One of the most famous discoveries in Mithraic studies is the text painted on the wall of the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome which reads “et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso” – “and you have saved us through the shedding of the eternal blood.” This has been widely compared to Christian ideas, and, outside the scholarly world, almost insanely so.
Yesterday a kind correspondent sent me portions of an article in Italian by Pancieri in which he queries whether the text actually says this. The paintings are badly damaged, after all, and conjecture plays a part in the text above.
I thought that it would be useful to translate what he has to say into English, if only to make his cautious remarks rather better known. I will give the Italian as well, in case I misunderstand it at any point: corrections are welcome!
With regard to the mysteries of Mithras, I note – as has been noted above concerning the nature of its creator, and his saving and merciful character – that, although it is considered reliable in most respects, whatever may be the interpretation to be given of his work of salvation [c.f., leaving aside the cult images, the verse from the Mithraeum of S. Prisca, "et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso", according to the reading of the first editor (A. Ferrua, in Bull.Com., LXVIII, 1940, p.85; in Ann.épìgr., 1946, 84), confirmed and corrected CIMRM, I, 485, and by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., pp.217-221)**], it is almost never reflected in the dedications [CIMRM, I, 213 (salutaris?), 691 cfr. 891 (propitius), 900b (deo bono, dubious), II, 2265 (epekoos), 2276 (deo bono invicto?)].
One could wish Dr Pancieri had not compressed his thought quite so much! The point being made is that we don’t know what “saving” means in the cult of Mithras, and it features hardly at all in the inscriptions. The last point suggests that it is not exactly an important element in the cult.
The footnote, however, is the bit that interests us. It is printed as one paragraph, but I will split it, for ease of reading:
** The exceptional importance of this verse, for the issue addressed in this seminar, led me to thoroughly review it, after the recent cleaning of the frescoes in the mithraeum of S. Prisca, carried out by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (restorer Sig.Elio Paparatti). During the restoration, the Soprintendenza has taken some excellent new photographs, from which I took the detail which I have reproduced (fig. 10).
Fig. 10. 1978 photo
Judging from a comparison of these with the photos published by Vermaseren (Excavations, l.c., plate LXVIII, 1-3), and comparing those with even earlier ones, dating from the time of the original discovery and publication (fig. 11), we find that, at this point, against the inevitable damage of time may be contrasted some gains due to the major cleaning of the wall.
Fig.11 How the wall appeared in the 1930’s.
This does not mean that our verse makes easy reading even now, and so, for this reason, the first publishers are to be commended for their ability, starting from quite miserable fragments, to make available to scholars a text of the utmost importance.
The main danger that we now need to avoid (which, it seems to me, that many have been led into, because of the current habit of transcribing the text without any critical marks) is of believing that the reconstruction of this verse is certain at every point; or, at least, is of the same degree of reliability for each part (see, for example, more specifically among those who have dealt with this text: H.D. Betz, in Nov. Test., X, 1968, p. 77 ff.; I.M. Hackethal, in Zeitschr. Papyr. Epigr., III ,1968, pp. 233-238; M.J. Vermaseren, in Meded. Nederl. Inst. Rome, XXXVII, 1975, p. 92 ff.; M. Simon, in Rev. d’hist. et de philos. relig., LVI, 1976, pp. 277-288).
In reality, as may be seen from all the photographs (not only the most recent), and also from the facsimile published by Vermaseren (fig. 12), the painted text from the start was in a gravely fragmentary state. In a new facsimile (fig. 13), I have tried to reproduce as closely as possible what I think can be seen today.
Fig.12 Vermaseren’s facsimile (1965)
Fig.13 – fascimile, 1978
Without pretending to give a new reconstruction of the text, I will limit myself to indicating which elements are confirmed, and which are doubtful, as the new evidence seems to require. Proceeding backwards:
1) Absolutely certain is the word FUSO, which is found in perfect form also in the short text painted on a jar in the same mithraeum (Excavations, l.c., p. 409 fig. 204, plate. XCIX, 1-3).
2) Almost certain, although not readable in full, is the word SANGUINE which precedes it, both because it fits very well both the spaces and the fragments of letters remaining, and because sanguine fuso, as previous editors have noted, is an expression used elsewhere and perfectly in place in this context.
3) Doubtful (and Ferrua also had some doubts) is the word ETERNALI. After carefully analysing the perfectly straight line, slanting from left to right and top to bottom, before the N (which is clearly recognisable), it seems very difficult to recognise this as an R, even if connected to the following letter. In every R present in the inscriptions of this layer (of paintings) it is possible to find a common feature, rising above the top edge of the writing. So this line could belong rather to an A or an M or to two letters joined. There are doubts also because the word is unique, and because the supposed L shows the remains of an upper crossing stroke, which seems a little too strong on the left side to be a mere flourish. I see no sign of the I. What in the photo looks like the remains of an S, near the head of the Leo which interrupts the writing, in fact does not exist on the plaster, which is damaged at this point.
4) Likewise the reading SERVASTI, with the RVA linked together, does not appear convincing when compared with what remains today (but see also Vermaseren’s facsimile). And the E is not certain; it may be an F. The following letter, which has been interpreted as an R, looks like an O in the photos; nothing can be seen on the wall now, where the plaster is missing (and, it would seem, was missing in the past). Apart from this, I am unclear as to whether the signs that follow (which may well be part of a group VA) can be made to follow an S, since they seem to be the remains of a letter joined to an N.
5) Everything before that is no longer verifiable today, in the present state of conservation. The miserable scraps of letters are not definitely identifiable, and do not clearly result in the text above, nor in the old photos.
It seems obvious, after what has been said, that this famous verse should be studied again by epigraphists, as well as by Mithraic specialists. In the meantime, it would seem to be important that this reading of the text is not taken as secure, both to avoid building on shaky foundations, and because the text deserves to return to the centre of scholarly critical attention.
I should add that I have Vermaseren’s description, and further photographs of the wall and inscription – some in colour! – here.
Pancieri’s points are interesting, but clearly there is more to be done. One avenue of exploration would be to see whether the other texts at Santa Prisca would be amendable to similar criticism. Do they actually appear on the wall now? Did they once, but now only exist in the photos? What is the rate of decay of the paintings at Santa Prisca? Or is it the case that decay is not a factor, and that Ferrua and Vermaseren were over-imaginative? What could the text read?