A supposed Mithraic mosaic, with zodiac, unearthed in Bursa / Prusa

A news report from the Turkish website, the Daily Sabah, on 19th August 2016, contains a photo and a curious story:

A Roman-era “Mithras Mosaic,” dating back nearly two millennia and depicting solar and astrological signs from the Roman zodiac has been discovered during archeological excavations in the Hisar region of the ancient province of Bursa.


A statement by the Osmangazi Municipality says the excavations, initiated as a part of the “Hisar Archeopark Project” in an attempt to shed light on Bursa’s ancient history, resulted in the discovery of artifacts from the Roman, Byzantine and early Ottoman periods.

The mosaic is from the 2nd century and depicts zodiac signs indicating seasonal changes: the movement of the sun, known to the Mithras cult as the “Invincible Sun” (or “Sol Invictus” in Latin) through the 12 months or zodiacal houses of the solar calendar, as well as depicting the solstice and equinox. …

The archeologists encountered the remains of walls believed to be a part of either a public bath or marketplace. Osmangazi Municipality mayor Mustafa Dündar said they will enlarge the area being investigated as the excavations unearth further discoveries. Dündar emphasized that Hisar Archeopark will encourage the extension of the knowledge of the history of Bursa, adding: “We first discovered water pipes belonging to the Ottoman era, and then marbles belonging to the Byzantine Empire. Underneath them all, we unearthed Roman era mosaics.”

The location is in the modern Turkish town of Bursa, which stands atop ancient Prusa.  Osmangazi is the district of Bursa.  I have myself passed through Bursa, on a tourist coach, not that long ago.

But what is Mithraic about a mosaic of the zodiac?  The zodiac appears in depictions all across the ancient world.

Sadly there is only the one photograph.  No other information seems to be available, which is annoying.

One can only wish the town of Bursa success in their Archeopark Project and excavations – it is a worthy project.  But how irritating that so little information is available!

UPDATE: Commenter “suburbanbanshee” has located a couple more sources.

First there is a book out there, for which a table of contents and order details exists here (local copy AIEMAconferencevolume11 PDF).  I don’t know if the Bursa find is discussed, but the PDF contains an extra picture:


There are some interesting pictures in a very nice little magazine/newspaper from March 2015, called “This Is Bursa.” Unfortunately it was uploaded in a horrible Adobe Flash viewer, which doesn’t work in IE, and won’t work at all in a few years (for Flash is doomed).  The authors would be well advised to repost it as a PDF.  I must admit that, for promotional material, it is really rather charming.  Perhaps the fact that few of us know anything about Bursa is a factor.

I’ll post the contents here, as best I can, in case it all vanishes.

On p.9 the following images appear:




The text reads:

Osmangazi municipality focuses on historical and cultural heritage of Bursa.

Hisar archeopark excavation project underway.

Mustafa Dundar. Mayor of Osmangazi Municipality has recently pointed out that a series of excavation and restoration works on  historical and cultural heritage and riches of Bursa are underway  within the framework of Hisar Archcopark archaeological project.

According to Mayor Mustafa Dundar, Hisar District of Osmangazi  possesses diverse range of historical riches dating back to 2700  years ago. Cooperating with Bursa Museum Directorate, the project includes an area of 7000 square meters.

The district has been shaped by several civilizations such as the  Bythinia, Rome, Byzantium, Seljuqians, and Ottomans. The first  marks of the Ottoman Empire exist within Osmangazi where it  extended from the foot of Uludag to the plain of Bursa. Within the  boundaries of Osmangazi, approximately 1800 registered historical  buildings exist.

Bursa was seized by Osman Bey in 1307 and conquered by Orhan  Bey, the son of Osman Bey, on 6 April 1335. The capital of the  empire was moved to Bursa in 1335 and new development movements were initiated. When Bursa was conquered, the city consisted of the inner castle, but Orhan Gazi had the Orhan Gazi Complex built out of the town. Public buildings such as mosques, baths,  soup houses, hospitals, madrasahs were built out of the walls,
where new settlements had been initiated, hence a new tradition  of settling area had been established.

As known, Osmangazi is the largest and central municipality of  Bursa Province. It also makes up a district of Bursa Province. On  its own, it would be the 8th largest city in Turkey.

Osmangazi, the center of social and economic relations for years,  is in the crossroad of roads to Izmir, Istanbul and Eskisehir.  Osmangazi is the biggest district of Bursa that is on the southwest  coast of Marmara Sea. Gokdere River on the cast, Nilufer River  and Mudanya Road on the west, Katirh Mountains on the north,  Uludag and Kirazh Plateau are the natural and artificial boundaries of the district.

There is also a rather nice photo of what I assume is the mayor and his colleagues visiting the site.

My sincere thanks to suburbanbanshee for ferreting this out!

UPDATE: @suburbanbanshee has been busy.  These notes from the comments.

Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity, Yale (2012), in chapter 16 (p.317-336), “The zodiac and other Greco-Roman motifs in Jewish art”, a draft PDF of which is online here, on p.326, n.36 states:

In the summer of 2009, a full zodiac motif similar to Palestinian models was found in Bursa, Turkey, in a purportedly third-to-fourth century building that has not yet been identified…

The author in fact is discussing the appearance of zodiacs, with the seasons, in Jewish synagogues.  He states on p.316:

By far the most stunning Hellenistic-Roman depiction to appear in Jewish art of Late Antiquity is that of the zodiac signs, the figure of the sun god Helios, and the four seasons (all hereafter referred to as the zodiac motif ). Indeed, no single motif in all of ancient Jewish art has aroused more surprise and scholarly attention than that of the zodiac appearing in a number of synagogues from Byzantine Palestine; indeed, this interest is reflected in scores of books and articles on the subject.

The chapter is extremely interesting, and I recommend a read.  He lists with literature all the examples, and discusses the degree to which this is a “pagan” item, and whether in fact the pagan aspects had disappeared in a depiction of the son, the months and the seasons.  It does raise the question, then, of whether the Bursa discovery might be of a synagogue!

The two figures in the corners do appear to be the seasons.  The female with the wheat stalks on one side and a sickle on the other looks like Autumn.  This figure is portrayed with autumn and winter constellations (Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn).

 The other figure, in a hood with a pink colour is portrayed with spring constellations (Aries, Taurus, and Gemini):

So she could be Eiar or Thallo, but I don’t see much in the way of Spring wearing a hood. (Not that that means much, since it seems like the Seasons are depicted any way the artist fancies.) She is carrying a raised torch, I think now, and that can be associated with the return of light.

I guess they are hoping it’s Cautes [the follower of Mithras], because some material online says Cautes is associated with the beginning of Spring.

Ah… found something… Eirene (Peace) was often used as Spring (possibly because Spring was both planting season and the beginning of campaign season, and people were hoping to be able to plant before any fighting started).

And Eirene can be depicted carrying a torch. So it’s probably Eirene as Spring. She probably would have had something in her other hand, like Baby Plutus (wealth, because peace allows prosperity), a cornucopia horn (because peace allows abundant crops), or a rhyton for libations.

The figure in the hood is not Cautes, who is not depicted, as far as I am aware, in a hood.  But @suburbanbanshee is probably right to suggest that the combination of the sun at the centre (if it is), and a figure with an upraised object that could be a torch, is probably why someone suggested Mithras.

There is a rather confusing article here at Perseus, which makes clear how indistinct these figures were, although it is referenced to primary sources.  The Wikipedia article is no better and of course is not referenced.  Its statements appear in fact to derive from this wretched source.[1]  I could find no good discussion online of the Greek seasons.  I think we may leave it here, tho.

  1. [1] Patricia Della-Piana, Witch Days: a perennial pagan calendar, self-published, 2010, p.137.  Google books preview of page here: “Greece: Feast of the Horae: literally. Feast of the Hours, personifying the twelve hours, as tutelary goddesses of the times of day. The hours run from just before sunrise to just after sunset, thus winter hours are short, summer hours are long, and they include Auge, for first light; Anatole or Anatolia, for sunrise; Mousika or Musica, for the morning hour of music and study; Gymnastika, Gymnastica or Gymnasia, for the morning hour of gymnastics/exercise; Nymphe, for the morning hour of ablutions  (bathing, washing); Mescmbria. for noon; Sponde, for libations poured after lunch; Flete, for prayer, the first of the afternoon  work hours; Akte, Acte or Cypris, for eating and pleasure, the second of the afternoon work hours; Hesperis. for evening; Dysis, for sunset; and Arktos, for the night sky. constellation. There are also the Horae of Life, which are comprised of three generations. The first generation consisted of Thallo, Auxo, and Carpo, who were the goddesses of the seasons (the Greeks only recognized spring, summer and autumn). The second generation comprised Eunomia, Dike, and Eirene, who were law and order goddesses that maintained the stability of society. They were worshiped primarily in the cities of Athens. Argos and Olympia.  Some authors recognize a third set of Horae, in Pherusa (or Pherousa, goddess of substance and farm estates). Euporie (or Euporia. goddess of abundance), and Orthosie (goddess of prosperity). Also,  Nonnus in his Dionysiaca mentions a set of four Horae: Eiar, Theros, Cheimon and Phthinoporon, the Greek words for spring, summer, winter and autumn respectively.”  In view of the tendency of modern “pagans” to invent the stories they tell, one would be reluctant to rely on any of this.

That old bull again! – the recent international conference on Mithras in Italy

vulci_csaba_1I must have missed the announcement, but Csaba Szabo kindly drew my attention to his report on an international conference on Mithraic studies in Italy.  About 50 people attended.  Sadly the long-exploded Cumont theory was in evidence in some papers.  But it sounds as if it was an interesting event.

The main impression that I gained from Dr S.’s report, was that the sub-discipline is in limbo.  The field is too small to support as regular journal, as the ill-fated Journal of Mithraic Studies discovered.  Likewise those studying Mithras are invariably drawn to look at related cults.  It is troubling that at such a conference there was limited discussion of recent archaeology; for it is from archaeology that progress in understanding will be made.

vulci_csaba_13Dr S. also put on his blog some nice photos of the Mithraeum of Vulci.  I am deeply envious – it is impossible to get hold of any printed material about this place – all in Italian – and even a google search on the booklet he mentions, Vulci e i misteri di Mitra: Culti orientali in Etruria, will quickly reveal … no hits!  Oh well.  It’s good to see some interesting pots, tho.  It also clarified that the tauroctony in place in the Mithraeum is clearly a restored copy.  Pity they got the head wrong – Mithras always looks back over his shoulder!

Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony.  The head is wrong, tho.
Plaster copy and restoration of the tauroctony. The head is wrong, tho.

Photographs online about Mithras by Michael Fuller

Archaeologist Michael Fuller, who has worked at Dura Europos, has been collecting photographs of Mithraic monuments.  He modestly writes to say:

Here are a few of my webpages with images of Mithraic reliefs, altars, etc… Most of these duplicate images you already have, but a few maybe new to you.


You are welcome to add any of my images to your data base as long as I am given credit. I am pretty sure that I have some more images of Mithraic reliefs and will look. I might also be able to track down images of the lamps from the Dura mithraeum.

I shall be delighted to make use of some of these, and it is a very generous offer.

New Mithraeum at Kempraten in Switzerland

A correspondent Csaba Szabó has kindly written to tell us about a new discovery of what seems likely to be a Mithraeum in Switzerland, at Kempraten near Zurich.  Interestingly the site is by a lake.  Somewhat ominously, the remains of three large lime kilns were also discovered nearby.

The newspaper article in Zurichsee Zeitung is here.  An exhibition of finds is planned for November here.

Neben den drei in den letzten Wochen auf einem privaten Areal bei Kempraten, direkt am See gefundenen Kalköfen, fanden die erstaunten Archäologinnen und Archäologen Mauerreste, die sich nach ersten Grabungen als Teile eines Kultraumes entpuppten. Hier wurde nach ersten, noch ungesicherten Erkenntnissen dem Gott Mithras im Rahmen einer Mysterienreligion gehuldigt. Der Raum, 7,5 Meter Mal 20 Meter gross, war nur für Männer bestimmt. Funde von Bergkristallen deuten auf den Gott Mithras hin. Als Bestätigung für die religiöse Bestimmung des Raumes gilt ein Sandsteinfragment, das ein Antlitz zeigt. Daneben wurden viele Knochen von Jungtieren gefunden, was auf kultische Opferungen hinweist.

Ein rekonstruiertes Bild zeigte eine vage Vorstellung dieses Kultraumes, der sich vom Fels zum Wasser hinzog. Eine Konstellation, die für die Kultausübung wichtig war. Noch ist Vieles nicht erforscht. Man weiss nur, dass in Martigny und Orbe ähnliche Bauten gefunden wurden.

My translation, which is probably a bit wonky:

In addition to three lime kilns, found right next to the lake in recent weeks on private land at Kempraten, the astonished archaeologists found the remains of walls, which on excavation turned out to be part of a temple. The first indications are that the god Mithras was worshiped here as part of a mystery religion. The room, 7.5 meters by 20 meters in size, was intended only for men. Finds of rock crystals indicate the god Mithras. A sandstone fragment showing a face is treated as confirmation of the religious use of the site. In addition, many bones of young animals were found, suggesting ritual sacrifices.

A picture of a reconstruction gives a general idea of this cult space, which ran from the waterside to the rock. There is a constellation, which was important for the cult myth. Most of the site is still unexcavated. It is only known that similar buildings were found in Martigny and Orbe.

I’ve added a page on this at the Mithras site here.  The details are very vague, and mainly concerned with the bunch of 100 dignitaries who were shown over the site.  But this may be a picture of the Mithraeum – the article leaves it unclear:

Kempraten - new Mithraeum?
Kempraten – new Mithraeum?

From my diary

I’m trying to push forward a couple of projects.  I’ve written to the translator for the Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra by Andrew of Crete, to see if the sample is available yet.

I have also changed my plans slightly for the translation of Methodius from Old Slavonic.  The lady who was to do the Greek fragments is overcommitted elsewhere, with the result that nothing ever appeared of the Severian translation that I set as a sample.  So I will ask Andrew Eastbourne to handle that side of the work.  Indeed I had always intended to use him in some capacity if I could, because of his vast philological knowledge.

In some ways this simplifies the grant application process, since I now know who I am dealing with.  I can also upload the Methodius De Lepra translation as part of the application, as evidence that I know what I am about.  But I need to replan.  Some kind correspondents have been supplying me with parallels and sources, which may well be useful.

Most of the grant bodies will only give around 50% of a project; so I shall try to find another source of funding for translations.  I suspect, rightly or wrongly, that this is merely bureaucrats trying to cover their own backsides.  After all, if it isn’t just them who gave the grant, then how can they be blamed?  But it is tiresome.  I also realise that I need to understand what the unstated rules of the game are.  So I need to telephone and talk to someone.

It all reminds me why I just pay for translations out of my own pocket.  There seems to be a whole industry that has grown up, merely to get funding.  It is a quite daunting process to the amateur.

I have been adding a few more photos to the Mithras site.  Most of these I encountered on Twitter, and wondered to what they related.  I’ve just seen one of a Vatican tauroctony, photographed by Carole Raddato, that is really quite good.  This is no small praise; the location of the monument in the museum makes photography almost impossible.  I’ve seen it myself, tried to get useful pictures, and failed!

