Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Essays on Ancient Rome
Reprinted with permission from the Ecole Initiative.
Mithraism is the ancient Roman mystery cult of the god Mithras. Roman worship of Mithras began sometime during the early Roman empire, perhaps during the late first century of the Common Era (hereafter CE), and flourished from the second through the fourth centuries CE. While it is fairly certain that Romans encountered worship of the deity Mithras as part of Zoroastrianism in the eastern provinces of the empire, particularly in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey), the exact origins of cult practices in the Roman cult of Mithras remain controversial (see below). The evidence for this cult is mostly archaeological, consisting of the remains of mithraic temples, dedicatory inscriptions, and iconographic representations of the god and other aspects of the cult in stone sculpture, sculpted stone relief, wall painting, and mosaic. There is very little literary evidence pertaining to the cult.
The Deity: Mitra, Mithra, Mithras
Mithras is the Roman name for the Indo-Iranian god Mitra, or Mithra, as he was called by the Persians. Mitra is part of the Hindu pantheon, and Mithra is one of several yazatas (minor deities) under Ahura-Mazda in the Zoroastrian pantheon. Mithra is the god of the airy light between heaven and earth, but he is also associated with the light of the sun, and with contracts and mediation. Neither in Hinduism nor in Zoroastrianism did Mitra/Mithra have his own cult. Mitra is mentioned in the Hindu Vedas, while Mithra is is the subject of Yashts (hymns) in the Zoroastrian Avesta, a text compiled during the Sassanian period (224-640 CE) to preserve a much older oral tradition.
Possible Eastern Origins of the Roman Cult
The precise relationship between the Roman cult of Mithras as it developed during the empire and the Mitra and Mithra of the Hindu and Zoroastrian pantheons, respectively, is unclear. The theory that Roman Mithraism had its roots in Zoroastrianism was first put forward by Franz Cumont, a Belgian scholar, in his two-volume publication Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra in 1896 and 1899. Cumont compiled a catalogue of every known mithraic temple, monument, inscription, and literary passage relating to Mithras and claimed on the basis of his study of this body of evidence that Roman Mithras was, ultimately, Zoroastrian Mithra. Cumont argued by extension that if Roman Mithras had Iranian roots, the cult of Mithraism must have originated in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire and spread westward with legionaries in the Roman army, merchants from eastern provinces (often lumped under the broad misnomer "Syrians"), freedmen in the imperial bureaucracy, and slaves.
Cumont himself recognized possible flaws in his theory. The most obvious is that there is little evidence for a Zoroastrian cult of Mithra (Cumont 1956), and certainly none that suggests that Zoroastrian worship of Mithra used the liturgy or the well-devoloped iconography found in the Roman cult of Mithras. Moreover, few monuments from the Roman cult have been recovered from the very provinces which are thought to have inspired worship of Mithras (namely the provinces of Asia Minor). Finally, Cumont was aware that the earliest datable evidence for the cult of Mithras came from the military garrison at Carnuntum in the province of Upper Pannonia on the Danube River (modern Hungary). Indeed, the largest quantity of evidence for mithraic worship comes from the western half of the empire, particularly from the provinces of the Danube River frontier and from Rome and her port city, Ostia, in Italy. To explain this phenomenon, Cumont proposed that soldiers stationed in western provinces and transferred to eastern provinces for short periods of time learned of the deity Mithra and began to worship and dedicate monuments to a god they called Mithras when they returned to their customary garrison. It is true that soldiers from the Roman legion XV Apollinaris stationed at Carnuntum in the first century CE were called to the East in 63 CE to help fight in a campaign against the Parthians and further to help quell the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem from 66-70 CE. Members of the legion made mithraic dedications back in Carnuntum after their return from these campaigns, possibly as early as 71 or 72 CE. Once these Roman soldiers and the camp-followers of the legions, who included merchants, slaves, and freedmen, started to worship Mithras, argued Cumont, their further movements around the empire served to spread the cult to other areas.
Cumont's scholarship was so influential that it founded mithraic studies as an area of inquiry in its own right. Cumont's student, Maarten J. Vermaseren, was a scholar equally as prolific as his mentor. Among Vermaseren's greatest contributions was an up-dated English language catalogue of mithraic monuments (Vermaseren 1956, 1960).
