Mithras in Mariana

Archaeologists from INRAP (the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research) has recently uncovered the remains of a mithraeum, a temple to the god Mithras, on the site of the busy Roman port of Mariana, in the commune of Lucciana on the north-east coast of the island of Corsica.

According to Pliny the Elder, Mariana was founded circa 100 BC by Gaius Marius, a Roman army reformer, as a military colony for Roman citizens after his resounding victory over the Cimbri and the Teutones. At its height, during the 3rd and 4th centuries, Mariana extended over 10 hectares and was organised into 10 sections.

Mithraism was a mystery religion, inspired by a Persian cult. Its secret rites were held in underground temples or mithrea and it was probably imported into the Roman Empire either by military personnel or eastern traders at the end of the 1st century AD.

Around 100 mithraea have been found across the Empire, including 15 in France. The Lucciana mithraeum, the first to have been identified in Corsica, is made up of several areas typical of this kind of sanctuary, including a hall of worship and its antechamber. The rectangular (11m x 5m) hall (below right) consists of a lowered central corridor and two 1.8m-wide benches on the long sides, bordered by a low wall coated with lime. Two vaulted brick niches facing each other had been hollowed out in the benches. Three intact oil lamps were found in one of them as well as numerous broken lamps, two bronze bells and fragments of fine pottery, all probably liturgical objects relating to one of the cult's main rites – a communal meal.

The most interesting find, though, is a broken marble bas-relief, which, if complete, would have shown the iconic scene of Mithras, wearing a Phrygian cap, being born from a rock, slaying a bull and sharing a banquet with the god Sol (the Sun). The three fragments (above right) found so far show a dog and a snake drinking blood flowing from the bull's slit throat while a scorpion is pinching its testicles. On the right is a figure holding a torch, the dadophorus that symbolises the setting sun, or death. Other finds include a woman's head in marble and two plaques, one bronze, one lead, bearing as yet undeciphered inscriptions.

As Mithraism came to be seen as a rival to Christianity – they shared several aspects including monotheism, a hierarchy of adepts and the ritual meal – it was attacked, suppressed and, finally, in AD 392, outlawed under Emperor Theodosius' anti-paganism decrees.

This Corsican mithraeum bears traces of self-destruction – a broken altar and a building destroyed and filled with rubble. Perhaps not surprisingly, a vast early Christian complex was built in Mariana around AD 400, the earliest evidence of Christianity in Corsica.
Nicole Benazeth