BMCR 2019.03.05

The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima, vol. II. American Schools of Oriental Research archeological reports, 25

, The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima, vol. II. American Schools of Oriental Research archeological reports, 25. Bristol: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2017. xiii, 100. ISBN 9780897570978. $74.95.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima was constructed within an existing horreum, one of several such warehouses which had been built by Herod the Great at the end of the first century BC. There have already been several brief publications on this mithraeum (p. xi), but the present volume, edited by Jane DeRose Evans, provides much more thorough and comprehensive analysis of in situ Mithraic activity, which dates from the beginning of the third century AD to the beginning of the fourth century. The volume is based upon a manuscript which the lead excavator, Robert J. Bull, had been preparing at the time of his death in 2013. It is composed and edited with clear respect for Bull’s work throughout. Bull had a distinctive and well-argued (if not uncontroversial, see especially Chapter 4) take on the evidence. Accompanying the detailed discussions are numerous precise diagrams and drawings, as well as photographs of the excavations and finds. Although many of these photographs, produced during early excavations in the 1970s, have a low resolution, they are all clear enough to follow.

The mithraeum was discovered, along with some of Herod’s other warehouses, by the Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima in 1973. Further excavation began in 1974. Bull and Evans’s Chapter 1 describes this first excavation (there were subsequent excavations in 1993 and 1995) in meticulous terms helped by maps, floor plans, diagrams and photographs. In doing so, it introduces the discovery of several of the key discoveries (the tauroctony medallion, the painted frescoes and the 19 holes in the ceiling of the mithraeum) which are treated in more detail in subsequent chapters.

The historical background of the mithraeum and the other warehouse vaults given in Chapter 1 contextualises the subsequent stratigraphic discussion in Chapter 2. While Chapter 1 is meticulous in detail, it avoids becoming a dry read with occasionally evocative anecdotes from the dig, such as Bull’s team’s exploration of the buried vaults by “inching [their] way forward wearing oxygen masks in order to breathe”.

Bull and Evans’s Chapter 2 records stratigraphic analysis of seven defined phases of activity (p. 11) within the vault: the Roman phase (including phases as a warehouse and mithraeum), two Byzantine phases, a Byzantine/Islamic transitional phase, an Islamic phase, a Crusader phase, and a modern phase. The organisation of the material is easy to follow: each phase is split into sub-phases whose evidence is listed and briefly described, followed by an ‘Interpretation’ section for each phase/sub-phase. ‘Interpretation’ sections extrapolate dating and functional understandings from the immediately preceding data. The reader is provided with useful diagrams, sketches of discovered objects and photographs from excavations.

Evans notes her tendency to respectfully disagree with Bull in her Preface (pp. xi-xii), a recurring theme of Chapter 2. The editor’s glosses (“Evans suggests…” or similar on pp. 15, 21, 23, 26, 27, 36) are tagged onto many ‘Interpretations’, which highlight her intention to keep the posthumous author’s text intact while regularly signposting alternative readings of the evidence.

In accordance with the title of the volume, the Roman phase (and the Mithraic phase in particular) receives the most attention from the authors (pp. 13-30). The reader, however, also feels the need for more analysis of maritime activity in the warehouse before its conversion to a mithraeum, even if only to investigate the possibility of merchants being involved in establishing the mithraeum.

The strong claim that the earliest Mithraic activity at the site dates to the early third century AD (pp. 22-23) contrasts with previous opinions that its first use as a mithraeum occurred in the late first century AD.1 Recent studies have, in fact, identified the Caesarea mithraeum as the earliest known Roman Mithraic site.2 This supposedly early Mithraic activity in Judea had complicated discussions of the origins of Roman Mithraic cults, since most other early Mithraic evidence has been found along the Rhine and Danube or in Rome. On the basis of the evidence presented in this volume, such scholarship needs to be updated.

Chapter 3 is written by Alexandra L. Ratzlaff, who focuses on the iconography found at the mithraeum : three poorly preserved frescoed scenes and a medallion depicting the tauroctony. The author provides drawn reconstructions (as details on the photographs are very difficult to distinguish) along with a detailed description of the frescoes (pp. 41-44). Ratzlaff then interprets the frescoes as depictions of separate elements of an initiatory ritual for the grade of leo (pp. 44-49).

