The Ostia Mithraea: An Introduction to the Cult of Mithras and Tour of the Ostian Shrines

The Mithraeum of the Seven Gates. / Photograph: Bill Storage.


By Alison Griffith

Mithraism is the ancient Roman mystery cult of the god Mithras. Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the early Roman empire, perhaps during the late first century of the Common Era (hereafter CE), and flourished from the second through the fourth centuries CE. While it is fairly certain that Romans encountered worship of the deity Mithras as part of Zoroastrianism in the eastern provinces of the empire, particularly in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey), the exact origins of cult practices in the Roman cult of Mithras remain controversial. The evidence for this cult is mostly archaeological, consisting of the remains of mithraic temples, dedicatory inscriptions, and iconographic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult in stone sculpture, sculpted stone relief, wall painting, and mosaic. There is very little literary evidence pertaining to the cult.

The Deity: Mitra, Mithra, Mithras

Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian god Mitra, or Mithra, as he was called by the Persians. Mitra is part of the Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is one of several yazatas (minor deities) under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon. Mithra is the god of the airy light between heaven and earth, but he is also associated with the light of the sun, and with contracts and mediation. Neither in Hinduism nor in Zoroastrianism did Mitra/Mithra have his own cult. Mitra is mentioned in the Hindu Vedas, while Mithra is the subject of Yashts (hymns) in the Zoroastrian Avesta, a text compiled during the Sassanian period to preserve a much older oral tradition.

Possible Eastern Origins of the Roman Cult

The precise relationship between the Roman cult of Mithras as it developed during the empire and the Mitra and Mithra of the Hindu and Zoroastrian pantheons, respectively, is unclear. The theory that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism was first put forward by Franz Cumont, a Belgian scholar, in his two-volume publication Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer “Syrians”), freedmen in the imperial bureaucracy, and slaves.

Cumont himself recognized possible flaws in his theory. The most obvious is that there is little evidence for a Zoroastrian cult of Mithra (Cumont 1956), and certainly none that suggests that Zoroastrian worship of Mithra used the liturgy or the well-developed iconography found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Moreover, few monuments from the Roman cult have been recovered from the very provinces which are thought to have inspired worship of Mithras (namely the provinces of Asia Minor). Finally, Cumont was aware that the earliest datable evidence for the cult of Mithras came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the province of Upper Pannonia on the Danube River (modern Hungary). Indeed, the largest quantity of evidence for mithraic worship comes from the western half of the empire, particularly from the provinces of the Danube River frontier and from Rome and her port city, Ostia, in Italy. To explain this phenomenon, Cumont proposed that soldiers stationed in western provinces and transferred to eastern provinces for short periods of time learned of the deity Mithra and began to worship and dedicate monuments to a god they called Mithras when they returned to their customary garrison. It is true that soldiers from the Roman legion XV Apollinaris stationed at Carnuntum in the first century CE were called to the East in 63 CE to help fight in a campaign against the Parthians and further to help quell the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem from 66-70 CE. Members of the legion made mithraic dedications back in Carnuntum after their return from these campaigns, possibly as early as 71 or 72 CE. Once these Roman soldiers and the camp-followers of the legions, who included merchants, slaves, and freedmen, started to worship Mithras, argued Cumont, their further movements around the empire served to spread the cult to other areas.

Cumont’s scholarship was so influential that it founded mithraic studies as an area of inquiry in its own right. Cumont’s student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, was a scholar equally as prolific as his mentor. Among Vermaseren’s greatest contributions was an up-dated English language catalogue of mithraic monuments (Vermaseren 1956, 1960).

Structure and Liturgy of the Roman mystery cult of Mithras

The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a “mystery” cult, which is to say that its members kept the liturgy and activities of the cult secret, and more importantly, that they had to participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the cult. As a result, there is no surviving central text of Mithraism analogous to the Christian Bible, and there is no intelligible text which describes the liturgy. Whether such texts ever existed is unknown, but doubtful. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are about one hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull. To enhance the resemblence to a natural cave the ceiling of the mithraeum was vaulted and often had crushed pottery adhering to it to imitate natural rock. Sometimes the ceilings were pierced with holes to let shafts of light in. The cave was intended to recall an event in Mithras’ life and also to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.

We surmise from the structure of mithraea and from paintings which are preserved in certain mithraea that mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. The details of the liturgy are uncertain, but it is worth noting that most mithraea have room for only thirty to forty members, and only a few are so large that a bull could actually be sacrificed inside.

The structure of the cult was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a tutelary planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (the Sun’s courier, under Sol, the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade.

Two aspects of mithraic initiation offer important insight into the cult. First, it was possible for a mithraic initiate to be a member of more than one cult, and second, women were not permitted to become members. These facts are critical to understanding the cult of Mithraism in relation to other Roman cults, to official Roman state religion, and to the cult of Christianity.

Mithraic Iconography

Mithraic monuments have a rich and relatively coherent iconography, chronologically and geographically speaking. In each mithraic temple there was a central scene showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (often called a tauroctony). Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He faces the viewer while half-straddling the back of a bull, yanks the bull’s head back by its nostrils with his left hand, and plunges a dagger into the bull’s throat with his right. Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles. Often the bull’s tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull’s back. On the viewer’s left stands a diminutive male figure named Cautes, wearing the same garb as Mithras and holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer’s right there is another diminutive male figure, Cautopates, who is also clad as Mithras is and holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.

For a long time the meaning of the bull-sacrificing scene and its associated figures was unclear, but a long series of studies beginning with one by K. B. Stark in 1869 and culminating in studies by Roger Beck (1984 and 1988), David Ulansey (1989) and Noel Swerdlow (1991) has revealed a comprehensible astrological symbolism. Each figure and element in the scene correlates to specific constellations, to the seven planets recognized by the ancient Romans, and to the position of these in relation to the celestial equator and the ecliptic, particularly at the time of the equinoxes and the solstices.

The bull-sacrificing scene is usually carved in stone relief or painted on stone and placed in mithraea in a visible location. In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras’ life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.

The Popularity of Mithraism Geographically, Socially, and Chronologically

The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was most popular among the legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian’s wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas support Cumont’s assertion that Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces.

The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.

As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have “trickled up” the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century “resurgence of paganism”, when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.

Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE, but the common belief that Mithraism was the prime competitor of Christianity, promulgated by Ernst Renan (Renan 1882, 579), is blatantly false. Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was, as mentioned above, only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. The major competitor to Christianity was thus not Mithraism but the combined group of imported cults and official Roman cults subsumed under the rubric “paganism”. Finally, part of Renan’s claim rested on an equally common, but almost equally mistaken, belief that Mithraism was officially accepted because it had Roman emperors among its adherents (Nero, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and the Tetrarchs are most commonly cited). Close examination of the evidence for the participation of emperors reveals that some comes from literary sources of dubious quality and that the rest is rather circumstantial. The cult of Magna Mater, the first imported cult to arrive in Rome (204 BCE) was the only one ever officially recognized as a Roman cult. The others, including Mithraism, were never officially accepted, and some, particularly the Egyptian cult of Isis, were periodically outlawed and their adherents persecuted.

Scholarly Debate

Cumont’s large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont’s theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce’s and Frantz Grenet’s History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.


