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Temples of Mithras

Mithraic Temples in Britain

By Adrian Pengelly

Originally published at Imbolc 1999

Roman temples occurred throughout the town and countryside of Roman Britain. Religion was an integral part of Roman life and the Romans brought with them a large number of gods and goddesses, as well as taking on a large number of native deities. There is no doubt that every settlement had a shrine or temple and many also occurred along roadsides and steams. It is also known that most homes would have had a domestic shrine, certainly the large villa establishments also included small temples to the domestic or household gods. One of the most enigmatic and mysterious of the Roman gods was Mithras, popular throughout the upper class, and particularly popular with the army and merchant classes. However, Mithraism was a mystery cult and open only to initiates yet these initiates, because of their social status were able to create temples which reflected their status, using stone and imported materials to create permanent monuments to their religion. Why is it then, that so few remains of these temples are known? In this article I shall suggest that the problem has been caused by archaeologists looking in the wrong places, or more specifically by the reuse of Mithraic temples by early Christians, disguising any obvious Mithraic references and leading to an apparent lack in Mithraic archaeological sites.

A recent survey of Roman temples and shrines has been undertaken and 86 examples were analysed. It can be seen from the survey that the most frequent locations for temples are in the larger towns or on military sites such as forts or frontiers. If the examples found in large unwalled settlements are included also, these locations account for 41 per cent of the total. They include major classical temples in towns such as Colchester, examples from the many territorial civitas capitals such as Winchester, Silchester and Chichester, temples in Roman forts such as those along Hadrians Wall at Housesteads and Carrawbugh, and further examples in small towns and roadside settlements such as Chelmsford and Kelvedon in Essex,

Springhead in Kent and Nettleton in Wiltshire. A further fourteen examples some 16 per cent, occur in association with newly founded structures in the countryside, either beside Roman roads or adjacent to villa establishments, as at Chedworth, West Coker and Winterton. The remainder, 43 per cent occur in isolated rural locations, 21 per cent of these on hilltops or near springs and streams and 22 per cent on or next to existing sites of prehistoric date as at Maiden Castle.

Of these temples only 10 are known to have been dedicated to Mithras. All but one of these, which occurs in London, are to be found in the military zone. This is hardly surprising considering its appeal to soldiers, as a male orientated cult promising a glorious life after death. However, only 5 of these 10 have been properly excavated, so our knowledge of Romano-British Mithraic sites is somewhat limited compared to what we know about European examples.

From the examination of the British examples it can be seen that the temples always conformed to a standard type, in which the essential elements were the sanctuary, a long narrow nave flanked by a single low solid bench facing out into it, and an outer room screened off from the nave. The heyday of the cult was undoubtedly the third and early fourth centuries AD and it is to this period that the excavated examples on Hadrians Wall belong. Three are now known, at Borcovicium (Housesteads), Brocolitia (Carrawburgh), and Vindobala (Rudchester), the last being the largest though the least well preserved. In an article of this length it is not possible to give detailed descriptions but interesting points emerge from comparison between the three. In the Rudchester and Carrawburgh temples the dedications were made by commanders of the regiment. At Housesteads the dedicators were a legionary centurion and a legionary seconded to special duties by the consular governor. It is evident that there was no long or regular succession of men capable of organising the elaborate ritual, and both at Carrawburgh and at Housesteads there were indications of an intermittent use of the building divided by periods of abandonment, when it was deserted but certainly not desecrated. All three temples were partly destroyed by the armed incursions at the close of the third century AD. Only Rudchester and Carrawburgh appear to have been rebuilt while Housesteads remained devastated. The ultimate fate of Rudchester is not clear, but Carrawburgh was deliberately desecrated and demolished early in the fourth century AD, its site being used henceforth as a rubbish dump.

