Reconstruction of an altar to Mithras
Mithraeum temple interior

Reading the altars of Mithras

Let us look again at the altars grouped together at the end of the temple, beneath the Tauroctony (bull-slaying) scene (shown above). Before reading them, think about their general appearance and decoration.

We can see that they are painted. As with most altars of the Roman period, the paint has now disappeared, but when the Carrawburgh altars were discovered in the 1950s, traces of their original paint survived. We can see that in important ways two of the three altars share the basic anatomy of altars we have already studied. Their shape is similar to the altar we examined that was dedicated to the god Antenociticus. They have capitals, die, shafts, and bases, and one has a focus. But there are variations. One altar has been cut through, to provide a halo pattern around Mithras’ head.

Let’s turn to the text. We are going to ask you to read some information from two of the altars. To get you started, we have included notes on the other altar RIB 1545.

The transliteration, with expansion of the abbreviations in round brackets(), of the inscription is given below.

Line 1: D(EO) IN(VICTO) M(ITHRAE) S(ACRUM)
Line 2: AVL(VS) CLVENTIVS
Line 3: HABITVS PRAEF(ECTVS)
Line 4: COH(ORTIS) I
Line 5: BATAVORVUM
Line 6: DOMV VLTI
Line 7: NA COLON(IA)
Line 8: SEPT(IMIA) AVR(ELIA) L(ARINO)
Line 9: V(OTUM) S(OLVIT) L(IBENS) M(ERITO)

Line 1: SACRED TO THE INVINCIBLE GOD MITHRAS
Line 2: AULUS CLUENTIUS
Line 3: HABITUS, PREFECT
Line 4: OF THE 1ST COHORT
Line 5: OF BATAVIANS,
Line 6: OF THE ULTINIAN VOTING TRIBE
Line 7: FROM COLONIA
Line 8: SEPTIMIA AURELIA LARINUM
Line 9: WILLINGLY AND DESERVEDLY FULFILLED HIS VOW
Altar text from temple of Mithras

We can draw out a lot of lessons from this text, which are discussed further in the next video. But for your exercise note the following:

  • The Romans have no scruples about abbreviating the god’s name.
  • They are happy to split words over two lines.
  • Sometimes they mark the gaps between words, sometimes they do not.
  • They sometimes link together letters for aesthetic reasons (look at how ‘Batavorum’ is written in the inscription).
  • More information is given about the dedicant, who is showing the community that he has honoured his vow, than about the deity. In this case the text focuses on Aulus Cluentius Habitus, his command and place of origin
  • The closing VSLM formula is widely used on altars

Having read the first altar together, we would now like you to use what you have learnt to transliterate the inscriptions on the other two other altars, and if possible to translate them, yourself. Remember to watch out for ligatured letters and abbreviations. Even if you find that you are not able to work out all of the text, you should be able to answer the questions below.

RIB 1546

Note the distinctive shape of this piece. Though it is an altar, it has been cut through to allow the halo of the god to be illuminated from behind.The top of the capital is also flat, suggesting that it supported something else.

Line 1: DEO INVICTO
Line 2: MITRAE M SIM
Line 3: PLICIVS SIMPLEX
Line 4: PREF V S L M

Scan of Altar.
RIB 1544

This altar is more conventional in form, note the focus and pulvini (bolsters) on the top An offering could have been made onto the top of the altar.

Line 1: DEO INV M
Line 2: L ANTONIVS
Line 3: PROCVLVS
Line 4: PRAEF COH I BAT
Line 5: ANTONINIANAE
Line 6: V S L M

Scan of an Altar.

Consider the following questions

  • Who were they dedicated by?
  • Why were they dedicated?
  • Are there any clues as to the date of the dedication?

Once you have gone through the two texts and reflected on your answers to the questions, please continue to the next step, where Ian explains how he reads the altars and discusses what can be learnt from them.

Laser scanned altar images © NU Digital Heritage.

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