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The Mithraeum near Circus Maximus

In 1931-1932, during the reconstruction of a mill into the warehouse of the Teatro dell’Opera, a large sized, almost perfectly preserved Roman building-complex was discovered under the building. Because the warehouse is not accesible for the greater public, the sanctuary can be rarely visited, only through a touristic association. They are former students and archaeologists, well prepared in Roman history and classical archaeology and also in local topography of the finds – a necessity in such a city, as Rome, where every serious archaeologist should know by hearth the archaeological guide of Coarelli at least.

The sanctuary is preserved in a stunning state, almost perfectly: arches, vaults, pavimentum, the marble decoration of the walls, porphyr objects are in situ in the sanctuary. Even some parts of the original wall paintings and decorations are visible, however these seems to be heavily damaged in the last 80 years.

The building was part of the Forum Boarium and the area of the Ara Maxima Herculis Invicti, the big central altar of Hercules, which is partially preserved under the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The Ara Herculis was rebuilt after 64 AD, so what it might be preserved under the Cosmedin is actually the new, Principate-period building and not the Republican altar. In any case, this area was one of the central sacralised spaces of Rome with high significance, especially for men. This might be a good reason to establish a mithraeum here, although the building where they identified it originally was a horreum or a similar, economic structure (something similar was found also in the port of Caesarea Maritima).

The original building was transformed in the period of Diocletian, additional walls were added, to create the three major area of the sanctuary: the pronaos, the apparatorium and the naos, the central nave with podia. The marble decoration, the spheres on the pavimentum and the rich ex voto decorations, statues and statue bases are dated also from the end of the 3rd beginning of the 4th century.

The central relief now is lying on the left bench of the naos, originally was found in theIMG_0625.JPG central area of the sanctuary. It represents the canonical, classic tauroctony, with stars near the head of Mithras. Another, ex voto relief is still in its original position inserted in the wall of the sanctuary. Several other niches suggest, that the walls of naos were heavily decorated with inscriptions and reliefs. Some of the inscriptions are on the walls of the pronaos, probably put there by archeologists. Another important inscription is walled in one of the statue bases near the central area. This might suggest, that in the 4th century the building was again, reused and left by the Mithraic group. Several, badly preserved graffiti can be observed on the wall. As far as I know, this was never been studied with contemporary technologies. The case of the Caesarea Maritima mithraeum shows, that with infrared and other laser technologies, badly preserved graffiti and frescos can be identified. I’m almost sure, that would be the case in this amazing mithraeum too. One of the most discussed graffito of the sanctuary is the one which mentions the word of “magicae” (CIMRM 454). Guarducci and H. Solin wrote also some important works on this topic.

The sanctuary was published in several short reports and articles in the 1930’s by Pietrangeli, Colini, Luigi and others. Later, M. J. Vermaseren had a long entry in his monumental corpus about the sanctuary and its inscriptions too (CIMRM 434).

Vermaseren collected all the material he could from A.M.  Colini and the few reports existed in the 1950’s when he wrote his entry for CIMRM. It is clear from the epigraphic material, that many of the inscriptions are from the 2nd century AD, which is in a slight conflict with the pavimentum, which clearly suggest, that it was built in its recently IMG_0623known form during Diocletian’s period. The mithraeum might have therefore at least two phases: a Hadrianic one and a later, 3rd century one. It could be also, that a Mithraic group moved from an older sanctuary into this new one, moving the old inscriptions (CIMRM 449, 453) with them. One of the inscriptions (CIMRM 449) mentions, that the sacrarium (the mithraeum?) was built by Publius Aelius Ur(banus?), when A. Sergio Eutycho was sacerdotes, priest (of Mithras?). The name of Ur(banus?) suggest, that we are in the period of Hadrian or post-Hadrian. None of the early publishers of the sanctuary named this mithraeum as “mitreo di Circo Massimo”. The building was at least 20 m distance from the Circus Maximus, separated by a Roman road from the edges of the circus. It is clearly not part of  the monumental structure, but a separate building, part of the economic area of the Forum Boarium and the sacralised spaces of the Ara Herculis. Still, since the 1970’s Italian and later, English literature cites this sanctuary as the “mithraeum from the Circus Maximus”, which is very misleading.

