Daily Life in Ancient Rome
We welcome your visit to Hadrians!
Add Hadrians.Com to your favorites (or Press Ctrl and D)
ANCIENT ROME @ HADRIANS
Mithraism - (Article 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 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.
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) 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
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
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 BCE)
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,
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
Vermaseren, M. J. Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis
mithriacae. 2 vols. The Hague, 1956, 1960.
Alison B. Griffith
Copyright © 1995, Alison
B. Griffith. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire
including the header and this copyright notice, remain