The Mithraic Mysteries and the underground chamber of San Clemente
Prior to the adoption of Christianity as its official religion at the end of the 3 rd century A.D., the Roman Empire’s religious policy was one of tolerance. Along with the official Roman religion, other religions were allowed to be practised. Moreover, some of the deities and religious practices of the people conquered by the Roman Empire were adopted by the Romans themselves. These include mystery cults such as that of the Dionysian Mysteries, Orphic Mysteries, and Mithraic Mysteries.
Mithra was a Zoroastrian deity who was in charge of covenants and oaths. The name of this god was adapted into Greek as Mithras. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the Zoroastrian Mithra was the same as the Roman Mithras. Some scholars regarded Mithra and Mithras as one and the same, while others regarded Mithras as a completely new Roman product. Yet others suggest that whilst Mithras may not be as ‘Oriental’ as some suggest, the fact that a Persian name was used has some significance.
Our modern understanding of the Mithraic Mysteries is derived mainly from reliefs and sculptures. The most common imagery is that of Mithras slaying a sacred bull, an act known also as ‘tauroctony’. This scene can be seen in Mithraea (the plural form of the Mithraic place of worship, singular: Mithraeum) throughout the Roman Empire. A Mithraeum was either adapted from a natural cave or cavern, or a building built to imitate such a space. When using a building as a Mithraeum, it would usually be constructed within or under the said building. As the Mithraeum was used mainly for initiation ceremonies, the dark, enclosed areas functioned symbolically as a place where the initiate’s soul descended into and exited.
A relief dedicated to Mithra found in the Mithraeum of the Circus Maximus. Image source .
One of the most well-known Mithraeums is located in the basement of the Basilica of Saint Clement (Basilica di San Clemente) in Rome. The main cult room, which is about 9.6m long and 6m wide, was discovered in 1867 but could not be investigated until 1914 due to lack of drainage. Central to the main room of the sanctuary was found an altar, in the shape of a sarcophagus, and with the main cult relief of the tauroctony, Mithras slaying a bull, on its front face. The torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates appear on respectively the left and right faces of the same monument. Other monuments discovered in the sanctuary include a bust of Sol kept in the sanctuary in a niche near the entrance, and a figure of Mithras petra generix (Mithras born of the rock). Fragments of statuary of the two torch bearers were also found. One of the rooms adjoining the main chamber has two oblong brickwork enclosures, one of which was used as a ritual refuse pit for remnants of the cult meal. All three monuments mentioned above are still on display in the mithraeum.
Mithras and the Bull: This fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy (third century) shows the tauroctony and the celestial lining of Mithras' cape. Image source: Wikipedia
In addition to initiation ceremonies, archaeological evidence suggests that feasting was another common activity at the Mithraeum. For instance, utensils and food residues are often found in these places of worship. Thus, it has been suggested that banquets were carried out to imitate the feast of Mithras and Sol, a solar deity. This divine feast is the second most important Mithraic iconography, in which the two gods are seen banqueting on the hide of the slaughtered sacred bull. Based on this correlation between archaeology and art, it has been suggested that other episodes of the Mithraic narrative were re-enacted by the followers of this mystery cult.
Incidentally, it has been pointed out that the rituals of Christianity and the Mithraic Mysteries are quite similar. This was done by none other than the early Christian apologists. These Christian writers, however, viewed the Mithraic rituals negatively and argued that they were corrupted copies of the Christian ones. In view of this, it may also be argued that it was Christianity that copied the Mithraic mysteries, or that the flow of ideas went both ways. Nevertheless, it will remain uncertain, as the medium of transfer, if there ever was one, has yet to be identified.
Despite similarities in rituals, Christianity and the Mithraic Mysteries were different in other respects. For instance, whilst Christianity was inclusive in nature, membership of the Mithraic Mysteries was exclusive. The Mithraic Mysteries was quite popular with the military, as evidenced in the presence of the Mithraeum at military outposts such as at the site of Carrawburgh Roman Fort, along Hadrian’s Wall in England. Furthermore, evidence suggests that only men were initiated into the Mithraic Mysteries. In addition, most of these men would have belonged to the class just below the elite but above the lower classes.