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Regio II - Insula VIII - Mitreo delle Sette Sfere (II,VIII,6)

The Mithraeum of the Seven Spheres seems to have been excavated for the first time by Petrini, in the years 1802-1804. Four inscriptions were found then, mentioning:

- A restoration of the shrine and its vestibule (pronaos) by A. Decimius Decimianus:

A. DECIMIVS A. F. PAL. DECIMIANVS S. P. RESTITVIT

A. DECIMIVS A. FIL. PAL. DECIMIANVS AEDEM
CVM SVO PRONAO IPSVM QVE DEVM SOLEM MITHRA
ET MARMORIBVS ET OMNI CVLTV SVA P. RESTITVIT

- The dedication of an altar to Sol Mithras by L. Tullius Agatho:

L. TVLLIVS AGATHO
DEO INVICTO SOLI
MITHRAE ARAM D. D.
E AN QVE DEDICAVIT OB
HONORE DEI M. AEMILIO
EPAPHRODITO PATRE

- A pater and sacerdos ("father" and "priest") called M. Aemilius Epaphroditus:

M. AEMILIO
EPAPHRODITO
PATRE ET SACERDOTE

Furthermore a round, marble relief was found of Mithras killing the bull (a plaster cast is in situ). The relief (1.17 x 1.09) must have been inserted in the back wall. On the mantle of Mithras stars or planets and the moon can be seen. A dog and snake are sucking the bull's blood, a scorpion is biting the bull's testicles. The bull's tail ends in grain ears.

The shrine was re-excavated by Lanciani in 1886. Only the lower part is ancient (Antonine latericium, and vittatum piers along the west wall), the upper part was added to protect the mosaics. The inside measurements are 11.20 x 4.37. Along the side walls are the usual benches, which may have accomodated some 32 men. A few treads have been preserved at the beginning of the right hand bench. Two small travertine altars are embedded in the corners of the front part of the benches. There is a masonry podium along the back wall.

The mithraeum is of great importance for the understanding of the cult, because of its black-and-white mosaics. Below is a summary of the interpretations by Gordon, Beck, and Coarelli.

Plan of the mithraeum

Plan of the mithraeum.
From Gordon 1976, fig. 1.
The representation of the zodiacal
signs has been conventionalized.

Summary of the interpretation by Gordon (1976)
The entrance to the mithraeum is - as usual - off-centre. In the front part, on the floor, are a U-shaped basin and a mosaic dagger. The water-basin is a reference to a source, near the cave in which Mithras created the world by killing the bull. The dagger, the weapon of Mars, is usually viewed as a reference to the killing of the bull.

The signs of the Zodiac are depicted in mosaic on the horizontal side of the ledges in front on the benches:

Left side Right side
Aries
Taures
Gemini
Cancer
Leo
Virgo
Pisces
Aquarius
Capricorn
Sagittarius
Scorpio
Libra

From the order can be deduced that the left side coincided with the astrological north, summer and spring, and the day. The right side represented south, winter and fall, and night.

At the front of the benches are the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, who were associated with Sol and Luna. Cautes raises a small torch. In his other hand is a cock, referring to the morning. Cautopates is lowering a large torch, the fire of which is indicated by red tesserae. It is peculiar that Cautes is on the "south" and dark side, Cautopates on the "north" and light side. This can be explained by linking them to another aspect of "north" and "south": the places where the souls of men entered and left the world.

From the signs of the Zodiac can furthermore be deduced that there was a line of equinoxes, coinciding with the true north-south axis of the shrine. It ends at the true north, where Mithras was depicted. There is also a line of solstices, from the true west to east. This line is between Gemini and Cancer to the left, and Capricorn and Sagittarius to the right. On the latter line are two recesses, in the vertical side of the benches. Possibly these niches can be explained as the gates of heaven, through which the souls descended and ascended.

On the vertical side of the benches, so on either side of the niches, are mosaic depictions of planets standing in niches or aediculae:

Left side Right side
Jupiter (with bolt of lightning and sceptre)
Mercury (with caduceus and staff)
Luna (as Diana, with an arrow, perhaps a pomegranate, and moon sickle)
Saturn (bearded)
Venus (holding a veil over her head)
Mars (with helmet, harness, lance and shield)

This is not a known order. A solution is suggested by the order of the planets in the Mitreo delle Sette Porte (IV,V,13). This may be the order of the planets on the night of creation, before light appears. The planets are in their nocturnal houses. The seventh planet, Sol, is missing (as it is in Sette Porte). That is because this planet is Mithras-Sol, who does not belong in the dark night. He created light, and was depicted in the back part of the shrine.



Schematic representation of the astronomical signs at Sette Sfere. From Gordon 1976, fig. 2.

