BMCR 2001.09.25

The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. Translated by Richard Gordon

, The Roman cult of Mithras : the god and his mysteries. New York: Routledge, 2000. xxiv, 198 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0415929776 $65.00.

Richard Gordon, a leading scholar of Mithraism, has given students of ancient religions a most valuable resource in his translation of Manfred Clauss’s Mithras: Kult und Mysterien. The original German text, published in 1990, helped put Mithraic studies on a new footing by its emphasis on archaeological and inscriptional data in contrast to the more speculative theological interpretation of Franz Cumont that had dominated the field since the late nineteenth century. The title of Gordon’s translation, The Roman Cult of Mithras, emphasizes Clauss’s view, anticipated by R. Merkelbach, that in all likelihood the Mithraic mysteries of the Roman Empire did not develop from Persian religious ideas but originated in Rome or perhaps in Ostia. The Roman cult, in this interpretation, will have borrowed motifs from Hellenistic mysteries as well as from the astrological currents which influenced other religions of the times. Persian words and technical terms certainly gave the Roman Mithraic movement an exotic flavor. Not all readers will necessarily agree with the thesis that the ‘birthplace’ of the Mithraic mysteries was Rome, though the capital must have had a pivotal role in the spread of the religion, which came to be seen as somehow Roman. But there is no clear evidence, as Clauss reminds us, of direct continuity between the Perso-Hellenistic cult of Mitra and the Roman mysteries of Mithras.

While Cumont, followed by some recent scholars, attempted to elucidate the mysteries on the basis of their supposed theology, Clauss concentrates upon the ritual of the cult. For this, we do have considerable documentation, including the nature of the cult places themselves (the mithraea), the iconography of the monuments and appurtenances discovered in Mithraic sites as well as the liturgical utensils and the many inscriptions that have come to light. Clauss devotes a chapter to each category of evidence. He always keeps in mind the reader who is approaching the subject for the first time. Thus, the first chapters of the book provide background on the Persian and Hellenistic Mitra, whose name identifies him as the personification of ‘treaty’ or ‘contract.’ Clauss follows the god’s path through the Achaemenid empire, the kingdoms of Pontus, Cilicia, Armenia and Commagene with its famous stele of Antiochus I shaking Mitra’s hand. This introductory material includes an overview of the mainstream religious perceptions of the Roman empire. There is a full chapter devoted to the nature of mystery religions, which proliferated in the early Roman empire.

A separate chapter traces the development of the cult from the time of the earliest definite evidence, especially that in Germania Superior (Heddernheim/Frankfurt am Main) dating to somewhat before AD 90, through its expansion during the first and second centuries, to its decline and demise in the fourth century. A good map showing Mithraic sites mentioned in the book illustrates the diffusion of the cult. In his discussion of the spread of Mithraism throughout the Roman Empire, Clauss insists upon the centrality of Rome in its growth. The closing lines of Statius, Thebaid I, evidently written about AD 90, attest familiarity with the god’s cult in Rome. Even at such an early date the poet can assume that his readers are acquainted with the iconography depicting Mithras at the entrance of his cave straining to twist the bull’s horns. While the Mithraic religion may never have achieved official status in the sense that its festivals were included among those celebrated by the state or the Roman army, there was certainly a high degree of congeniality between the worship of Mithras and the ideals of the state. Mithras, as Clauss emphasizes, was a god of loyalty and of the contract. Under the title Sol Invictus Mithras, the deity came to be associated with the god Sol Invictus, who was relentlessly promoted by Commodus and the Severans. The more Sol Invictus grew in official support, the greater the encouragement soldiers and public servants felt to pursue Mithraic initiation. In many cases, Clauss points out, such initiates were also civic priests and city flamens. Richard Gordon (JRA 7, 1994, p. 463) sees the religion, however exotic it was in Italy, as considered quite Roman in the provinces and as appealing to many “modest social risers eager to demonstrate their conformity with the socio-political order.” The second century saw widespread expansion in devotion to the god throughout much of the Empire, and with this growth in his worship two books (one by a certain Pallas and another by one Euboulus) appeared around the middle of the century. Clauss includes an enlightening discussion of the god’s place, especially at Rome, in the ‘pagan revival’ during the second half of the fourth century.

