CIMRM 476 - Mithraeum. Santa Prisca, Rome, Italy.


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Underneath the modern church of Santa Prisca in Rome, there is a crypt (A). A modern doorway from the crypt leads east into the ante-chamber (V) of a Mithraeum (W).

The position of the modern church, and of the Mithraeum beneath it. From: here.

The Mithraeum of Santa Prisca is important because of the remarkable frescos remaining on the walls. These, unusually, were painted with detailed text descriptions to indicate what they depict. This makes them of very great importance for understanding the cult. One side - the right-hand side, or south side - of the Mithraeum shows a procession of the seven different grades of initiate, each labelled. The other - the left hand side or north side - shows a procession of members of the Leo grade.

The Mithraeum was discovered under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome in 1934, during excavations by the Augustinian Fathers who are in charge of the church and adjacent monastery.1 It was then excavated in 1951-8 by a Dutch team led by M.J. Vermaseren.

The church stands 3m above ground-level, on the basement level of a Roman building.2 This building was originally a private dwelling house, built around 95 AD. A graffito dated to 202 AD indicates that, sometime before then, part of the basement of the house was converted into a Mithraeum, by a member of the imperial family, with the permission of the emperor Septimius Severus. At about the same time another part of the basement was taken over by a Christian group, possibly through a certain Prisca. The Mithraeum was destroyed by the Christians around AD 400.3 It was filled up with rubble and stray materials from various sources, so the list of finds is very extensive and most likely unconnected to the Mithraeum.4

The fence and remains of the lion-headed god. Via Anglohermes.

The Mithraeum is entered through an ante-chamber which contains a pen, perhaps for smaller livestock. It is not large enough for a bull. In one corner of it, on the wall of the chamber, are the remains of a statue. A thigh, and fragments of a snake wrapped around the statue up to the waist, suggest that this is the remains of a statue of the lion-headed god.

The cult niche is at the east end.

Drawing from 1930's excavations.

The congregation of the Mithraeum was mainly Syrians, as the names of the initiates make clear; and there is also a reference to the new year on 20th November. Some of the same people were also associated with the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus on the Aventine, near the church of S. Alessio.5

1. The discovery and other remains in the area

The church of Santa Prisca claims connection with Prisca and Aquila in the New Testament. However the earliest literary evidence of a church of St. Prisca is the mention of a priest of the titulus of Santa Prisca in the synod of 499.6 Inspired by the 1920's excavations under S. Clemente, the Augustinian friars in 1935 conducted excavations under their own church. They hoped to find the original church of St. Prisca, associated with St. Peter. No such remains were found. But they discovered that the modern church stood on the walls and arches of the ground floor of a Roman house, built of brick and with barrel-vaulting. The crypt of the church was inside the house. The house itself was dated by brick stamps to around 90 AD. Exploring the house, whose rooms were choked with in-fill, they discovered a series of rooms.

View down the central aisle. Note the niches left and right by the door, for statues of Cautes and Cautopates. The right niche still contains a statue of Cautes, minus his torch, but holding it upright. Photo by Luca di Cocco, 11/12/2011. From Panoramio.

The ante-chamber and Mithraeum were clearly accessible for a time in the middle ages. There were extensive skeletons and human remains, suggesting that it had been used to dispose of stray bodies. In addition there was very little marble, suggesting that this had been extracted for use in the lime-kilns.7

Despite many general claims, there seems to be no hard archaeological evidence of Christian activity in the area prior to the construction of the church of Santa Prisca some time during the 5th century.8 De Rossi claimed that paintings in an oratory in the garden were Christian and dated to the 4th century AD, but the oratory was destroyed during the building of the road and the date is not otherwise confirmed. Phillips' claim that a church existed here, contemporary with the Mithraeum, and attended by the women of the household while the men went to the Mithraeum, appears to be entirely imaginary.9

2. The first century house

The identity of the private house is uncertain. C.C. van Essen identified it as perhaps as the privata Traiani, the private home of Trajan before he became emperor.10 Coarelli dismisses this briefly and prefers Trajan's friend L. Licinius Sura, whose Baths (Thermae Surae) are known to have been situated immediately to the north and west of the site.11 Vermaseren adds that it is not at all likely be the house of C. Marius Pudens Cornelianus, mentioned in a bronze plaque dated 13 April 222 found near the church, and the basis for much speculation connected to Prisca, or Priscilla, and St. Peter.12

The was constructed around 95 AD on land cleared by Nero's fire decades earlier. It was elaborated, and later became part of the imperial estates.13

3. First phase of the Mithraeum

The 1965 map of the excavations.