This interpretation depends upon the central panel, which seems to depict one standing person holding out a long object and pouring something from it onto the hands of a second kneeling person, and a golden vessel above the head of the kneeling person. Ratzlaff argues that the long object is being used to pour honey on the kneeling person’s hands. Ratzlaff bases this on Porphyry ( De antro nympharum 15), who describes honey poured in the initiation of leo. This interpretation is plausible, but there is no clear indication that honey is falling from the long object in the fresco, and Ratzlaff admits the object could be a torch or a spear (p. 43). The images are simply too unclear for a confident reading.

More robust are Ratzlaff’s attempts to link the vessel above the kneeling figure to lions (and hence the leo grade). Richard Gordon (2017: 428) recently argued that the lion in the lion/snake/krater triad seen on some Mithraic iconography represents an ideal leo,3 and in addition to the parallels listed by Ratzlaff (p. 45), there are two further tauroctonies within circular borders (i.e. sharing the rare feature of circularity with the medallion tauroctony at Caesarea) which depict a lion in direct association with a vessel ( CIMRM 105 and 2241).

The tauroctony medallion is afforded a similarly detailed description (pp. 49-52) and interpretation (pp. 52-55), which relies heavily on Roger Beck’s astrological readings of the tauroctony. Since no marble is found in Israel, Ratzlaff contends that the medallion was brought from Dacia, whose tauroctonies share the most features with the medallion (pp. 55-56). As above, Ratzlaff seems unaware of CIMRM 105, a tauroctony from Egypt with a similar rounded shape.

Ratzlaff thus recognises local differences within Mithraic iconography, but does not acknowledge its significance for her understanding of Mithras-worship. Instead, she presents variations only as deviations from a Mithraic standard as seen in Roger Beck’s astrological reading of Mithraic cults. For example, following Beck’s association between the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates with Sol and Luna, respectively,4 Ratzlaff dismisses what would then be the counterintuitive arrangement in the Caesarea medallion (Sol with Cautopates on the left, Luna with Cautes on the right) as an aberration with “instances scattered throughout the empire, with no discernible concentrations” (p. 53). In fact, there are c. 200 such instances, while Beck’s apparently orthodox arrangement has only c. 70 examples.5

Similarly, Ratzlaff speculates (pp. 57-58) that the proposed initiation of leo depicted in the frescoes would have been joined by frescoes of the initiations of the other six grades ( corax, nymphus, perses, heliodromus and pater), building on Beck’s work and comparanda from Italy (pp. 48-49). However, it is also argued that Mithras-worship at Caesarea arrived from Dacia (pp. 55-56), and Dacian iconographic and epigraphic evidence lacks reference to all grades except corax, leo and pater. The reader misses here an in-depth discussion of the problems and ambiguities surrounding the grades of Mithraic initiation.6

Chapter 4, authored by Bull and Robert S. Fritzius, is concerned with a series of 19 rectangular and circular holes cut into the ceiling of the vault of the mithraeum, from which a wooden splay was possibly suspended. Although it is noted that the splay may represent a radiate solar image (p. 61), most of the chapter is devoted to the authors’ theory that it represented a Metonic calendar, the 19-year cycle combining the solar and lunar calendars. Their most convincing evidence is that the rectangular holes correspond to years with 12 lunar months in the Metonic cycle and the circular holes correspond to years with 13 lunar months (pp. 64-65), although the distinction between rectangular and circular holes is not always easy to see.

There are no comparable finds from another mithraea and no evidence that Mithraic cults elsewhere used a Metonic calendar. In contrast, the use of radiate solar images was widespread in Mithraic depictions of Sol (e.g. CIMRM 172, 641, 1600, 1986) and Mithras himself (e.g. CIMRM 90, 230, 1683, 2362). We should seriously consider that the wooden splay had a similar function. However, Bull and Fritzius discuss (p. 68) that Metonic calendars may have had maritime applications in the ancient world (e.g. the Antikythera Mechanism). We should also give more thought to the possibility that the splay, if indeed a Metonic calendar, could have been used by the maritime merchants who frequented the warehouse before it became a mithraeum.

