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!


10 thoughts on “Mithras, the church of Santa Prisca, and the perils of the imagination

  1. I have to disagree with you about the archaeological report on the mithraeum under the church of Santa prisca. I think that the book by M. J. Vermaseren and C. C. Van Essen titled “The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome” published by E J Brill in 1965 is quite extensive and well documented. The authors do speculate on many things, but that is the nature of Mithraic studies from Cumont to the present. I was fortunate to purchase a used copy of the book sxeveral years ago.

    While Dr. Maarten Jozef Vermaseren followed Dr. Cumont in his interpretations of Franz Cumont, he has to be considered one of the leading experts on oriental religions in the Roman Empire. Personally, I am more disappointed by the archaeological report of the Yale University team on the Dura Europa mithraea. Also, the Yale University should be translating and publishing the graffiti from Dura Europa.

    I tried to see the Santa Prisca mithraeum on my only visit to Rome in 2004, but it was closed. Unfortunately, the St. Clemente mithraeum and church were also closed for repair. However, I was able to visit sixteen mithraea in Ostia Antica.

  2. It is certainly extensive. But I was frustrated, when I went through his section on the texts, to find that he started out by saying “these are in 1 column”, and then forgot to say for succeeding columns, leaving you quite unclear where the items were.

    I found that Ferrua’s article was a godsend because it provided a diagram showing, in outline, where all the figures were.

    Of course the fact that I only have extracts from Vermaseren-Van Essen may be a factor here – we’ll see when I can get access to the full volume.

    I have nothing against Vermaseren – he did excellent work.

    I’ve not seen the Dura report. Not good, then?

  3. The libraries of humanities of my university offer free scanning since the beginning of this year. The theory is that readers will scan what they need instead of borrowing the book, increasing the availability of the works. To promote this way of working, they set the due date within two weeks and maximum two extensions.

    Color, BW, up to A3… reasonably fast (10 scans/minute for 600dpi A3 B/W). Only thing you need is a copy card to active the device (1 euro), but since you don’t copy and only scan, nothing is dicounted. I just buy new cards now and then just to sponsor the library for their expenses 🙂
    I very much applaud the mentally change of my university’s librarians 🙂

  4. That is very far-sighted of them. Of course they are quite right; making free access facilitates access, which is what they exist for. It’s fascinating to see those libraries who “get it”, and those who don’t really understand their own mission in this world.

    Isn’t it wonderful to see the world changing, and changing for the better?

  5. John Litteral is on the prowl for translations again!

    He found somebody who had a translation of St. Jerome on Jonah just sitting around, and got them to put it out. The same guy also had Jerome on Ecclesiastes, and that’s coming out next.

    So he’s decided to combine the Glossa Ordinaria project with these ones, and call it Ancient Bible Commentaries in English.

    Heh, I think you guys are related somewhere, Roger.

  6. That’s great news about John Literal and Jerome – thank you! Getting Jerome’s commentaries out there would be a major feat. Ah, if only I was 20 years younger!

    Aelfric, as you say, is post-patristic. One has to draw the line somewhere! My line is Isidore of Seville in the west, basically.

  7. I was not aware of this. But it is very interesting! Let me paste the paragraph here, in case the link vanishes. The article is:

    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:

    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.

    23. BAYLISS 2004, 23-25. Bayliss discusses the thorny question of whether one can tell Christian destruction from that wrought by earthquakes, foreign invaders, or neglect. For earthquakes and temples, see ROTHAUS 2000. 39-44 and 60-61 – but see also the review (and subsequent debate) in the on-line Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.25. The case of Corinth is interesting: the excavations were good by earlier twentieth-century Mediterranean standards; but, even in this case, we cannot confidently say what brought the pagan buildings down.

    24. VERMASEREN-VAN ESSEN 1965. 129-131, 151 and 241f. SAUER 2003, 134-136.

    25. See VERMASEREN – Van Essen 1965, plates 53-65. The excavators too were puzzled at the survival of some of the sacred representations, though this did not deflect them from their overall interpretation: “After the destruction of the cult-niche and some of the monuments (though not others, the real meaning of which was not understood), the whole building was filled with rubbish” (VERMASEREN – Van Essen 1965, 241-242). Sauer (2003, 135-136) argues – at some length – that it was precisely because of their ‘passionate hate’ that the Christian iconoclasts wielded their axes so inaccurately! The head of Mithras, which, according to Sauer, was a particular focus of attack, is at the right-hand end of his fig. 63 (on p. 135). VERMASEREN and Van ESSEN (1965, 150) recount its true (and more banal) fate: “Of the head (of Mithras), only the outline has been preserved, with part of the halo; the rest of the face was lifted off in 1953 by the Istituto Centrale del Restauro, but did not respond to treatment and is now destroyed.”

    R. Bayliss, Provincial Cilicia and the Archaeology of Temple Conversion, Oxford, 2004.
    E. Sauer, The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World, Stroud, 2003.
    M.J. Vermaseren & C.C. van Essen, The Excavations in the Mithraeum at the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden, 1965.

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