Do you want to see a Roman temple in London? Well, start off on Queen Victoria Street, with the Bank of England behind you. Head south down Walbrook towards Cannon Street. You’ll pass Starbucks on your left, and the Bloomberg building on your right. But look closer at the shining office block as you pass. Beneath this temple of commerce lies a lost Temple of Mithras.
Come on! Let’s take a look.
A Brief History of the London Temple of Mithras
The London Mithraeum lies seven metres below the entry space inside Bloomberg London. A timeline on the staircase shows you the different street levels at various points in history.
If you’re wondering how street levels change, wonder no more! It tends to happen when soil shifts and people don’t remove building debris. Gradually it builds up and the streets get higher up.
Anyway. The Romans built the temple on the banks of the Walbrook River in c. 240 AD. The Walbrook now gives its name to the street above and is one of London’s lost rivers.
The Temple of Mithras played host to an all-male cult that spread throughout the Roman Empire between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. But the Roman withdrawal from Britain saw the temple abandoned by the 5th century. It gradually disappeared as street levels rose.
When the Saxons moved to the area after the Romans left, they started their new town where Covent Garden stands today. They only started using the old Roman town in the 9th century after Viking raids forced them inside the stone walls. St. Stephen Walbrook, the church just up the street, dates to the 12th century.
Rediscovering the Temple
An archaeological dig in 1954 revealed the ruin. No one knew what they’d found until they uncovered a marble head. Experts realised they’d uncovered a temple of Mithras. A reconstruction of the head is on display at the Mithraeum.
Yet in 1962, building work saw the London Mithraeum moved to a different location. Which is helpful since Legal & General wanted to demolish the ruins to make way for their new building. The Roman finds, including the head of Mithras, went to the Museum of London.
During the construction of Bloomberg London, archaeologists restored the Temple of Mithras to its original location. It reopened in its reconstructed form in late 2017. As well as the replica of the head, they also display around 600 Roman artefacts, which you can view online.
The boggy land in the area acted to preserve a lot of the finds. The wooden writing tablets contain the oldest written documents in Britain. They even include the first recorded use of ‘Londinium’ to describe the city.
Moving Around the Temple
The Temple is surprisingly long. You move into the space in semi-darkness, catching glimpses of the stonework in low light. Whispers surround you with snatches of Latin. It’s all very atmospheric though it gives the impression of eavesdropping on something you shouldn’t hear. At one end of the temple stands a metal sculpture depicting Mithras slaying a bull.
A statue of Mithras (or tauroctony) might have originally stood here – the source of that carved head mentioned earlier. Experts don’t think animal sacrifice happened on this site since it’s too narrow to safely house a rampaging bull. But such sacrifices may have occurred in similar temples elsewhere.
The original reconstruction in 1962 saw the wrong stone used to fill in the gaps. Thankfully, this version feels more true to life. The scale reveals itself as the lights slowly turn on, and it’s easy to forget you’re in a basement in the City of London.
This version also stands slightly west of the original location. Surprisingly, experts found remains of the original temple below this level. They’re too fragile to be on display so they’ve been preserved instead. I did wonder if the Temple of Mithras had a genius loci and if it was happy for the temple to be returned.
It’s a pity the original timber benches got discarded during the first reconstruction of the Temple of Mithras in 1962. It would have been interesting to see where they’d stand inside the building. Though they would probably have lined the space to accommodate diners. No one knows what happened during these rituals, but feasting seems to have been a major part of it.
I even made a video so you could get an idea of what it looks like.
Though I seriously recommend that you visit if you can. The only thing missing, for me, was any sense of what lay beyond the temple. What buildings stood either side, if any? How close was the Temple of Mithras to the Walbrook?
And what would its users have thought of 21st century London?
Who was Mithras?
Mithras was an eastern god, often ascribed to ancient Persia through their deity Mithra. That said, scholars disagree about the continuity of practice between worshipping the Persian Mithra and the Roman Mithras. Either way, Roman soldiers loved this feisty young god, famous for slaying a bull.
The cult of Mithras was incredibly secretive; the Latin chanting playing when you enter the temple took inspiration from the graffiti left on a temple in Rome.
All anyone does really know is followers passed through seven levels of initiation and shared ritual meals in underground temples.
Not much is known about Mithras either, though some versions of his myth say he was born from a rock. Being a mystery cult is all well and good at the time but it makes research rather difficult for your descendants.
Most of what we do know comes from the reliefs of Mithras. And they’re just open to interpretation. Some of the reliefs showing Mithras’ birth also show another god, sometimes identified as Oceanus. The symbols of the Zodiac often appear on the reliefs of the tauroctony.
M. J. Vermaseren claimed December 25 as Mithras’ birthday, a day known as Natalis Invicti. The ancients saw the day as that when “the new light appears from the vault of heaven” (1965, p. 238).
Roger Beck disagrees, saying the Natalis Invicti was a general Sun festival (1987, p. 299). As initiates swore secret oaths, we have no way of knowing which is right.
Mithras on Hadrian’s Wall
You knew this was coming… after my previous posts on Roman gods in Britain, I discovered a presence of Mithras in the north of England! The Great North Museum: Hancock have plenty of altars.
One set of altars comes from the Rudchester Mithraeum.
A second set of altars comes from the Carrawburgh Mithraeum. On the middle altar, Mithras carries the whip of the sun god. The altar still bore traces of green and red paint when it was found.
This sort of tauroctony suggests what a Mithraeum might have displayed. The curve at the top represents the cave. This one came from the Housesteads Mithraeum.
These altars also came from the Housesteads Mithraeum. Most legends say Mithras came from a living rock. Worshippers from the Easter Provinces thought he was born from a cosmic egg. These altars show that scene, and the signs of the Zodiac decorate the egg. According to the Great Museum North, “this is the earliest depiction in Britain of these signs as we knot them today.”
The Mithraeum in Antiquity
Most Mithraea were underground to represent the cave where Mithras killed a bull. They often stood near springs or streams, leading scholars to think fresh water played a part in Mithraic rituals. (I dread to think what his followers would think of the sorry state of the Walbrook now)
While we’ve been calling it a temple, that’s not strictly true. Romans saw temples as a place to connect with their god. They were open spaces, accessible both by initiates and newcomers alike. Mithraea couldn’t be more different, being hidden away and underground.
A mosaic at Ostia Antica shows the seven grades the initiates must pass through. A different planetary god protected each grade, from Mercury to Saturn.
Seeing Mithraea elsewhere gives a better idea of what London’s Temple of Mithras might have looked like. But still…it’s nice to let the imagination roam!
Pay a visit if you can!
It’s free to visit the London Mithraeum (yep, FREE) but do book ahead to guarantee a place. Temple viewings happen every 20 minutes. But they only let limited numbers in to preserve the tranquillity of the experience.
Then pop up the road to the Guildhall to see the remains of the amphitheatre in their basement.
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Beck, Roger (1987), ‘Merkelbach’s Mithras’, Phoenix 41:3, pp. 296-316.
Vermaseren, M.J. and van Essen, C.C. (1965), The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome, Leiden: Brill.
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