Heritage Trails through Dolenjska and Bela krajina


Mithraism was a religion that was founded on the cyclical alternation of life and death, on the conflict between good and evil and on the power of the redemptive sacrifice. Its roots can be found in ancient religions of Persia. It spread to the west during the Roman period through the influence of easterners in public service and in the imperial capital. It adopted many elements from other religions, intertwined with Gnosticism, influenced Christianity, from which it also acquired a very distinctive stamp. This complicated and exclusive religion represents an important link in the development of European Thought and the dominance of monotheistic religions at the end of Antiquity.

The major festivals took place on the main divisions of the solar year: at the equinoxes and on the winter and summer solstices. The most important festival took place on the winter solstice, on the 25th December, when the invincible god, or sun, was born and brought new life. The celebration of the Saviour's birth on the winter solstice later passed into Christian tradition. The rituals, of which little was said or written, took place inside closed religious communities that were exclusively male and numbered up to a hundred initiates. These were divided according to degree of initiation into seven ranks, whose representative symbols are also depicted in the relief at Rožanec.

Mithraism almost became the state religion of the vast Roman empire in the second half of the 3rd century. Mithraism and the other pagan religions were banned and their temples destroyed together in the mid 4th century. However, the relief above Rožanec remained undamaged. This gives grounds for suggesting that the Mithraic religion was still practised in outlying regions, in spite of official prohibition.

Relief depictions of the god Mithras were widely distributed throughout the Roman empire, including the modern area of Slovenia: at least five examples from Ptuj, as well as further individual examples from Modrič near Oplotnica, Ruše, Zgornja Pohanca near Krško and the Mitrova jama (Mithras cave) near Škofije.

D(eo) I(nvicto) M(ithrae)
PPP (Publii / posuerunt patres) AELII NEPOS ET

To the invincible god Mithras
from the brothers (initiates) Nepos, Prokulus, and Firminus from the Aelii family
for their own prosperity and that of their near ones.

The Mithraeum above Rožanec is one of the most attractive archaeological monuments in Slovenia. The temple was not far from the Roman road that led from Črnomelj past Rožanec to Semič, where it divided into two separate routes. The first led past Rožni Dol into the valley of the river Krka and on to Emona (Ljubljana), whilst the second ran through Strekljevec, Jugorje and the Gorjanci hilss towards Novo mesto, where it joined the main Emona (Ljubljana) - Neviodunum (Drnovo near Krško) - Siscia (Sisak) road.

The rock cut relief of Mithras with an accompanying inscription is preserved in a small picturesque valley in the sweet chestnut forest of Judovje, not far from the path that leads to the filial church of sv. Jurij (St. George). Entry to the mystic valley is via a narrow path between large stone blocks. These surround the small valley, which geologists interpret as an abandoned Roman quarry.

The Mithras relief above Rožanec is an example of the classic representation of the sacrifice, when the god Mithras, kneeling on the bull's back, kills the mighty beast. The rock-cut inscription states that the brothers or initiates from the Aelii family, Nepos, Proculus and Firminus, caused the sacred image of the invincible god Mithras to be carved for their own well-being and the well-being of their relatives. This probably took place in the middle of the 2nd century.

Archaeological excavation has shown that the rituals before the relief involved the kindling of fire, which had a special meaning in the sacrificial rite. The Rožanec Mithraeum differs from the other known mithraea in Slovenia on this account. The excavations also revealed the presence of coins, sherds of pottery and oil lamps. The earliest coin is a bronze as of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161 - AD 180), which is followed chronologically by three coins of the emperor Probus (AD 276 - AD 282) and a folis of the emperor Constantine I (AD 330 - AD 335). The coins bear witness to the beginning of Mithraism in Bela krajina, its rise and climax, as well as of its persistence in this out of the way place in spite of its official prohibition in AD 313.

The stone relief has deteriorated rapidly in the last few decades, because of damage, caused by freezing, lichen and acid rain. The state of the relief in the mid 20th century is shown by a cast, kept in the Belokranjski muzej (Bela krajina museum) in Metlika.

Coin of the emperor Marcus Aurelius
(AD 161 - AD 180)

The first archaeological excavations were undertaken in 1921 by Josip Mantuani, the curator of the Provincial museum in Ljubljana. In November 1982, trial trenching, led by Danilo Breščak, an archaeologist from the Institute for the protection of natural and cultural heritage, confirmed that the Mithraeum belonged to the group of open-air temples and that the original ground surface in front of the relief was 75 cm lower than it is today. Geological analyses, undertaken by dr. Franc Šušteršič in 1995, revealed that this was the original site, where stone was quarried for the Roman gravestones, found in Črnomelj.

The Mithraeum is connected with a local folktale, which states that the relief in the rocky valley was carved for a hunter in thanks for a lucky escape. He was unexpectedly attacked by a wild beast while hunting, but succeeded in killing it. The local people also relate that a golden calf is buried in this place. The more inquisitive of them decided to dig it up and become wealthy, but they only found bones while digging in front of the relief.

According to Legend, Mithras (1) was born out of rock, the raven (2) brought the creator's advice that in order to save life on earth he should catch and sacrifice a white bull (3). When he did this, the spilled blood of the bull gave rise to the plant kingdom, whilst its semen gave rise to the animal kingdom. His companions, the dog (4), snake (5) and scorpion (6) rise towards the dying bull. The latter two companions are the personification of evil forces that wish to destroy the burgeoning life on the earth. The sacrificial scene is accompanied by personifications of the sun (7) and the moon (8), symbols of light and darkness, and the two priests, Cautopates (9) and Cautes (10).

The church of sv. Jurij stands on the slope above the Mithraeum. It stands in the middle of a graveyard, surrounded by a massive stone wall. It is dedicated to the symbolic victor over the dragon of paganism, St,. George. In spite of the fact that it is first mentioned in 1526, its basic fabric is Romanesque in origin. In addition to the patron saint, this is supported by the semicircular main portal and the walls of the small semicircular triumphal arch in the interior. The original medieval building was thoroughly transformed in the Baroque style in the first half of 17th century. The building gained the present presbytery and main alter in this period., The alter was renovated in 1903 by F. Vodnik, the Novo mesto painter. The belfry with open windows contains a bell from 1609, which was cast in the foundry of E. Somrak in Ljubljana.

Visiting the Mithraeum

The village of Rožanec is the starting point for a visit to the Mithraeum. A marked path leads for a distance of 400 m from the official car park to the Mithraeum. An explanatory board is located beside the entrance to the Mithraeum valley. It is possible to continue by the path to the church of sv. Jurij and return to the start by a shortcut. It is advisable to where suitable footwear for the walk.

Information about visits to the Mithraeum and an information leaflet are available from the Kočevar family, Rožanec no. 19.