– Beck, R. “Mithraism since Franz Cumont,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4., 1984.
– Beck, R. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders of the Mysteries of Mithras (Etudes préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’empire romain. Vol. 9). Leiden, 1988.
– Bianchi, U., ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.
– Bianchi, U. and Vermaseren, M. J., eds. La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’impero romano. Leiden, 1982.
– Boyce, M. and Grenet, F. A History of Zoroastrianism, III: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule. Leiden, 1991.
– Clauss, M. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. Munich, 1990.
– Coarelli, F. “Topografia Mitriaca di Roma.” In U. Bianchi, ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.
– Cumont, F. Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra. 2 vols. Brussels, 1896, 1899.
– Cumont, F. The Mysteries of Mithra. Trans. T. J. McCormack. London, 1903, reprint New York, 1956.
– Hinnells, J., ed. Mithraic Studies. 2 vols. Manchester, 1975.
– Merkelbach, R. Mithras. Königstein, 1984.
– Renan, E. Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882.
– Stark, K. B. “Die Mithrasstein von Dormagen,” Jahrbücher des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden im Rheinlande 46 (1869): 1-25.
– Swerdlow, N. “Review Article: On the Cosmical Mysteries of Mithras,” Classical Philology 86 (1991): 48-63.
– Turcan, R. Mithras Platonicus. Leiden, 1975.
– Ulansey, D. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. New York and Oxford, 1989.
– Vermaseren, M. J. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis mithriacae. 2 vols. The Hague, 1956, 1960.

The Distribution of the Mithraea

The mithraea are indicated in orange, the Sacello delle Tre Navate in purple. / SO II, fig. 25.

Mitreo del Caseggiato di Diana

Regio I – Insula III – (I,III,3-4)

The Mithraeum of the House of Diana was excavated in the years 1914-1915. It was installed in two Antonine rooms in the north-east corner of the House of Diana at the end of the second or in the early third century AD.

In the south-west corner of the southern room were two doors. The door in the west wall was blocked when the mithraeum was installed. In the blocking is a semicircular niche. Between the southern and northern room are two doors (the central one was originally a window). The northern room received indirect light, and was quite dark. Podia (h. 0.60) were built in both rooms. Those in the southern room have disappeared, but an older geometrical black-and-white mosaic testifies to their existence. Between the southern podia is a well, belonging to the mithraeum. Below the podia in the northern room was also a black-and-white geometrical mosaic. These podia were reached along a few treads at the south end.

Plan of the mithraeum. / SO II, fig. 1.

Against the back wall of the northern room are an altar (h. 0.78) and an aedicula (h. 3.20). The aedicula is covered with white plaster, with some red accents. To the left and right of the niche of the aedicula were stucco semi-columns, resting on travertine consoles. The vault of the niche was decorated with pieces of pumice and blue paint, referring to the mithraic cave. The altar had been taken to the mithraeum from elsewhere (see the Tempio d’Ercole (I,XV,5)), and a round hole, perhaps for a lamp behind glass, was hacked out from one side to the other. In the mithraeum it was put up bottom-up. Part of the top, that had now become bottom, was missing, and replaced by masonry. The missing fragment was found by the excavators on the Cardo Maximus. The altar was put up by M. Lollianus Callinicus, witness the following inscription, that was added:

ARAM DEO DO(no) DE(dit)

The same “father” (main priest) is known from an inscription found in a shop on the Decumanus, near the House of Diana, put up by Petronius Felix Marsus. The inscription may well have belonged to the mithraeum in the House of Diana:

[patre pet]RONIVS FELIX
[Marsus sign]VM DEO
[do(no)] DE(dit) D(edicavit)

This inscription was reused by two Marci Caerellii, Hieronimus and [—]us, priests of Mithras. On the back is the inscription:

M.M. CAER[ellii Hiero]
VS SACERDO[tes et antisti]

A Cerell(ius) Ieronim(us), probably our Hieronimus, is mentioned in an inscription from 198 AD, as a member of the fabri tignuarii. At some point in time a stable with trough was installed in the House of Diana, probably for animals that operated millstones in a nearby bakery, such as the adjacent Caseggiato dei Molini (I,III,1). It is probably significant that other Marci Caerellii (Iazemis and Zmaragdus) were leading figures in the guilds of the bakers in Ostia and Rome.

Returning to the older inscription, we may note that Callinicus and Marsus are documented in yet another inscription, found in Via della Fontana in 1899:

SIGNVM ARIMANIVM DO(no) DE(dit) D(edicavit)

The inscription is on an architrave that belonged to an aedicula, but we can only speculate about the original location. It does not seem to belong to this mithraeum. The inscription mentions a depiction of the Persian deity Arimanius, who played a role in the cult of Mithras as manifestation of Hades. The name Marsus suggests, that this individual was a snake-charmer, who was thought to have occult powers.

In the left part of the base of the aedicula is a marble head of Dionysus. Above the head is a graffito:

To the left may be names of slaves. To the right the word BINV is probably vinum, wine, appropriate above the head of Dionysus. The right column probably mentions votive offerings.


Left: The altar and aedicula in the northern room. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: The marble head of Dionysus in the base of the aedicula. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

Mitreo di Menandro

Regio I – Insula III – (I,III,5)

Plan of the mithraeum. / SO II, fig. 3.

The Mithraeum of Lucretius Menander was installed in the early third century AD to the south-east of a Hadrianic building, named after the mithraeum. The rooms in this part of the building had been decorated with a black-and-white geometrical floor mosaic. On the walls were paintings of small landscapes etc., on white panels bordered by wide red bands. The paintings have been dated to the Antonine period.

The mithraeum was entered from the north, along a staircase which forced access from the side. Along the walls of the shrine are podia (h. 0.45), with niches in the centre of the vertical side. The western podium was reached along a few treads.

At the back of the shrine is a brick altar. The front is covered by a marble slab (0.84 x 0.47), with a hole in the shape of the moon, behind which must have been a lamp. Below the moon is the inscription:

D(ono) D(edit) D(edicavit)

The altar was dedicated by a slave called Diocles, in honour of C. Lucretius Menander, main priest of Mithras.


Left: General view from the north. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the south-east corner. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The marble slab with inscription. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: The east wall with the older paintings. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The west wall with the older paintings. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Tempio Collegiale and Mitreo di Fructosus

Regio I – Insula X – (I,X,4)

The Guild Temple

Plan of the temple and mithraeum. / After SO I.

A guild temple was built in the south-west part of the block, at the intersection of Via del Pomerio and Via del Tempio Rotondo. The building (opus latericium) has been assigned to the reign of Alexander Severus (222 – 235 AD). In the courtyard are a few later walls (opus vittatum).

The south part of the outer west wall is oblique, probably to make the passage of wagons or pack animals easier. The corner of the building was reinforced with travertine blocks and the drum of a column. The main entrance is in the west part, between two shops. It is accentuated by brick piers with travertine bases. Secondary entrances are found in the south-east (a staircase) and north-east.

From the vestibule one reaches a courtyard with porticus. Behind the courtyard is the substructure of the podium of the temple, which was never finished however. The wide staircase leading to the podium is missing, and the cella was not built (possibly funds of the guild had been confiscated by Alexander Severus’ successor Maximinus). The podium is flanked by small rooms and staircases. Below the north-eastern staircase is a latrine. A large room to the north of this staircase also belongs to the complex.

