Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.46

Attilio Mastrocinque, The Mysteries of Mithras: A Different Account. Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 24.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2017.  Pp. xxi, 363.  ISBN 9783161551123.  €99.00.  ISBN 9783161551185.  (ebook).  

Reviewed by Dominic Dalglish, Worcester College, Oxford (


In this volume, Attilio Mastrocinque brings together work undertaken over the past two decades to offer a bold account of the formation and beliefs of the Roman Mysteries of Mithras. Its subtitle, ‘A Different Account’, offers the first clear sign that the work is far from conventional. It can in fact be considered controversial, at once managing to hark back to the work of the father of the discipline, Franz Cumont, whilst offering a thesis that would, should it be widely accepted, fundamentally change our understanding of this most intriguing of religious phenomena.

Mastrocinque’s thesis surrounds the main truth of the Mysteries, which he seeks to justify through an elaboration of wider beliefs and cultic structure. His argument is that the central ‘mystery’ was that the emperor Augustus was a manifestation of Mithras. Throughout the work he refers back to the importance of ‘Imperial ideology’, which acts as a touchstone and draws the discussion together. Through chapters focussing on the long history of Mithras prior to the god’s worship in the Roman world, analysis of the main iconography and mythography featuring the god, and discussion of the Mithraic theogony, especially through periphery images and Mithraic spaces, the connection between Mithras and Augustus is situated within a larger structure of Mithraic beliefs.

Mastrocinque’s work differs in two main respects from the majority of contemporary research. First, his approach is universalising, eschewing the regional or temporal focus that has become the most common form of Mithraic scholarship, instead attempting to speak to the ‘Mysteries’ as a whole. Secondly, the evidence that Mastrocinque uses is much more diverse than one might expect, precisely because of the book’s main argument. For example, following the claim early on that, ‘Without Virgil, we would be as baffled by Mithraism as we would be if we were to stand face-to-face with the Rosetta stone without its Greek parallel’ (p. 5), there is a lengthy analysis of Virgil’s Eclogue Four amongst other texts of imperial court poets (pp. 114-21), and a detailed assessment of the Grand Camée de France (Gemma Tiberiana) (pp. 85-91), one of the best known objects of the Julio-Claudian period, but an artefact rarely contemplated for its relevance to Mithraic worship.

Chapter one (‘Basic Elements of Mithraism’) begins with a review of the documentary evidence, covering several aspects of Mithraism considered foundational. This is an expansive introduction to the literature, succinctly detailing much of the scholarship of the previous century. The mission statement is made clear: that a fundamental rethink of this cult is needed by considering the imperial context.

Chapter two (‘Mithraism, Kings and Emperors’) is the longest and most important of the work. Though the close connection between rulers and Mithras has been noted before, Mastrocinque’s thesis constitutes a significant development. He begins with an assessment of the occurrences of the name in connection with rulers from across the expansive range of places and periods that Mithras can be found, including the Roman empire. Key to the argument is the apotheosis of Augustus, the close connection that Octavian / Augustus developed with Apollo, and the identification of Apollo with Mithras, most famously in first-century BC Commagene. A variety of possible avenues is pursued to strengthen the connections including the shared use of the epithet invictus, the growing importance of Apollo in the Roman world, and similar iconographic motifs – in particular the slaying of a bull—found in Mithraic and imperial contexts. The chapter hinges on the interpretation of the Grand Camée de France, and particularly the elusive figure in the top register bearing a globe (pp. 87-88). Mastrocinque, notwithstanding caveats, asserts that this figure is to be understood as Mithras.

Chapters three, four and five interpret the main Mithraic reliefs, found particularly at the focal point of cult spaces, successively dealing with the images to the left, centre, and right of these reliefs. The images in these scenes show a variety of figures and have long been interpreted as representing the central mythography of the Mysteries. The scenes progress showing the defeat of the giants by a figure identified as Jupiter; the ‘dream of Saturn’ on a rock; the spouting of water from a rock; the birth of a new people from trees; the subjugation of the bull; the sacrifice of the bull; the submission of Sol; Mithras giving Sol the radiate crown; Sol and Mithras shaking hands; Sol and Mithras ascending a chariot, and finally Sol and Mithras at a banquet, seated at a table decked with the bull’s hide.

Throughout these chapters, Mastrocinque aims to interpret the scenes by relating them to events that took place in the Roman world in the first century BCE and early first century CE. Mastrocinque argues that the defeat of the giants relates directly to the end of the civil wars, and that the birth of Mithras was akin to that of Octavian / Augustus heralding a new era, related to a previous golden age through the dream of Saturn. He connects the defeat of the bull to the victory over Antony, but particularly Cleopatra and Egypt, at Actium. Finally, the scenes with Sol and Mithras, confusing because of the complex relationship that they present between the two, are explained in relation to the succession crisis surrounding Tiberius, as the future emperor swung in and out of Augustus’ favour. Chapter five concludes by assessing the spread of the Mysteries focussing on the role of imperial freedmen. However, Mastrocinque speculates (196) that the explosion of Mithras worship towards the end of the first century CE can best be explained by a directive being made from the Flavian imperial court, if not the emperors themselves, to adopt this form of imperial cult.

