Any time an ancient site opens, or better yet, reopens, it is a cause for celebration. Once again, we are permitted to literally step into history and equally watch as history makes itself thanks to continued cultural heritage endeavors and financial support. This is especially the case with the recent opening of the Mithraeum of the Baths of Caracalla. Originally discovered in 1912, this mithraeum is considered the largest documented gathering space for the worshippers of Mithras. (In short: Mithras was a Persian god in vogue with the military and mostly lower class men, in the second and third centuries AD.)
Today, a visit to the mithraeum could be considered a brief visit. It’s location, off a dirt road adjacent to the main entrance, is part of a subterraneaan area of the Baths of Caracalla. Located underneath the thermae complex were the underground corridors with furnaces, stoked by slaves, and storage areas for supplies, including wood. The mithraeum space is part of the massive, sprawling tunnel system of this underground honeycomb- though separate from slave corridors- so it seems it would have been accessible to bathers above and not just slaves below. At present, only two chambers of the mithraeum are accessible and they are impressive. The mithraeum main hall is 30 by 10 meters, and with a recently restored fresco of Mithras and well preserved well structures, the context and purpose of the temple are surprisingly easily understand. Its unique feature, out of all mithraea, is a rectangular hole in the center of the main hall for, as one theory postulated, surprise/ special effect pop-out apparition appearances.
Though the access to these tunnels is only partial, there are confirmed plans are to extend the conservation and restoration work to make access through these areas into a greater reality, including an substantial area dedicated to grinding grain using the water that passed through from the baths. It is also important to note that Rome and port city Ostia Antica have the most preserved mithraea in the empire. There were once 700 mithraea, but only two have been identified, and of that only a small percentage are viewable to the public. More money, more investment are needed to the benefit of conservation and access to tourists ever willing to explore more of the ancient city.
Visiting the Mithraeum is also an excellent excuse to head into the Baths of Caracallato walk among the monumental structure and also enjoy a contemporary art installation by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Three interlocking circles made up of fragrments of ancient marble and stone, Terzo Paradiso is the new symbol of infinity created by Pistoletto originally for the 2005 Venice Biennale, and an ongoing, collaborative project in varying venues and media. The new infinity symbol is all to action for the active and conscious need to create a “third paradise” to combat and transplant the artificial world we are celebrating today. Too deep? Too artsy? In any case, the site specific installation is a beautiful juxtaposition of contemporary and ancient, especially with the backdrop of the majestic pines and Baths of Caracalla.
Mithraeum at the Baths of Caracalla visit is made by advance reservation. Entry cost is 16.50 euro and does not include entrance to the Baths. Terzo Paradiso is on site until January 6
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