In the substructure of the podium a mithraeum was installed (see below). An inscription from the mithraeum mentions a corpus s[—]. It is almost certain that this is the guild of the stuppatores: rooms to the north were used for the production of stuppa, i.e. tow, oakum (Officina Stuppatoria I,X,3). The members of the guild would meet and have banquets in the complex. The northern wing of the porticus may have served as dining room. The large room in the north part may have been a dining room or kitchen. Water could be obtained from a well in the northernmost shop. The corpus stuppatorum in Portus worshipped Minerva Augusta as conservatrix et antistites (“defender and overseer”) of the guild.

The Mithraeum of Fructosus

Plan of the temple and mithraeum. / North is to the left. From Becatti 1954, fig. 4.

The mithraeum in the substructure of the podium was reached through a door in the north-east part of the porticus, then through a corridor in front of the podium, and finally by descending a few steps. Preparations had been made for a low cross vault to support the podium, but it was never finished. Instead a higher cross vault was built to cover the mithraeum, and the springing of the planned low vault was filled with opus vittatum and stucco. The floor of the room was lowered.

In the back wall a semicircular wall-niche was hacked out, 40 centimeters deep. On either side of the niche was a small marble column. On the bottom rested a marble slab with a pivot hole. The rough concrete of the back was left unfinished, intentionally, so that it recalled the cave in which Mithras was born. The niche was painted blue and will have contained a statue of Mithras.

In the west wall, next to the entrance, is a recess for a relief or an inscription. In the north wall is a slit window. Podiums were set against the long sides of the room. They accomodated c. 18 men. The walls of the room were all painted white. Traces of red and blue were seen by the excavators. Two marble supports may have belonged to a table in front of the niche. Furthermore two bases were found, one of marble, the other of travertine. Most likely they supported statues of Cautes and Cautopates, holding a raised and a lowered torch (part of the statue of Cautes has been preserved).

Fragments were found of a marble cornice, which rested on small columns or a similar support. The original location remains uncertain. It carries the inscription (one line):

[—]rius Fructosus patron(us) corp(oris) s[tuppatorum—te]mpl(um) et spel(aeum) M(i)t(hrae) a solo sua pec(unia) feci(t)

“?rius Fructosus, patron of the guild of the tow-makers, built the temple and cave of Mithras, alone and on his own expense”

A list of members of the corpus st[—], from the third century AD, mentions a Fructosus senior, and a Fructosus as patron. The shrine was destroyed thoroughly and set on fire by Christians.


Left: View through the vestibule towards the courtyard. From the west. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: The south-east part of the courtyard, seen from the north-west. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

The mithraeum seen from the west. Note the niche in the back wall, the supports for a marble table, and the bases of statues for Cautes and Cautopates. / Photograph: Gerard Huissen.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the north-west. Note the springing of the high cross vault, and the filling of the low cross vault to the right of it. / Photograph: Gerard Huissen.
Right: The rooms to the north of the podium, seen from the north. To the left is a staircase, in the centre a slit window. / Photograph: Gerard Huissen.

Mitreo delle Terme del Mitra

Regio I – Insula XVII – (I,XVII,2)

Plan of the mithraeum. / From SO II, fig. 7.

The mithraeum was installed in the service area of the Baths of Mithras. Some walls of opus vittatum were added. The shrine was reached via a brick staircase. The entrance is between two cross-walls. The inside measurements are 15.37 x 4.55, the maximum height of the vault is 2.10. A back wall was added with a door in the east side (w. 0,80, h. 1.65), leading to the service area. A small cross-wall made the door invisible. In the vault are two square skylights, one in the centre, one in the south part, above the head of Mithras about to kill the bull (see below). From the skylights can be deduced that the ceremonies in the shrine took place during the day. We may also assume that the baths were then not yet open, which takes us to the early morning, perhaps daybreak.

In the east side of the vault, near the entrance, is a square shallow recess (0.60 x 0.60), painted red, presumably for a relief or inscription. There are a few remains of paintings, of landscapes and standing figures. The podia are low (0.33), and divided in two sections by a pre-existing reinforcing arch of opus latericium. At the south end of the podia are two small brick piers, on top of which two small tufa pyramids were found, a reference to the rock from which Mithras was born (saxigenus). In the vertical side of the podia, halfway down the shrine, are niches. They probably contained two small tufa altars in the shape of a pyramid, found in the shrine.

The shrine has a brick floor. On the floor, between the south ends of the podia, is a square brick base (0.42 x 0.42, h. 0.50). In front is a small, plastered, triangular altar. On the three corners stood small triangular columns, originally supporting something.

Behind the podia a statue of Mithras about to kill the bull was found in situ, resting on a masonry base placed diagonally (h. 0.30). The head of the god was illuminated in a dramatic way through a skylight. The height of the statue is 1.70. It is made of Greek marble. The blade of the knife is missing. It was probably made of metal. The Phrygian cap was made separately and is also missing, as are the metal rays that were fastened in holes. The head of the bull and the head and an arm of Mithras were found in a channel in the mithraeum, together with small fragments of the statue, that are ancient restorations. The statue stands upon a base of grey marble (resting on the masonry base), the same kind of marble used for the restorations. Obviously a damaged statue had been acquired. The fragments must have been thrown in the channel by Christians, who erected a small edifice above the mithraeum. On the chest of the bull is the inscription:


“Kriton the Athenian made (the statue)”. This may have been M. Umbilius Criton, who is documented in the Mitreo della Planta Pedis. The statue seems to belong to the second century AD. The mithraeum may have been installed in the first half of the third century.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the north. / Photograph: Laura Maish-Bill Storage.
Right: Plaster cast of the statue of Mithras. / Photograph: Bill Storage.

The statue of Mithras. / Photograph: Laura Maish-Bill Storage.

Mitreo del Palazzo Imperiale

Regio I

Plan of the mithraeum. / From SO II, fig. 11.

This mithraeum was found in the west part of the Palazzo Imperiale. It was excavated in 1860-1861 by C.L. Visconti. It measures c. 16.75 x 5.30. The west wall is of opus mixtum, the south wall of opus latericium with a door (w. 1.15), the north wall of small tufa blocks. The east wall consists of five brick piers, between which are walls of latericium and small tufa blocks. In the south part of the east wall is a window (h. 0.90, at a height of 2.20), below which is a square wall-niche (0.40 x 0.40, d. 0.50). All walls were decorated with red plaster without any motifs.

In the south-east corner is a square niche on a base. In the base is a hollow space in which lamps were found. A tufa base is standing against the north wall. It is an altar, or carried a niche. The front part of the base has five marble treads, on top of which is a masonry base carrying a marble altar with the inscription:

SVA PEC(unia)

“C. Caelius Hermeros, overseer of this place, made it with his own money”. Near the base were found a few small marble columns, presumably for lamps, and some tufa fragments that imitate the rock from which Mithras was born (petra genetrix).

The podia were reached along a few treads at the south end. In the vertical side, halfway down the shrine, are niches for small statues of Cautes and Cautopates (now in the Vatican Museums). On the bases of the statues are reliefs of Cautes and Cautopates, with the inscription:


and on one of the bases, on the side:

L. PLAVT(io)

The year is 162 AD, the day January 18.

On the floor is a white mosaic with an identical text running along the podia:


Other finds are: several lamps, one with holes for twelve wicks; a statuette of Cautopates; a portrait head of Mithras with remains of paint and his right hand with a knife; a Phrygian cap with holes for rays; the head of a lion, a reference to the grade Leo.

