In the city of London, wedged between Cannon Street and Bank stations, is hidden the London Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras.
These days, the site is more easily identified as belonging to the financial company Bloomberg, but enter their building to be directed downstairs, and there you’ll find the temple, dating from the last days of the Romans in Britain – maybe from about AD 410.
It was first discovered in the 1950s, during post-war reconstruction of the heavily blitzed City of London. The remains of the temple were dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere in the 1960s, but its inaccuracies were widely criticised, so when Bloomberg acquired the site they worked with conservation specialist to dismantle and then reassemble and partially reconstruct the temple closer to its original position, and with a fuller understanding of the materials used and its original structure.
The deity Mithras is a mystery. He was worshipped by men only. There are images of him killing a bull in temples dedicated to him found throughout the territory of the Roman Empire. Perhaps this is part of a creation or fertility myth: nobody knows for sure.
Here in London, we can visit the foundations of the temple, and witness an evocation of the kind of ceremonies that might have taken place there: chanting, hazy light, an aura of religious fervour. We can imagine the congregation seated in the two side aisles, looking into the central nave of a windowless building, lit by lamps and torches, and gazing at the statue of Mithras housed in the apse – now only the head remains.
On the ground floor above the temple remains is evidence of the prosperous London community where the temple was situated. Here is a display of combs; keys; drinking vessels; leather shoes and boots; bracelets; glass phials; pewter vessels. They tell a story of a busy commercial quarter, crammed with small workshops and dwellings built on ground reclaimed from the marshy land surrounding the river Walbrook.
This slice of Roman London life is so well interpreted. There is plenty of time to explore the temple site, and to examine at your leisure (with the help of freely provided inter-active tablets) the hundreds of artefacts recovered nearby. And as you enter the space, you’ll find ‘London in its Original Splendour’, an installation by Paolo Bronstein which envelops the gallery in a complex and decorative ‘wallpaper’, rich in Renaissance and Classical architectural detail – a homage to the likes of Christopher Wren and John Soane who were themselves indebted to the architectural legacy of the classical past.
Exploring this site takes about an hour, but the impression it leaves of life in Roman London will last far longer. And it’s free.