OPINION - Roman London: the Empire's dark and mysterious underground temple explained

 (Anthony Upton/PA Wire)
(Anthony Upton/PA Wire)

London is blessed with an extraordinary quantity and rich variety of places of worship. Our city possesses thousands of churches, several hundred synagogues and mosques, and many Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples – and yet there is only one surviving Mithraeum (a temple to the god Mithras).

But, a little under two millennia ago the number of people who worshipped Mithras would have rivalled those who believed in Christianity. Roman London, a large trading city filled with merchants, administrators and soldiers, would have been the home to many who favoured the mysterious cult of the warrior god.

Who was Mithras and what is the story of the temple that is beautifully conserved in the basement of the Bloomberg Building in the centre of the City?

The god Mithras has his origins in an ancient Persian faith which was reinvented by the Romans in the 2nd century CE. Central to the religion is a creation story in which Mithras is ordered by Sol, the sun God, to sacrifice a bull. As the bull is killed it miraculously turns into the moon, its blood and seed producing all the plants and creatures of the world, while Mithras’ cape transforms into the sky filled with planets and stars.

With the bull’s death the world is born, and all things in it, good and evil. To celebrate, Mithras and Sol shake hands and banquet together before riding off in the sun god’s chariot to ascend to heaven. For Roman worshippers, the cult of Mithras is all about a personal mission to liberate the soul from the body and to follow Mithras to the home of the gods. There are seven spheres through which one must travel to reach this goal.

So much for the mythology (or theology…), what does that mean for a worshipper of Mithras in Roman London? First, you need a temple – a dark subterranean place reflecting the cave in which Mithras killed the sacred bull. Second, you need reminders of the deeds of your god – the essential feature of every Mithraeum was a carving of Mithras sacrificing the bull, most depicting Sol and other motifs of the creation story.

Third, you need to mark the importance of ritual banqueting, again through sculpture and in the construction of two lines of benches on which believers could both worship and feast. And finally, you must have an initiation ceremony – followers of Mithras were brought into the cult first as a Raven, after which they are welcomed with a handshake from the Pater (Father) – they are “united by the handshake” mirroring that of Mithras and Sol. Then they may rise through six other grades, if successful, to become a Father themselves.

It is possible to descend seven metres underground and be transported back 1750 years

The number seven features regularly, from the seven stages on initiation through to seven gates that followers have to pass through to get there – each again reflecting the journey of Mithras, and the soul, back up to the home of the gods.

London’s Mithraeum has all these classic features. The temple was discovered in 1954 during excavations by the Museum of London ahead of redevelopment in the Walbrook area of the City. Originally built as a vaulted, cave-like structure in around 240 CE, the third century Roman worshippers would pass through an entry hall to reach its darkened “cave-like” interior.

The hall was a place to prepare, to wash and to screen the secret rights of the main temple itself. Once inside they would find themselves in a long, narrow space with two parallel sets of stone benches and a sculpture of Mithras killing the bull in prime position at the head of the room. The London sculpture shows Mithras framed by the signs of the zodiac, and joined by a variety of other gods including Sol and Luna, the moon god, both in their chariots, Cautes and Cautopates (representing day and night) and two wind gods Boreas and Zephyros.

The excavators also found a wealth of other artefacts, many dating to before the construction of the temple which give a wonderful insight into everyday life in Roman London. Fragments of statues of Minerva and Mercury, as well as others of Mithras, illustrate that while this was a temple to one god, others played a role.

Since its discovery in the 1950s, the Mithraeum was first moved 100m from the original site and reconstructed in 1962 at modern ground level at Temple Court. The reconstruction drew criticism for historical inaccuracies, but it was not until 2010 when further development coincided with Bloomberg acquiring the original site of the Mithraeum, that the structure was returned (almost) to its original location, and a more accurate reconstruction effected using as much of the original material as possible. Now it is possible to descend seven metres underground (a serendipitous repetition of the holy Mithraic number seven!), as the original worshippers of Mithras did, to be transported back 1750 years and be immersed in the sight, sound and feel of a truly ancient place.

There is a final irony to this story which takes us back to the beginning of the article – in the last decade of the fourth century CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius, a Christian, issued several decrees banning paganism. This and subsequent persecution by Christians slowly extinguished the cult. Hence, London has thousands of churches and only one surviving Mithraeum…

John Darlington is Director of Projects for World Monuments Fund