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.

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!