Mithras in Capua Vetere: shining new light

Philippa Adrych is the Judith Maitland Memorial Awardee at the BSR (October-December 2018) and here she tells us about where her research on the cult of Mithras has taken her during her residency.

Last week I took some time away from my cosy nook in the BSR library for a trip to Santa Maria Capua Vetere, a Campanian town only forty-five minutes from Naples by train. This wasn’t my first time there, so I knew roughly what to expect: winding streets, a general air of sleepiness, and then – suddenly at the end of a road – the arches of a Roman amphitheatre.

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The distant arches of the amphitheatre 

But, impressive though it is, I hadn’t actually come to Capua Vetere for the amphitheatre. I was visiting for something far more hidden away: a mithraeum. Capua Vetere has one of the most famous examples of a sanctuary to the Roman god Mithras (mithraeum) in Italy. Located underground, it follows the traditional shape of mithraea: rectangular, narrow, with stone benches lining a central aisle and leading towards a cult image on the rear wall.

When I was in Capua Vetere before, I was mostly interested in frescoes on the fronts of the benches, which are usually thought to represent scenes of initiation. The Roman worship of Mithras is typically categorised in scholarship as a ‘mystery cult’, with accompanying ideas about secrecy, a membership that was restricted by gender (men only, as far as we can tell) and perhaps by initiation.

But on this visit, I wanted to spend more time looking at the fresco that fills the back wall of the mithraeum, and is its most defining feature.

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Tauroctony fresco, Capua Vetere mithraeum 

It shows the youthful god Mithras kneeling on the back of a large white bull to subdue it; with his right hand, he plunges a dagger into the bull’s shoulder. This is a depiction of the tauroctony (bull-slaying) scene, that is found in almost every mithraeum around the Roman Empire, from Syria to Spain. Opinion on the meaning of the scene is still divided, but it was clearly so important to worshippers that it became the defining marker of their sacred spaces.

This tauroctony fresco is remarkable for the preservation of its colour: rich reds, blues, greens and yellows that make the figures incredibly vivid. The action takes place within a representation of a cave, with painted stones forming a semi-circular vault over Mithras’ head. Just outside the cave you can find small busts of Sol and Luna, the divine personifications of the sun and moon. They can be identified by their attributes: the crescent moon for Luna, and a whip and radiate crown for Sol. One of the rays from Sol’s crown pierces through the rocks of the cave and the shadows within, until it brushes up against the edge of Mithras’ cloak.

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That faint ray of light

What could this signify? Could it be intended as a way of bringing light into the darkness of the cave? Or should we interpret it as a means of involving Sol in the moment of bull-killing? One thing we do know is that this motif was not unique to Capua Vetere. It appears on tauroctony frescoes from the mithraeum of the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and the mithraeum at Marino in Lazio. It can also be found on several stone reliefs, many of which are Italian in origin. The features of the scene vary: sometimes the ray reaches towards Mithras’ eye; sometimes Sol doesn’t even seem to be looking at the action within the cave. A copy of a relief now in the Naples Archaeological Museum hangs above the entrance to the Capua Vetere mithraeum, as though preparing you for the fresco inside.

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Tauroctony relief, Capua Vetere mithraeum

There is no rocky cave on this relief; the ray disappears amidst the folds of Mithras’ cloak, and the god turns to look directly at Sol.

Details like this inevitably raise more questions than we can answer. But that doesn’t really matter. One of the joys of staying at the BSR is undoubtedly the opportunity to visit mithraea and to shine some faint light onto Mithraic esoterica. My research has always centred on the primary sources for Mithraic worship, particularly its archaeology and art; my trip to Capua Vetere fired me with enthusiasm to look more closely at the richness of Mithraic material culture, and left me ready to get back to my writing desk.

Philippa Adrych (Judith Maitland Memorial Awardee)

All images by Philippa Adrych.