There are many interesting sites to visit in Rome. Obviously, if it is your first time in the city and you are in town for just a few days, you’ll want to concentrate on the most famous landmarks. But if you have a knack for archeology, or if you would like to get away from the largest tourist crowds, you should check out some of Rome’s hidden gems.
Among them, I recommend visiting at least one of Rome Mithraeum temples. Some of them are actually really close to the Colosseum, so you don’t even have to travel far for them!
Curious to find out more? Continue reading to learn what is a mithraeum and to discover Rome Mithraeum temples.
Make sure to also read my post The Most Interesting Rome Underground Sites.
What Is A Mithraeum?
To understand what a Mithraeum is, first you need to understand what (or who) Mithras is. This deity was the center of a Roman religion called Mithraism that, even though it was widely practiced across the Roman Empire, remains something of a mystery to this day.
It is theorized that Mithras was a borrowed god from an older Persian tradition, but the Roman iteration was distinctive in its own right. However, nobody is entirely sure what this god stood for exactly. With almost no religious texts, historians and experts have been left only reliefs and sculptures to decipher, often if not always found in mithraea – subterranean rooms or caverns where the rites of the religion took place.
The worship of Mithras as a god seems to have been characterized by certain images, in particular that of a god (presumably Mithras) slaughtering a bull. Other imagery in the “slaughter scene” includes a scorpion, a dog and two torchbearers. This seems to be very specific to Roman Mithraism when compared to traditions surrounding the Persian variety. In fact, this scene of a bull being slaughtered by a god was the centerpiece of every Mithraeum ever discovered.
Mithras was apparently born from a rock. He is always depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, a conical hat with the top folded forwards, which was associated with Persians and Eastern European tribes at the time.
Rome mithraeum temples usually date between 100 BC and 300 AD. They have been discovered all over the city of Rome and across the former empire – a mithraeum was found as far as London. Mithraism was particularly popular with the military, which explains why many Rome mithraeum temples can be found in far-flung frontiers of the empire where Roman legions would be stationed.
And another thing: they weren’t called mithraea. This is a modern term. The Romans simply called them speleum, antrum or even templum. Interestingly, they were entirely different to traditional Roman religious buildings, which were only “houses” for deities to be looked at, not spaces of worship. In this way, mithraea could be thought of as closer to churches than Roman temples.
Most of these semi-hidden mithraea of Rome have similar features. They were usually dark, cave-like spaces with a single entrance with raised benches along the walls, featuring white-washed walls that were often scribbled with graffiti depicting colorful scenes.
There were also several altars in Rome mithraeum temples, each with names of those worshipers who had sponsored them. Due to their locations near old springs or bodies of water, it’s believed that a water source was a requirement for Mithraic rituals.
Although we don’t know much about what happened in mithraea, it is possible to string together a story from the archaeological finds. It seems that feasting was an essential focus of the rituals, as food and eating utensils have been found in many of the worshiping spots; animal bones and a large amount of cherry stones in particular have been discovered at ancient mithraea.
For these feasts, followers of the religion would recline on the stone benches. There would have been room for around 40 men, perhaps fewer, in a typical mithraic temple of Rome. The remains of burned animal entrails have been found at altars in mithraic temples, indicating a high possibility of animal sacrifice as part of Mithraic worship.
What we do know, however, is that prayers were offered up to the sun three times a day; particularly interesting is that Sunday was a sacred day in Mithraism, showing parallels with Christianity. Something else to note is that Mithraism was largely if not entirely a male-only religion, possibly due to its connections to the military.
Though the religion was obviously popular across the empire, it eventually met with persecution due to the gradual adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire’s state religion. Mithraism declined as Christianity gained power, finally becoming extinct around the fifth century. The sanctuaries were often destroyed, leaving them to ruin.
Because of their subterranean locations, any surviving Mithraic temples were easily lost to the development of the modern world. Apartment blocks and offices covered over the entrances to these sacred spaces, already long forgotten. Sometimes even churches were built over them.
Thankfully, a number have been rediscovered in modern times. And if you’re in Rome, you’re in luck: there are several mithraic temples to visit in the capital city.
The Most Important Rome Mithraeum Temples
Basilica di San Clemente
The mithraic temple underneath the Basilica di San Clemente was discovered in 1867. The basilica itself was built in 1100, and features a basement that once served as a mithraeum. The site has played host to many things over the centuries. For starters, the present-day basilica covers the remains of a foundation of a home thought to belong to the Roman Republic era (509-27 BC).
From the late first century onwards, it’s believed to have been a mint; then an ancient apartment building was built on it; and, around a hundred years later, a mithraic temple was constructed in the courtyard of the apartment block. The mithraeum itself was only fully investigated in 1914 because flooding previously made it too difficult to excavate it.
The main room of the mithraeum here was around 10 meters long and 6 meters wide, and featured an altar that was in the shape of the sarcophagus – complete with a relief depicting Mithras slaying a bull. Other imagery in the sanctuary included an image of Sol, a deified personification of the sun. Typical leftovers from Mithraic rites were also found, including the remains of meals and benches.
For a guided tour os San Clemente Basilica and its mithraic temple, click here.
For information on visiting San Clemente Basilica’s Mithraic Temple, check the official website.