Structure and Liturgy of the Roman mystery cult of Mithras
The Roman cult of Mithras is known as a "mystery" cult, which is to say that its members kept the the liturgy and activities of the cult secret, and more importantly, that they had to participate in an initiation ceremony to become members of the cult. As a result, there is no surviving central text of Mithraism analogous to the Christian Bible, and there is no intelligible text which describes the liturgy. Whether such texts ever existed is unknown, but doubtful. Worship took place in a temple, called a mithraeum, which was made to resemble a natural cave. Sometimes temples were built specifically for the purpose, but often they were single rooms in larger buildings which usually had another purpose (for example, a bath house, or a private home). There are about one hundred mithraea preserved in the empire. Mithraea were longer than they were wide, usually around 10-12m long and 4-6m wide, and were entered from one of the short sides. Roman dining couches, called klinai or podia, lined the long sides of the mithraeum, leaving a narrow aisle in between. At the end of this aisle, opposite the entrance, was the cult image showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (see below). To enhance the resemblence to a natural cave the ceiling of the mithraeum was vaulted and often had crushed pottery adhering to it to imitate natural rock. Sometimes the ceilings were pierced with holes to let shafts of light in. The cave was intended to recall an event in Mithras' life (see below) and also to symbolize the dome of heaven, or the cosmos.
We surmise from the structure of mithraea and from paintings which are preserved in certain mithraea that mithraists gathered for a common meal, initiation of members, and other ceremonies. The details of the liturgy are uncertain, but it is worth noting that most mithraea have room for only thirty to forty members, and only a few are so large that a bull could actually be sacrificed inside.
The structure of the cult was hierarchical. Members went through a series of seven grades, each of which had a special symbol and a tutelary planet. From lowest to highest these grades were Corax (raven, under Mercury), Nymphus (a made-up word meaning male bride, under Venus), Miles (the soldier, under Mars), Leo (the lion, under Jupiter), Perses (the Persian, under Luna, the moon), Heliodromus (the Sun's courier, under Sol, the sun), and finally Pater (father, under Saturn). Those who reached the highest grade, Pater, could become the head of a congregation. Because mithraea were so small, new congregations were probably founded on a regular basis when one or more members reached the highest grade.
Two aspects of mithraic initiation offer important insight into the cult. First, it was possible for a mithraic initiate to be a member of more than one cult, and second, women were not permitted to become members. These facts are critical to understanding the cult of Mithraism in relation to other Roman cults, to official Roman state religion, and to the cult of Christianity (see below).
Mithraic monuments have a rich and relatively coherent iconography, chronologically and geographically speaking. In each mithraic temple there was a central scene showing Mithras sacrificing a bull (often called a tauroctony). Mithras is clad in a tunic, trousers, cloak, and a pointed cap usually called a Phrygian cap. He faces the viewer while half-straddling the back of a bull, yanks the bull's head back by its nostrils with his left hand, and plunges a dagger into the bull's thoat with his right. Various figures surround this dramatic event. Under the bull a dog laps at the blood dripping from the wound and a scorpion attacks the bull's testicles. Often the bull's tail ends in wheat ears and a raven is perched on the bull's back. On the viewer's left stands a diminutive male figure named Cautes, wearing the same garb as Mithras and holding an upraised and burning torch. Above him, in the upper left corner, is the sun god, Sol, in his chariot. On the viewer's left there is another diminutive male figure, Cautopates, who is also clad as Mithras is and holds a torch that points downards and is sometimes, but not always, burning. Above Cautopates in the upper right corner is the moon, Luna. This group of figures is almost always present, but there are variations, of which the most common is an added line of the signs of the zodiac over the top of the bull-sacrificing scene.
For a long time the meaning of the bull-sacrificing scene and its associated figures was unclear, but a long series of studies beginning with one by K. B. Stark in 1869 and culminating in studies by Roger Beck (1984 and 1988), David Ulansey (1989) and Noel Swerdlow (1991) has revealed a comprehensible astrological symbolism. Each figure and element in the scene correlates to specific constellations, to the seven planets recognized by the ancient Romans, and to the position of these in relation to the celestial equator and the ecliptic, particularly at the time of the equinoxes and the solstices.
The bull-sacrificing scene is usually carved in stone relief or painted on stone and placed in mithraea in a visible location. In addition to this central scene there can be numerous smaller scenes which seem to represent episodes from Mithras' life. The most common scenes show Mithras being born from a rock, Mithras dragging the bull to a cave, plants springing from the blood and semen of the sacrificed bull, Mithras and the sun god, Sol, banqueting on the flesh of the bull while sitting on its skin, Sol investing Mithras with the power of the sun, and Mithras and Sol shaking hands over a burning altar, among others. These scenes are the basis for knowledge of mithraic cosmology. There is no supporting textual evidence.
The Popularity of Mithraism Geographically, Socially, and Chronologically
The archaeological evidence for Mithraism, consisting mostly of monuments, inscribed dedications, and the remains of mithraea, indicates that the cult was most popular among the legions stationed in frontier areas. The Danube and Rhine river frontier has the highest concentration of evidence, but a significant quantity of evidence amply demonstrates that Mithraism was also popular among the troops stationed in the province of Numidia in North Africa and along Hadrian's wall in England. The inscriptions on dedications found in all these areas support Cumont's assertion that Mithraism was most popular among legionaries (of all ranks), and the members of the more marginal social groups who were not Roman citizens: freedmen, slaves, and merchants from various provinces (see above).