The first phase dates before AD 202 and consists of a single room with the usual central aisle, side benches and cult niche. This included a very fine stucco image of Mithras as the bull-killer, a reclining god (probably Caelus-Oceanus), niches for Cautes and Cautopates. It also included a cycle of frescos with numerous painted inscriptions.14

Vermaseren dates the paintings of the first phase to 190-200 AD, to the time of Commodus or slightly later, but before the Severan period, based on the type of lettering in the inscriptions.15

3.1. Dedicatory inscription

An inscription discovered in three pieces in the Mithraeum indicates that a well-connected man founded the Mithraeum following a dream.16. Height of letters 0.04.m. It reads: Deo Soli invicto Mithre/quod saepe numini eius/ex audito gratias c .... /.17 The founder was probably part of the imperial household, since the house was probably still imperial property.18

3.2. Lower-layer inscriptions

Columns 5 and 6, north wall

See South wall texts and North wall texts.

Little is left of the paintings of the under layer. Some idea of what they showed can be found on the lefthand (N) wall; very little is preserved on the right-hand (S) wall.

However verses appeared in columns above the paintings, and because these were at the top, many of them are preserved. They come mainly from the lower layer. All the inscriptions are damaged, but some are fairly certain.19 One of these, in col. 5 on the north wall, with reference to "you have saved us by the shedding of the eternal blood", has attracted much discussion.

3.3. The graffito

This may be found on the left-hand side of the cult-niche, and reads:

I.e. "Born at dawn, the two Augusti Severus and Antoninus being consuls, 12 days before the kalends of December, Saturday, 18th of the moon." It indicates the date of initiation into the cult of someone, name unknown.

The graffito. From here.
The graffito explained. From here.

So it dates to November 20th, 202 A.D.20

4. Second phase

See CIMRM 480, right/south wall, 481, right wall contd, 482, and 483.

The temple was extensively remodelled about twenty years later. The cult room was enlarged and other rooms in the basement were taken over. The cult niche remained the focus, but the walls were repainted with new frescos. The upper-level paintings were more elaborate pictorially but the inscriptions are briefer. The hairstyles in the figures give a date of around 220 AD.21

4.1. Diagram of wall-paintings

The various photographs may be placed in context by this diagram.

Ferrua figs.8-9. Schematic of the paintings.

5. Other material

From Flickr:

6. CIMRM entry

The CIMRM entry is now obsolete, and is included for historical interest.

