Mysterious Mithras

The many ancient gods and goddesses are one of the most interesting parts of Roman life! We’ve already seen examples of the Romans bringing their own gods to Britannia (Neptune and Oceanus), as well as what happens when the Romans decide to adopt a local British god like Brigantia, or Antenociticus. But do they ever take these locally-adopted gods to new places, too?

Of course!

Among the many gods and goddesses we find along Hadrian’s Wall, there is one especially mysterious visitor who has come all the way from Persia: Mithras. And we’re not just dealing with altars when it comes to Mithras. There’s a range of evidence left behind by his small bands of worshippers, including the temples that they gathered in. Oh, and did we mention there’s also a big cosmic egg?

Let’s start with a trip out of Pons Aelius and on to Brocolitia to visit a temple to Mithras…

Time to head west!

The Temple of Mithras sits near the Roman fort of Carrawburgh, known as Brocolitia by the Romans. This name is thought to be based on the original Celtic name for the area meaning ‘Badger Holes’. Brocolitia was one of sixteen forts along Hadrian’s Wall and was home to around 500 auxiliary soldiers.

A temple like this was known as a Mithraeum since it was only ever used for worshipping the god Mithras. Mithras wasn’t originally a Roman god: he was a Persian god of light and truth, who became a popular figure of worship in the Roman Empire, especially among soldiers. Even along Hadrian’s Wall there is more evidence for temples like this at other forts, including Housesteads and Rudchester. The mithraeum at Brocolitia was built around AD130. It was a small rectangular building, with one entrance and no windows. These temples were designed to look like a cave, as in one legend, Mithras captured and killed a sacred bull in a cave. Activities carried out by the worshippers of Mithras were kept very secret, and nothing was written down about them – so sites like this one are really important for trying to find out more about this mysterious religious practice.

Inside the temple were statues and altars to Mithras, as well as reliefs – pictures carved into stone. The most important stone picture, which appeared in every Mithraeum across the whole Roman Empire, was the tauroctony (‘bull-killing’) scene: a large stone carving of Mithras killing the sacred bull. The partially reconstructed relief below is from Housesteads fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and is now housed in the Great North Museum:

Mithras and the Sacred Bull

In the centre of the scene you can see Mithras as he kills the bull. He is dressed in Anatolian clothes and is wearing a Phrygian cap – both clues telling us he is definitely not a Roman god! Underneath him, three animals are helping – a scorpion, a snake, and a dog – and if you look closely you’ll spot a raven perched on his cloak.

On either side of Mithras you can also see the twin attendants Cautes and Cautopates, who are usually dressed the same way as Mithras. They are his torchbearers: Cautes usually has his torch pointing up, while Cautophates points his down towards the ground. At the top left, you see Sol, the sun, with a crown of fiery rays while Luna, the moon, watches over the scene from the top right.

The tauroctony hung on the back wall of every Mithraeum and was lit only by oil-lamps. It would also have been brightly painted! Traces of paint sometimes survive on the stone, and can help us work out what colours might have been there originally. Why don’t you have a go at restoring the colours of the Housesteads relief using our Colour Your Own Tauroctony sheet?

We’d love to see your restorations! Don’t forget you can always share them with us via email – or tag us on social media! (@ClassicsNCL)

Another interesting carving which survives from Housesteads fort shows Mithras as he is born from the cosmic egg. He holds a torch in one hand and a dagger in the other:

Mithras is emerging in the centre of the egg, which is decorated with the symbols of the zodiac. This is even more special as an archaeological object, as it is the oldest depiction of the signs of the zodiac to be found here in Britannia!

Back at the Temple of Mithras near Brocolitia, archaeologists have discovered three altars which would have been placed at the front of the Mithraeum. We’ve seen already that altars were common in the Roman world, and were an important part of the Romans’ everyday worship of their gods. We find lots of altars in and around Hadrian’s Wall. These rectangular stone objects come in all sizes, and were usually inscribed with a dedication to a specific god. Altars were used as a way of giving gifts to the gods themselves – often wine or food – as well as a place for performing animal sacrifices. The altars found at the temple here tell us about some of the soldiers who were part of the Mithraic cult along this part of the Wall. Let’s take a closer look at our favourite example!

RIB1546 Altar Dedicated to Mithras


To the Invincible god Mithras, Marcus Simplicius Simplex, prefect, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

This tells us that a prefect called Marcus has left this altar as a gift to Mithras. But this is an extra fun altar as it has a special hidden feature: it lights up! The triangular rays of Mithras’ crown are fully cut out of the stone, and inside the altar is hollow – so a lamp could be put inside this altar to make the rays of the sun-crown light up – especially effective in a dark gloomy Mithraeum cave! This altar also has traces of paint on it: Mithras’ cloak and the letters of the inscription still have some of their red colour, while small traces of material on the face tell us it was originally plastered white and then painted.

To find out more about Mithras, check out the English Heritage guide to Carrawburgh Roman Fort:


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