At a particular stage of its history, Rome, the city that has become a symbol of Western Christianity, opened to the outside and to oriental cults fuelling a syncretism of currents and cultures. We are at the end of the first century A.D. and precisely a cult of Persian origin made its mark in Rome becoming an alternative movement to the official religion. The cult became so important that, according to sources, even Nero let himself be initiated to its rites.
Mithraism was actually introduced earlier on, in Hellenistic circles, during Pompey’s campaigns in the first century BC, but it was under the dynasty of the Severi that this somewhat fascinating and mysterious cult grew in followers. One of the reasons why it became so notorious is probably because Mithraism possesses the elements that make it similar to a spiritual current rather initiatory, and therefore, managed to hit the sensitivity of the Roman world at a delicate moment in its history.
This religion’s main places of worship were mostly hidden and underground. They are called Mithraea, buildings dedicated to a deity associated to a solar dimension, protector of justice, and linked to salvation and that in many respects, as we shall see, with resemblance to the figure of Christ.
Even though it never became an official state religion as occurred later on with Christianity, Mithraism enjoyed an excellent reputation among several emperors, as for example Diocletian, who identified it with the Sol Invictus, “the invincible Sun”. There are affinities between the Christian religion and that of the Mithra God. In fact both currents support a great faith in life after death and in resurrection, they both use the image of the Final Judgement, and celebrate the god’s birthday on the 25th of December, exactly as it is nowadays.
As you know, with Costantine’s edict in 313 AD and with Theodosius in the IV century, Christianity became the official religion of the empire, even though during Julian the Apostate there was a brief pagan period.
Of this cult remain particularly significant archaeological traces in some underground locations of Rome. The Barberini Mithreum, located in Via delle Quattro Fontane, is one of the most important and best-preserved mithraea. This Mithreum’s special feature is that of having preserved its murals, and therefore, the iconographic evidence linked to the cult of this solar deity, often represented in the act of killing a bull. The so-called “tauroctony” is a ritual sacrifice associated to Mithraism and with an astronomic significance, expression of god’s control over the sequencing of the equinoxes. This episode gives us a lot of information on the practices of the cult’s rituals, information that is unfortunately very exiguous from consistent written sources. Another Mithreum with depictions is the one of Santa Prisca, which can be found under the church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine. Once again these murals provide proof of various episodes regarding the history of the god and in a niche appears an original tauroctony consisting on the representation of the nude figures of Saturn and Mithra.
The Mithreum of the Circus Maximus can be found near the Circus Maximus, under a building in via dell’Ara Massima and was discovered in 1931. Here too was found a relief with the representation of a tauroctony and where the god is accompanied by doryphoros (spear-bearers) Cautes, Cautopates, from the Sun and the Moon. Part of the marble flooring is still visible right next to the inscriptions with the names of various freedmen of Roman society.
Another known Mithreum due to its size and position is the Mithreum of the Baths of Caracalla. It rises near the Baths of Caracalla next to the basilica of Santa Balbina. The opening has a central-plan with vaulted ceilings and still displays the remains of a pavement decorated with black and white bands. An ancient vestibule was probably intended to the sacrifice of bulls.
The Mithreum of San Clemente is located instead in the lower area of the basilica of San Clemente. During the third century a private house that once stood in this area was turned into a Mithreum undergoing some building transformations to house the cult. It was then created a vaulted ceiling decorated with stars that would evoke a night sky. In a niche had to be a statue of the god and the usual representation of Mithras slaying the bull.
All these underground locations were studied over time by many archaeologists and scholars. Among them an important contribution to the study of the cult was given by Filippo Coarelli, who presented a research on the mihtreae in its publication Archaeological Guide of Rome.