In a nearby room a mosaic of Silvanus, dated to the period of Commodus, was found in a niche. It may well have been related to the shrine.

The shrine seen from the south, in a print from 1860. / SO II, Tav. IX.


Left: The shrine seen from the south. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The floor mosaic with inscriptions. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: The back part of the shrine, seen from the south-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The inscription of C. Caelius Hermeros on the altar. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The bases and statuettes of Cautes and Cautopates. / SO II, Tav. XXXV.

Mitreo Fagan

Regio I

This mithraeum was excavated by the Irish painter Robert Fagan between 1794 and 1802. Today it cannot be seen. It must be somewhere between the Palazzo Imperiale and the ancient mouth of the Tiber (Tor Boacciana). In the shrine a marble sculptural group was found of Mithras killing the bull (now in the Vatican Museums). He is called “undiscoverable deity” in an inscription on the basis:


The second line was added later and should be understood as being in front of C. Valerius.

Furthermore a curious marble statue was found (now in the Vatican Library). It was painted red. It is a representation of time: a naked body in the coils of a snake and with the head of a lion. In its hands are two keys and a sceptre. It has four wings, symbols of the seasons. It was dedicated by a “father” and two priests, witness an inscription from 13 August 190 AD:

C(aius) VALERI
TES S(ua) P(e)C(unia) P(o)S(ue)R(unt)
D(e)D(icatum) IDI(bus) AVG(ustis) IMP(eratore)

A similar, gilded figure is seen on a marble relief from the shrine (now in the Vatican Museums). Also from the shrine comes the following inscription:

C(aius) VALERIVS HERACLES PAT[e]R E[t] A[ntis]

Apparently the shrine was installed in an (underground?) crypta of an Imperial palace, after approval by M. Aurelius (the Emperor Commodus, or an Imperial freedman). Commodus had been initiated in the mysteries of Mithras: Sacra Mithriaca homicidio vero polluit, cum illic aliquid ad speciem timoris vel dici vel fingi soleat (“He desecrated the rites of Mithras with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror”; SHA, Commodus IX,6).

The group of Mithras killing the bull. / SO II, Tav. XXXIV, 2.

The statue and relief of time. / SO II, Tav. XXXVI, 1-2.

Mitreo Aldobrandini and Torre sul Tevere

Regio II – Insula I – (II,I,2) and (II,I,3)

This mithraeum was excavated in 1924. It was found 150 metres to the north of the Porta Romana on property owned by the Aldobrandini-family, and is still not accessible to the public. The south part of the shrine was not excavated. The back wall (north wall) was set against a tower belonging to the city wall from the first century BC. The tower was built with large tufa blocks. The east wall was set against the city wall (opus quasi reticulatum). The shrine was built in opus latericium, and has been dated to the late second century AD.

The northern part of the podia, lined with white marble, was unearthed. To the north of the podia is a short west-east running corridor, the floor of which was decorated with coloured marble, forming geometric motifs. The back part of the shrine was at a slightly higher level, and could be reached along two treads. Here some brick piers were excavated, lined with marble. A few marble slabs created a table.

Plan of the shrine. / From SO II, fig. 8 = NSc 1924, fig. 1.

A base or altar was set against the back wall (h. 0.60, w. 2.12), lined with a marble slab with the inscription:


The inscription informs us that a painting of Mithras on cloth had been damaged by moisture, and was replaced by “father” (pater) Sextus Pompeius Maximus by a marble depiction. In line 1 is a reference to “ancient religion”, which may mean that the cloth was imported from the east, where the origins of Mithras lay. A throne is also mentioned, probably the structure set against the back wall, which may have been a combined altar and base. The abbreviation Q S S EST has been explained as qui sacerdos (or sacratus) solis est (“who was priest (or ordained as priest) of the Sun”), and as qui supra scriptus est (“whose name is written above”). The praesepia, 68 feet long (20 metres) are probably the podia, that is: two podia of 10 metres. The most important objects found in the shrine are three small tufa altars, a small herm of Silenus (with traces of blue paint in his hair), and a marble relief of Silvanus.

A bronze inscription (0.42 x 0.29), now in the British Museum, may also come from this shrine. Below a small bust of Sol is written:


This inscription was put up by all priests of Mithras in Ostia and Portus, in honour of Sextus Pompeius Maximus, “father of the fathers”. Apparently he was the leader of the cult of Mithras in Ostia. We also learn that he was in charge of one of Ostia’s ferry services.

In 1637 Cardinal Domenico Ginnasi built a hospital and a chapel of San Sebastiano to the south of the mithraeum.


Left: The shrine seen from the south. Note the large tufa blocks of the tower of the city wall in the background, and the marble floor in the foreground. / SO II, Tav. V, 3.
Right: The bronze inscription in the British Museum. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Opus quasi reticulatum. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.


Left: The back part of the shrine and opus latericium. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.
Right: Large tufa blocks and opus quasi reticulatum. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.


Left: The hospital of Domenico Ginnasi. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.
Center: The mithraeum next to the hospital. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.
Right: The hospital and to the right the chapel of San Sebastiano. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.


Left: The coat of arms of Domenico Ginnasi. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.
Right: The chapel of San Sebastiano. / Photograph: Antonio Veronese.

Mitreo presso Porta Romana

Regio II – Insula II – (II,II,5)

Plan of the Mitreo. / From Becatti 1954, fig. 9.

The Mithraeum near Porta Romana was excavated in 1919. It was probably built in the third century. It was connected with Sacello II,II,4.

The shrine measures 14.96 x 5.82. The usual podia line the walls. In the south part are the foundations of an altar. In the north part of the corridor is a small, marble basin (0.50 x 0.50). Around the basin part of the marble decoration of the floor, walls, and podia has been preserved.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the north. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The eastern podium seen from the north-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Mitreo delle Sette Sfere

Regio II – Insula VIII – (II,VIII,6)

Plan of the mithraeum. / From Gordon 1976, fig. 1.  The representation of the zodiacal signs has been conventionalized.

The Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres seems to have been excavated for the first time by Petrini, in the years 1802-1804. Four inscriptions were found then, mentioning:

A restoration of the shrine and its vestibule (pronaos) by A. Decimius Decimianus:



The dedication of an altar to Sol Mithras by L. Tullius Agatho:


A pater and sacerdos (“father” and “priest”) called M. Aemilius Epaphroditus:


Furthermore a round, marble relief was found of Mithras killing the bull (a plaster cast is in situ). The relief (1.17 x 1.09) must have been inserted in the back wall. On the mantle of Mithras stars or planets and the moon can be seen. A dog and snake are sucking the bull’s blood, a scorpion is biting the bull’s testicles. The bull’s tail ends in grain ears.

The shrine was re-excavated by Lanciani in 1886. Only the lower part is ancient (Antonine latericium, and vittatum piers along the west wall), the upper part was added to protect the mosaics. The inside measurements are 11.20 x 4.37. Along the side walls are the usual benches, which may have accomodated some 32 men. A few treads have been preserved at the beginning of the right hand bench. Two small travertine altars are embedded in the corners of the front part of the benches. There is a masonry podium along the back wall.

The mithraeum is of great importance for the understanding of the cult, because of its black-and-white mosaics. Below is a summary of the interpretations by Gordon, Beck, and Coarelli.