The subject of recruitment into the cult, to which Clauss devotes an entire chapter, is closely related to that of the diffusion of the Mithraic religion. Mithraists were exclusively male. But it was exceedingly rare to find a man from the highest echelons of the ruling classes among the initiates. Except during the “pagan revival” of the fourth century, few inscriptions or reliefs show dedications by members of the senatorial class. Equestrians, too, are for the most part conspicuously absent from the society of Mithraists. Clauss emphasizes that Mithraic groups were comprised mostly of soldiers, clerical and sub-clerical grades of imperial administration, slaves and freedmen, along with the common classes of citizenry. There is an extended discussion of typical dedications attested by inscriptions naming members of these groups. Officers, probably because of their higher pay, were more likely than ordinary soldiers to make significant dedications. Clauss makes a convincing case that membership in Mithraic groups was passed on within the families of devotees, mostly from father to son. In one known instance, and probably in many others, the unusually high social standing of an adherent must have encouraged significant numbers of conversions. M. Valerius Maximianus, a leading general under Marcus Aurelius, dedicated an altar to the god in Dacia and later two others in Numidia. Clauss suggests that the impact of these dedications was of long-term influence. In fact, it apparently became almost expected in the North African provincial capital that governors seek initiation into the Mithraic mysteries. A fair number of Valerius Maximianus’s successors left behind their names on votive altars. Initiates of such high rank were, of course, in the minority. As Clauss stresses, ordinary soldiers, minor administrators, slaves, freedmen and commoners would have found in the religion of Mithras confirmation of the values that guided their lives and work. Submission to authority, fitting into the established order, confirmation of specific roles in life were important values in the social fabric from which adherents to the cult came. The same values were fundamental to the shared experience of the mithraeum. Membership in the group must also have enhanced opportunities for advancement in the outside world, especially in the army and in the administrative sphere. Mithraic ideals, as Clauss observes, underwrote social norms.

The largest portion of the book is concerned with the mithraeum, its furnishings and sacred images, its altars, the iconography and the ritual of the cult. There is thorough treatment both of the layout of the typical Mithraic sanctuary and of the variations in design characteristic of specific regions. Most mithraea, as Clauss points out, were small, evidently to maintain a feeling of intimacy among the group at the ritual meal. This limitation in size must have led to the proliferation of communities. While there were numerous minor variations, the usual Mithraic cult place ( crypta), as Clauss describes it, was built according to an expected plan, which was in general constant from Britain to the Black Sea. The mithraeum had a central aisle, flanked on both sides by raised podia upon which the initiates reclined during the ritual meal. Among the furnishings which Clauss discusses are the almost mandatory representations of the torchbearers, Cautes and Cautopates, and the exedra or apse-like niches, which were sometimes (especially at Rome) made to resemble natural caves, perhaps in imitation of the cosmos or World Cave. Several illustrations that accompany this discussion show mithraea ranging from a simple or basic design to the quite elaborate. All share the same fundamental structure, with podia for dining couches flanking a central aisle that normally leads to the cult niche in the back wall.

Clauss gives extensive analysis to the iconography of the primary cult image, usually rendered in bas-relief though sometimes in a freestanding sculpture. The image, which was clearly basic to the Mithraic mysteries, captured the decisive moment in history for the initiate, Mithras in the act of slaying the bull. This image was often elaborated upon with by-scenes depicting what was apparently a sacred drama. Clauss suggests that these scenes could well have been lighted one after the other, with each image singled out in turn for the meditative gaze of the banqueting initiates. The small panels with the various scenes typically include the image of Mithras born from a rock, a water miracle, the hunting of the bull, along with other themes whose sequence is difficult to determine. The altars, again with many variations, often show Cautes and Cautopates, along with Mithras in the act of the bull slaying. One illustration included in this chapter shows an altar from Pannonia Superior (Poetovio), carrying the image of Mithras shaking hands with Sol as the two gods roast the sacrificial meat over an altar. Clauss details the wide range of images and the different altar types of Roman Mithraism.

The many surviving reliefs and panels with by-scenes suggest that there must have been a “sacred narrative” at the basis of Mithraic ritual. Clauss’s treatment of the sacred narrative comprises one of the longest and most challenging sections of the book. While he bases a number of assumptions on comparison with themes that were prevalent in other mystery religions, he is careful to anchor his interpretation in the central imagine of the bull slaying. Clauss does take into account the widespread use of symbols from the zodiac (Taurus, Scorpius, Canis, Cancer, etc.). The frequency of these symbols in Mithraic iconography has led some scholars (e.g., R. Beck and D. Ulansey) to see them as a basic element of the religion and to advance theories that make the bull-slaying relief a kind of ‘star-map.’ Clauss, while acknowledging the influence of zodiacal imagery and thought on the development of the Mithraic mysteries, offers a more reserved interpretation of the astrological elements. In a similar way, while he discusses various possible interpretations of the significance of the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates in the cult of the Roman Mithras, he is cautious about accepting any of these as conclusive.

