Mithraeum at Circus Maximus

Mithraeum at Circus Maximus

This time we will visit the Mitreo at Circus Maximus, discovered in the underground of the former pasta factory Pantanella (now dresses' deposit of the Opera).

Usually the mithraea were underground sanctuaries obtained from existing buildings, where the initiated (only males were allowed) attended the mystery rites in honor of the god Mithra.


This Indo-Iranian religion, who came to Rome during the first century BC (according the ancient sources mithraism was brought to Italy by pirates deported from Cilicia by Pompeo), became one of the most popular of the Empire. The reasons for this success (especially among the poorest people and in the military) are probably the prospect of "redemption" of this religion and the fact that Mithra was the god who protected the oaths.


The mithraea were usually underground structures that contains bench seating, where the faithful took place during the ceremonies. In the background, away from prying eyes, there was the representation of tauroctony. The structure of the Mithraeum at Circus Maximus also follows this rule. Our mitrhaeum was housed in several rooms of a Second Century AD public building, that probably was linked to the games which took place in the nearby Circus Maximus. You can notice a beautiful alabaster round on the marble floor.


The two marble bas-reliefs (one of which is beautiful and perfectly preserved) contain a complex symbology, also present in many other mitrhaea found in Rome and in Italy. We can recognize the usual tauroctony with Mithra, dressed in a Phrygian cap (to emphasize its oriental origin), that kills the primeval bull with a knife, helped by the two "dadofori" (torchbearers) Cautes and Cautopates. A dog and a snake are drinking the blood gushing from the bull's wound, while a scorpion stings the bull's testicles. From its tail an ear of corn comes (as a symbol of fertility). Finally, a crow holds with his beak a corner of the cloak of Mithra.

Due to the mysterious nature of that cult (the initiated were forbidden to disclose the ceremonies that took place there), we know only very little information about the rituals that took place in the mithraea, handed down by Christian apologists (which aimed to discredit the religion, which was a dangerous widespread competitor).


For example, we know that some rites were very similar to Christian ones: Mithra was born on December 25, the highest authority was the Pater (a figure very similar to the Catholic Pope). There were seven degrees of initiation, each of which was linked to a planet:


  • Corax (Crow)
  • Nymphus (Chrysalis)
  • Miles (Soldier)
  • Leo (Lion)
  • Perses (Persian)
  • Heliodromus (Sun Messenger)
  • Pater (Father)


According to a suggestive and recent theory, the symbolism related to the cult of Mithra is related with the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes. In fact, all the animals represented in the tauroctony have the corresponding constellation, that was on the celestial equator during the so-called Age of Taurus (when spring began with the sun in the constellation of Taurus). According to this interpretation, the god Mithra had so much power that he could upset even the immutable sphere of fixed stars.



duration 1 hour
type hypogeum
entrance ticket not included entrance ticket not included
special opening special opening (please let me know a few days in advance, because we need to ask for a special permission to the superintendence)



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