Locating images of monuments online

A year or so ago I decided to collect some of the online images of monuments of Mithras, and put them together on my site with some explanatory material.  The reason is that I kept seeing some glorious images; with no idea what they were, or where they might be found.  Of course a complete or professional collection is beyond me, but there is still value is sticking text under commonly found pictures.  It is not always that easy, in truth, to find an image of a monument just by looking.

A little while ago I became aware that a relief of Mithras killing the bull was found by Italian police in Veii during a raid.  It was hidden in a  barn, and was intended to be sold to a Japanese collector for 500,000 euros.  Little information exists in English, but I have a page on the item here.

But what I could not find – and I tried hard – was any pictures of the relief.  All the articles – in Italian – had no images or just a fuzzy one of a barn with some cops hanging around it.

This evening I was making some technical changes to it, and I searched for “Mitra Veio” and drew blank.  Then I searched for “dio mitra veio” (because one of the Italian articles talked about “Dio Mitra”), and clicked on the images tab.  And … there it was!  There were several images; not huge, but quite large enough!  One showed the item upside down in the barn; another after restoration.

So now there is a proper page with the material on, and searchers will be able to find it.

But it is odd, you know?  It’s like one of those fairy stories, where you can’t find something by looking for it.  Instead you must be looking for something else, and it will just come along of its own accord.  Which is why sites that index material are valuable.

Wanted: an epigraphist. Or: Pancieri on “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso”

One of the most famous discoveries in Mithraic studies is the text painted on the wall of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome which reads “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso” – “and you have saved us through the shedding of the eternal blood.”  This has been widely compared to Christian ideas, and, outside the scholarly world, almost insanely so.

Yesterday a kind correspondent sent me portions of an article in Italian by Pancieri in which he queries whether the text actually says this.  The paintings are badly damaged, after all, and conjecture plays a part in the text above.

I thought that it would be useful to translate what he has to say into English, if only to make his cautious remarks rather better known.  I will give the Italian as well, in case I misunderstand it at any point: corrections are welcome!

With regard to the mysteries of Mithras, I note – as has been noted above concerning the nature of its creator, and his saving and merciful character – that, although it is considered reliable in most respects, whatever may be the interpretation to be given of his work of salvation [c.f., leaving aside the cult images, the verse from the Mithraeum of S. Prisca, “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso”, according to the reading of the first editor (A. Ferrua, in Bull.Com., LXVIII, 1940, p.85; in Ann.épìgr., 1946, 84), confirmed and corrected CIMRM, I, 485, and by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., pp.217-221)**], it is almost never reflected in the dedications [CIMRM, I, 213 (salutaris?), 691 cfr. 891 (propitius), 900b (deo bono, dubious), II, 2265 (epekoos), 2276 (deo bono invicto?)].[1]

One could wish Dr Pancieri had not compressed his thought quite so much!  The point being made is that we don’t know what “saving” means in the cult of Mithras, and it features hardly at all in the inscriptions.  The last point suggests that it is not exactly an important element in the cult.

The footnote, however, is the bit that interests us.  It is printed as one paragraph, but I will split it, for ease of reading:

** The exceptional importance of this verse, for the issue addressed in this seminar, led me to thoroughly review it, after the recent cleaning of the frescoes in the mithraeum of S. Prisca, carried out ​​by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (restorer Sig.Elio Paparatti). During the restoration, the  Soprintendenza has taken some excellent new photographs, from which I took the detail which I have reproduced (fig. 10).

Fig. 10.  1978 photo
Fig. 10. 1978 photo

Judging from a comparison of these with the photos published by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., plate LXVIII, 1-3), and comparing those with even earlier ones, dating from the time of the original discovery and publication (fig. 11), we find that, at this point, against the inevitable damage of time may be contrasted some gains due to the  major cleaning of the wall.

Fig.11 How the wall appeared in the 1930's.
Fig.11 How the wall appeared in the 1930’s.

This does not mean that our verse makes easy reading even now, and so, for this reason, the first publishers are to be commended for their ability, starting from quite miserable fragments, to make available to scholars a text of the utmost importance.

The main danger that we now need to avoid (which, it seems to me, that many have been led into, because of the current habit of transcribing the text without any critical marks) is of believing that the reconstruction of this verse is certain at every point; or, at least, is of the same degree of reliability for each part (see, for example, more specifically among those who have dealt with this text: H.D. Betz, in Nov. Test., X, 1968, p. 77 ff.; I.M. Hackethal, in Zeitschr. Papyr. Epigr., III ,1968, pp. 233-238; M.J. Vermaseren, in Meded. Nederl. Inst. Rome, XXXVII, 1975, p. 92 ff.; M. Simon, in Rev. d’hist. et de philos. relig., LVI, 1976, pp. 277-288).

In reality, as may be seen from all the photographs (not only the most recent), and also from the facsimile published by Vermaseren (fig. 12), the painted text from the start was in a gravely fragmentary state.  In a new facsimile (fig. 13), I have tried to reproduce as closely as possible what I think can be seen today.

Fig.12 Vermaseren's facsimile (1965)
Fig.12 Vermaseren’s facsimile (1965)
Fig.13 - fascimile, 1978
Fig.13 – fascimile, 1978

Without pretending to give a new reconstruction of the text, I will limit myself to indicating which elements are confirmed, and which are doubtful, as the new evidence seems to require.  Proceeding backwards:

1) Absolutely certain is the word FUSO, which is found in perfect form also in the short text painted on a jar in the same mithraeum (Excavations, l.c., p. 409 fig. 204, plate. XCIX, 1-3).