The main concern of the book, to which most of the second half of the text is devoted, is Mithraic initiation and ritual. Clauss offers a suggestive analysis of the frescoes from the mithraeum at Santa Maria Capua Vetere in Italy, where five badly damaged panels seem to depict stages of a Mithraic initiation rite. With the support of ancient texts that seem to be relevant, he interprets the scenes of initiands and mystagogues as the depiction of a ritual leading to a kind of spiritual rebirth. A graffito from the mithraeum of Santa Prisca (Rome), which celebrates an initiate reborn through the mysteries, offers further support to Clauss’s interpretation. I find his discussion of the ritual meal, which was celebrated in the principal cult room (a triclinium in design), disappointingly brief. Clauss here reflects the usual interpretation of the rite as a commemoration of the victory feast shared, upon Mithras’s ascension to the heavens, with Sol, god of the sun. Several illustrations of reliefs from mithraea in Germany and Bosnia-Herzegovina depicting the gods’ sacred meal accompany the text.

Clauss’s discussion of the seven stages of initiation forms one of the more controversial features of the book. The relevant symbol from the floor mosaics of the Mithraeum of Felicissimus in Ostia accompanies Clauss’s analysis of each grade. He also cites the few ancient texts that refer to the seven stages. The Mithraist’s progress from Raven to Bride(groom) to Soldier to Lion to Persian to Runner of the Sun and finally to Father has usually been interpreted as the cursus of initiation open in theory to all members. But Clauss notes that the most common grade mentioned in inscriptions is that of Father ( pater), and that there could be several of this grade in one Mithraic community; indeed, the title pater patrum seems to have been used as a way of conferring priority upon one Father over all patres in the same group. Clauss understands the seven grades as steps toward the Mithraic priesthood rather than as stages of initiation potentially open to the whole congregation. He finds support for this view in the fact that only a small percentage of inscriptions naming Mithraists (around 15%) mention any of the grades, and moreover half the number of inscriptions that do identify a man as belonging to one of the seven grades come from Rome and Ostia. This he finds especially significant in that a total of only 17% of all Mithraic inscriptions are from Ostia and Rome. Italy, and especially the area of Rome, evince a special interest in sacerdotal rank. Two-thirds of all Mithraic priests mentioned in inscriptions come from Italy, which is at the same time the source of only one-quarter of all Mithraic inscriptions.

Clauss elaborates his hypothesis of the seven-step progress to priesthood in the work Cultores Mithrae. Die Abhängerschaft des Mithraskultes (Stuttgart 1992), which has been reviewed at length by Gordon (JRA 7, 1994, pp. 459-474.) Evidence from Dura-Europas and Santa Prisca (Rome), along with bits of information attributed to Euboulus, probably do, as Gordon notes, suggest that many candidates passed through various grades of initiation and that only the patres were members of a sacerdotal order in the fullest sense. We should not expect that the transitory stages would have often been commemorated in stone. But can we be sure that all Mithraists, whatever the nature of the seven grades, were expected (or had the requisite means) to pass through the successive stages? If the ultimate goal of the seven initiatory steps was the sacerdotal role of pater, might we not conclude that Mithraists understood all stages to share in some measure in the priesthood, which was envisioned as their final outcome? The priesthood probably did not mark the pater as essentially different in nature from others in the congregation, but exercise of the role must have followed, much as it did for every paterfamilias, upon his status within the group. We do not know that each Mithraic community practiced the seven-stepped initiation ritual or that this process was everywhere an essential aspect of the religion. The reality perhaps lies somewhere between the views expressed by Clauss and Gordon on this issue.

The concluding chapters of the book deal with the concept of salvation in the religion of Deus Sol Mithras Invictus and with the god’s relationship to other deities, including the Sun (Sol), Apollo, Attis and the God of Time. A final brief chapter, “Mithras and Christ,” explores parallels as well as differences in ritual and ethos between Mithraism and Christianity.

The author has included mention of important new finds in the notes of this English translation. There is a good up-to-date bibliography, compiled by Gordon, of works in English. The translation itself is very readable and smooth. The volume is attractively produced and carefully edited. Illustrations are well chosen and for the most part appear clear and sharp in the printed text. The book belongs in all college and university libraries. Advanced students will want to supplement its material with the survey by Roger Beck, “Mithraism since Franz Cumont” (ANRW II. 17.4, 1984, pp. 2003-2115), as well as with the various comparative studies by Ugo Bianchi, which place the mysteries of Mithras within the larger perspective.

Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras is by far the best introduction to the subject now available in English, and advanced scholars will return to it constantly.