Mithraeum of the Circus Maximus: Paying Homage to an Ancient & Mysterious Cult

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Religion and politics are touchy subjects these days, but in Ancient Rome they were whole-heartedly part of daily life. One did not have to walk on eggshells about a particular topic, only speak with facts and conviction in an open debate.

Just like now, however, some things were kept secret. For those considered special enough there were secret societies and cults not open to the general citizenry of Rome.

Get your spelunking hats on because today we’re headed underground in Rome as we explore the Mithraeum of the Circus Maximus!

Before we begin our journey, let’s understand what exactly a Mithraeum was. A Mithraeum (Latin pl. Mithraea) is a Mithraic temple, erected in classical antiquity by the worshippers of Mithras, designed to hold up to 40 people at a time.

Mithraeum in the lowest floor in the Basilica of San Clemente.

The Mithraeum was either an adapted natural cave or cavern, or a building imitating a cave. When possible, the Mithraeum was constructed within or below an existing building, such as the Mithraeum found beneath Basilica of San Clemente in Rome.

While a majority of Mithraea are underground, some feature open holes in the ceiling to allow some light in, perhaps to relate to the connection of the universe and the passing of time. The site of a Mithraeum may also be identified by its singular entrance or vestibule, which stands opposite from an apse-shaped wall in which a pedestal altar at the back stood, often in a recess.

Also its “cave”, called the Spelaeum or Spelunca, with raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal. Many Mithraea that follow this basic plan are scattered over much of the former territory of the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire), particularly where the Legiones Romanae (Roman Legions) were stationed along the frontiers (such as Britannia).

Romans vs Sassanid Persians

Though scholars debated its origins, it seems the Mithraic cult came to Rome in the 1st Century BC from Persia, brought back by Roman soldiers who had been fighting in the east. Although the Mithras worshipped in Rome is not identical to the Mithra of Persia, there are enough similarities to imply that they are somehow related.

The Mithraeum primarily functioned as an area for initiation, in which the soul descends and exits. The Mithraeum itself was arranged as an “image of the universe”.

It is noticed by some researchers that this movement, especially in the context of mithraic iconography, seems to stem from the neoplatonic concept that the “running” of the sun from solstice to solstice is a parallel for the movement of the soul through the universe, from pre-existence, into the body, and then beyond the physical body into an afterlife.

The Tauroctony, Mithras slaying the Cosmic Bull (Museo Nazionale, Roma).

The cult and religious sanctuaries were open only to initiates, and their rituals secret. The central imagery is of the god Mithras slaying a bull, a motif known as Tauribolium, found in most if not all Mithraea.

Most Mithraea can be dated between 100 BC and AD 300. Although several Mithraea have been discovered throughout the ancient holding of the Roman Empire, including sites in Londinium, and several in Germania, Gallia, and Pannonia, little is known about the actual religious practices of the movement’s followers.

The Circus Maximus was Rome’s largest venue for Ludi (Public Games) connected to Roman religious festivals. Ludi were sponsored by leading Romans or the Roman state for the benefit of the Roman people (Populus Romanus) and gods.

Model of the Circus Maximus in all its glory.

Even at the height of its development as a chariot-racing circuit, the Circus remained the most suitable space in Rome for religious processions on a grand scale, and was the most popular venue for large-scale venationes. With the advent of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, Ludi gradually fell out of favor.

Banquet scene on the Fiano Romano Mithraic relief. At bottom are Cautes (l) and Cautopates (r).

Dating back to the 2nd Century AD, one of the largest secret Mithraic temples is in Rome hidden next to the famous Circus Maximus. The site features 5 parallel but separate chambers with a central sanctuary paved in white marble, with 2 niches for statues of Caute and Cautopates, and a place of honor which would have held a statue of Mithras.

Beside the Circus Maximus, an ex-pasta factory and current Rome Opera scenery storage facility sits atop the ruins of a sanctuary dedicated to the god Mithras. Discovered in 1931 as part of Rome’s fascist-era building projects, the small subterranean space was once dedicated to the mystery cult.

Who knows what lies beneath the streets of Rome?

Buried 25 feet beneath the modern city, the 2nd Century AD place of worship was adapted from a preexisting public building of the 1st Century AD. The rooms of the original structure were converted into the sacrificial and ritual areas where followers of the god Mithras would venerate their god, make sacrifices, and participate in a ritual meal of bread and wine.

The Mithraeum of the Circus is one of the many places in Rome that reveal the complex urban stratification of the city. The building was built on top of, filled in with silt from the Tiber and debris, and forgotten about until its rediscovery in the 19th Century.

It’s here waiting for you to make an appointment.

Today, the Mithraeum under the Circus Maximus is accessible by appointment only.

We hope you enjoyed today’s journey and look forward to having you back again for more. Please make sure to check extra posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Beck, Roger. “Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel”, The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 90. 2000.

Bowersock, G.; Green, P.; Grabar, O. Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. Harvard University Press, 1999.

The Mithraeum at Circus Maximus”. Atlas Obscura.

Mithraeum of the Circus Maximus”. Katie Parla.