2) Almost certain, although not readable in full, is the word SANGUINE which precedes it, both because it fits very well both the spaces and the fragments of letters remaining, and because sanguine fuso, as previous editors have noted, is an expression used elsewhere and perfectly in place in this context.

3) Doubtful (and Ferrua also had some doubts) is the word ETERNALI.  After carefully analysing the perfectly straight line, slanting from left to right and top to bottom, before the N (which is clearly recognisable), it seems very difficult to recognise this as an R, even if connected to the following letter.  In every R present in the inscriptions of this layer (of paintings) it is possible to find a common feature, rising above the top edge of the writing.  So this line could belong rather to an A or an M or to two letters joined.  There are doubts also because the word is unique, and because the supposed L shows the remains of an upper crossing stroke, which seems a little too strong on the left side to be a mere flourish.  I see no sign of the I.  What in the photo looks like the remains of an S, near the head of the Leo which interrupts the writing, in fact does not exist on the plaster, which is damaged at this point.

4) Likewise the reading SERVASTI, with the RVA linked together, does not appear convincing when compared with what remains today (but see also Vermaseren’s facsimile).  And the E is not certain; it may be an F.  The following letter, which has been interpreted as an R, looks like an O in the photos; nothing can be seen on the wall now, where the plaster is missing (and, it would seem, was missing in the past).  Apart from this, I am unclear as to whether the signs that follow (which may well be part of a group VA) can be made to follow an S, since they seem to be the remains of a letter joined to an N.

5) Everything before that is no longer verifiable today, in the present state of conservation.  The miserable scraps of letters are not definitely identifiable, and do not clearly result in the text above, nor in the old photos.

It seems obvious, after what has been said, that this famous verse should be studied again by epigraphists, as well as by Mithraic specialists.  In the meantime, it would seem to be important that this reading of the text is not taken as secure, both to avoid building on shaky foundations, and because the text deserves to return to the centre of scholarly critical attention.[2]

I should add that I have Vermaseren’s description, and further photographs of the wall and inscription – some in colour! – here.

Pancieri’s points are interesting, but clearly there is more to be done.  One avenue of exploration would be to see whether the other texts at Santa Prisca would be amendable to similar criticism.  Do they actually appear on the wall now?  Did they once, but now only exist in the photos?  What is the rate of decay of the paintings at Santa Prisca?  Or is it the case that decay is not a  factor, and that Ferrua and Vermaseren were over-imaginative?  What could the text read?

As far as I know, nobody accepted Pancieri’s challenge.  Which is now itself, some forty years ago.

Is there an epigraphist in the house?