On the floor, between the benches, are seven black mosaic arches that gave the shrine its modern name. For some reason they touch the left, but not the right bench. They are usually regarded as the seven gates of heaven through which souls had to pass. They are, however, heavenly spheres, parts of the earth that were governed by the planets and the signs of the Zodiac. They correspond to the planets, and to the seven grades of initiation:

Planet Grade
Saturn
Sol
Luna
Jupiter
Mars
Venus
Mercury
Pater (father)
Heliodromus (sun-courier)
Perses (Persian)
Leo (lion)
Miles (soldier)
Nymphus (bridegroom)
Corax (raven)

Summary of the interpretation by Beck (1979)
Beck praises Gordon's analysis, but disagrees in one respect: Gordon's explanation of the order of the planets is not correct, from an astrological point of view.

According to Beck an actual arrangement of the planets is depicted in Sette Sfere and Sette Porte. The true north, where Mithras was depicted, coincides with the spring equinox, i.e. the moment when finally the day was no longer shorter than the night. We see a Saturn-Jupiter conjunction, with Saturn, Venus and Mars to the east of the sun, and Jupiter, Mercury and the moon to the west. That was the situation on 21 March (the spring equinox) of 172 AD (with the exception of the moon, that may have been placed on the left side to achieve symmetry). However, the Saturn-Jupiter conjunction took place only in 173 AD, so the spring equinox of that year seems to be referred to as well. The depictions in Sette Porte also refer to the conjunction in 173 AD.

Summary of the interpretation by Coarelli (1989)
According to Coarelli the L. Apuleius Marcellus who (as is shown by stamps on lead waterpipes) owned the contiguous Domus di Apuleio (II,VIII,5) was the famous author Apuleius of Madauros. We have already discussed one argument in connection to the Four Small Temples (II,VIII,2). Further arguments are offered by the mithraeum.

The house is related to the four temples, but also to the mithraeum: a few steps lead to the mithraeum. This shrine became the "hinge" of the entire complex: it is precisely on the north-south axis of the temples. In the mithraeum a unique order of the planets is found, but, says Coarelli, scholars have overlooked that an almost identical order is found in two works by Apuleius. The only discrepancy is the order of Mars and Venus, who have changed position. This may be due to the presence of the mosaic dagger near the entrance, the weapon of Mars. In Apuleius' novel "The Golden Ass" a prominent role is played by a priest called Mithras.

If Coarelli's hypothesis is correct, it would make the mithraeum the oldest of the excavated mithraea in Ostia.

Summary of Beck's analysis of Coarelli's hypothesis (2000)
Beck accepts Coarelli's hypothesis, particularly because of the presence of Q. Asinius Marcellus in the area (see the description of the Four Small Temples): "To suppose otherwise is stretching coincidence too far". Coarelli is mistaken however when he traces the unique order of the planets in the shrine to works of Apuleius:
1) The order in Sette Sfere has been called unique, because it is not the order that was favoured during the Imperial period (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon).
2) The order of the planets described by Apuleius is a known and older (Platonic) order (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Moon).
3) The order in Sette Sfere is not identical to the order described by Apuleius: the Sun, Mars and Venus are out of position.
The planets are a reference to the situation in 172 and 173 AD, and must have been added later.

Beck again draws attention to the cosmological aspect of Sette Sfere: "In his essay 'On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey' (De antro nympharum), the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry informs us of the function and design of the archetypal mithraeum, and thus of the intent of all mithraea (Sette Sfere happens to be the extant mithraeum in which that design is most explicit)". This archetypal mithraeum focuses on the journey and salvation of the soul, a quest that brings to mind the story of Cupid and Psyche (Love and Soul) in "The Golden Ass". Beck also points out that the gods who were worshipped in the Four Small Temples (Venus, Fortuna, Ceres, and Spes) figure prominently in the novel.


Photographs and drawings



The mithraeum seen from the south-west. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.


A drawing of the mosaics of Cautopates (A), Cautes (H) and the six planets
(B-G; Luna, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars).
From Paschetto 1912, fig. 121.



General view from the north. SO II, Tav. VI, 1.


The relief of Mithras, now in the Vatican. SO II, Tav. XXXIV, 1.


The niche in the left bench.


The niche in the right bench.


The dagger near the entrance.


The mosaic of Cautopates. Note the travertine altar in the corner of the bench.


The mosaic of Cautopates.


The mosaic of Cautes.


Gemini (left, horizontal).


Taures (left, horizontal).


Libra (right, horizontal).


Scorpio (right, horizontal).


Sagittarius (right, horizontal).


Capricorn (right, horizontal).


Aquarius (right, horizontal).


Luna (left, vertical).


Mercurius (left, vertical).


Jupiter (left, vertical).


Mars (right, vertical).


Venus (right, vertical).


Saturnus (right, vertical).

[jthb - 6-Sep-2002; photographs: Eric Taylor; for this page I would like to thank Roger Beck (Univ. of Toronto), Vincent Hunink (Univ. of Nijmegen) and Luca Graverini (Univ. of Siena)]