Before Christianity became the dominant religion of Rome, many people worshipped Mithras, the pagan God depicted here. Adherents believed that the world was created from the blood of a bull, thus the symbolism here of Mithras slitting the throat of the bull. The scorpion (below the bull’s torso) and a serpent (not pictured on this particular sculpture) represent evil forces in typical depictions of the Mithras story. Behind and to the right of this statue, which comes from Tarquinia, is another, more fully-formed Mithras sculpture group, located in the Vatican Museums’ Animal Room.
I am fascinated by the history of the worship of Mithras and Mithraeums located in Rome and hope to share more about this detail of Roman art history with you in subsequent posts.