Carrawburgh is the seventh fort from the east on Hadrians Wall. It is a basic and unspectacular site, the fort shown only by an earthen rampart. However, during the drought of 1949, the marshy ground to the south-west of the fort dried up revealing the top of an alter. Excavations showed that it was the tallest of a trio of alters dedicated to Mithras, standing before a three-sided apse at the northern end of a 36 feet long Mithraeum. It had been built on flat rather boggy ground with no attempt to place it underground as in continental examples. The building was excavated in 1950 and found to be of two periods. The first building of the early third century was only 26 feet long and could not have held more than 10 or 12 men. One of its most interesting features was a small bunker for pine cones which had been carbonised by careful roasting and when burned in this state would have given off a strong pine aroma, clearly a ritual stimulant. The temple was soon enlarged to 36 feet during the later third century and to this was added a square apse which held a Mithraic relief. Benches supported by timber wattling stood on each side of the nave and on these the participants reclined. The next stage was a thorough remodelling of the interior. The introduction of posts suggests a change in the roof structure. The narthex was now fitted with an ordeal pit lined with stone and sunk into the floor, coffin like, where initiates could be subjected to heat and cold while lying entombed. In the fourth stage the ordeal pit was replaced by a bench and wood flooring put down in the nave as if the trials were no longer as rigorous as before. The building was destroyed by fire and deliberately wrecked in the troubles at the end of the third century. A new temple was erected on the old foundations differing only at the apse end. The side benches were shorter and it was in this form that the temple was finally abandoned, but not before suffering desecration. This destruction is dated by the archaeologist Ian Richmond to AD 324 when the struggle between Mithraism and Christianity had political aspects. Of the three alters found at Carrawburgh, the one situated on the left is the most interesting. It bears an inscription on the lower half above which is a half length representation of Mithras himself. He is shown with a radiate halo around his head, and this has been pierced so that a torch placed behind the figure would let its light shine through the radiate crown into the semi-darkness of the temple. The three alters were set up by prefects from the nearby fort; Aulus Cluentius Habitus, Lucius Antonius Proculus and Marcus Simplicus Simplex. This is clear evidence of the high status of the followers of Mithras and the money and influence which was available to the cult. The original alters are now in the University museum in Newcastle and copies of the alters are on site. Interestingly, very close to this temple is a well dedicated to the Celtic water-nymph Coventina. Little can be seen here now but over twelve thousand Roman coins and other offerings have been recovered from the site. One can only speculate as to the reasons or otherwise for locating the temple of Mithras so close to a native shrine.

At Rudchester the ancient Vindobala, the fourth fort on the line of the wall, four alters were found in 1844. One showed a bull, sacred to Mithras on its base, along with other familiar images of the Mithras cult. This altar, neatly designed also shows a wreath encircling the word DEO with two palm trees above it. An inscription reads 'LUCIUS SENTIUS CASTUS (A centurion) OF THE SIXTH LEGION, PIOUSLY DEDICATED THIS ALTAR TO THE GOD (Mithras)'.

Another Mithraic site was found a little to the west of Chapel Hill on Hadrians Wall in 1822. Records appear to show that this was the site of a semi subterranean cave, dedicated to Mithras. It was excavated in 1898 and several Mithraic figures were recovered. This is the only Mithraic site which appears to follow the continental model in that it is partly underground, however, archaeological investigation in the early nineteenth century was unscientific in the extreme and it is difficult now to be certain about what was found on the site. In 1900 it was stated that amongst the alters found in the Chapel Hill cave was one bearing the names of Gallus and Volusianus, who were consoles in the year 252. Unless a coincidence this again shows evidence of high status and official approval of the followers of Mithras. There was also found a tablet, which shows a representation of Mithras himself coming out of an egg and surrounded by an oval belt containing the signs of the zodiac. By 1907, J. Collingwood Bruce in his Handbook of the Roman Wall noted that the site of the temple was almost obliterated. From what I can tell, any real archaeological value to this site has now been lost.

Another Mithraic site lies near Caernarfon at the Roman fort of Segontium, some 150 feet above the Menai Strait. Occupation of the fort began around AD 75-80, AD 78 being the most likely date. It appears to have been garrisoned for the next three hundred years. The garrison seems to have been a mixed one of cavalry and an infantry cohort, a combination more usually found on Hadrians Wall. A temple of Mithras was found some 150 yards east of the fort and excavated in 1959. It is of the normal pattern of a Mithraeum, being a long narrow building 48 feet by 21 feet, with a low bench on either side of the nave and a sanctuary at the north-east end where the sculptured relief depicting Mithras slaying the bull would have been set. The temple was built around AD 200 and abandoned sometime in the early fourth century. It was destroyed soon after.