  1. [1] h) Altre caratteristiche del dio sono la misericordia e la pietà [per misericordiam tuam, quomodo… misertus es, miserearis, per tuam pietatem] per il cui tramite pare manifestarsi una sua benevola disposizione nei confronti del mondo. Meritevole di discussione mi sembra se la frase introdotta da quomodo (che dovrebbe avere valore causale piuttosto che correlativo [Thes. l. L., Vili, col. 1293 rr. 58 sgg.]) debba essere intesa come riferimento a uno specifico intervento misericordioso del dio, o serva soltanto a sostenere la richiesta individuale con l’argomentazione che della benevolenza che si chiede per sè il mondo intero beneficia. Per quanto concerne Mitra dei misteri, osservo che, così come si è notato per la sua qualità di creatore, anche il suo carattere salvifico e misericordioso, quantunque sia ritenuto certo per più riguardi, quale che sia l’interpretazione da dare alla sua opera di salvazione [cfr., senza tener conto delle immagini di culto, il versetto del mitreo di S. Prisca et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso nella lettura del primo editore (A. Ferrua, in Bull. Com., LXVIII, 1940, p. 85, inde Ann. épìgr., 1946, 84) confermata, rettificando CIMRM, I, 485, dal Vermaseren (Excavations, cit., pp. 217-221)**] quasi mai appare riflesso nelle dediche [CIMRM, I, 213 (salutaris?), 691 cfr. 891 (propitius), 900b (deo bono, dubbia), II, 2265 (epekoos), 2276 (deo bono invicto?)].
  2. [2] ** L’importanza eccezionale di questo versetto per il tema affrontato in questo Seminario mi ha indotto ad un suo accurato riesame dopo la recente ripulitura degli affreschi operata dalla Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma nel mitreo di S. Prisca (restauratore Sig. Elio Paparatti). In occasione del restauro, la Soprintendenza ha assunto anche nuove ottime fotografie, dalle quali ho tratto il particolare che riproduco (fig. 10). A giudicare dal confronto tra questo particolare e le foto pubblicate dal Vermaseren (Excavations, cit., tav, LXVIII, 1-3) e tra queste ed altra, ancora anteriore, risalente all’epoca della prima scoperta e pubblicazione (fig. 11), si riscontra che, in questo punto, ai danni inevitabili del tempo si contrappongono alcuni guadagni dovuti all’attuale maggior pulizia della parete. Ciò non significa che il nostro versetto presenti neanche adesso una lettura agevole e, per questo, i primi editori sono senz’altro da lodare per la capacità che hanno avuto, partendo da lacerti abbastanza miseri, di mettere a disposizione degli studiosi un testo di estrema importanza. Il pericolo principale che credo si deve evitare ora (mentre in esso mi pare siano stati indotti in molti dall’uso corrente di trascrivere il testo senza alcun segno diacritico) è quello di credere che la ricostruzione di questo versetto sia certa in ogni suo punto o, per lo meno, attinga allo stesso grado di attendibilità in ogni sua componente (si vedano, ad esempio, tra coloro che più specificamente si sono occupati di questo testo: H.D. Betz, in Nov. Test., X, 1968, p. 77 sg.; I.M. Hackethal, in Zeitschr. Papyr. Epigr., III ,1968, pp. 233-238; M.J. Vermaseren, in Meded. Nederl. Inst. Rome, XXXVII, 1975, p. 92 sg.; M. Simon, in Rev. d’hist. et de philos. relig., LVI, 1976, pp. 277-288). In realtà, come si vede bene da tutte le foto (non solo dalla più recente) ed anche dal facsimile pubblicato dal Vermaseren (fig. 12), il testo dipinto si è presentato fin dall’inizio in condizioni di grave frammentarietà. In un nuovo facsimile (fig. 13) ho cercato di riprodurre il più fedelmente possibile quello che mi sembra di vedere oggi. Senza pretendere di dare una nuova ricostruzione del testo, mi limito a mettere in evidenza in questa sede qualche conferma e qualche dubbio che il nuovo controllo sembra imporre. Procedendo a ritroso, risulta: 1) assolutamente certa la parola FUSO che trova del resto perfetto riscontro nel breve testo dipinto su un vasetto proveniente dallo stesso mitreo (Excavations, cit., p. 409 fig. 204, tav. XCIX, 1-3); 2) pressoché certa, anche se non leggibile per intero, la parola SANGUINE che precede, sia perché ad essa si adattano assai bene gli spazi ed i frammenti di lettera superstiti, sia perché sanguine fuso, come hanno ben visto i precedenti editori è espressione ricca di confronti e perfettamente a posto in un contesto come questo; 3) dubbia (e qualche dubbio lo ebbe anche il Ferrua) la parola ETERNALI. Dopo aver attentamente analizzato il tratto perfettamente rettilineo ed obliquo da sinistra a destra e dall’alto in basso che precede la N (ben riconoscibile), sembra infatti assai difficile riconoscervi parte di una R, sia pure in legatura con la lettera seguente; in nessuna R presente nelle iscrizioni di questo strato è possibile rintracciare un tratto analogo, per di più nascente dal margine superiore della scrittura; tale segno potrebbe appartenere piuttosto ad una A o ad una M o alle due lettere in nesso. Dubbi si potrebbero avere anche sull’unicità della parola e su altre lettere, come la presunta L i resti della cui traversa superiore potrebbero apparire un po’ troppo estesi a sinistra per un semplice segno di rifinitura; della I non si vede più nulla; quello che nella foto sembra un resto di S, vicino alla testa del Leo che interrompe la scritta, non esiste affatto sull’intonaco, che in questo punto è danneggiato; 4) similmente non appare convincente, se confrontato con quanto oggi rimane (ma si veda anche il facsimile del Vermaseren) la lettura SERVASTI con RVA in nesso; già la E non è del tutto sicura, potendosi trattare anche di una F; della lettera seguente, che è stata interpretata come R e nelle foto sembrerebbe una O, nulla si vede sulla parete che in questo punto manca (e sembrerebbe mancasse anche in passato) dell’intonaco; a parte ciò non mi è chiaro come ai segni che seguono (che potrebbero ben far parte di un gruppo VA) si possa far seguire una S, sembrando piuttosto i resti della lettera appartenere ad una N, anch’essa in nesso; 5) tutto quello che precedeva è oggi inverificabile non vedendosi più, nell’attuale stato di conservazione, che miseri brandelli di lettere non sicuramente identificabili e non risultando chiaramente il testo neppure nelle vecchie foto. Sembra evidente, dopo quanto si è detto, che questo famoso versetto dovrà essere nuovamente studiato tanto dagli epigrafisti, quanto dagli specialisti di cose mitriache. Per intanto, importantissimo sembrerebbe che la sua lettura non fosse data per scontata, sia per non fondare costruzioni su basi malsicure, sia perché questo testo merita di tornare al centro dell’attenzione critica degli studiosi.

Two Pannonian monuments connecting Mithras with 25 Dec.?

The Hungarian scholar Istvan Toth died this year.  I learn this from his page at Academia.edu, where may be found all his papers and books in electronic form.  This is no small thing, for many are quite inaccessible in the west, even in major research libraries.  Well done, Dr Toth, for making all this mass of information available.

Among the papers one caught my eye: 2004 Mithras kultusz és a Karácsony Poetovioban = Cult of Mithras and the Christmas in Poetovio.  This paper is in Hungarian, but very sensibly provided with an English translation at the back.  The translation is imperfect, but this is of small importance; the point is that the article is readable by the world.

