these hellenistic and also new Roman features were introduced to cultsites in the entire island. Where healing was the main subject of worship of such a site it was dedicated to Eshmun/Esculapius. Many sanctuaries were dedicated to Kore/Ceres and Demeter, the deities of agriculture and cereals. An example of this is Nuraghe Lugherras (Paulilatino) where large quantities of votive gifts have been found dedicated to the hellenistic and Roman deity of cerealculture Kore 1. The most clear example of continuity is the site of the cult of the god Babai, where in Punic times the temple of Antas was built and which was replaced in Roman times by a latin style building dedicated to Sardus Pater. But also elsewhere on the island sites have been identified as belonging to the deity of the Sards 2. The water sanctuaries remained in use, for example in and around the sanctuary of Santa Cristina archaeological remains dated to Roman times have been found 3. Many Sardic religious rites and traditions remained in use with the people in some form or other like magic rituals that were handed down from generation to generation and became part of folk stories and legends 4. For example the tradition in some parts of Sardinia on the 31st of october to remember the dead by leaving a meal outside the door at night can be traced back to sardic and punic uses to commemorate the forebears. The Phoenicians and Punics once a year took a meal to the necropolis to leave near their ancestors graves.

Phoenician-Punic gods and the assimilation with Roman gods

In the Phoenician-Punic towns existing temples were dedicated as well to their associated Roman deities. Temples of Eshmun became temples dedicated to Esculapius like the famous temple at Nora 5. The goddess Astarte, in Punic called Tanit, was associated with Venus, specifically for the Astarte of Eryx (Venus Erycina) a sanctuary existed that has been identified near Capo Sant'Elia 6.

Often the association of deities lasted a long time and temples and sanctuaries were known by both the names of the deity, punic and roman. Only after the first century AD this changed permanently and former Punic gods became only known by their Roman names. It is in this same period that the tophet ceased to be used as a sanctuary and were permanently dismantled to make place for other public buildings 7.

The spread of new religious cults in the Roman Empire

To specific Roman cults and worship belonged the temple dedicated to Iupiter Optimus Maximus (the capitolium) and the veneration of the Roman emperor (the Augusteum). Other known sanctuaries that have been discovered in Sardinia were dedicated to Dionysios (Bacchus), the god of wine and viticulture but also the god of dance, theatre and feasts in general. Still other sanctuaries were dedicated to Mercurius and Juno 8. During the times of the Roman empire new oriental cults and religions were introduced in Sardinia, probably stimulated by the arrival of Egyptian and Jewish exiles to the island. All of the Egyptian gods were worshipped, but mainly Isis and Bubastis (Turris Libisonis) as well as Egyptian gods associated with Roman gods like Jupiter Ammon. One of the main religions was that of the veneration of Mitras, also known in Sardinia, which was one of the greatest rivals of christianity 9

The rise of christianity, martyrs and bishops from Sardinia

The first mention of the spread of christianity to Sardinia is that in the sources of the second century AD regarding the damnati ad metalla, mainly christians were condemned to work in the mines. In the successive period, the times of the persecution of the christians under emperor Diocletianus, the first Sardinian martyrs are mentioned to have lived: Saturnus of Cagliari, Ephysius of Nora, Luxurius of Forum Traiani and the martyrs Gavinus, Protus and Ianuarius of Turris Libisonis. The histories of these martyrs (the passio) are from a much later date as are the churches dedicated to them 10. Just outside Fordongianus is the small church dedicated to San Luxurio and outside Pula, near the archeological site of Nora is the small church dedicated to Sant'Efisio 11. This latter saint is also the center of the annual procession from Pula to Cagliari where another church is dedicated to the same Ephysius. According to the hagiography (history) of this saint the newly christened Ephysius heard of a barbaric tribe on Sardinia that did not want to submit itself to the rule of the Romans. He decided to gather an army and depart from Gaeta to reach Sardinia. The saint landed with his army near Tharros and defeated the barbaric heathens in a battle. After this victory he went to Cagliari but instead of receiving thanks there he was imprisoned and tortured because he was a professed christian. However he recovered miraculously from his wounds, was conducted to the temple of Apollo where the statues of the deities pulverized in his presence and the roman magistrate fell so ill that he decided to leave the island. Despite this sequence of most holy signs the newly appointed roman magistrate decided to torture Ephysius again and sentence him to death. The execution took place in Nora where Ephysius was brought to death 12.

With the edict of Milan (313) christianity became the official religion of the state in the Roman Empire. In the meantime the Sardinian church had organized itself further and in 314 on the lists of bishops appeared the first bishop de civitate Caralis provincia Sardinia 13. In the fourth century AD a Sardinian bishop played a prominent role in church history, he was Lucifer of Cagliari . This bishop was an opponent of Arianism which lead to his exile together with the bishops Dionysus of Milan and Eusebius of Vercelli. Even after his return thanks to a pope that was well disposed towards him he continued his opposition to Arianism. In the end this lead to the famous schism of Lucifer 14.

Roman sarcophagi and christian catacombs

With the romanization in the towns also the way of burying the dead changed. Although punic grave chambers were reused in Roman times the Romans had the habit of using sarcophagi and building monumental graves just outside the towns. At Tharros a number of roman sarcophagi have been discovered in the former ditch in front of the town walls on Su Muru Mannu 15.

Early christian burials have been found for example in Sant'Antioco where punic grave chambers had been interconnected and transformed into a labyrinth of catacombs. This reuse of the chambers started in the fourth century AD probably in the point where now the church dedicated to Sant'Antioco is 16.


1 Dyson 2007: p. 140-143; Van Dommelen 1998: p 203
2 Zucca 1989: p. 17-24; Mastino 2005: p. 408-413
3 Mastino 2005: p. 405
4 Mastino 2005: p. 436, see also the site Contusu Antigu
5 Mastino 2005: p. 407; Tronchetti 1986: p. 57-61
6 Mastino 2005: p. 406
7 Acquaro 1999: p. 42-43; Acquaro 1996: p. 48-61
8 Mastino 2005: p. 413-419
9 Mastino 2005: p. 419-428
10 Mastino 2005: p. 455-460 11 Zucca 1986: p.11-16 (on Luxurius)
12 Mastino 2005: p. 463, a free transcript of the legend of Ephysius
13 Mastino 2005: p. 478
14 Mastino 2005: p. 478-480; Dyson 2007: p. 174-175. Wikipedia on Lucifer of Cagliari
15 Acquaro 1999: p. 46
16 Tronchetti 1989: p. 60-65


1. Acquaro, C. e A. Mezzolani 1996, Tharros, Roma
2. Acquaro, C. e C. Finzi 1999, Tharros, Sassari
3. Dyson, S.L. and R.J. Rowland 2007: Shepherds Sailors and Conquerors, Philadelphia
4. Mastino, A. 2005: Storia della Sardegna Antica, Sassari
5. Tronchetti, C. 1986, Nora, Sassari
6. Zucca, R. 1986: Fordongianus, Sassari
7. Zucca, R. 1989: Il tempio di Antas, Sassari
8. Van Dommelen, P. 1998, On Colonial Grounds, Leiden

Last updated 06/01/2014

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