The Romans founded London almost 2000 years ago. Emperor Claudius established Londinium, as it was originally known, between AD43 and AD50.
Due to the ravages of time little exists of early Londinium today but, if you know where to look, there are some intriguing pockets of Roman history hidden around London’s historic Square Mile. Take my Roman London Tour to see them all.
One of the most revealing- and best presented- of these however is the Temple of Mithras, or the London Mithraeum.
What is it?
During the Roman era, Mithraism was a ‘mystery religion’ which was especially popular amongst members of the military. Dedicated to the Persian god Mithra, the sect was akin to a modern secret society and involved the swearing of oaths, participation in initiation ceremonies and, in true Roman style, lots of feasting. Temples dedicated to Mithras were usually built underground and designed to resemble a cave. Examples have been unearthed across Europe- for example at Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Empire’s most northerly frontier- and parts of the Middle East.
How old is the London Mithraeum?
The temple was built around AD240-250; the mid-point of London’s Roman period. That makes the temple approximately 1,800 years old. The Romans abandoned the temple after their rule ended in AD410.
When was it discovered?
The destruction caused by WWII left many bomb sites scattered across London. These locations were ripe for development. However, before new buildings were erected, archaeologists did their utmost to excavate them before they became inaccessible.
It was in September 1954 that Professor William Francis Grimes and Audrey Williams discovered the Temple of Mithras on a site between Cannon Street and Queen Victoria Street.
A newsreel from the time detailing the temple’s discovery can be viewed below.
What happened next?
Unbelievably, the remains were almost destroyed. Building work for a new office block had been due to begin just days after the delicate excavation work was completed.
Fortunately the temple’s discovery had captured the public’s imagination. Queues of people eager to see this piece of Roman history stretched around the block. Workers in the city’s financial district handed a petition to the Lord Mayor asking that the temple be saved, and the issue of its preservation was also raised with Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
It was estimated that to preserve the temple at its original site would cost £500,000 (approximately £13.5 million on today’s money) and so, as a compromise, the remains were dismantled and shifted to a new site 80 yards (73 metres) west of where it had been found.
Here it remained for the next 50 years, open to the elements and, once public interest had subsided, very much overlooked.
The London Mithraeum today
In 2011 Bloomberg purchased the site upon which the reconstructed temple stood. The media company had earmarked the site for their European headquarters but vowed to preserve the historic site from the outset; a task which has been conducted most admirably.
Now housed inside a purpose built museum within the Bloomberg building, the Temple of Mithras opened its doors to the public in November 2017.
What to expect
The main attraction of course is the Temple of Mithras itself which is displayed deep below ground. Upon being introduced to the remnants, visitors are treated to a short immersive experience which involves atmospheric lighting, mist and ghostly voices chanting in Latin.
Before viewing the temple however, there is plenty more to enjoy. The entrance lobby to the Mithraeum is a space dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions.
Also near the main entrance is an impressive display featuring a large collection of Roman artefacts which were excavated before construction of the Bloomberg building commenced. These include, for example, coins, keys, pottery and even ancient sandals, all of which are incredibly well preserved.
Sandwiched between this gallery and the temple is a second area which features interactive displays. Here, visitors can learn more about the site and the cult of Mithraism.
Visiting the London Mithraeum
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 10.00am-6pm
It is open on Sundays: 12pm-5pm, and there is a late night opening until 8pm on the first Thursday of the month.
Closed Mondays, Christmas and New Year bank holidays.
Entry to the London Mithraeum is free but only a limited number of people can enter to view the temple at any given time. Consequently, I recommend booking your time-slot in advance.
Although the Mithraeum is based across several floors, there is step-free access to all areas. There is no shop or cafe onsite, but there are excellent toilet facilities!
How to get there
Entrance to the Mithraeum is via Walbrook (a pedestrianised road which happens to follow the route of a long submerged river).