The area where the concentration of evidence for Mithraism is the most dense is the capital, Rome, and her port city, Ostia. There are eight extant mithraea in Rome of as many as seven hundred (Coarelli 1979) and eighteen in Ostia. In addition to the actual mithraea, there are approximately three hundred other mithraic monuments from Rome and about one hundred from Ostia. This body of evidence reveals that Mithraism in Rome and Ostia originally appealed to the same social strata as it did in the frontier regions. The evidence also indicates that at least some inhabitants knew about Mithraism as early as the late first century CE, but that the cult did not enjoy a wide membership in either location until the middle of the second century CE.
As the cult in Rome became more popular, it seems to have "trickled up" the social ladder, with the result that Mithraism could count several senators from prominent aristocratic families among its adherents by the fourth century CE. Some of these men were initiates in several cults imported from the eastern empire (including those of Magna Mater and Attis, Isis, Serapis, Jupiter Dolichenus, Hecate, and Liber Pater, among others), and most had held priesthoods in official Roman cults. The devotion of these men to Mithraism reflects a fourth-century "resurgence of paganism," when many of these imported cults and even official Roman state religion experienced a surge in popularity although, and perhaps because, their very existence was increasingly threatened by the rapid spread of Christianity after the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 313 CE.
Mithraism had a wide following from the middle of the second century to the late fourth century CE, but the common belief that Mithraism was the prime competitor of Christianity, promulgated by Ernst Renan (Renan 1882 579), is blatantly false. Mithraism was at a serious disadvantage right from the start because it allowed only male initiates. What is more, Mithraism was, as mentioned above, only one of several cults imported from the eastern empire that enjoyed a large membership in Rome and elsewhere. The major competitor to Christianity was thus not Mithraism but the combined group of imported cults and official Roman cults subsumed under the rubric "paganism." Finally, part of Renan's claim rested on an equally common, but almost equally mistaken, belief that Mithraism was officially accepted because it had Roman emperors among its adherents (Nero, Commodus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and the Tetrarchs are most commonly cited). Close examination of the evidence for the participation of emperors reveals that some comes from literary sources of dubious quality and that the rest is rather circumstantial. The cult of Magna Mater, the first imported cult to arrive in Rome (204) was the only one ever officially recognized as a Roman cult. The others, including Mithraism, were never officially accepted, and some, particularly the Egyptian cult of Isis, were periodically outlawed and their adherents persecuted.
Cumont's large scholarly corpus and his opinions dominated mithraic studies for decades. A series of conferences on Mithraism beginning in 1970 and an enormous quantity of scholarship by numerous individuals in the last quarter century has demonstrated that many of Cumont's theories were incorrect (see especially Hinnells 1975 and Beck 1984). At the same time this recent work has greatly increased modern understanding of Mithraism, and it has opened up new areas of inquiry. Many questions, particularly those concerning the origins of the Roman cult of Mithras, are still unresolved and may always remain so. Even so, recent studies such as Mary Boyce's and Frantz Grenet's History of Zoroastrianism (1991) approach the relationship between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism in an entirely new light. Iconographic studies, especially those focused on the astrological aspects of the cult, abound, while other scholars examine the philosophical and soteriological nature of the cult (Turcan 1975 and Bianchi 1982). The field of mithraic studies is one which remains active and dynamic and one for which serious attention to the recent work greatly repays the effort to tackle this vast body of exciting new work.
Beck, R. "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.17.4., 1984.
Beck, R. Planetary Gods and Planetary Orders of the Mysteries of Mithras (Etudes préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romain. Vol. 9). Leiden, 1988.
Bianchi, U., ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.
Bianchi, U. and Vermaseren, M. J., eds. La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'impero romano. Leiden, 1982.
Boyce, M. and Grenet, F. A History of Zoroastrianism, III: Zoroastrianism under Macedonian and Roman Rule. Leiden, 1991.
Clauss, M. Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. Munich, 1990.
Coarelli, F. "Topografia Mitriaca di Roma." In U. Bianchi, ed. Mysteria Mithrae. Leiden, 1979.
Cumont, F. Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra. 2 vols. Brussels, 1896, 1899.
Cumont, F. The Mysteries of Mithra. Trans. T. J. McCormack. London, 1903, reprint New York, 1956.
Hinnells, J., ed. Mithraic Studies. 2 vols. Manchester, 1975.
Merkelbach, R. Mithras. Königstein, 1984.
Renan, E. Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique. Paris, 1882.
Stark, K. B. "Die Mithrasstein von Dormagen," Jahrbücher des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden im Rheinlande 46 (1869): 1-25.
Swerdlow, N. "Review Article: On the Cosmical Mysteries of Mithras," Classical Philology 86 (1991): 48-63.
Turcan, R. Mithras Platonicus. Leiden, 1975.
Ulansey, D. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. New York and Oxford, 1989.
Vermaseren, M. J. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis mithriacae. 2 vols. The Hague, 1956, 1960.