Back in 2017, we talked about the massive Roman temple complex from 1st century AD in Silchester, Britain. Well, the northern part of Britain boasts yet another ancient Roman religious structure, this time steeped in symbolism. We are talking about the 1,800-year old Temple of Mithras located beside a Roman fort in Carrawburgh, in proximity to the Hadrian’s Wall. And interestingly enough, Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physics professor at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, has hypothesized that this particular building was constructed to align with the rising sun on none other than December 25.
To that end, it should be noted that according to few scholars, the Romans may have celebrated Mithras’ birthday on December 25 – the very same day that was chosen for Christmas, for the celebration of the birth of Christ. Now pertaining to the latter, there is a distinct possibility that Jesus Christ was not actually born on December 25, with various conjectures (based on scholarly works and theological claims) upholding how the Messianic figure was a spring or an autumn baby.
In any case, reverting to the aforementioned Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh, Sparavigna had made use of satellite imagery and astronomical software to comprehend and gauge the direction and angles of the sun path in regard to the particular area. According to the professor –
We can easily see that the building is in good alignment along the sunrise on December 25. It means that, probably, the orientation of the temple was chosen to recall the birth of Mithras on December 25.
Now historically, Mithraism (also referred to as the Mithraic mysteries) in itself was a mystery religion centered around the Indo-Iranian divine entity Mithras/Mithra. Mainly practiced by the members of the Roman military, the religion (possibly transmitted by the merchants from the east) was primarily introduced into the upper echelons of the society, circa 1st century AD. And by the 3rd century, the cult, probably open to only males, percolated into different sections of the society, with one of the major bastions being the eternal city itself – Rome. These male initiates, known as syndexioi, probably met in underground temples called Mithraea.
Such Mithraea were spread across different parts of the burgeoning Roman Empire, including varied locations in continental Europe such as Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Biesheim and Angers (where INRAP identified a sanctuary), and also in the distant parts of Britain, including Carrawburgh and Rudchester. But unfortunately for Mithraism, Christianity was already rising in popularity by the 4th century AD. The proverbial ‘final nail in the coffin’ was brought forth by Emperor Theodosius, who not only made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 392 AD, but was also ideologically against the rise of the Mithraism cult.
Sparavigna also presented a conjecture on how the Temple of Mithras at Rudchester could have been aligned to the rising sun, thus mirroring the orientation of its counterpart at Carrawburgh. And quite intriguingly, Roger Beck, an emeritus professor at the University of Toronto and an expert on the cult of Mithra, also wrote extensively in 1984 on how the Temple of Mithras could be aligned to the prevailing sun path. However, his views on the ancient celebration of Mithras’ birthday differed, with Beck providing his argument that it was Roman god Sol Invictus who was venerated on December 25 (mostly during circa 3rd century AD).
In any case, the hypothesis made by Sparavigna is still to be proven. And if one is wondering, other researchers are also conducting their own assessments of the possible connection between the orientations of Mithras temples and their astronomical significance.
The study (not peer reviewed as of writing) was originally published in the journal Philica.
Source: Live Science
Featured Image: Paul Bartlett