Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall at sunset

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Underground Rome

Basilica di San Clemente

I'm fascinated with the archaeology of ancient civilizations. Especially Rome and Egypt. Recently I've been reading quite a bit about underground Rome. There are archaeologists and spelunkers who explore the ancient remains of the city of Rome, below the surface of the modern city.


Ceiling of the Basilica
One of the most fascinating examples of this is the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, finished in 1120. It is famous for its 12th century frescoes and mosaics.

But it's what lies under the basilica that captivates me. An Irish Dominican priest began excavations underneath the present basilica in 1857 and soon unearthed a 4th century Christian church and catacombs. Building of the catacombs began in the 1st century. The ancient volcanic rock called tufa was perfect for tunneling because it was soft at first but hardened after exposure to air.

4th Century Christian Catacombs

Below the 4th century level, more excavation revealed a 1st century shrine or temple to the ancient Persian god Mithras.

When Rome conquered another country, it often adopted that country's gods and Mithras was one of these. Mithras was a special favorite of Roman soldiers.

1st Century Shrine of Mithras
The rites of a Mithraic temple were open to men only and took place in near darkness. The photo above shows the Roman altar stone in the temple. Offerings would be left on the top of this stone. Stone benches for the worshipers are carved out of the rock on either side of the altar.

We don't know what the offerings consisted of but Mithras is frequently portrayed slaying a bull by cutting its throat and spilling its blood. You can't see it very well in the above photo but that is the motif relief-carved onto the front of the altar.

In my second novel, I have a scene that features a Mithraic temple built alongside Hadrian's Wall, outside the city known in Roman Britain as Luguvalium, today's modern city of Carlisle, England.

Do you have a fascination for ancient archaeology? I'd love to hear from you!

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