While the Circus Maximus is an attraction in itself and is something of a public park in the city, it also has the bonus of being home to a mithraeum. Unfortunately, this particular mithraeum can only be accessed with a guided tour.
This is actually one of the largest Mithraic temples in the city. It was discovered in 1931 when the city was undergoing urban development during Italy’s Fascist era, specifically during the refurbishment of the Palazzo dei Musei di Roma. Dating back to the second century, this complex of subterranean corridors and rooms – five in total, with a central sanctuary – is a particularly impressive example of Mithraic worship.
There’s a marble floor and various iconography on show, including two niches for statues of the torchbearers and a central altar for Mithras; bas reliefs on the walls depict the death of a cosmic bull. Interestingly, in order to create a cave-like appearance, arches in the complex were created out of pumice.
For information about guided tours, reservations etc, check out the official website of the Sovrintendenza di Roma.
Baths of Caracalla
Discovered in 1912, the mithraic temple at the Baths of Caracalla also constitutes some of the largest in the city of Rome. Around 23 meters long and 10 meters wide, it is believed to have been created in 217 after the baths were constructed. The appearance of the mithraeum at such a public place points to the popularity of the religion.
The mithraeum itself makes up just one part of the extensive underground tunnels that run below the Baths of Caracalla. Inside, there’s a marble entrance way leading to a central aisle, covered in a black and white mosaic, and features sloping benches on the two walls.
Thankfully, much of this Rome mithraeum has been restored. Notable features to watch out for include a fresco of Mithras, which is missing its face, possibly due to vandalism from Christian worshipers.
Keep in mind the Mithraeum at the Baths of Caracalla is only open for special events and occasions. You may be able to get more information by getting in touch with CoopCulture, the organization that manages the site.
You should also read my post A Short Guide To Visiting The Baths Of Caracalla, Rome.
The mithraeum at the Barberini Palace was discovered accidentally in 1936 in the garden of the palace during refurbishment work, and is yet another fascinating ruin of the ancient religion. This underground mithraic temple features typical elements that have come to be associated with Mithraism; in particular, the main altar showcases a mesmerizing fresco of the god Mithras alongside the sacrificial bull in full color.
The fascinating fresco also shows ten miniature illustrations of the deeds of the god Mithras during his time as a messenger between earth and the heavens. In terms at least of this special fresco, this is one of the best preserved mithraic temples in Rome and helps to illustrate more clearly how the spaces would have looked in their heyday.
The site can only be visited by appointment. For more information, check out the official website.
This Rome mithraeum is located on the Caelian Hill between the Temple of Claudius and Nero’s Macellum Magnum, an area once well known for being home to wealthy Romans. The mithraeum was discovered under the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, which was part of the Castra Peregrinorum – a former military barracks.
One of the more later mithraic temples discovered in Rome, this example was excavated in 1973 when the church was undergoing renovations and the floor was stripped away, revealing the remains of the mithraeum. Made up of two long rooms, divided into smaller chambers, the mithraeum features two benches running along the walls, complete with a niche and altar.
Originally dating to around 180 AD, the mithraeum was actually enlarged at the end of the third century, with a wider altar and more elaborate decoration added, which shows perhaps a growing popularity (or at least increased monetary donations).
There are a number of interesting finds at this mithraeum; one of the most remarkable is a statue of Mithras being born from a rock, holding a knife in one hand and a torch in the other, and wearing a Phrygian cap. A gilded head of the god himself was also found, as well as a statue of a dog – a key symbol of the religion.
Santa Prisca Basilica
Another mithraeum situated below a church, this one is situated below Santa Prisca Basilica on the Aventine Hill. This Rome mithraeum was discovered by accident in 1934 by the Augustine fathers of the church during renovation works being undertaken.
The underground space features much symbology surrounding Mithraism. As well as the central bas relief of the young Mithras slaying the bull, there are also the two torchbearers at the entrance, one representing sunrise, the other sunset.
Other walls of this mithraeum feature frescos which tell the tale of the seven stages of initiation into the Mithraic cult. These are the tests that one would have to endure to be admitted into the cult. An interesting inscription can be found above the central niche: Saturday 20th November, 212 AD – possibly the foundation of the sanctuary.
At the time of writing, the site is temporarily closed.
Situated far from the center of Rome in Ostia Antica, the Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres (Mitreo delle Sette Sfere) was discovered in 1802 and further excavated 1886. This mithraeum dates back to the second half of the second century and was built on the western side of the Domus Apuleius. It’s not known whether or not the mithraeum was originally a house and was converted into a religious site, or if it was specially built.
Inside the mithraeum is a central aisle with a black and white mosaic floor, complete with symbols such as the dagger of Mithras – a reference to the slaying of the bull. The classic benches feature as they do in every mithraea, with room for around 32 men to sit, as well as two travertine altars.
On the walls, the signs of the zodiac are depicted in mosaic, placed in order according to astrological north; as you look at the altar, spring and summer zodiac signs are on the left side of the mithraeum, while autumn and winter ones are depicted on the right. The “seven spheres” that gives the mithraeum its name comes from the personified planets illustrated on the walls.
You can visit this mithraic temple during your visit of Ostia Antica.
You should also read my post How To Visit Ostia Antica, Rome.