The sanctuary of Publius Aelius Ur(banus) or Sergio Eutycho could be more authentic denomination.  The sanctuary would worth a monograph too.

Some photos from the interior of the sanctuary:


The “mithraeum” in the Museum of Sibiu

The Bruckenthal Museum – which is the oldest public museum of today Romania (Transylvania) – has a very rich Roman collection. The oldest part of the archaeological collection – inscriptions and figurative monuments – comes from the period of Samuel von Bruckenthal, the founder of the museum, who  – as a governor of Transylvania – was a passionate intellectual, intersted in ancient history too. He collected Roman statues, inscriptions and glyptic material from all the places of Roman Dacia and even beyond.

Among the first objects arrived in the collection of Bruckenthal, there were the Mithraic finds from Apulum, discovered in 1786 by Franciscus Kastal (or Kaftal), who was responsible for the salt-trade in Marosprortus (Partos today), south part of the Colonia Aurelia Apulensis. He discovered probably the first mithraeum of Dacia, at least the fascinating material suggest an intact sanctuary: a beautiful Mithras Tauroctonos representation (signum), a middle-sized relief, a statue base and possibly the most stunning Mithras Petrogenitus representation from Dacia too.  The discovery was mentioned by Bartalis Antal in his history of Roman Dacia few years later.

Kastal sent the finds to one of his relatives in Sibiu, who later donated the spectacular material to Bruckenthal. Today, these finds are in the Altemberger House in the Roman Lapidarium, where an artificial mithraeum was established to immitate the mysterious environment of a Mithraic sanctuary.

As in many museums where a mithraeum is reconstructed or recreated, the “Sibiu mithraeum” has objects from the discovery of Kastal but several other pieces too from Apulum and other Roman settlements of Dacia.

Because this material is so exceptional and the discovery itself was mentioned by literary sources and it is the very first mithraeum which was documented in Dacia, this recreated sanctuary in the museum would need a serious and professional rebranding and reorganisation. Obviously, there is no hope and chance for such amazing investment, as we can see in the London Mithraeum, but there are some really good examples with minimal investment (3-4000 euro) and great effects for tourists and students too.

I would reorganize the the podia which is too large and would be useful to establish a pronaos in front of the entrance. The space needs a new light-system too, to establish the ancient, mysterious dark spelaeum feeling of the sanctuary. There must be 2-3 bigger posters with beautiful photos and reconstructions, drawings perhaps about Mithras and his mysteries and the cult in Roman Dacia. Audio-visual effects would help to recreate also the mystery aspect of the cult.

I hope we can manage that in the future.

The London Mithraeum

The Mithras sanctuary of London is one of the most well known remains of Londinium, the Roman city of London. The building has a fascinating history also in antiquity and in modern times, the last sequence of its biography was begun 1-2 years earlier, when the brand new EU headquarter of Bloomberg transformed the site into a new archaeological museum.

The story begins in the 1st century AD, when this area of Londinium was dominated by wooden houses, a very rich and crowded domestic insulae-system. The fascinanting remains – wooden structures, textiles, shoes and wooden tablets – were discovered in 2012-13 in this area of the Walbrook, an area dominated by the brook and a very instable soil. There are no evidences, that in this early period, a sanctuary was functioning here.

Around 240 AD a pater and its small Mithraic group founded a mithraeum in this area. The building itself was a large one, although not the biggest mithraic sanctuary as many claims nowadays.  It has a typical shape and internal structure, having two massive benches (podia), possibly with a colonade on them.  It is presumed, that the sanctuary was founded by a group, who probably moved from a previous sanctuary – form Britain or another province. This might explain the strange amount and consistence of the materiality of religion discovered here. The large head of Mithras – today in the Museum of London – and several pieces of a large tauroctony could be a composite statue with several reused material.