Summary of the interpretation by Gordon (1976)

The entrance to the mithraeum is – as usual – off-centre. In the front part, on the floor, are a U-shaped basin and a mosaic dagger. The water-basin is a reference to a source, near the cave in which Mithras created the world by killing the bull. The dagger, the weapon of Mars, is usually viewed as a reference to the killing of the bull.

The signs of the Zodiac are depicted in mosaic on the horizontal side of the ledges in front on the benches:


Left side Right side


From the order can be deduced that the left side coincided with the astrological north, summer and spring, and the day. The right side represented south, winter and fall, and night.

At the front of the benches are the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, who were associated with Sol and Luna. Cautes raises a small torch. In his other hand is a cock, referring to the morning. Cautopates is lowering a large torch, the fire of which is indicated by red tesserae. It is peculiar that Cautes is on the “south” and dark side, Cautopates on the “north” and light side. This can be explained by linking them to another aspect of “north” and “south”: the places where the souls of men entered and left the world.

From the signs of the Zodiac can furthermore be deduced that there was a line of equinoxes, coinciding with the true north-south axis of the shrine. It ends at the true north, where Mithras was depicted. There is also a line of solstices, from the true west to east. This line is between Gemini and Cancer to the left, and Capricorn and Sagittarius to the right. On the latter line are two recesses, in the vertical side of the benches. Possibly these niches can be explained as the gates of heaven, through which the souls descended and ascended.

On the vertical side of the benches, so on either side of the niches, are mosaic depictions of planets standing in niches or aediculae:


Left side Right side
Jupiter (with bolt of lightning and sceptre)
Mercury (with caduceus and staff)
Luna (as Diana, with an arrow, perhaps a pomegranate, and moon sickle)
Saturn (bearded)
Venus (holding a veil over her head)
Mars (with helmet, harness, lance and shield)


This is not a known order. A solution is suggested by the order of the planets in the Mitreo delle Sette Porte (IV,V,13). This may be the order of the planets on the night of creation, before light appears. The planets are in their nocturnal houses. The seventh planet, Sol, is missing (as it is in Sette Porte). That is because this planet is Mithras-Sol, who does not belong in the dark night. He created light, and was depicted in the back part of the shrine.

Schematic representation of the astronomical signs at Sette Sfere. / From Gordon 1976, fig. 2.

On the floor, between the benches, are seven black mosaic arches that gave the shrine its modern name. For some reason they touch the left, but not the right bench. They are usually regarded as the seven gates of heaven through which souls had to pass. They are, however, heavenly spheres, parts of the earth that were governed by the planets and the signs of the Zodiac. They correspond to the planets, and to the seven grades of initiation:


Planet Grade
Pater (father)
Heliodromus (sun-courier)
Perses (Persian)
Leo (lion)
Miles (soldier)
Nymphus (bridegroom)
Corax (raven)


Summary of the interpretation by Beck (1979)

Beck praises Gordon’s analysis, but disagrees in one respect: Gordon’s explanation of the order of the planets is not correct, from an astrological point of view.

According to Beck an actual arrangement of the planets is depicted in Sette Sfere and Sette Porte. The true north, where Mithras was depicted, coincides with the spring equinox, i.e. the moment when finally the day was no longer shorter than the night. We see a Saturn-Jupiter conjunction, with Saturn, Venus and Mars to the east of the sun, and Jupiter, Mercury and the moon to the west. That was the situation on 21 March (the spring equinox) of 172 AD (with the exception of the moon, that may have been placed on the left side to achieve symmetry). However, the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction took place only in 173 AD, so the spring equinox of that year seems to be referred to as well. The depictions in Sette Porte also refer to the conjunction in 173 AD.

Summary of the interpretation by Coarelli (1989)

According to Coarelli the L. Apuleius Marcellus who (as is shown by stamps on lead waterpipes) owned the contiguous Domus di Apuleio (II,VIII,5) was the famous author Apuleius of Madauros. We have already discussed one argument in connection to the Four Small Temples (II,VIII,2). Further arguments are offered by the mithraeum.

The house is related to the four temples, but also to the mithraeum: a few steps lead to the mithraeum. This shrine became the “hinge” of the entire complex: it is precisely on the north-south axis of the temples. In the mithraeum a unique order of the planets is found, but, says Coarelli, scholars have overlooked that an almost identical order is found in two works by Apuleius. The only discrepancy is the order of Mars and Venus, who have changed position. This may be due to the presence of the mosaic dagger near the entrance, the weapon of Mars. In Apuleius’ novel “The Golden Ass” a prominent role is played by a priest called Mithras.

If Coarelli’s hypothesis is correct, it would make the mithraeum the oldest of the excavated mithraea in Ostia.

Summary of Beck’s analysis of Coarelli’s hypothesis (2000)

Beck accepts Coarelli’s hypothesis, particularly because of the presence of Q. Asinius Marcellus in the area (see the description of the Four Small Temples): “To suppose otherwise is stretching coincidence too far”. Coarelli is mistaken however when he traces the unique order of the planets in the shrine to works of Apuleius:
1) The order in Sette Sfere has been called unique, because it is not the order that was favoured during the Imperial period (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon).
2) The order of the planets described by Apuleius is a known and older (Platonic) order (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Moon).
3) The order in Sette Sfere is not identical to the order described by Apuleius: the Sun, Mars and Venus are out of position.
The planets are a reference to the situation in 172 and 173 AD, and must have been added later.

Beck again draws attention to the cosmological aspect of Sette Sfere: “In his essay ‘On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey’ (De antro nympharum), the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry informs us of the function and design of the archetypal mithraeum, and thus of the intent of all mithraea (Sette Sfere happens to be the extant mithraeum in which that design is most explicit)”. This archetypal mithraeum focuses on the journey and salvation of the soul, a quest that brings to mind the story of Cupid and Psyche (Love and Soul) in “The Golden Ass”. Beck also points out that the gods who were worshipped in the Four Small Temples (Venus, Fortuna, Ceres, and Spes) figure prominently in the novel.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the south-west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: A drawing of the mosaics of Cautopates (A), Cautes (H) and the six planets  (B-G; Luna, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars). / From Paschetto 1912, fig. 121.


Left: General view from the north. / SO II, Tav. VI, 1.
Center: The relief of Mithras, now in the Vatican. / SO II, Tav. XXXIV, 1.
Right: The niche in the left bench.


Left: The niche in the right bench.
Center: The dagger near the entrance.
Right: The mosaic of Cautopates. Note the travertine altar in the corner of the bench.


Left: The mosaic of Cautopates.
Center: The mosaic of Cautes.
Right: Gemini (left, horizontal).


Left: Taures (left, horizontal).
Center: Libra (right, horizontal).
Right: Scorpio (right, horizontal).


Left: Sagittarius (right, horizontal).
Center: Capricorn (right, horizontal).
Right: Aquarius (right, horizontal).


Left: Luna (left, vertical).
Center: Mercurius (left, vertical).
Right: Jupiter (left, vertical).


Left: Mars (right, vertical).
Center: Venus (right, vertical).
Right: Saturnus (right, vertical).

Domus and Mitreo delle Pareti Dipinte

Regio III – Insula I – (III,I,6)

The House of the Mithraeum of the Painted Walls was built in the second half of the second century BC (opus incertum), and modified during the Augustan period. It was entered from Via della Foce. Two shops, both with a basin, face the street. To the south is the narrow entrance corridor. In the centre of the building is a number of rooms, followed by a courtyard with a porticus. In the courtyard is a travertine well. On the floor is opus spicatum. The columns of the porticus are made of tufa, or of bricks with tufa capitals. Later some were replaced by brick piers or incorporated in walls of opus vittatum. Behind the courtyard is a tablinum, flanked by two rooms. In the northern room and in part of the porticus the mithraeum was installed.

