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Today, thousands of bustling bankers pound up and down Queen Victoria Street in the City of London, without realising that London’s greatest Roman temple lies 23ft below them.
Some 1,800 years ago, that temple would have been crammed with dozens of sweaty Roman legionaries, slaves and merchants, worshipping the ancient Persian god, Mithras.
This spot would probably have been reserved for the pater.
Right behind him, raised on steps, was the statue of Mithras, slaughtering a bull.
A naked new recruit would kneel down, while a long-term member stood above him, his sword raised, as if to slice his head off. To make it look like other members had already been mutilated, one had a ceremonial sword piercing straight through his neck; on closer examination, it turned out to be like one of those joke-shop gags, a metal collar that, in fact, fitted round the neck. The building was later converted, it’s thought, into a temple to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, before it was abandoned in the late 4th century.
Even when it was built, the windowless temple was underground, lit by torches and lamps, artfully placed behind statues of the god, with the illumination reflected in a square well.
The Daily Mail put the story of 35,000 people queueing round the block to see the temple on its front page.
Even Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, intervened, to demand more time for the excavation, during which time more staggering Roman sculptures and artefacts were found.
They followed the line of a curved wall, and found the floor plan of a large, rectangular Roman building.
The bull-slaughter — or ‘tauroctony’ — was thought to signify creation, transformation, our place in the universe, and worship of the Sun and the Moon.
All these horrors come thrillingly to light at the new London Mithraeum, which opens next week.
A picture of a lance and helmet, symbolising Mars, the god of war, would have been favoured by the legionaries, who were particularly fond of Mithras, and exported his cult across the Roman Empire.
And then, at the far end of the temple, right by the altar, there would have been a picture of a Persian cap, signifying the great god Mithras himself.