The sanctuary was functioning till the end of the 3rd century, when probably was replaced by a bacchium, a sacralised place dedicated to Liber Pater. Some studies proved, that the presence of the Cambodunum 306 type of pottery in this place shows a striking similarity with the Liber Pater shrine in Apulum, Dacia.

The sanctuary was later abandoned and forgotten, although this part of Londinium was inhabited already in the 7th century AD.

The site was constantly reused and rebuilt, even Thomas More had a house here.

In the 19th century, a beautiful, but small sized ex voto was discovered here, representing the tauroctony. The discovery indicated, that in this location might be a sanctuary, but there were no excavations in this period.

After the severe bombing of London in the II WW, the Walbrook area was rebuilt. In 1952-54 archaeologists discovered the Mithras sanctuary, which is officially named as the birth of Brittish public archaeology, a case study of how to promote urban archaeology in the postmodern era. It was also the beginning of the MOLA, the Museum of Archaeology of London, which later became an etalon in field urban archaeology and public archaeology too. So the discovery of the sanctuary had a huge impact in the promotion of London’s archaeological heritage too. It was the biggest Mithraic sanctuary  discovered in Britain and some of the finest Roman sculptures ever revealed here.

The site was later moved in a new, artificial place, later abandoned and less and less visited.

After 2013, the Bloomberg company bought this area of the city and revitalised the old site of the sanctuary, moving back the Roman site near the original place. It was a great  example of experimental archaeology and archaeological reconstructions too, although many of us might be sceptical also here, if this methodology is useful or not.

The museum itself is indeed, a great example of public archaeology: modern technologies helping the contemporary society to understand the Roman past through fascinating audio-visual effects. Unfortunately, the site is not much about the archaeological material – which is mostly remained in the Museum of London – but on the visualisation of religious experience, made with the help of several academics from the UK (R. Tomlin, R. Gordon, H. Bowden).

There is a nice collection of archaeological pieces discovered in 2012-13 from the 1st century AD period of the Walbrook area. The material from the excavations in 1954 however is not exposed. There are few photos about the excavation, and although the space is very generous and large, it is extremely empty and minimalist: I would imagine much more information on the discovery, a general introduction on Londinium, on the cult of Mithras, on Roman religion, ancient mobilities and so on. This might be replaced by a fantastic phone app, which presents the site and the archaeological material by voice and texts.

In the “pronaos” of the sanctuary, the visitor can see some nice monitors with photos on the Roman cult of Mithras, reliefs, complex Mithraic narratives. One of the examples are from Dacia, Apulum – mentioned strangely there as “Mures Port”, refering to the Marosportus or Partos, the former territory of Colonia Aurelia Apulensis.

Inside the sanctuary the visitor can experience a 10-15 minutes long “religious” initiation, with audio-visual effects, although without a proper introduction, few of the visitors can understand what the choir and the male voice of the pater is speaking (the texts are from Santa Prisca, Dura Europos and other literary sources, mentioning the known phrases of the initiations).

In conclusions: the place itself is beautiful, fascinating visual effects, but not much about archaeology. Definitely better than most of the archaeological sites one can visit, but maybe a bit more information would have been useful there.




Gods in Roman Dacia – booklet for free

Gods in Roman Dacia5 years ago we have published a book on the bibliography of Roman religion in Dacia, a pragmatic tool for all who are interested in Roman religion in this part of the Empire. We had there also the first comprehensive dictionary of Roman divinities of the province.
The book – which had a great visibility since than – unfortunately didn’t have photos, so we decided to publish an updated version of the dictionary with a rich corpus of illustrations, based on the free access works of Ortolf Harl and his amazing project.

You can download for free our booklet HERE.