Plan of the house. / After SO I.

The shrine was probably installed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius or Commodus (the south wall and the podia are made of opus vittatum).

Plan of the mithraeum. / SO II, fig. 12.

The cella is reached from a small vestibule, from a corner. Two short walls divide the cella (14 x 4 metres) in two sections. In the short sides of each of the dividing walls a niche was hacked out, and decorated with marble. Niches in this position are found often in the Ostian mithraea. Podia were built in the inner and outer section. They could all be reached along a few treads at the east side. In the vertical side of the inner podia are two more niches. The floor of the inner section was decorated with small pieces of travertine. In the back of the shrine is a stepped altar with a small niche on top (opus vittatum). It was decorated with marble. For the marble decoration a mithraic inscription was reused, of which only a few words remain:


In front of the masonry altar is a marble altar with reliefs, that was found in many fragments (h. 0.60). On the front side is a bust of Sol-Mithras with rays. The face is lost. Two crescent-shaped holes (symbols of the moon) at the height of the neck were probably illuminated from behind, by a lamp placed in a cavity in the back side. On the sides Cautes and Cautopates are depicted. In front of the altar is a small round well, covered by a marble lid.

On the back wall and on one of the dividing walls are paintings of architectural elements and small landscapes on a white background, from the Antonine period. These paintings were covered by new paintings when the mithraeum was installed, but of these paintings only traces remain. Perhaps Mithras killing the bull was depicted in the back.

Sketch of the paintings on the right wall. / SO II, fig. 14.

On the right wall of the inner section are paintings that refer to the grades of initiation. From left to right, sometimes separated by stucco semi-columns, are:

  • A female (?) figure, holding a mirror in one hand, while the other hand is on her head. To her right is a tree, the branches of which are also above her. This is the Nymphus, under the protection of Venus. The Nymphus symbolically married the pater.
  • A male figure with a nimbus, holding a lance. This is the Miles, under the protection of Mars.
  • To the right of a tree a naked male figure with a nimbus, holding a burning torch. This is the Heliodromus, under the protection of Sol.
  • Between two trees a male figure with a Phrygian cap, lowering a burning torch. This is Cautopates, symbol of Sol occidens.

Only traces of paintings have been preserved on the left wall, including four figures (one with a nimbus, one with a torch), and a globe.

Paintings have also been preserved on the right wall of the section near the entrance. In four compartments a male figure is depicted on a white background. One of these is holding a torch. These may be depictions of initiates (leones).

In the shrine two cippi with an inscription were found. One of these mentions a certain A. Aemilius An[—]. The other is a dedication by C. Caelius Ermeros, who is also documented in relation to the cult in the Palazzo Imperiale, in inscriptions from 162 AD:

C(aius) CAE
S(ua) P(ecunia)


Left: The building seen from Via della Foce, from the north-east. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: The courtyard and porticus, seen from the north-east. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: The shrine seen from the east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The back part of the shrine. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: A niche in the vertical side of one of the podia. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: The mithraic inscription that was reused in the masonry altar. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: The marble altar, front side (Sol-Mithras). / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: The marble altar, left side (Cautes). / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: The small well with a marble lid in front of the marble altar. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Antonine painting on the back wall. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Antonine painting (landscape) on the back wall. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

Left: Inner section, right wall: Nymphus and Miles. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
2nd from Left: Inner section, right wall: Nymphus. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
2nd from Right: Inner section, right wall: Miles. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Inner section, right wall: Heliodromus. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Inner section, right wall: Cautopates. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Front section, right wall: upper half. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Front section, right wall: lower half. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Front section, right wall: top left. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Front section, right wall: top right. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Front section, right wall: bottom left. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Front section, right wall: bottom left. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Front section, right wall: bottom right. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: One of the two cippi. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: One of the two cippi, top view. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

Caseggiato del Mitreo della Planta Pedis and Mitreo

Regio III – Insula XVII and (III,XVII,2)

Plan of the caseggiato. / After SO I.

The Mithraeum of the Foot-sole was installed in a Hadrianic hall consisting of rows of brick and tufa piers. The shrine seems to have had three naves. In the room to the east of the shrine are some basins and a well. In the west wall of this room is the main entrance of the shrine, on the east side of the central nave (w. 0.80). Two doors connect the central and the left nave. The western door is blocked by a low bench (see below). A few treads lead from the central nave to the back part of the right nave, a small room with a curved niche in the west wall.

Walls of opus vittatum were built between the piers on the right side of the central nave. Small benches, 0.40 high and 0.25 deep, were set against this wall and against the piers on the left side. There are no traces of podia. There could have been a podium in the left nave, but not in the right one, in view of the height of the vittatum walls, that would have been in front of the podium. In the central part of the vertical side of the low benches are small niches (w. 0.42, h. 0.35, d. 0.30 and 0.60). In the niche on the right side chicken-bones were found.

In the back of the shrine is a large, irregular niche of small tufa stones (d. 2.00). It is decorated with plaster, with a yellow background. In the niche is a stepped altar. On the first level is a geometric black-and-white mosaic. The second level is decorated with marble. In the centre of the third level, set against the back wall, is a masonry base. In front of the niche a travertine and a marble base are standing against the lateral walls (0.30 x 0.32, h. 0.60, and 0.30 x 0.27, h. 0.50). They probably carried statuettes of Cautes and Cautopates.

Between the low benches is a simple black-and-white mosaic, with a few yellow and pink tesserae. It is divided in two equal compartments by black bands. In the part near the entrance are two depictions: a snake (1.00) and the imprint of a foot (0.25). Below the mosaic is an older floor, also with the imprint of a foot, in brick. This is the foot of Mithras, on which the initiates placed their own feet. Foot-imprints are also documented in the cult of Serapis. The Ostian Serapeum is close to this Mithraeum. Another connection between Mithras and Serapis is their association with Sol, and in the masonry of the altar in the niche a coin was found of Valerianus (253 – 259 AD), with a bust of Sol on the reverse.

In the altar the following inscription was reused:

PR(o) SAL(ute) AVGG(ustorum duorum)
S(oli) I(nvicto) M(ithrae)
SACERDOS S(ua) P(ecunia) F(ecit)

Plan of the mithraeum. North is to the right. / SO II, fig. 18.

The following objects were found:
– A marble altar (0.30 x 0.34, h. 1.00). In the back is a curved hollow space, perhaps for a small bust.
– Fragments of a marble relief, presumably of Mithras killing the bull. Two flanking figures have been preserved: Sol and Luna. The rays of Sol were painted red.
– A round, marble basin (diam. 0.60, h. 0.25) with an inscription on the edge (one line):


It may be significant that in the nearby Serapeum an inscription from 200 AD mentions a son of M. Umbilius Maximus, in 192 AD patronus of the corpus lenunculariorum tabulariorum auxiliariorum Ostiensium.
– A dedication by Hermes, slave of M. Iulius Eunicus:


The shrine was built in the second half of the second or the early third century AD. Modifications have been dated to the second half of the third century.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Plaster casts of fragments of the relief of Mithras: Sol and Luna. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Detail of the floor-mosaic: foot-sole. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the floor-mosaic: snake. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Mitreo degli Animali

Regio IV – Insula II – (IV,II,11)

Plan of the mithraeum. / SO II, fig. 19.