We all know that Franz Cumont, in his rather slack way, supposed that there was a festival of Mithras on 25 Dec., by presuming that the cultists of Mithras ‘must’ have participated in the Natalis Solis Invicti, attested only after 354 AD.  No evidence of this exists, of course.  But this carelessness has created a modern myth, often expressed in the unpleasant jeer “Mithras is the reason for the season.”

So what does Toth say? (I shall correct the English, for readability)

It is a fact that, although scholarship connected the festival of natalis Invicti with one of Mithras (too) since F. Cumont(2), until now there was nothing to show this from epigraphical evidence collected for the Cult of Mithras (3). This situation changed because of the epigraph from Poetovio which was found in 1970, and this epigraphical evidence has since been published in several publications (4).

The epigraphical evidence was found at Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia) in the immediate vicinity of so-called Mithraeum IV (5), at the same place as the other epigraphical evidence listed for this sanctuary (6). The lead prong, on the top face of the undecorated marble base (7), shows that the object was originally the pedestal of a statue, probably a statue of a figure being born out of a rock. The first line of the inscription is lost. The remaining lines of the text are as follows:

[— ] | M Gong(ius) | Aquilei|ensis pro | salute | sua suor|umq(ue) om|nium v(otum)
s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito) | d(e)d(icavit) VIIII K(alendas) Ian(uarias) | p(osuit) p(ater)
p(ientissimus) Florentiu[s]

The damaged first line, according to J. Sasel, should be read: [D(eo) i(nvicto) M(ithrae)] accounting this: “verisimiliter colligendum est, cum in vicinia vestigia quarti Mithraei reperta sint”(8), and this is all respects acceptable.

Unquestionably the most important element of the inscription is the date on the 9th readable line: 24th December, that is, vigil of natalis Invicti (the “Christmas Eve”), which appears here for the first time in epigraphical evidence related to the cult of Mithras.

The dating of relic can fairly certainly be given as the first half of the third century A.D., possibly about the middle of the third century. J. Sasel pointed that another bearer of this nomen was a certain Gongius Nestorianus who, between 198-211 was procurator of publicum portorium Illyrici and resided in Poetovio; then between 213-217 he was a praefectus classis Ravennatis(9). Considering that the nomen gentilicum of Gongius may be unique(10), it seems very likely that the person who dedicated the inscribed monument under discussion had some relationship to this man of high standing, for example he was his libertus.(11)

All this is interesting; but why a dedication of a monument on what is now 24 Dec. ‘must’ be connected to what is today Christmas Eve is not made clear.  The fact that, in 354 AD, there would be a festival of the sun on the following day is not necessarily relevant.  Any monument must be dedicated on some date; what the inscription does not show is that the date here was in any way significant.

The article then continues with material of no great relevance, until we reach this section:

It is absolutely certain, that every class of society was imbued with the need to have knowledge of the ceremonies and articles of the cult of Mithras. That social stratum was the one from which was descended Victorinus, the martyred bishop of Poetovio, the first exegete who wrote in Latin (22). However Victorinus of Poetovio – who was executed at the latest in the time of the great persecution of Christians under the reign of Diocletian – in the 260s would have been already adult, and meditating on religious matters as a young man.

The theological interest of Victorinus was exceptionally wide-ranging. He examined besides his exegesis, works on heterodoxies, the origin of world, apocalyptical doctrines(23) and there remains a fragment of his chronological work too(24). In this fragment he concluded the following inferences referring to document of a certain Alexander of Jerusalem: “VIII. Kal Ian. natus est Dominus noster Iesus Christus… etc.” (That is Our Lord Jesus Christ was born on 25 December) – The latest research places the origin of this fragment in the years after 260 (25).

Amongst the monuments of Mithras of Poetovio there are presented in remarkably great strength of those, that which relating to the birth of the god. … One of the representative stone monuments (30) of the Mithraeum founded by Flavius Aper and his officers represented the figure of Mithras being born out from a rock: in the background of the scene appears the figure of Saturn, wreathed by Victoria; to all intents and purposes showing, that in dedication named of god to D(eus) S(ol) i(nvictus) M(ithras) was born on 25 December, and the birth of god means that beginning of the new epoch of world.

We expect so: if we are not mistaken, that in this chronological fragment of Victorinus of Poetovio, indicating the date of natalis Invicti, we can recognise the inner history of the reference to the birth of Jesus and we recognize the events from the history of religion in the native town of the martyred bishop, which happened in his youth, and in our opinion that the Christian exegetist who wrote in Latin earliest and in all probability he was among the first (31) who connected the one of the central ideas of cult of Mithras of Poetovio with the articles of Christian faith.

I think something may have dropped out of the argument here.  For it is quite unclear to me just why the presence of Saturn in a Mithraic monument of the rock birth must connect the monument to 25 Dec. – Saturnalia, after all, finished on 23rd Dec.  Otherwise a monument of the rock birth is just nothing.

The material about Victorinus is likewise very loosely argued (allowing, always, for the translation difficulties).

It all falls apart, once you look closely, sadly.

Mithras, the church of Santa Prisca, and the perils of the imagination

The Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome is of great importance to Mithraic studies because it contains striking wall paintings, with text against the images.  The scenes depict a procession of the seven grades of initiate, and other interesting items.  Among the verses is a statement that “you have saved us after the shedding of the eternal blood”, which has attracted attention.  The mithraeum will be open to visitors at 4pm on Sunday 24th August, and I intend to be in Rome and go and see it.  Apparently it stands on the Aventine Hill, just south of the Circus Maximus.

