Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:30 pm
This is the skeletal remains of the Temple of Mithras, just outside the Roman fort of Brocolitia on Hadrian’s Wall. The fort, also sometimes called ‘Carrawburgh’ is only visible as lumps in the ground; this is not a place for those cursed with a short attention span. I visited at dusk on a bleak day in March. There was a spatter of snow on the soggy ground, a sharp wind whipped at me and mine was the only car in the car park; it would have been busier, and probably more welcoming, some two thousand years ago.
Brocolitia (or Procolitia) was the Roman name for the fort and is thought to derive from a Celtic place name, possibly meaning ‘badger holes’. There would have been a small vicus, a civilian settlement, outside the fort. Part of the fort lies buried beneath the modern road, the B6318. Known as ‘the Military Road’, this was constructed in 1746 by General Wade in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion as a means of quickly moving troops between Newcastle and Carlisle. Between Greenhead and Chollerford it’s a favourite east-west route of mine, a great alternative to trailing behind the ponderous trucks on the A69, and follows the path of the Hadrian’s Wall through stunning countryside.
Close to the temple of Mithras was another temple with a well dedicated to Coventina, a local water goddess. Also nearby was a nymphaeum – a monument dedicated to nymphs. And “Why not?” I hear you ask. Most Romans were polytheists and a tolerant bunch when it came to religion – unless something was felt to threaten the established social order, as the revolutionary Christian religion did. So Mithras was one of many deities worshipped here, and elsewhere. Alas, no trace of Coventina or the nymphs is visible now; and, to be fair, it’s probably a little chilly for them.
Mithras (or Mithra) was a soldier’s god, imported to Britain by its Roman occupiers. He was the Persian god of light and truth, born from a rock on 25th December brandishing a sword in one hand and a torch in the other. Mithraism is identified with bravery, manliness, fidelity, the constant battle of good against evil and, so far as we know, was an exclusively male cult. It flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and temples of Mithras, or Mithraea, are found all over the former Roman Empire. Later, Mithras became identified with Sol, the Unconquered (or Invincible) Sun – from which we get Sunday.
Mithraea were often built wholly or partly underground, representing a cave in which Mithras slaughters, or sacrifices, a bull. This has been variously interpreted as, amongst other things, the creation and the triumph of light over darkness. In any event, the image of Mithras killing the bull (sometimes known as ‘the tauroctony’) is extremely ancient, central to every Mithraeum – and the iconography is pretty much always the same.
Mithras has hunted the bull and carried it to a cavern. He is shown, wearing a distinctive red Phrygian cap (Phrygia was a kingdom in what is now modern Turkey), kneeling on the exhausted creature and holding it by the nostrils with his left hand while he stabs with his right. A dog and a snake leap to catch the life-giving blood and a scorpion seizes the bull’s genitals. Corn sprouts from the bull’s tail. Mithras looks over his right shoulder at Sol, the Sun; opposite is Luna, the Moon. He is flanked by two torch-bearers, Cautes, his torch pointing upwards, symbolising light, and Cautopates, with his torch held down, symbolising dark.
In fact, Mithraism was a mystery religion whose initiates conducted their rituals in secret. There are few written references to it so our ‘knowledge’ is based on interpretation and, understandably, there are some considerable differences of opinion over what the followers of Mithras really believed, and what was involved in a Mithraic religious service.
The Brocolitia temple was discovered in 1949 when the top portions of three altars were seen, protruding through the grass. Excavation revealed a classic temple of Mithras, remarkably preserved, with a lobby or anteroom leading to a nave, or sanctuary. Either side of this were two low benches. At the far, northern, end were the altars. The one on the left bore a relief of Mithras, crowned by a halo that was lit from behind with a flaming torch. Behind the altars was a portion of the smashed ‘tauroctony’. Amazingly, the remains of the wattle screen that once divided the lobby and the nave were found, as were some of the building’s timbers. The altars and other features now seen are casts of the originals, these having been removed to a museum in Newcastle.
Seventeen or eighteen hundred years ago, this was a very special place: despite appearances, it still is. Imagine the members of the temple, stationed in this remote northern part of the Empire, assembling in much the same way as people turn up for meetings now. Possibly, they arrived in twos and threes – they can’t have been many in number, because the building is fairly small. Perhaps they would have worn masks. On occasions, there would have been a novice to initiate. The interior, though dark, would have been brightly painted. The ceremony, with prayers and hymns, would probably have been followed by a ritual meal, eaten on the benches. The temple was built in the early 3rd century, sacked around 296 or 297 – possibly by northern barbarians raiding the wall – and subsequently rebuilt. It was finally desecrated – almost certainly by Christians – during the 4th century. And there it sat until, eventually, the roof fell in and time covered it over.