The Mithraeum of the Animals was excavated by C.L. Visconti in 1867. It was set against the wall surrounding the Campus of the Magna Mater, in a hall with three rows of brick piers and pilasters. The shrine was entered through two openings between the piers (a third opening was blocked by a thin wall of opus latericium). Next to the altar is a secondary entrance. Podia were found only in the back part, in front of the altar (l. 4.50, w. 1.50).

The brick altar was set against the back wall (w. 2.40). In the front part are three treads. In the centre of the second tread is a rectangular niche (w. 0.50, d. 0.17). The back part is a podium, that – witness a few traces – carried a niche (d. 0.90) flanked by pilasters. The entire structure was revetted with white marble.

On the floor, between the piers and the podia, is a black-and-white mosaic. It contains a marble threshold at the point where the podia begin. There are five depictions, from south to north:
– A naked man, holding a pruning knife and some sort of shovel. A few white tesserae suggest that the latter object is perforated. A similar symbol is found in the Mithraeum of Felicissimus, where it refers to the grade Leo. It was used to carry fire. The hair of the naked man may be the lion’s mane. But in the Mithraeum of Felicissimus the knife refers to the grade Perses. Apparently this depiction is a reference to two grades of initiation.
– A cock, announcing the morning, attribute of Cautes, and a raven, the herald of Mithras and a grade of initiation (corax).
– A scorpion, that on reliefs attacks the testicles of the bull that is killed by Mithras.
– A snake with a comb, on reliefs drinking the blood of the bull.
– The head and tail of the bull, and in front of the head part of a knife (half of which is missing, as if it is in the neck of the bull).

Near the altar a head of Mithras with Phrygian cap was found (h. 0.45). In the cap are holes for metal rays, so Mithras is depicted as Sol Invictus. Furthermore a head of Sol-Helios was found, with seven holes for rays.

The shrine was built in the second half of the second century AD.

Left: The shrine seen from the south-east. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Detail of the floor-mosaic: the grade Leo-Perses. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Center: Detail of the floor-mosaic: cock. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Detail of the floor-mosaic: raven. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Detail of the floor-mosaic: scorpion. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Detail of the floor-mosaic: snake. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Detail of the floor-mosaic: bull. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

The head of Mithras. / SO II, Tav. XXXI, 2.

Mitreo delle Sette Porte

Regio IV – Insula V – (IV,V,13)

Plan of the mithraeum. North is to the left. / SO II, fig. 20.

The Mithraeum of the Seven Gates (7.05 x 5.80) was built in a cella in the south-east corner of horrea from the first century AD (IV,V,12). In the back wall a square, arched wall-niche was made. Brick podia were set against the lateral walls, and a floor mosaic and paintings were added. The installation took place in the years c. 160-170 AD (see the Mitreo delle Sette Sfere (II,VIII,6) for Beck’s interpretation).

The shrine is entered through a door two metres wide, with a travertine threshold with pivot holes for two doors opening inwards. The podia were reached along a few brick treads. In the vertical side of the podia, halfway down the shrine, are rectangular niches. In both a small, rectangular, marble altar was found. In the southern niche a terracotta vessel had been buried, in which bones were found of poultry and perhaps rabbits, plus three small, broken, ovoid vessels.

At a distance of 1.80 from the back wall is a round terracotta vessel in the floor, 0.25 deep. On either side is a small, square, marble slab. They are both pierced by a lead water-pipe. At 0.40 from the back wall is a square masonry altar (0.45 x 0.50, top missing), decorated with white plaster. A semicircular or round, horizontal hole passed through the entire altar. It was closed off by glass, of which fragments were found. Behind the glass was probably a lamp. The altar rests on a marble column base, below which a second-century coin was found of Faustina Minor, with a depiction of Ceres. Nearby a terracotta lamp for six wicks was found.

Behind the altar is a large, arched wall-niche (starting at h. 1.40, w. 1.50, h. 0.80, d. 0.30). It was painted blue with red spots. The central part of the back wall of the shrine was painted red, the colour of the sun and fire. Above the podia, both on the east and north wall, and on the west wall is a garden painting, with among others palm trees. The garden is a symbol of rebirth. On the west part of the south wall are two panels, separated by a red band. On the lower panel a red and yellow geometric object can be seen, on the upper panel a disc.

Between the podia is a black-and-white mosaic. Behind the threshold is a central gate flanked by columns supporting an arch with battlements or pinnacles. An oscillum is hanging down from the arch. On either side are three minor gates, separated by columns, with battlements. The seven gates are a reference to the seven planetary spheres through which the souls of the initiates passed. The seventh gate is made of gold and belongs to Sol.

There are also mosaic depictions on the vertical side of the podia. On small pilasters near the door, badly preserved, must have been mosaic depictions of Cautes and Cautopates, the former with a cock and a raised torch, the latter with a lowered torch, symbols of, respectively, the morning and evening. Four planets are depicted on the podia. On the front part of the right podium is Mars with a helmet, a lance in his right hand, and a trophee with cuirass resting on his left shoulder. Further on is Luna, a naked woman with a moon crescent on her head. On the front part of the left podium is Venus Anadiomene. In the centre is a naked Mercurius, with purse and caduceus. Also on the vertical side and on the horizontal rim of the podia are floral motifs.

Two more planets are depicted on the floor. In the back part is a standing, bearded Jupiter, with a bolt of lightning and a sceptre. Near the back wall a bearded bust with a pruning knife represents Saturnus. The seventh planet, Sol, was represented by Mithras who must have been depicted in the niche.

In front of Jupiter we see a krater, symbol of the water in the cave of Mithras, a snake emerging from a rock, symbol of the earth, and a bird, probably an eagle, symbol of the air. The object in front of the eagle is probably a bolt of lightning, symbol of the fire.

The following objects were found:
– Fragments of a krater with a glazed surface, imitating metal. Figures were depicted on the krater. Preserved are Minerva with lance and shield, a figure holding a lance (possibly Jupiter, in which case Juno may also have been depicted), Dionysus-Bacchus with thyrsus and kantharos, and Hercules with a club and a vessel. Probably the twelve gods were depicted (dodekatheon).
– The lower part of a statuette of Cautes or Cautopates.
– A small marble altar with inscription:

DON(um) DED(it)


Left: General view, shortly after the excavation, from the west. / SO II, Tav. XIX.
Right: The shrine seen from the west. / Photograph: Bill Storage.


Left: A garden painting. / SO II, Tav. XXII, 2.
Right: The seven gates, depicted behind the entrance. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Front part of left podium: Venus Anadiomene. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Central part of left podium: Mercurius. / SO II, Tav. XX, 2.


Left: Front part of right podium: Mars and the lower part of Cautes or Cautopates. Note the brick steps leading to the podium. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Central part of right podium: Luna. / SO II, Tav. XXI, 4.


Left:The mosaic in the back part of the room: eagle, bolt of lightning, krater, snake. / SO II, Tav. XX, 3.
Right: The mosaic in the back part of the room: Jupiter. / SO II, Tav. XXI, 3.

