For over 1,500 years it was buried under Londoners’ feet. Today the Mithraeum reveals the religious, commercial and bloodthirsty life of ancient Londinium, says Harry Mount
Today, thousands of bustling bankers pound up and down Queen Victoria Street in the City of London, without realising that London’s greatest Roman temple lies 23ft below them – the temple that Idler readers will visit with me on 1 June.
Some 1,800 years ago, that temple would have been crammed with dozens of sweaty Roman legionaries, slaves and merchants, worshipping the ancient Persian god, Mithras.
New worshippers — male only — were made to stand naked in the middle of the temple. As part of a blood-curdling ritual, they were given the impression they were about to be killed. A naked new recruit would kneel down, while a long-term member stood above him, his sword raised, as if to slice his head off. Other new members would be threatened by archers.
To make it look like other members had already been mutilated, one had a ceremonial sword piercing straight through his neck; on closer examination, it turned out to be like one of those joke-shop gags, a metal collar that, in fact, fitted round the neck. There was probably heavy drinking, too.
The building was later converted, it’s thought, into a temple to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, before it was abandoned in the late 4th century.
Even when it was built, the windowless temple was underground, lit by torches and lamps, artfully placed behind statues of the god, with the illumination reflected in a square well. Burning incense wafted through the temple, filling it with smoke.
The ‘pater’ — ‘father’ in Latin — of the religion would pray out loud to the god, crying, ‘Nama’ — a Persian greeting, meaning something like ‘Hail’. The pater’s cries overlapped with the squawks of chickens sacrificed in Mithras’s name, their blood gushing over the altar.
And, over it all, stood a huge statue of Mithras himself, staring up at the sun, surrounded by signs of the zodiac, as he slaughtered an effigy of a bull. The bull-slaughter — or ‘tauroctony’ — was thought to signify creation, transformation, our place in the universe, and worship of the Sun and the Moon.
All these horrors come thrillingly to light at the new London Mithraeum. The Mithraeum — Latin for a Mithras Temple — is buried deep beneath the New European Headquarters of Bloomberg, the financial information company.
The billion-pound office complex has also got a priceless collection of Roman artefacts, including a letter with the first ever mention of Londinium, and another letter which is the earliest financial document in the City of London.
The Mithraeum, built of Kentish ragstone and brick in around AD 240, was at the heart of Roman London. It was close to the Roman forum, or market place, the seat of the Roman government of Londinium. The Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators fought to the death in an orgy of blood and violence in front of baying crowds, is only a few hundred yards away, too, beneath London’s Guildhall.
The temple was discovered in dramatic circumstances. In the Blitz, between September 1940 and May 1941, German bombs destroyed or damaged a third of the buildings in the City. One raid on the night of May 10, 1941, obliterated the buildings on this site.
In 1954, a team of archaeologists investigated the bombsite, just before an office building, Bucklersbury House, was constructed (now in turn demolished). They followed the line of a curved wall, and found the floor plan of a large, rectangular Roman building.
Still, they didn’t know what it was, until, on the last day before construction of the office block, September 18, 1954, a workman found the head of a Roman statue. Archaeologists recognised it as Mithras, from his Persian cap and his upwards gaze, staring at the sun.
The Daily Mail put the story of 35,000 people queueing round the block to see the temple on its front page. Even Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, intervened, to demand more time for the excavation, during which time more staggering Roman sculptures and artefacts were found.
The temple was saved and laboriously transplanted, brick by brick, to street level outside, where it was reconstructed in 1962. That reconstruction wasn’t ideal — it even introduced crazy paving to the structure.
Now the temple has been returned underground, only a few feet from its original site. During construction of the Bloomberg building, archaeologists found the foundations of the temple, also conserved.
As I discovered yesterday, as you descend into the bowels of the Bloomberg building, you see the temple as those sweaty, naked slaves would have seen it: in the half-darkness, partly illuminated by hidden lights, with the greeting cries of the pater — ‘Nama! Nama!’ — echoing around you in Latin.
And then, as the lights go up, you see the temple in all its glory. It’s shaped very like early Christian churches — which were, in fact, inspired by Roman temples like this — with a rectangular plan and an apse, the semi-circular recess for the altar at one end. There’s a central nave or passageway, which would have had a mosaic pavement, divided into seven areas, each decorated with its own symbols and gods.
