Underground Pagan Basilica with Dark History Revealed to the Public for the First Time
A pagan basilica of first century AD Rome dedicated to Pythagoras’ and Plato’s metaphysics but depicting many types of Greek and Roman mythical beings has opened to the public. The family that founded the temple built it underground and was later accused of black magic. The patriarch, a rich, powerful consul and proconsul, committed suicide rather than await the Roman Senate’s verdict.
The basilica, which features many types of scenes carved into the volcanic tufa-rock walls, is the only one of its kind in the world. The rich, influential Statilius family built the basilica as a place to practice the cult of Neopythagoreanism, a mystical, ascetic Greek philosophical sect established in the first century BC that was based on the writings of Plato and Pythagoras, says the Telegraph in an article about the temple.
The underground Porta Maggiore basilica is 12 meters (40 feet) long was discovered during construction of a railway line. Expert restorers are removing mold and deposits of calcium with tools, lasers and chemicals to renovate the basilica’s interior. They are removing thick layers of calcium deposits with hand tools and scalpels first and then with drills such as the type dentists use. They have erected scaffolding to allow access to the arched ceiling, which has stucco reliefs on its surface. Some are well preserved while some have decayed, the Telegraph says.
The basilica has an apse and three naves lined by six stone pillars. All are decorated with images of satyrs, griffins and centaurs. There are also fine depictions of the heroes Hercules, Orpheus, Achilles and Paris, the Telegraph says.
While Titus Statilius Taurus IV was accused of having magical superstitions, a serious charge, historians say the imperial family had their eye on his family’s riches.
Ancient Roman historian Tacitus wrote in the Annals:
Statilius Taurus, whose wealth was famous, and whose gardens aroused [Agrippina's] cupidity, she ruined with an accusation brought by Tarquitius Priscus. He had been the legate of Taurus when he was governing Africa with proconsular powers, and now on their return charged him with a few acts of malversation, but more seriously with addiction to magical superstitions. Without tolerating longer a lying accuser and an unworthy humiliation, Taurus took his own life before the verdict of the senate.
Screenshot from an Ansa.it video of the Porta Maggiore basilica showing a griffin with a hunter
Agrippina was the wife of the strange and dangerous Emperor Claudius. Even though Statilius Taurus was a consul or chief magistrate of Rome in 41 AD and then proconsul of Africa from 51 to 53 BC, his money and power were not enough to save him. His grand-niece Statilia Messalina, though, became third wife of the future Emperor Nero, says The History Blog , which has a good analysis of the basilica and the history of the family. The blog describes the decorations:
The Porta Maggiore basilica is not a temple and it’s not Christian, but it’s definitely a religious building. The decoration attests to that, as does the fact that it was built underground in the first place. Above a wainscoting-like band of red paint of which there are sections extant, the walls and vaults are covered with exquisite white stucco reliefs of mythological scenes like Sappho’s legendary suicide by throwing herself off the Leucadian cliff into the ocean, Zeus’ eagle abducting Ganymede, Medea offering a magical narcotic beverage to knock out the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, Orpheus leading Eurydice back from the underworld, Hercules rescuing Hesione from the sea monster, Paris and Helen, Hippolytus and Phaedra, the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, and one of the Dioscuri kidnapping one of the Leucippides for his bride.
The blog says the walls also display children at play, a wedding, animals, plants and supernatural beings such as Medusas, Nereids and bacchantes. The walls have a scene of a pygmy returning to his hut after a hunt, a still life of a table with food and drink, stylized landscapes, worshipers at altars and many types of floral and geometric flourishes. The blog states the reliefs’ quality is “exceptionally high” and dates to the first century AD.
Featured image: The interior of the underground basilica, which opened in April 2015 ( Photo by artsblog.it )
By: Mark Miller