7. Bibliography

  • G.B. De Rossi, "Dell'oratorio antico scoperto nello scorso secolo presso S. Prisca", in Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana, serie 1a, 5 (1867), pp. 44- 48. Online here. Via online bibliography here.
  • A. Ferrua, "Il Mitreo di S. Prisca", in La Civilta Cattolica, 17, 2, 1940, 298ff. Brief popular article.
  • A. Ferrua, "Il Mitreo sotto la Chiesa di S. Prisca", BCR LXVIII, 1940, 59ff. Reprinted in Monumenti di Roma, 3, Roma 1941. (Bullettino della Commissione archeologica Communale di Roma (et. BCM). From 1939: Bullettino della Commissione archeologica del Governatorato di Roma.) (CUL shelfmark NF4 P520.b.31). Full publication.
  • A. Ferrua, "Recenti Ritrovamenti a S. Prisca", RAC 17, 1940, 271ff. (Reference in CIMRM 1, p.14)
  • G. Sangiorgi, S. Prisca e il suo mitreo, Roma, 1968
  • U. Bianchi, Mysteriae Mithrae. Contains colour plates of the frescos and monochrome images of some of the texts.
  • M. J. Vermaseren; C. C. Van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine, Leiden: Brill, 1965. - Excavation report. Reviewed in Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966) 115-116+118, by Kyle Meredith Phillips, Jr. JSTOR.
  • M.J. Vermaseren, "Nuove indagini nell'area della basilica di S. Prisca in Roma", in Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome. Antiquity, n.s., 37, 2 (1975), pp. 87-96. Via online bibliography here.
  • Coarelli, F. 1979, Topografia mitraica di Roma, in Mysteria Mithrae. Atti del seminario internazionale su "La specificità storico-religiosa dei misteri di Mithra, con particolare riferi - mento alle fonti documentarie di Roma e Ostia", Roma e Ostia 28 - 31 marzo 1978, Rome, 69-79.
  • R. Krautheimer, Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae. Le basiliche cristiane antiche di Roma (saec. IV-IX), vols. I-V, Vatican City, 1937-1980: vol.III, 263-279. A very useful description of the church in English in a volume too large to photocopy without difficulty.
  • Margherita Cecchelli, "Dati da scavi recenti di monumenti cristiani. Sintesi relativa a diverse indagini in corso", Mélanges de l'Ecole francaise de Rome 111, 1999. p. 227-251. Review of recent archaeology. Online at Persee.fr but some illustrations omitted.
  • G. Lepore, "Santa Prisca", in: Materiali e tecniche dell'edilizia paleocristiana a Roma, ed. M. Ceccelli, Roma 2001, pp. 339-342. According to Cecchelli this has interesting discussion of some of the early Christian brick structures.
  • M. Cecchelli, "Scavi e scoperte di archeologia cristiana a Roma dal 1983 al 1993, in Atti del VII Congresso Nazionale di Archeologia Cristiana. I, Cassino 20-24 settembre 1993", Cassino, 2003, p.335-356. From Spera, "Characteristics".
  • M.G. Zanotti, in: LTUR ( = Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae) IV, 1993‑2000, p.162-163. From Spera, "Characteristics".