New titles on Roman religion in 2018

As every year, I collected again the major works published on Roman religion in the last year. Similarily to the previous years, the number of recently produced works are increasing. In less than a year, around 40 books were published and I’m sure I missed some titles (you can comment below some important works I forgot to mention).

The most important work on Roman religion published in 2018 was the paradigmatic work of Jörg Rüpke, who wrote a new history of Roman religion. The book – published originally in German – was translated in English and Italian too. The Lived Ancient Religion project finished last year produced numerous important works focusing on Roman prayer, Isiac cults, funerary religion and Roman sanctuaries in provincial context. Many other works are in preparation which means, we will see a lot of new books on Roman religion in 2019 too!

You can find the list of the latest works on Roman religion since 2013 HERE.


Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia – a book between classical archaeology and religious studies

My book on Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia was recently published. It’s the result of 5 years of research carried on in the Max Weber Kolleg and the University of Pécs, trying to find a bridge between classical archaeology, religious studies and archaeology of religion. Following the paradigmatic works of Mihai Barbulescu on “Spiritual interferences in Roman Dacia (1984 in Romanian language)” and Sorin Nemeti’s “Religious syncretism in Roman Dacia” (2005, also in Romanian), this volume tried to present the archaeological material through the eye of religious studies, focusing on religious experiences in sacralised spaces, commonly known today as Roman sanctuaries. The research was part of the Sanctuary Project of prof. Greg Woolf (ICS London) in collaboration with the Lived Ancient Religion project of prof. Jörg Rüpke. The publication of the book was financed by the Foundation of the Heritage of Transylvania  from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Contents of the book you can find HERE.

Short abstract of the book:

“This book is the first comprehensive work focusing on lived ancient religious communication in Roman Dacia. Testing for the first time the ‘Lived Ancient Religion’ approach in terms of a peripheral province from the Danubian area, this work looks at the role of ‘sacralised’ spaces, known commonly as sanctuaries in the religious communication of the province. The author analyses the role of space sacralisation, religious appropriation, embodiment and the social impact of religious communication in urban contexts (Apulum), military contexts (Porolissum and Mehadia), and numerous examples from rural (non-urban) environments (Ampelum, Germisara, Ad Mediam, and many 9781789690811others). The book concentrates not only on the creation and maintenance of sacralised spaces in public and secondary locations, but also on their role at the micro-level of objects, semi-micro level of spaces (settlements), and the macro-level of the province and the Danubian region as a whole. Innovatively as regards provincial archaeological research, this book emphasises the spatial aspects of lived ancient religion by analysing for the first time the sanctuaries as spaces of religious communication in Dacia. The work also contains a significant chapter on the so-called ‘small-group’ religions (the Bacchic, Mithraic and Dolichenian groups of the province), which are approached for the first time in detail. The study also gives the first comprehensive list of archaeologically-epigraphically- attested, and The book can be ordered  on the page of Archaeopress Publishing Ltd.


Reconstructed Mithraea in modern museums and archaeological parks

Ancient people of the Roman Empire created hundreds of spaces dedicated to Mithras, known commonly as sanctuaries of Mithras (the modern notion of mithraeum was never used by ancients, instead they labeled their spaces as templum, aedes, spelaea). Although the archaeological material from these spaces are extremely rich and due to the recent discoveries in the last decades we know much more about the archaeology of mithraea and their interior (mosaics, frescos, ceramic material, soundscape, position of statues and altars, repetitive or non-repetitive actions within the naos or outside of it), there are still big questions how a mithraeum looked like in antiquity. How dark was it? What kind of sounds they tried to immitate? Where the food was prepared for the banquets? How they sit on the benches? How many people participated and how often in such events? How often did they meet and how widespread were the acts of initiation in provincial contexts?

Some modern reconstructions of mithraea tries to anwer on these big questions of classical archaeology and religious studies by re-creating the interior of the sanctuaries. Some of them are from the early 20th century, others are from the 21st century. In any case, it is good to compare them and to find an aurea mediocritas, a solution which might be the closest to ancient realities.