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Hidden history: visiting London's underground Roman temple and amphitheatre

Nearly 2000 years ago, Londinium was the capital of Roman Britain. A thriving port city of between 30,000 - 60,000 people, it had a barracks (a section of the wall can be seen behind St Giles-without-Cripplegate, Barbican), public baths and an enormous commercial forum. Today, little remains of Roman London. You can find some decent stretches of Roman wall behind Tower Hill tube station and in the side streets around the Museum of London and a section of Roman pavement in the crypt of St Bride's, Fleet Street, but to find the really exciting stuff, you need to head underground.

London Mithraeum

Right next to Bank underground station on Walbrook is Bloomberg SPACE, part of Bloomberg LP's European headquarters, where 7 meters below pavement level is the mysterious temple of Mithras...

In 1954, Professor W.F. Grimes and his workers were excavating a WWII bomb site when they stumbled upon the foundations and walls of an ancient Roman temple, believed to date from around 240 AD. Some 60 years earlier in 1889, artefacts had been found close to the temple site including a beautiful tauroctony - an engraved disc depicting Mithras killing a bull, a symbol as important to the Mithraic followers as the crucifixion to Christians.

Mithraea were typically built underground in dimly lit, cave like structures. This one would have had the tauroctony mounted at the far end and a row of columns running down both side aisles. Mithraism was originally adopted by Romans from Persian beliefs, and was very exclusive: its followers (men only) had specific initiations and handshakes, much like the Freemasons. Mithras was particularly popular among soldiers - another Mithraeum has been discovered up at Hadrian's Wall!

After entering the lobby of Bloomberg SPACE, you can see a wall display of archaeological artefacts found at the Mithraeum site, including leather shoes, wooden tools, money, jewellery and mosaic fragments. The waterlogged boggy conditions of this part of London, close to the Walbrook river, were ideal for preserving organic materials like clothing and wooden timbers. One of the most precious objects discovered by archaeologists is a writing tablet, dating from AD 57, which is the oldest record of a commercial transaction discovered in the City of London. It's effectively an IOU between two freedmen, where Tibullus promises Gratus to repay 105 denarii.

Small groups are allowed into the temple space every 20 minutes. Heading down one floor is a holding room where you'll find information boards about the Mithraic cult.

Upon entering the temple space, the room is initially dark and a very effective immersive sound and light performance really sets the scene. Beams of light cutting through haze illuminate a recreation of the tauroctony and give the illusion of rows of Roman columns, while murmuring disembodied voices from history chant, talk and evoke the rituals that would have taken place.

Once the initial presentation is over, you are free to walk around the outside of the temple. The remains of the walls are low but substantial, and you can easily see the shape of the Mithraeum, the bases of the columns and the alcove at one end where rituals would have taken place. The site is very impressive and you can really appreciate the atmosphere of this secretive mystery cult.

If you'd like to see the sculptures discovered at the archaeological dig such as the tauroctony and the head of Mithras that confirmed to William Grimes that the site was in fact a Mithraeum, they are on display in the Roman gallery of the Museum of London, 15 minutes walk away in Barbican. The museum is free, but you'll need to be quick as it's closing on December 4th 2022 for 3 YEARS (!) before moving to an amazing new site in Smithfields.

The London Mithraeum is free to visit and open daily Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm, Sunday 12pm - 5pm

As visitor numbers are limited, the Mithraeum recommends pre-booking a free timed ticket to ensure you can go in at your chosen time. When we visited it was quiet and they were allowing walk ups without tickets, but I can imagine on busy days you might end up waiting for an available slot if you don't pre-book.

London Roman Amphitheatre

Less than 10 minutes walk from the London Mithraeum is another underground Roman treasure: the London Roman amphitheatre. Only discovered in 1988, this nearly 2000 year old arena could seat 6000 people and would have witnessed public executions, animal fights and gladiators! The outline of the amphitheatre can be seen in Guildhall Yard, marked out in black stones.

To access the amphitheatre itself, head downstairs in the Guildhall Art Gallery where you'll find fragments of arena wall and, beneath a glass floor, the original wooden drainage system. It may not be Rome's Colosseum, but an impressive digital recreation of the arena walls, seating and people help to complete the picture.

Image by Archaeology Travel CC BY 2.0

As with the London Mithraum, entry to the London Roman Amphitheatre is free but pre-booking a time slot is recommended. The amphitheatre is open every day, 10:30am - 4pm.

More info on the City of London website here.


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