1A. Ferrura, S.J., "Il mitreo di Santa Prisca, (Monumenti di Roma, 3)", Bollettino della Commissione Archeologica Comunale 58, 1948 [1941] p. 59 ff. The article is described as "excellent" by Vermaseren, p.ix.
2Krautheimer, l.c., who also states that remains of the ground-floor level of the building stand as high as 9m, incorporated into the east walls of the church.
3Phillips, l.c..
4Vermaseren-Essen, p.338 f.: "The rooms of the S. Prisca Mithraeum were filled with rubbish about A.D. 400 and the excavations produced thousands of fragments of all sorts of minor objects. Although it has not been possible to provide a detailed and specialized catalogue it has seemed better to publish a limited description of this material. thus making it available to students, rather than to ignore it altogether."
5Vermaseren, "Nuovo..", p.92: "Questo santuario è - come provano i nomi dei fedeli ed anche l'allusione alla festa del nuovo anno al 20 Novembre - soprattutto frequentato dai membri siriaci. Poi questi Mithriasti siriaci presso Santa Prisca avevano connessioni col santuario di Giove Dolicheno sullo stesso Aventino presso S. Alessio." (This sanctuary - as evidenced by the names of the faithful and also the allusion to the New Year's holiday 20 November - was mainly attended by members of the Syrian community. These Syrian Mithriasts at Santa Prisca also had connections with the shrine of Jupiter Dolichenus on the same Aventine, at S. Alessio.)
6Lucrezia Spera, "Characteristics of the Christianisation of Space in Late Antique Rome: New Considerations a Generation after Charles Pietri's Roma Christiana", in: Cities and Gods: religious space in transition, ed. Ted Kaizer &c., Peeters, 2013, p.121-142 (online here: "If the chronological limits of the first parochial institution are fixed at the period of the pontificates of Celestine I and Sixtus III (AD 422-440), the earliest mention of the church of Prisca on a site that was probably different from that of the 12th-century building, is given by the synod of 499. (80)" Note 80: "MGH, Auctores antiquissimi XII, 413. See van Essen 1957; Sangiorgi 1968; Krautheimer 1937-80, III, 263-279; Cecchelli 2003, 345-356; a synthesis is offered by M.G. Zanotti, in LTUR IV, 162-163."
7A. Ferrua, l.c., BSR 68, 1941, p.96: "Nel tardo medio evo venne ancora visitato da quei cercatori di materiali, che in tempi di miseria riutilizzavano nelle loro costruzioni quanto venisse loro alle mani. Cosi a quella parte di muri che ancora restava al disopra delle terre di riempimento venne sistematicamente strappato il paramento interno di laterizio, specialmente all'ingresso, nel vestibolo e nell'arcone dell'ambiente Y. E se tanta povertà di marmo ci è pervenuta si deve forse attribuire alle sonde che costoro fecero qua e là nel terreno... Forse fu questa una misura per sterminare piu compiutamente il ricordo di un culto esecrato? lo non lo saprei affermare. Tale ad ogni modo fu l'effetto, e fino in tempi assai recenti l'antico delubro di Mitra non si riaprì ogni tanto che per accogliere cadaveri abbandonati, come talvolta usarono gli antichi cristiani per rendere piu inespiabile la profanazione degli aborriti santuari(31)." Note 31 reads "Un vero cimitero di ossa e scheletri anche interi fu ritrovato negli strati superiori delle terre, che occupavano vestibolo e mitreo, sino alla volta." ("In the late Middle Ages it was still visited by those seekers of materials, who in times of misery broke up and refused them in their buildings. Part of the wall that still remained above the land fill was systematically stripped of its internal facing of brick, particularly the entrance, the vestibule and the environment near arch Y. And if there is so little marble found, we should perhaps attribute this to the probes that they made here and there in the soil ... Maybe this was a measure to more completely exterminate the memory of a much-maligned cult? I do not know. This however was the effect, and what was until very recently the ancient sanctum of Mithras was opened to accommodate abandoned corpses, sometimes used by the early Christians to desecrate irreversibly the detested shrines(31)"... "A veritable graveyard of bones and even complete skeletons was found in the upper layers of earth, occupying the vestibule and Mithraeum up to a certain period.")
8Phillips states that Vermaseren and Essen do state the creation of a church ca. 220: "At about the same time the Christians, perhaps through a certain Prisca, were permitted to take over another part of the basement for what was to be the titulus of Santa Prisca (pp. 114-15)." TODO: Look at this. Note that Vermaseren is often insufficiently critical when it comes to Christianity and Mithras, and fails to ask whether the data actually justifies the claims. This is also seen when discussing the destruction of the Mithraeum which he attributes to "the Christians" without actually sifting the data and establishing the date of the events.
9Kyle Meredith Phillips, Jr., Review of Vermaseren-Essen, Journal of Biblical Literature 85 (1966) 115-116+118. Online at JSTOR: "Why, as stated by the authors, is the same physical proximity between Christians and devotees of Mithras found under San Clemente and at least once in Ostia? How or why did they live side by side rather peacefully for nearly 150 years? Are the similarities between the two cults in the early third century strong enough to postulate that the masculine worshipers of Mithras someway encouraged the female members of their families to attend the neighboring Christian mysteries? These questions might be partially answered if further excavations could be carried out under Santa Prisca." It perhaps reflects more the cultural assumptions of an American man in the 1960's about churchgoing being "womens' stuff" rather than anything else.
