Mithraism, Mithra, mithraeum – a mystery religion of great popularity

Mithra killing a bull (Mithra Taurobolium) – slab from the sanctuary in the underground of the Church of Santa  Prisca, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Mithra killing a bull (Mithra Taurobolium) – slab from the sanctuary in the underground of the Church of Santa Prisca, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Despite the fact, that the cult of Mithra was not officially accepted in the Roman Empire, it was not persecuted either. It particularly thrived in the II and III centuries of our era. In Rome itself, at that time, there existed around eight hundered mithraea. A testimony to the popularity and spread of this cult is a comparison between it and Christianity. As of the present we know of twenty-five so-called titulae, meaning places of Christian cult in the city. From among all of them, only nine were discovered.

Mithra killing a bull (Mithra Taurobolium) – slab from the sanctuary in the underground of the Church of Santa  Prisca, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Mithra with a bull, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Slab with a representation of Mithra, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Mithraeum in the underground of the Church of San Clemente, pic. Wikipedia, autor Ice Boy Tell
Altars and a statue from the sanctuary in the underground of the Church of San Stefano Rotondo, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Mithra or Isis, object found in the underground of the Church of San Stefano Rotondo, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Mithra defeating a bull, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Statue of Mithra, Museo Ostia Antica

Despite the fact, that the cult of Mithra was not officially accepted in the Roman Empire, it was not persecuted either. It particularly thrived in the II and III centuries of our era. In Rome itself, at that time, there existed around eight hundered mithraea. A testimony to the popularity and spread of this cult is a comparison between it and Christianity. As of the present we know of twenty-five so-called titulae, meaning places of Christian cult in the city. From among all of them, only nine were discovered.

The cult of Mithra originated from the distant steppes of Asia. Spreading, it reached Asia Minor, most likely in the II century B.C. It came to Rome thanks to slaves and prisoners who originated there, but also due to Roman soldiers stationed there. In time it spread throughout all of the empire, while the mithraea, meaning sanctuaries devoted to Mithra, sprung up in all, even furthest reaches of the empire. The ceremonies connected with it were practiced solely among men, mainly soldiers, craftsmen, merchants and state officials. Initiation could be achieved by all regardless of their social status, both slaves as well as emperors. The cult of Mithra also had its supporters among the latter, its propagator was for example Emperor Commodus.

 

It differed greatly from the way official Roman gods at that time were worshipped. It was not only limited to bestowing gifts and prayers with the aim of obtaining support. It was accompanied by a mystery ritual. And perhaps that is the reason for the interest in Mithra and Mithraism that developed among all members of the Roman society. The supporters of Mithra actively participated in the ritual, which was celebrated not by priests but by themselves. They took part in the mystery of the initiation, then undergoing its subsequent steps. The principal idea of this religion was a feeling of togetherness. Friendship and loyalty were valued, while their lack and deceit was scorned upon.

The religious practices of Mithraism included communion, confession and confirmation in form that was similar to Christianity, daily meetings and joint meals; the immortal soul and resurrection were believed in as well.

After The Edict of Milan (313), which provided equal rights for all faithful of numerous religions, the cult of Mithra was criticized by Christians, for whom it was the greatest competition. Its elimination would not have been successful without help from the top. Christianity found its greatest ally in Emperor Theodosius I, who in the year 392 made it into a state religion. Since that time all the other cults in the empire were strictly forbidden. The son of Theodosius, Honorius, even went so far in the year 408, as to ordering the destruction of all preserved until that time pagan sanctuaries. This was the last chapter in the story of the cult of Mithra, which still sporadically, although completely in secret persevered until the V century, however, outside the borders of Rome itself.

 

After the destruction of the sanctuaries of Mithra, the ruined temples of this cult were given over to the Church, which adapted them for its needs. Most often, churches for Christian martyrs were created on the ruins. In this way all traces of the old religion were removed, and its existence in Rome was not known until quite recently.

Unfortunately we do not know too much about the cult itself and its ideology, while the knowledge we have is based on archeological remains – paintings, sculptures and wall inscriptions found in sanctuaries. The search for Scripta Santa – the holy text of the followers of Mithra – still goes on. It has not been found, since all written documents were scrupulously destroyed.

The most interesting mithraea in Rome are found in the catacombs of the Churches of San Clemente and Santa Prisca, the old hippodrome (Circus Maximus), Palazzo Barberini, and the Church of San Stefano Rotondo. Only some of these are accessible without too many problems, such as the mithraeum in the Church of San Clemente. The other ones require some doing to visit. And so, the mithraea in the Church of Santa Prisca is open to organized groups on every second and fourth Saturday of the month, the mithraeum under the hippodrome can also only be visited with an organized groups at various times. The few remaining objects of the cult of Mithra, can be seen in Museo Nazionale Romano and Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.