In the years I’ve been working on this website, I’ve explored hundreds of spiritual sites from many different faith traditions. But this is the first time I’ve written about spirituality in ancient Rome—in particular, about the worship of the Roman god known as Mithras.
I didn’t expect to encounter the Romans on a trip to Austria. But at Carnuntum, an attraction on the border between Austria and Slovakia, I encountered the most amazing archeological site I’ve ever visited.
I’ve been to quite a few Roman sites over the years, but to be honest, it took a lot of imagination to make them into anything more than just a pile of rocks. Carnuntum, in contrast, was like stepping into a time machine. For at Carnuntum, they don’t have just ruins: they’ve rebuilt some of what once was there.
Carnuntum was founded as a military camp by Tiberius (who later became emperor) in 6 A.D. By the second century it had grown into the wealthy capital of a Roman province that covered what is now much of Austria and the Balkans. At its height, 50,000 people lived here, a mix of Roman soldiers and officials and natives of the region. There were two amphitheaters (one for the Roman city and the other for the civilian city) and a school for gladiators.
The most famous resident of the city was the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, author of the Stoic classic Meditations. It’s believed he wrote part of this book while he was stationed in Carnuntum.
Carnuntum’s glory came to an end in the fifth century, when the city was attacked by barbarians and left abandoned. But by a happy accident of history, the ruins here were not covered over by construction in subsequent centuries. Unlike almost all major Roman settlements, Carnuntum was left largely undisturbed—making it a treasure trove for archeologists.
With 1600 acres, Carnuntum is one of the largest archeological parks in Europe. It’s a sprawling complex that includes remains from the military and civilian cities and a museum full of artifacts.
If you’re a history buff like me, you probably have certain eras that fascinate you and others that don’t. Take Elizabethan England, for example. Try as I might, I can’t muster up much interest in it. But Rome? Oh, my gracious. I love Roman history (it must be a past life thing).
And so walking through the reconstructed buildings of Carnuntum was the fulfillment of a wish I’ve long had—to travel back in time to Rome.
There are four main buildings in Carnuntum that have been rebuilt in their original locations, using ancient techniques and reconstructed Roman tools. The first to be done was a home once owned by a merchant. It was the equivalent of a middle class home, perfectly comfortable even by today’s standards, especially if you don’t mind cooking over a fireplace.
Look at the bedroom/sitting room below. Is this nicer than your bedroom at home? It’s certainly nicer than mine.
The crown jewel of Carnuntum is its reconstruction of a villa owned by a member of the upper class. Even though Carnuntum was in the hinterlands of the empire, this home was likely comparable to the wealthy mansions of Rome.
It had an ingenious underfloor heating system that warmed it in the winter, and thick walls and wide overhangs that kept it cool in the summer. Its elegantly proportioned rooms were decorated with beautiful painted stucco designs. All of these elements have been carefully reconstructed, with the result shown below—a home that looks quite similar to one in an upper-crust subdivision of an American city.
And as if all of this luxury wasn’t enough, right next door was a public bath, which has also been reconstructed.
Visiting such baths was a central part of Roman life. Different rooms had pools of different temperatures: the frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium (aren’t those great names?). The baths at Carnuntum also included a central assembly room where people could socialize before or after their baths.
By the time we finished our tour of the Roman city, I was ready to sell my house in Iowa and move in.
We next visited an additional treasure: a museum filled with artifacts excavated from Carnuntum. On display were statues and household goods, weapons of war and farming implements.
But by far the most intriguing to me was a Mithraeum, an underground grotto where the god Mithras was once worshipped.
I first encountered Mithras in the historical novels of Mary Renault, and he has intrigued me ever since. The sun god Mithra originated in Persia. During the second century his cult became very popular in the Roman Empire, especially among soldiers in the military. He was born on the day of the winter solstice, which was December 25 according to the Julian calendar—the date that in the fourth century the Christian Church chose to celebrate as Jesus’ birthday. (Many historians have pointed out similarities between the rituals of Mithras and those of Christianity, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Archeologists have found six Mithraeum at Carnuntum, which gives an indication of how widespread the worship of Mithras was here. The Mithraeum in the museum is a recreation of one of these sites, using original carvings found nearby.
The Mithreaeum’s central focus is an image of Mithras slaying a bull. The image below is a little fuzzy because the colors are actually projected onto the stone, not painted, so as not to damage the surface. But they show how brightly colored the carved relief once was. The scene is a key part of the creation myth associated with the god and has been found in virtually all the grottos associated with the worship of Mithras.
We don’t know a lot about what happened in these underground grottos, because devotees of Mithras were sworn to secrecy on the pain of death. Much of what scholars have pieced together is speculation, mainly taken from descriptions of the rites given by detractors, especially early Christian writers.
Historians believe there were seven levels of initiation and that those who completed them were said to attain eternal life. The rituals, which were open only to men, including purification through water, feasting, and enactments of a sacred journey from life to death to rebirth.
Isn’t it interesting how so many religions revolve around this archetypal story? One can dismiss this, of course, as simply due to the fact that humans try to find ways to deal with their fear of death. And yet perhaps there is a deep intuition, an innate knowledge, that death is not the end. Standing in the Mithraeum, I had a sense for how long people have been struggling with these questions, seeking answers in rituals, myths, and stories.
In my travels around the world, I’ve become increasingly interested in sites where ancient gods were once worshipped, places haunted by the ghosts of pilgrims past. Carnuntum is among the most splendid of these landmarks, an entry point into a twilight world between ages, a site where the past doesn’t seem like the past at all.
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