10Vermaseren, "Nuovo...": "Il C. C. van Essen ha cercato di provare che si sono diverse ragioni per ritenere che il Palazzo traianeo sia da identificare con le Privata Traiani. Benché probabile, questa ipotesi non è sicura." (C.C. van Essen has sought to prove by various arguments that this Trajan-era palace should be identified with the Privata Traiani. This is very likely, but it is not certain.)
11F. Coarelli, "Topografia Mitriaca di Roma", in: Mysteria Mithrae, ed. U. Bianchi, (1979), p.69-83; p.75: "Uno dei più importanti mitrei di Roma, scoperto nel 1935 entro i resti di una grande casa dell'inizio del II secolo d.C., situato sotto e dietro l'abside della chiesa. La proposta degli editori (M.J. Vermaseren, C.C. van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden 1965) di identificare in questo edificio i privata Traiani sembra improbabile. Più verosimile semmai il collegamento con L. Licinius Sura, la cui domus sorgeva negli immediati paraggi delle Terme Surane, localizzabili con certezza nei pressi di S. Prisca, a nord della chiesa."
12Vermaseren, "Nuovo...": "Dobbiamo dire subito che per altre circostanze, non è nemmeno probabile che questa casa sia appartenuta al C. Marius Pudens Cornelianus del quale vicino alla Chiesa fu trovato il diploma in bronzo offerto a lui il 13 aprile 222 dal concilium conventus Clunieni. Non si tratta di negare connessioni eventuali di questa illustre famiglia con Prisca, ovvero Priscilla, ma di prevenire conclusioni non conformi a criteri scientifici."
13Phillips, l.c..
14Phillips, l.c..
15Vermaseren-Essen, p.177: "The data for the lower layer are much scantier. It is, of course, earlier than the upper layer but not much. On the one hand, what little is visible of the colours shows a refined sense of gradation, which is already Severan in flavour. The type of letter in the inscription, on the other hand, is heavier and shorter than that of the upper layer, but not square as the true Antonine type, nor perpendicular as that of the time of Septimius Severus (c. A.D. 205) in the Terme dei sette sapienti, Ostia III, x. This gives a date of the time of Commodus, or somewhat later, in the decade A.D. 190-200."
16Vermaseren-Essen, Catalogue W17, p.340-1: "White marble slab (Ht. 0.24. W. 0.63. Thickness 0.02) broken in three fragments (PI. LXXV. 5).... Since two of the three fragments were found in the neighbourhood of the niche. it is not impossible-although by no meRns certain- that the inscription belonged to the niche. It is indeed unfortunate that the provenance of the second fragment has been so badly indicated that one cannot confirm this conjecture. However, the inscription fits on one of the steps in front of the niche..."
17Vermaseren-Essen, p.340: "numini eius. cf. CIL VI. 724 (Rome) mentioning numini invicto Soli Mithrae, in which the word numen is an equivalent for deo. ... In this inscription the word numen followed by the genitive dei means the power of the god. There are many examples of this use in epigraphical texts.. Ferrua. p. 6 supplies : gratias et vola reddere moniti sunt, which is quite correct. In Greek and Roman religion the divinity himself sometimes summons the pious devotee by means of a dream or in some other way to give a votive offering or even to build or to restore a temple."
18Vermaseren-Essen, p.117: "During the reign of Septimius Severus who, probably under the influence of his Syrian wife, favoured the Oriental cults, an important Roman Mithraist whose name is unknown gave permission for a sanctuary for the Persian god to be built in his house, having been enjoined to do so by the god himself (Cat. W 17). He probably belonged to the Imperial family, since the house in which he lived had been built more than a century earlier by the Emperor Trajan (see p. 107) and had remained Imperial. He certainly became the Pater, the head of the new community."
19Except where indicated, all this information is taken from Vermaseren-Essen, chapter 21, p.187-240.
20Vermaseren-Essen, p.118: "The graffito has the form of a horoscope, though without mentioning the zodiacal symbols, and it is striking that the writer does not menton his name. There is a parallel for this in a genuine horoscope at Dura Europos, written on a wall of the workroom of a businessman in the "House of the Archives". ... it is clearly indicated that it was inscribed during the consulate of the two Augusti, Severus and Caracalla, i.e. in A.D. 202... The writer of the graffito on the cult-niche was natus on November 20th, A.D. 202, at the first light On the dies Saturni."
21Vermaseren-Essen, p.173-177. E.g., p.173: "The material for this is derived entirely from the western half of the south wall ... since the remainder of the figures are either too indistinct (western half of the north wall), or are shown with ritual attire and coiffure. ... The man leading the ram has, however. a great part of his cheeks clean shaven and probably has only the short side-whiskers just in front of the ears (sec left cheek) which is typical of the side-whiskers of the reign of Elagabalus (A.D. 218-222). If he wears a short pointed beard, which is possible but not certain, it may also suggest the first years of Severus Alexander."
22BCR = Bullettino della Commissione archeologica Communale di Roma (et. BCM). From 1939: Bullettino della Commissione archeologica del Governatorato di Roma.
23"Mon. Ant." = Monumenti antichi pubblicati per cura della R. Accademia nazionale dei Lincei.
24= Leopold, H. Uit de Leerschool van de Spade CDXXXIX, Iets nieuws omtrent het Mithraisme. Nieuwe Rotterdamse courant, 8 Aug. 1942.
25= Comptes Rendus de l'academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

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