A long view of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca
A long view of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca

This week I have been collecting the literature about the place.  I have visited Cambridge University Library and stood over their photocopiers, not once but twice!

One item gave me especial difficulty: Krautheimer’s Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae.  This contains an English-language article on the church of Santa Prisca, and a fine piece of work it is too.  But, quite unnecessarily, the series has been printed in double-size volumes, nearly impossible to handle or photocopy.  Each page requires an A3 photocopy; although, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, I was able to photocopy it down onto A4.  It’s worth being aware of this series, if you want solid scholarly material, oriented on primary data and with copious bibliography, on the churches of Rome.

The church stands 3 metres above ground level, because it stands atop a platform of Roman brick walls and arches.  This is, in fact, the basement level of a Roman house of imposing dimensions, dated by brick stamps to 95 AD.  It was possibly the private house of Trajan, but perhaps more likely that of his close friend L. Licinius Sura, whose baths stand immediately to the north of the church (as a fragment of the ancient map of Rome shows) and whose house was adjacent to this.  The mithraeum was erected ca. 190 AD in one of the cellars, and destroyed some time at the end of the 4th century (supposedly – it is hard to know exactly when).

I was going to photocopy the archaeological report also, which runs to 520+ pages, with more than a 100 plates, until I realised that this would cost me around $80!  Fortunately an interlibrary loan is promised, and my little scanner at home will do the deed.

One reason why I read Krautheimer was that I wanted to know about supposed Christian archaeology in the area.  There is a tremendous amount of false information on this point in circulation.  Web-pages confidently assert that an early Christian church was also based in the cellars!   Others say that a small building next door was “church-like”.  All these claims go unreferenced, of course.   Apparently the excavation report has a couple of pages making some claim of this sort, but I don’t know on what basis.  One writer, in a review of the archaeological report in 1965, went so far as to say:

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

This perhaps tells us rather more about the cultural assumptions of an American man in the 1960’s, that churchgoing was “womens’ stuff”, than anything about the history of the site or the cult of Mithras.  Here, as ever, Mithraic studies is bedevilled by too much sheer imagination.

Krautheimer makes clear that there is pretty much no evidence of any Christian activity on the site before the erection of the church in the 5th century in the ruins of the house.  The construction of churches in Rome in this period is related to the devastation caused by the Goth and Vandal sacking of Rome, making use of high-status locations now conveniently vacant.  Perhaps the house of Sura was one such?  An oratory in the garden was discovered in the 18th century, with depictions of apostles, and dated by the finders to the 4th century; but this has since been demolished, and Krautheimer makes the point that frescos of the apostles are generally a medieval decorative feature.  The first literary reference is in a synod of 499 AD, to a single priest of the church – suggesting that it was a small and unimportant one.  And that seems to be all the data.  If there is more data, I have yet to see it.

I must say that I am unimpressed by the scholarly articles, on the whole.  Not that I can complain – at least the excavations were published!  But there is a vagueness about them, which is quite infuriating, when you want specifics.

What I did was go and find the reports of the original discovery in the 1930’s.  These, thankfully, have diagrams that make it MUCH clearer what is where!

It will be interesting to see what can be seen on the ground!

From my diary

It’s hotter than hell in the office in which I work, which is not helping me get anything done!  However I’m also close to Cambridge University Library, and I’ve made two trips there in the evening this week, in search of books and articles.

I’m still thinking about Severian of Gabala.  I’ve now obtained a copy of Sever J. Voicu, “Severien de Gabala,” Dictionnaire de spiritualite 14 (Paris, 1990), 752-63.  This article is essential for anyone interested in Severian.  It lists all his works and adds notes on each, over and above what is found in the Clavis Patrum Graecorum.   I must go through this and revise my own list of works accordingly.

My colleague Albocicade, who is collecting French translations of Severian, and OCR’d the Voicu article, has noticed that the Voicu article notes the existence of an unpublished French thesis, J. Kecskeméti, Sévérien de Gabala. Homélie inédite sur le Saint-Esprit, Paris, 1978 (Worldcat and IdRef), on CPG 4947.  It might be possible for a Frenchman like himself to access this.  Here’s hoping.

Bryson Sewell has sent me a couple of pages of his upcoming translation of Severian’s De Spiritu Sancto.  I think this is liable to contain theology: everybody hide now!  So far he’s started to talk about the difference between the Son being “begotten of the Father”, while the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”.  Good news that this is well underway.

My main other activity in the last couple of days has been obtaining some materials for the Mithras temples at Santa Prisca in Rome (quite amazing, this one), on the island of Ponza, and the one at Santa Capua Vetere.  A commenter on my Mithras website asked about the date of the Santa Prisca Mithraeum.  It seems to have been setup in the wine-cellar of an imperial property, which had once been the private house of Trajan before he became emperor.  The wine cellar even had a little water supply of its own, for cleaning the amphorae.  Somewhere else in the cellars is, perhaps, the origins of the church of Santa Prisca.  But I haven’t come across anything about that yet.