The other main Mithraic site worthy of attention is the one discovered during the excavation of war damaged sites in London by W. F. Grimes in 1953. It was situated on the west side of the Walbrook on the site of Bucklersbury House. On the east bank of the old riverbed foundations appeared which were interpreted as the remains of a temple. The temple was of a basilican plan with two narrow aisles, an entrance to the east and an apse at the western end on a slightly higher level than the floor of the nave.

The temple was situated in what must have been an ideal place for the followers of Mithras surrounded by soldiers and merchants from around the empire. It is the only example of a Mithraic temple outside of a military zone. The dedication of the temple to Mithras was proved by the large amount of statues, all in fine Italian marble found concealed near the eastern end of the temple. As well as a head of Mithras other deities represented included Serapis, Minerva, Dionysus and Hermes, all deities connected in one way or another with the underworld. This Mithraeum was built some time during the second century AD and the sculptures date to the late second century. The long held theory is that the statues had been deliberately and carefully concealed to save them from being destroyed by zealous Christians during the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. However, new research has suggested that the burial of these sculptures may not have been undertaken by the followers of Mithras eager to protect their god from the destruction of the Christians. The burial may actually have been carried out by Christians themselves, in the course of converting the Mithraic temple into a Christian church. Although unlikely sounding, it is known that early Christians reused native sites. At Icklingham, a pit was concealed containing items from a native shrine, including roof tiles, a limestone pillar and several human skulls and bones. At Uley, fragments of cult statues and defaced Roman altars were incorporated into the fabric of a timber basilica, and the head of a large statue of Mercury was deposited as a ritual burial beneath the subsequent stone church constructed on the site.

The archaeological remains of the Mithras cult constitute a small but special category of Roman art and religion linked to Roman soldiers and to the officer class of the auxiliaries of the Roman army. In the London Mithraeum, votive objects are in imported marble. There are also remains of high quality limestone sculptures produced in London workshops by craftsman. The status of the followers of Mithras ensured that objects associated with the cult were always of the highest quality. Imports were common, but also common was the use of the best native craftsman to produce items important to the cult. Interestingly at Housesteads the relief of Mithras was carved more or less in situ, certainly without a local workshop tradition to back it up. This is testimony to the devoted piety and patronage of the officer class that they were prepared to bring in sculptors from afar when no local craftsman were skilled enough.

The lack of archaeological remains of the Mithras cult has caused a problem in our understanding of the religion and the extent of its popularity. Mithraism was an empire-wide cult popular with the ruling classes and army. It may have been a religion of initiates, and the temples may only have held a small number of participants, but one cannot doubt that as a cult, it must have had a large number of followers. Yet if this is so, why are there so few temples known and why so few artifacts in existence?

It must be remembered that of the ten examples of Mithraic temples known, nine are in military zones. These areas were precisely those likely to be subject to armed attack and subsequent destruction. If the temples in these areas were completely destroyed, there was no chance of the buildings being reused for other purposes, so the shattered buildings lay undisturbed until their discovery by archaeologists. We only have one example of a Mithraic temple in a civilian zone, that of the London Mithraeum. This was situated at the heart of Roman Britain, intended for the use of rich merchants and the soldiers guarding the governor. There is evidence of the building being reused, and it is perhaps this reuse which is the key to the lack of surviving Mithraic temples. I feel it is likely that many Mithraic temples in the civilian zone were not completely destroyed by Christians, but were reused and remodelled. This could only have happened in the civilian zone and it is in this zone that there is an almost complete absence of Mithraic remains. If archaeologists are able to identify Romano-British Christian structures, it may be that they will also be able to identify Mithraic remains in the foundations of the buildings. The problem is that it is currently very difficult to identify early Christian buildings, so it is equally difficult to analyse their foundations. However, it should be remembered that during the early eleventh century, England had a number of stone built Saxon cathedrals but within 150 years the incoming Normans had erased all trace of these structures. Archaeologists are currently looking for evidence of the original Saxon buildings but little solid evidence has been found. If large Saxon cathedrals can be erased in only 1000 years, is it any wonder that small buildings intended for the use of perhaps 10 or 12 people can be lost over 2000 years. We have tantalising glimpses of what may have been; the remains of a possible Mithraic statue in Ipswich and fragments of a Mithraic sculpture by a local craftsman in the Cotswolds for instance, yet there doubtless remains much more to be discovered. Until that time, the Mithras cult will remain a poorly excavated and poorly understood mystery religion.