Ratzlaff’s brief Chapter 5 gives a general background to Mithras-worship. She follows cautiously in the footsteps of Franz Cumont, proposing direct continuities between Hellenistic/Persian precedents and Roman Mithraic cults (p. 70). This approach is not widely taken in recent scholarship. Her overview of the distribution of Mithraic cults and their appeal/membership is completed with broad but functional strokes. However, Ratzlaff does not engage with important current themes in Mithraic scholarship, such as the experience of the individual in a Mithraic temple,7 tendencies towards regional variation,8 or artificial Persianisation within the cult.9

Bobeck’s Appendix 1 provides an interesting diversion: a look at how photographic prints taken of the frescoes discussed in Chapter 3 were digitally enhanced. The frescoes were originally discovered under a 1-2cm layer of salt, which was slowly removed with alcohol and water. The paint had already faded, but photographs were taken in 1974 to preserve a record of the scenes before exposure to even more sea air. Bobeck scanned these prints and used Micrografx Picture Publisher 5.0 to enhance them. As a practical guide, however, this section is very dated. Micrografx became defunct in 2001, and Bobeck’s scanner (the Epson Perfection V700) is also 17 years old.

Meanwhile, Appendix 2 lists coins and small finds of glass and bone/ivory which are referred to sporadically through the volume. Appendix 3 is a table showing the small probes (organised according to dating phases) which were dug within the vault because the working conditions were too cramped to perform larger-scale excavations. A map and explanation of the probes is provided in Chapter 1 (pp. 4-5), and much of Chapter 2 is based on them.

Overall, this is a careful and detailed report of the findings from a mithraeum which is simple neither to date nor to interpret. Although there are several contestable positions expressed, the precision with which evidence is recorded ensures usability from a wide range of research angles, including specialist Mithraic scholarship. Indeed, it is likely that this volume will remain essential reading for a long time. In addition, Ratzlaff’s chapters in particular contextualise Mithras-worship and hence increase the accessibility of the report to undergraduate students and those less familiar with Mithraic studies or archaeology.

Chapters and authors

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Chapter 1 Discovery and Excavation of the Vault (Robert J. Bull and Jane DeRose Evans)
Chapter 2 Stratigraphic Analysis of the Vault (Robert J. Bull and Jane DeRose Evans)
Chapter 3 The Frescoes and Medallion (Alexandra L. Ratzlaff)
Chapter 4 The Ceiling Splay (Robert J. Bull and Robert S. Fritzius)
Chapter 5 The Caesarea Mithraeum in Context (Alexandra L. Ratzlaff)
Appendix 1 Coaxing Color out of a Badly Faded Fresco (Andrew H. Bobeck)
Appendix 2 Small Finds inside of Vault (Jane DeRose Evans)
Appendix 3 Phasing for Probes in Vault 1, with a constructed Profile (Jane DeRose Evans)


1. Blakely, J.A., 1987, Caesarea Maritima: The Pottery and Dating of Vault 1: Horreum, Mithraeum, and Later Uses, Lewiston, NY.

2. E.g. Chalupa, A., 2016, “The Origins of the Roman Cult of Mithras in the Light of New Evidence and Interpretations: the Current State of Affairs”, Religio 24: 65-96.

3. Gordon, R., 2017, “From East to West: Staging Religious Experience in the Mithraic Temple”, in Nagel, S., Quack, J.F. and Witschel, C. (eds.), Entangled Worlds: Religious Confluences between East and West in the Roman Empire, Tübingen: 413-442.

4. See Beck, R., 1977, “Cautes and Cautopates: Some Astronomical Considerations”, JMS 2.1: 1-17.

5. Considering the tauroctonies recorded in Vermaseren, M. J., 1956-1960, Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae, The Hague

6. See e.g. Chalupa, A., 2008, “Seven Mithraic Grades: An Initiatory or Priestly Hierarchy?”, Religio 16.2: 177-201.

7. E.g. Gordon 2017 (above at n. 3).

8. E.g. Hensen, A., 2017, “Templa et spelaea Mithrae. Unity and Diversity in the Topography, Architecture and Design of Sanctuaries in the Cult of Mithras”, in Nagel, S., Quack, J.F. and Witschel, C. (eds.): 384-412.

9. E.g. Gordon, R., 2017, “Persae in spelaeis solem colunt: Mithra(s) between Persia and Rome”, in Strootman, R., Versluys, M.J. and Versnel, H.S. (eds.), Persianism in Antiquity, Stuttgart: 289-326.