Rome has a lot of hidden gems but only a handful of them can compare to the ancient Mithraeums and their underground well-preserved chambers located in stairwell non-descript buildings. Today, it’s a better time than ever to discover the remnants of this ancient cult that we know very little of. One thing we do know, however, is that no other city has as many Mithraeum as Rome and in this post, we’ll cover all of the Rome Mithraeumin temples and share some information about them.
But first things first…
What are Mithraeums?
Mithraeum is a temple erected by worshippers of Mithras, a mysterious Roman religion inspired by the Zoroastrian divinity Mithra. The religion was popular between the 1st and 4th century CE and it vanished around the time Christianity emerged. A reason for this might be the fact that the two religions were rather similar; one of the rare things we know about Mithraism is that Mithras was seen as a god who saved his people by shedding eternal blood (sounds familiar?).
The temples were small and could hold around 30-40 people and serve as a place of intimate worship. This cult was open only to initiates and their rituals remain a mystery to this day. During its heydays, it’s assumed that there were over 700 Mithraeums in Rome alone. However, today, we know of only 52 Mithraeum temples in Europe that are open to the public and seven of them are located in Rome.
Circus Maximus Mithraeum
Located under the old Circus Maximus, this Mithraeum is one of Rome’s best-kept secrets. This temple was discovered in the early 1930s during the construction of some of Rome’s fascist-era projects. Some of the clues left in the rooms lead researchers to believe that this underground tunnel was a 2nd-century temple for followers of the Mithras Cult. Unlike most ruins in Rome, the Circus Maximum Mithraeum was originally underground, which means you can experience it as the ancient worshipers did.
The current entrance of the temple was probably a secondary entrance back in the day, while the main entrance was in correspondence with Circus Maximus. That’s why most people refer to this temple as the Circus Maximus Mithraeum. If you want to visit this Rome Mithraeum, note that it’s open by appointment only and you would have to visit with a group tour. The tours last around one hour and cost 6 euros. You can get a detailed schedule of this tour here. The info is in Italian but you can always use Google’s built-in translate feature to get the information in English.
San Clemente Mithraeum
Located in an artificial cave beneath the Basilica of San Clemente, this Mithraeum is one of the oldest temples of its kind in Rome. Because of this, the Basilica of San Clemente is also referred to as “basilica lasagna”; there are three separate levels that remain intact even today. The basilica is also home to the second-largest collection of early Medieval wall paintings in Rome and that alone is a reason enough to visit but the real treasure lies hidden two stories below.
There, you’ll find ancient relics, reliefs, frescoes, mosaics, an ancient tomb, and a segment of one of Rome’s earliest original aqueducts that flows to the nearby Colosseum. According to historians, this sanctuary was built in the late 2nd century on a site that previously hosted a luxurious house (dating back to the 1st century AD) and it wasn’t discovered by archaeologists until 1867.
Today, the Mithraeum remains open for visitors but only by appointment.
The Barberini Mithraeum in Rome is one of the best-preserved Mithraeum temples in Europe. It’s located under the church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and is home to one of Rome’s most interesting crypts. The temple is basically a small edifice rebuilt by using blocks and remnants of earlier buildings located in the area. According to historians, the temple dates back to the 2nd century AD. The site was discovered in 1936 during excavations that were taking place in the area.
This uncovered a rectangular hall covered with a barrel vault dotted with fascinating frescoes. The upper part consisted of frescoes with zodiac signs and there were ten small paintings (pinakes) narrating the history of the sacred feats of Mithras (the personifications of the sun and the moon). Inside, you can also see a relatively well-preserved wall painting of (presumably) Mithras slaughtering a bull which may indicate one of the most common rituals performed by devotees.
If you’re planning to visit this Mithraeum in Rome, note that you’d have to make an appointment.
Mithraeum of the Baths of Caracalla
Originally discovered in 1912, the Rome Mithraeum of the Baths of Caracalla is arguably the largest documented gathering space for Mithraism followers. The site is 23 meters long and 10 meters wide and was used in the second and third centuries AD. Today, the temple, or better said, the remnants mainly consist of two chambers; a large meeting hall decorated with recently restored mosaics and a small chamber and a small tunnel that runs under the main hall into another chamber that has a staircase exit.
If you’re planning to explore more places in Rome during your trip to Italy, you can combine visiting this temple with a trip to the Caracalla Baths. Just keep in mind that you have to pay separately for visiting the two sites. The entrance to the baths costs 8 euros and after you enter the baths, you have to pay either additional 16.50 euros for a guided tour or 1.50 euros for an unguided tour. The unguided tours take place every day from 10 AM, 10:30 AM, and 1 PM.
Castra Peregrinorum Mithraeum
The Castra Peregrinorum Mithraeum in Rome is located in one of the eponymous buildings near the church of St. Stephano Rotondo. Around the second half of the 2nd century AD, one of these buildings was expanded and turned into a Mithraeum. Judging from the construction, one century later, the temple was widened but it’s likely that shortly afterward, it was abandoned. This temple had a vaulted roof that was likely removed in order to make room for the erection of the church in the 5th century.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the church was restored and during this time, the Mithraeum remnants were discovered (in 1973). Most of the monuments, reliefs, and artifacts inside were destroyed but a few, including a golden head of Mithras that were intact, were taken to the museum of the Baths of Diocletian.
Santa Prisca Basilica Mithraeum
Underneath the church of Santa Prisca, you’ll find a modern doorway that connects to a crypt that leads to an ancient Rome Mithraeum. This Mithraeum is important because of the fascinating frescoes on the walls that are still very well preserved. These wall paintings allowed the world to gain at least some understanding of this mysterious cult. The south side of the Mithraeum depicts the procession of the seven different grades of initiate while the north side depicts a procession of members of the Leo grade. This Rome Mithraeum was discovered in 1934 during the excavations made by the Augustine Fathers who were in charge of the church.
The excavations showed that the church was built atop an ancient dwelling house that was built near the end of the 1st century AD. Underground, you can find graffito that indicates that the house was converted to a temple at the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Interestingly, around the same time, another part of the basement was used by a Christian group (at the time, Christianity was still illegal). A few years later, Christianity was legalized with The Edict of Serdica (311) and there are strong indications that Christians destroyed the Mithras Temple.
Similarly like all other temples on this list, the Mithraeum under the SantaPrisca Basilica remains open by appointment.
Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres
The Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres is the only one on this list to be discovered before the 20th century. The remains of it have been excavated in the early 1800s and at the time, four inscriptions were discovered that showed some insights to this (until-then) relatively unknown and forgotten cult. In this Mithraeum, a relatively-well preserved wall painting was discovered which laid the ground for most of the theories about Mithraism that we know of today.
The painting depicts Mithras killing a bull while a dog and a snake are sucking the bull’s blood and a scorpion is biting his testicles with planets and the moon also being shown in the background. Apparently, this was one of the main rituals pilgrims practiced. In addition to this, the 12 signs of the Zodiac are depicted on separate mosaics on the horizontal side of the ledges. From the interior, it can also be deduced that the cult connected the left side with the astrological north, the day, and summer and spring, while the right side symbolized south, night, and fall and winter.
Of all the underground structures you can find in Rome, the Mithraeums are perhaps the most mysterious and enigmatic sites one can come across. And the fact that we know so little of what was actually happening in these subterranean tunnels makes them even more worth visiting. Finally, unlike most other underground attractions in Rome, these temples were originally underground which means you’d be experiencing the same way ancient worshipers did.
That being said, would you ever consider visiting one of the Rome Mithraeum temples? If so, which one would it be? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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