La Stanza Gialla

Originated in the East, the mystic cult of the god Mithra spread to the Roman Empire by the end of the 1st century AD. Its promoters were two of the main constituents of Roman society: the army and the imperial body. To its adepts, mythraism offered an intense spiritual experience, at the price of difficult initiation rituals, and an individual path to salvation, acquired through profound understanding of astrological doctrines. Although ancient literary sources rarely and vaguely refer to mythraic doctrines, an extraordinary amount of epigraphic and monumental evidence pertaining to the subject has survived and continues to be found. Many are the known mithraea, mostly in Rome and Ostia, but also located along the border of the Roman Empire.

The mithraeum of Santa Prisca, characterized by an evocative underground setting, contributes significantly to our understanding of mystic and secretive practices of Mithra’s cult. The mithraeum was created in the 3rd c. AD inside the cryptoporticus of a Roman house. In front of its entrance, the statues of Cautes and Cautopates – the mithraic geniuses symbolizing dusk and dawn – were originally located facing each other inside two niches, whose surface was panted in dark purple and ocher. Only the marble statue of Cautes, raising his torch,was found. The sanctuary proper is an oblong rectangular room: here the worshippers entered into communion with the god during their ritualistic banquets.

The main altar is decorated with a representation of Mithra slaying a bull in presence of other characters and animals. It is a formulaic image, which here is nonetheless very well rendered in stucco: a technique rarely attested. Recent restorations have revealed traces of gold leaves on the faces of several characters.


During the 1950s excavations were unearthed pieces of colored marble, cut to compose a portrait of Mithra-Sol, that originally decorated one of the walls in the mithraeum. Two stucco heads – one of the Egyptian god Serapis, the other of perhaps Venus – and numerous pottery fragments were discovered.

On the long sides of the room is painted a sacred procession of worshippers carrying objects and animals that had liturgical functions. On the upper tier, painted inscriptions describe the individual groups in the procession, according to the planet they were associated with. Each name is preceded by the word “NAMA”: a celebratory expression of Persian origins. Another important inscription has been carved on the exterior of the large central niche. It reports a precise date: 20 November, AD 212, the eighteenth day after the New Moon, probably the day of foundation of the shrine, under favorable astral auspices. The greater mithraeum comprises of two more rooms, communicating and used for preliminary ceremonies. The back wall of the central room features a niche decorated with seven concentric circles that represent the seven planetary spheres known in antiquity. Images of the twelve zodiac symbols were probably once attached to the wall where now their fixing holes remain.

In spite of the support and protection of Roman emperors, especially in the 3rd century AD, Mithraism, organized in small communities of men only, soon caved to the ecumenical dimension of Christianity.