Caupona del Dio Pan e Mitreo dei Marmi Colorati

Regio IV – Insula IX – (IV,IX,5)

The Inn of the Deity Pan and the Mithraeum of the Coloured Marble were discovered in 2014 by the Ostia Marina Project (University of Bologna, under the direction of Massimiliano David). The name was given to the inn after the discovery of a black-and-white mosaic in room 3, with a depiction of Pan fighting with Eros. The mithraeum is not just a single room, but a mithraic complex that completely occupied the inn. The name derives from the multicoloured marble floor of the spelaeum.


Left: Plan A of the building – early phase (Caupona).
Right: Plan B of the building – late phase (mithraeum).

Plan A

The inn was entirely built in opus vittatum mixtum technique, dated to the mid-third century AD. A horseshoe-shaped bar-counter has been found in the south-east corner of room 5. Not preserved, it has been individuated thanks to the peculiar shape of the black-and-white mosaic frame. Room 3 was the central hall of the caupona. The floor of this hall is an excellent black-and-white mosaic, of which about half of the original extension has been preserved. Depicted are kantharoi in the corners surrounded by a complex pattern of grapevines. In the central panel is the figure of Pan fighting with Eros, which gives the building its name.

Plan B

In the second half of the fourth century AD there were major alterations in the building. The main access from Via della Marciana was closed with masonry, and an entire new decorative program was set up of frescos imitating marble. Some graffiti on the paintings are related to the cult of Mithras. In room 1 the spelaeum of the mithraeum was installed. It has a niche for the throne of the pater, a ritual well with a marble head, and a single bench.

The Inn of the Deity Pan seen from the north-west. / Photo: S. De Togni, 2015.

Plan of room 3 of the inn with an orthophoto of the mosaic floor and a reconstruction of the original extension. / Photo: David et al. 2016, fig. 5.

The spelaeum of the Mithraeum of the Coloured Marble seen from above. / Photo: David 2014, fig. 15.

Mitreo dei Serpenti

Regio V – Insula VI – (V,VI,6)

Plan of the mithraeum. / SO II, fig. 21.

The Mithraeum of the Snakes measures 11.97 x 5.25. The main entrance is in the north wall, slightly off-centre, 1.70 wide. The wall on either side was created for the mithraeum. An opening in the south wall was blocked. The podia are made of rubble masonry. The western podium was reached along a brick tread. In the centre of the vertical part of the podium are niches. Set against the back wall is a structure consisting of two treads, between two walls. The upper part of the structure has not been preserved. In front is a small masonry altar. Nothing remains of the floor, that may have been of wood.

In the back part of the shrine, on the east and south wall, paintings have been preserved. On the east wall is a painting of a female snake, without comb or beard (a Genius Loci), and of a Genius wearing a tunica and a toga, capite velato, holding a cornucopiae (presumably the Genius of the paterfamilias). On the south wall is a male snake, with comb (another Genius Loci). Behind the snakes is shrubbery, above the scene are garlands. The paintings are older than the mithraeum (early-Antonine? Gallienus?) and were respected in the shrine, possibly because the snake occurs in the cult of Mithras as a symbol of the earth.

During the excavation a small, square, travertine altar was found. The mithraeum may have been built c. 250 AD or somewhat later.


Left: The mithraeum seen from the north. The paintings are in the back part, towards the left. / Photograph: Sopr. Arch. di Ostia, neg. B3142.
Right: Detail of the back part of the mithraeum. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Snake and Genius on the east wall. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Center: Snake and Genius on the east wall. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Right: Detail of snake and Genius on the east wall. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Snake on the south wall. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of snake on the south wall. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Mitreo di Felicissimus

Regio V – Insula IX – (V,IX,1)

Plan of the shrine. North is to the left. / SO II, fig. 22.


Left: The shrine seen from the west. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: The niche in the west wall, opposite the entrance. On the floor is a depiction of an altar with a burning fire. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


Left: Detail of the altar in front of the niche. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Two caps with a star and a krater, near the entrance. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: First panel: raven, small vessel and caduceus. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Second panel: diadem with moon crescent and lamp. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Third panel: bag, helmet, and lance. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Fourth panel: spade, sistrum, and bolt of lightning. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Left: Fifth panel: sword, moon crescent, Hesperos, and scythe. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Center: Sixth panel: torch, crown with rays and ribbons, whip. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.
Right: Seventh panel: patera, rabdos, Phrygian cap, pruning knife. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

The inscription of Felicissimus, with a krater flanked by branches. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.


Regio V – Insula XII – (V,XII,3)

Plan of the shrine. North is to the left. / SO II, fig. 23.

The Sabazeum was excavated in 1909 by Dante Vaglieri. The shrine was installed in a cella of the largely unexcavated Horrea V,XII,2, built in the years 120 – 125 AD (opus mixtum and incertum). The installation may have taken place in the first half of the third century. When the shrine was installed a door in the west wall was blocked, and a door at the west end of the south wall was hacked out (w. 1.00). It seems that the excavators found this door blocked as well.

Along the lateral walls and west wall are masonry podia, now much restored. The podia take the door in the south wall into account. The threshold is 0.40 higher than the floor of the shrine, which was reached along a few treads, that have now disappeared. To the east of the treads were niches, to the west a masonry base. At the east end of the podia three steps led to the altar.

On the west part of the floor, between the podia, is a black-and-white mosaic. The east part is covered with marble, an ancient restoration. On one of the slabs is the (reused?) inscription (or graffito?):


In the mosaic a tabula ansata is depicted with an inscription that informs us that a certain Fructus had paid for some work in the shrine:


In the marble pavement is a round hole (diam. 0.35), with a marble funnel. It is a ritual well, that was covered by a marble oscillum, with a relief of a satyr on one side, and of a maenad on the other. Below the marble pavement were found: three coins from the second century, a marble slab with two incised imprints of feet, and fragments of amphorae containing fish-bones. Among the other finds were:

– a base in the shape of a small altar
– a fragment of a tiny column
– a marble foot of a candelabrum
– a travertine weight
– the lid of an urn
– a small head of alabaster, perhaps of Jupiter-Serapis

Several inscriptions were found. On a marble slab is the text:


On the basis of this dedication by L. Aemilius Euscus it has been suggested that the shrine was dedicated to Jupiter Sabazius, but podia are not documented in his shrines. The room has several characteristics of a mithraeum, where Jupiter Sabazius, who shared many symbols with Mithras, was also worshipped. Perhaps a shrine dedicated to Sabazius was later converted into a mithraeum.

Another dedication, by the Sevir Augustalis P. Clodius Flavius Venerandus, was the result of a divine appearance in a dream:

VI VIR [a]VG(ustalis)

The Numen Caeleste may have been Mithras or the carthaginian Dea Caelestis.

Near the shrine a dedication was found by Venerandus to several deities, including Sol, Caelestis, Fortuna, the Lares and Tutela (CIL XIV S, 4309):

[Invicto] DEO SOLI

To the shrine may belong a marble frieze, fragments of which were found near the shrine and in front of the theatre (h. 0.20). The heads of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Luna and Sol have been preserved. Presumably the seven planets were depicted. Saturnus and Mercurius are missing. The relief seems to have been resting on a vertical metal grate.

The shrine seen from the west. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

Detail of the floor mosaic. / Photograph: Eric Taylor.

Inscription CIL XIV S, 4309, found near the Sabazeo, now in the Mitreo delle Sette Sfere. / Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Originally published by “Ostia: Harbour City of Ancient Rome“, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.