CIMRM 476 - Mithraeum. Santa Prisca, Rome, Italy.
See also: CIMRM 476 Mithraeum; 477 Cautes; 478 Oceanus / Saturnus; 479 Tauroctony; Paintings: 480 Upper S. wall, 481 Upper S.(contd), 482 Upper N. wall, 483 Upper, Cave , 484 Under S., 485 Under N.; 486-496 Misc. finds; 497-500 Inscriptions and coins; CIMRM Supplement - Zodiac; Intarsio of Sol.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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
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.
So it dates to November 20th, 202 A.D.20
4. Second phase
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.
5. The destruction - by "the axes of the Christians"?
From: Bryan Ward-Perkins, "The end of the temples: an archaeological problem", In: Johannes Hahn, Spätantiker Staat und religiöser Konflikt: Imperiale und lokale Verwaltung und die Gewalt gegen Heiligtümer, de Gruyter (2011), 187-197; this from p.194 (online preview):
As Richard Bayliss has recently pointed out, the archaeological evidence for Christian damage to temples is all too seldom clear-cut, and too often open to wishful thinking - as I also discovered when I tracked a number of supposed cases back to their original publications.23 Most disappointing was the evidence from the Mithraeum under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome, whose excavators believed they had found clear signs of its violent destruction by Christians, and which is cited by Sauer as a particularly good example of passionate religious iconoclasm.24 The cult-niche, with its stucco figures, was certainly badly damaged when discovered, and bits of the relief were found scattered around the room; many of the frescoes too were badly damaged. But a careful examination of the published photographs of the latter did not suggest to me that they had been savagely and systematically attacked with axes, as their excavators claimed; rather, the plaster looks to have been in a generally very poor state when uncovered, and to have decayed randomly across the wall. Even some frescoed heads, which should have been the first target of iconoclasts, were well preserved when excavated, including the haloed head of Mithras himself (which, we are told in the published report, was destroyed, not by fourth-century Christians, but by a botched attempt at restoration in 1953).25 As for the stucco figures in the niche - stucco is a fragile medium, and. while they might have been deliberately damaged, it also seems possible that they had decayed and fallen apart. The head of Mithras, although detached from its original setting, was found in very good condition - a Christian iconoclast could easily have crushed it under foot.
6. Other material
7. CIMRM entry
The CIMRM entry is now obsolete, and is included for historical interest.