Just behind the Coliseum, deep beneath 3 layers of architecture hidden approximately 70 ft under a medieval church dedicated to St. Clement, is a temple to Mithras. There were once more temples in Rome dedicated to the Persian God than there are churches in Rome today. The physical aspect of the church and temple buildings entwined, one forming the foundation for the latter, is a keen reflection of the spiritual connections between Mithraism and Christianity, giving us another reason to celebrate this winter!
A visit to St. Clement and its underground leads to recognizing the surprising notion that the profound mysteries, traditions and sacraments we who celebrate Christmas relate to Christianity, are deeply rooted in the more protracted cult of Mithras and his virgin birth on the night of December 24th a few centuries earlier.
From The Mysteries of Mithras,according to Zoroastrian tradition and ancient Mithraic hymns, Mithra the Savior was born on the night between Saturday and Sunday, 24th-25th of December 272 B.C., conceived from the seed of Zoroaster and the immaculate virgin Mother Goddess Anahita, in a grotto, where shepherds attended him and presented gifts.
Sound familiar? The gospel of Luke (whom happened to be pagan, not a Jewish convert) tells a similar story of Christ’s birth. His story of Christ’s nativity differs from the gospel of Matthew in that he recounts a tale of shepherds and a manger, rather than wise men and a house. Luke was Greek, and his gospel was written around 75 A.D., at a place and time where Mithraism was developing earlier than in Rome due to the efforts of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia.
Relating the birth stories of Mithra and Christ leads to connecting the festivals tied to their nativity, coincidentally glorifying the nativity of the sun, when the day begins the lengthen and the power of the sun increases, known as the winter solstice. The festival of Christmas at the winter solstice originated at a time in Rome when the cult of the Sun was particularly strong; Mithra having long been accepted as the Invincible Sun as he overcome the planetary sun. He evolved as ruler of the cosmos, the mediator between heaven and earth, just as Christ through the incarnation. In Mithraic tradition, there also happens to be a sacrifice, presented to the Moon goddess, around the time of the spring equinox, after which a banquet is held and Mithra ascends to the sky. But that story is appropriate for Easter time.
Mithra is an ancient Indo-Iranian (linguistic branch in Eurasia) god who was worshiped in polytheistic Persia (modern day Iran) as early as 2000 years before Christ. His influence spread to India, China and throughout the Roman Empire and his worship took on varying forms. In Rome, Mithra was popular between the 1st-4th Centuries A.D. and was the most important competitor to early Christianity that had not yet been legalized.
After Christianity became legalized in Rome in the 4th Century, Mithraism declined in popularity. Mithraic festivals became Christian festivals, and Mithraic temple buildings became Christian churches. Under the medieval church of St. Clement (San Clemente), one has access to the Mithraic temple and Sunday school underneath, preserved because it was filled in to form the foundation of a 4th Century church on top. That chuch was starting to deteriorate by the 11th Century, so the diocese went ahead and built an exact replica of that church directly on top that is still in use today. Irish Dominicans discovered all the archeological gradations underneath the current church in the 19th Century. It is now possible to travel down to each stratum, and even drink from the same spring that ran through the buildings 2000 years ago.
No matter what your faith, it is worth a visit to St. Clemente to see the architectonic wonder that is there and to experience the metaphors of the visual world, constructed out of literature of faith that reflects principles common to the human spirit.