In chapters six and seven on ‘The Mithraic Aiones’ and ‘The System of Planetary and Hypercosmic Gods’ respectively, Mastrocinque discusses more peripheral images associated with the Mysteries and Mithraic spaces, (mithraea), to establish a cosmology and theogony of the cult. Mastrocinque positions Mithras as a ‘hypercosmic’ god, relating this understanding to Orphic, Platonic, and Mazdaean understandings of the universe, the ultimate relevance being to the migration of the human soul. These chapters frequently refer back to gods and figures discussed in previous chapters, fleshing out the larger structure of the Mysteries, in particular through the traditional conception of seven initiatory grades and the stages at which knowledge was revealed. The final chapters (eight to eleven) effectively tie up a variety of loose ends, ranging from ‘Mithraism and the Magic Arts’, an area on which Mastrocinque has published a great deal, through to chapters dealing with variations in the conception of the Mysteries, and the cult’s final devotees.

The arguments that Mastrocinque makes are in many places plausible, at times convincing, and thus welcome additions to the field. Complex issues that require an understanding of philosophy, literature, art and archaeology are dealt with in thought-provoking ways. The work also consistently considers the Mysteries of Mithras not in isolation, but as part of much larger discussions taking place at the turn of eras and into the second century CE about the nature of the cosmos and understanding the world in relation to the Roman emperor, which is only to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, there are issues with the work. Given that Mastrocinque’s argument is essentially that the Mysteries of Mithras constituted a form of imperial cult, significantly more discussion of the worship of emperors in the Roman period would have been welcome. This absence is evident in the section, ‘How were the Roman Emperors involved in Mithraism?’ (pp. 41-45), which aims to deal with the apparent lack of support that emperors showed for the Mysteries. Mastrocinque here elides the silence of emperors on their worship of Mithras with the need to keep the Mysteries secret (p. 41), despite innumerable public attestations in the ancient world of being initiated into a variety of mysteries. The claim is also made that emperors were ‘not expected to build temples to the Imperial cult’ (p. 44), again in relation to their lack of visible support of Mithras, even though emperors did indeed build and support temples to previous emperors. Such points do not discredit the central thesis, but necessarily complicate Mastrocinque’s conclusion in fundamental ways.

Mastrocinque has set himself the task of explaining as much of the evidence that is capable of supporting his thesis as he can. He has much to say on a large variety of matters, but at times the desire to touch on as many topics as possible is to the detriment of the overall argument, in particular chapter eight, which though interesting adds little to the central thesis. Subsections of chapters also often conclude with tangential points that serve little purpose, e.g. the concluding sentences of sections on pp. 161, 166, and 169.

This matter of style points to a larger issue. Mastrocinque also hopes to make as much of the evidence as possible work, or, in other words, make sense within a larger construction of the Mysteries of Mithras that relates to imperial ideology. This relies on the assumption that such a relationship consistently existed. Despite many visual and material cultural traits shared by worshippers of Mithras in the Roman world, there is also great diversity. The evidence that we have for the Mysteries, even if we limit this to the more conventional pool that directly depicts or mentions Mithras, is open to a variety of interpretations which cannot be definitively proved or disproved. The question is therefore how we attempt to explain this diversity: as variations of a united whole or as quite distinct, but still interrelated instances of Mithraic worship. Though Mastrocinque clearly holds the first position, there is no discussion of this major premise of the work.

The consequences of this approach are at times acutely felt. The prominence of Aiones, for example, and their place in a Mithraic belief system relies on very patchy evidence (see chapter six). Though we are undoubtedly missing a great deal, the limited number of finds surrounding these figures should prompt discussion of their universal relevance. At other times, the striving to connect Mithraic worship to the imperial centre feels unnecessarily laboured. This is most evident in the discussion around the bull-slaying (pp. 145-66), which despite the prominence of this iconographic element is one of the most speculative sections of the work. The evidence for seeing the bull as a representation of Egypt is tenuous at best, especially given the diversity of contexts in which we find the image. The focus on establishing the connection between Mithras and kings can also be misleading. In discussing the great inscription and monuments from Nemrud Dagh (pp. 53-56), Mastrocinque interprets part of the inscription as referring only to the king and the god Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes when this is clearly not the case; the shared appearance of this god and the king is assessed without consideration of other gods, most significantly Zeus-Oromasdes, and he does not mention that elsewhere in the kingdom, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes does not look like the king at all, but is more commonly rendered as a naked, ‘Greek’ god. Later on (p. 90) the belief that Apollo was in some way thought to be Mithras, and vice versa, evident in the inscriptions of Antiochus from Commagene, is broadened out to include Cappadocia, despite no evidence that the conception of this god took root even in Commagene.

Overall, however, the volume makes good use of the visual and textual evidence used to support its arguments. The formatting of the work is generally good, with what errors there are not significantly detracting from the understanding. A pleasing number of texts is provided in both the original Latin and Greek, and in English translation, but not consistently (e.g. no English with the Latin inscriptions on p. 208). A great many images are also included, but unfortunately some are so small and / or dark as to be very difficult to use (e.g. figs. 19, 47, 58).

Notwithstanding several issues, the work is an important contribution to the field from one of its most established figures and will no doubt excite scholarly response for some time to come.

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