Those symbols and gods would have appealed to different Roman professions. There would have been an image of an oil lamp and a tiara, symbols of Venus, the goddess of love — new bridegrooms in the temple would have bellowed a heartfelt ‘Nama’ to Venus. A picture of a lance and helmet, symbolising Mars, the god of war, would have been favoured by the legionaries, who were particularly fond of Mithras, and exported his cult across the Roman Empire.
And then, at the far end of the temple, right by the altar, there would have been a picture of a Persian cap, signifying the great god Mithras himself. This spot would probably have been reserved for the pater. Right behind him, raised on steps, was the statue of Mithras, slaughtering a bull. It’s his head that was, miraculously, found in 1954.
Below the statue, there was a stone screen — which also, amazingly, survives. Here Mithras again slaughters a bull in a cave, while a dog, scorpion and snake feast off the dying creature. Around him are depicted the 12 signs of the zodiac. Several cow skulls have been found in a nearby well, probably left as ritual gifts to Mithras.
On the screen, on one side of the god, a torch-bearer holds a torch aloft; on the other side, another one holds his torch down, extinguishing it. This is because Mithras was often equated with Sol, the sun god: the two torch-bearers show the power of light and dark — life and death.
Four small holes have been found behind the statue plinth, and they are thought to have carried torches, too, to create spooky light effects. To the left of the altar, a timber tank held water, to reflect the light, and to be used in water-sprinkling rituals.
The stone screen gives us a brilliant clue as to who built the temple. A Latin inscription on it translates as, ‘Ulpius Silvans, veteran of the second Augustan legion, paid his vow: he was initiated at Orange.’
That refers to Orange in Provence, France, a crucial city in Roman Gaul. In other words, this spectacular temple might well have been paid for by a French veteran of a legion founded by Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
During the digging out of the foundations for the Bloomberg HQ, 14,000 Roman artefacts were found, in a miraculous state of preservation — that’s because the Mithraeum was on the banks of the River Walbrook, a small river that feeds down into the Thames. Around 600 of the artefacts are on show in the Bloomberg museum.
The wet mud has preserved an extraordinary array of Roman finds: the bones of those sacrificed chickens, little leather shoes worn by a child, combs, brooches, pewter plates, spearheads, and a small lead plaque of a leaping bull, thought to be the zodiac symbol, Taurus.
There’s a charming, tiny, amber amulet, perhaps worn by a child, in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet. Valuable amber was thought to have magical protective properties by the Romans, and the helmet shape was symbolic of protection. Most important, though, are wooden tablets, with some of the earliest Roman inscriptions in Britain. Romans wrote letters by scoring words into wax, set into tablets, with a stylus — pencil-shaped metal.
Several styli are on show in the Bloomberg artefact display case. The wax has long since rotted away. But Roman letter-writers often dug too deep into the wax, leaving their words inscribed into the wood behind.
One tablet is inscribed with the address, ‘Londinio Mogontio’, Latin for ‘to Mogontius, in London.’ This is the earliest ever, surviving, written reference to London. From its position in layers of River Walbrook mud, archaeologists have dated it to AD 65-80.
The oldest tablet found is a letter between two London businessmen, acknowledging a debt. References to a consul of the time mean it can be dated to AD 57 — only a few years after Londinium was founded by the Emperor Claudius in AD 43.
The letter, dated the sixth day before the ides of January, reads, ‘I, Tibullus, the freedman [a freed slave] of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus, the freedman of Spurius, 105 denarii.’ (One denarius was roughly the daily wage of a legionary.)
How fitting that the earliest Roman financial document in Britain should be found on the site of the new Bloomberg building, the billion-pound office of the future.
It’s got it all: a state-of-the-art TV studio, two cinema-lecture halls, an art gallery, a wellness centre and a mothers’ room, all crammed with millions of pounds’ worth of contemporary art.
It’s one of the greenest office buildings in the world, with rainwater cooling, and flushing the loos, too. The Bloomberg building has even reconstructed an ancient Roman road, Watling Street, which runs in a tunnel right through the middle of the new office block.
But its unique claim to fame is something pretty special — it has Londinium’s greatest Roman temple in the basement.
Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat And All That (Short Books, £7.99). He will be leading a walk uncovering the ancient city of London on Saturday 1 June. Book tickets here.
A version of this article first appeared in the Daily Mail.