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The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima: The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports. Vol. 2

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima: The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports. Vol. 2

By Robert Jehu Bull, with Jane DeRose Evans, Alexandra L. Ratzlaff, Andrew H. Bobeck, and Robert S. Fritzius (Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports 2, American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports 25). Pp. xix + 100. American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston 2017. $74.95. ISBN 978-0-89757-097-8 (cloth).

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Though its remains are modest, the Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima is of major significance because it is the only Mithraeum identified with certainty within the borders of modern Israel.

This edifice was converted from a vault in a horreum near the shore. Within, the converted vault benches flanked the north and south walls, as commonly found in Mithraea, and a podium was constructed against the east wall with an altar in front of it. Between the altar and the podium, a circular marble medallion was found, containing an image of the tauroctony (Mithras killing the bull). The original location of the medallion was identified by a circular patch of plaster on a wall dividing the podium in the Mithraeum, thus confirming the identification of the structure. Two openings in the vault provided light; the opening closest to the altar area is off-axis and apparently was created so that light illuminated the altar around the time of the summer solstice. A small area of painted plaster on the south wall depicts what appears to be initiation scenes.

The Mithraeum was first excavated in 1973, and its original excavator, Bull, did not live to see this publication; he died in 2013 at the age of 92. His coauthor, Evans, and others have made an admirable effort to pull the volume together, though it must be said that the resulting product does suffer somewhat from both the length of time since the excavation was undertaken, and the need to present the differing opinions of its multiple authors. The amount of time elapsed since excavation may account for the uncertain identification of some of the photographs (figs. 24 and 25, in which the location is followed by a question mark) and of one of the many probes undertaken during the process of exploring the vault. Additionally, the researchers’ interpretations of the evidence often changed significantly over the intervening years. It should be noted that Evans makes a tremendous effort to present a history of the evolution of ideas about the Mithraeum and to be even-handed when presenting differing opinions to the reader when it would have been easy to have privileged her own. In this context, a primary difficulty remains the date of the conversion of the vault and its use for Mithraic ritual. While Bull originally dated the conversion to the first century C.E., he later revised his opinion and suggested a third-century C.E. date based on numismatic evidence. Evans, reconciling the numismatic and ceramic evidence, settles on a date “no earlier than the end of the second century” (23).

Of great importance also, despite their poor condition, are the remains of fresco painting found in situ on the south wall near the altar. Study of both the painting and the marble medallion was conducted by Ratzlaff. The painting contains three scenes, each showing two figures, and appears to represent the initiation ritual for the grade of Leo in the Mithraic initiation hierarchy. This interpretation is based on comparanda from other Mithraea; for example, the scene in Panel A from Caesarea contains a figure with a loaf of bread and a kneeling figure holding a rooster. This appears to be an abbreviated version of the procession of lions scene as depicted in the Santa Prisca Mithraeum in Rome, which contains graffiti identifying the participants as belonging to the grade of Leo. Most of the comparanda for the Caesarea paintings are found in the western empire due to the paucity of remains of Mithraea from the east. While this lack of comparanda in the east presents a significant challenge, Ratzlaff makes a convincing case for the validity of her identifications.

The marble medallion, which was once painted, contains the tauroctony in the upper register, with smaller and much abbreviated scenes below. Ratzlaff identifies the smaller figures in the relief by analogy with those found commonly elsewhere in Mithraic imagery, such as Sol, Luna, and the torch bearers Cautes and Cautopates. She points out that Sol and Cautes are linked with sun, sunrise, and the spring equinox, while Luna and Cautopates symbolize night and darkness and the autumn equinox. The closest parallel to the imagery on the medallion is found in a relief from Dacia, which brings up interesting possibilities about the cultic connections between various parts of the empire, as well as their association with the Roman army, which included in its ranks many adherents to the cult of Mithras. In her chapter contextualizing the Caesarea Mithraeum (ch. 5), Ratzlaff provides a useful review of Mithraic studies, examining the thorny issue of its possible and much debated relationship with earlier eastern religion, and also discusses the importance of zodiac imagery in Mithraea. Despite considerable archaeological, literary, and epigraphical evidence for the presence of numerous legions in the area, no connection has yet been made between any specific legion and the Caesarea Mithraeum.

An enigmatic series of 19 small holes in the ceiling of the vault may be explained, according to coauthors Bull and Fritzius, as mounting holes for what they call a “splay,” a wooden structure with the appearance of a radiate sun. They present the hypothesis that the splay represents a system for synchronizing the solar and lunar cycles using the 19-year Metonic calendar developed by Meton of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. The authors conclude that the structure is unlikely to have represented a mere image of the sun because it does not form a complete half circle. While this is an intriguing and ingenious theory, the authors acknowledge that further study is needed; in particular, careful examination of other Mithraea is in order to see if anything similar might be found there.

Two appendices conclude the publication. One documents the process used to enhance the color in the faded frescoes and may prove useful to other researchers working with ancient paintings. The second presents a catalogue of the small finds from the vault containing the Mithraeum. In general, the documentation in this volume is well presented, with numerous plans, sections, and drawings of artifacts. Two exceptions may be noted, both concerning the photographic documentation: the uncertainty of identification of some photographs as noted above and the lack of high-resolution photographs of the entire vault. Additional images of other Mithraea discussed as comparanda would also have been helpful, though these images are available elsewhere.

The authors are to be highly commended for assembling this volume under challenging circumstances. The book, most appropriate for a specialized audience, makes an important contribution to the study of the cult of Mithras in the eastern empire and serves as an appropriate tribute to Robert Bull’s many years dedicated to study of the remains of Caesarea Maritima.

Caroline Downing
Art Department
State University of New York, Potsdam

Book Review of The Mithraeum at Caesarea Maritima: The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima Excavation Reports. Vol. 2, by Robert Jehu Bull, with Jane DeRose Evans, Alexandra L. Ratzlaff, Andrew H. Bobeck, and Robert S. Fritzius 

Reviewed by Caroline Downing

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.downing

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