British Museum based project on religion and material culture in the 1st millennium
Mithras: whose god?
The second in a series of weekly instalments featuring insights from the authors of ‘Images of Mithra‘, published in March 2017, looks at what we can learn about the community of Mithras worshippers in the Roman world through the objects that depict the god.
Mithras first really grabbed my attention in 2011, when I went on a university study trip to Rome and Ostia. Each student had to act as a guide to one of the sites, and I chose to lead the group around the “eastern cults of Ostia”, including Mithraic sacred spaces (mithraea). I particularly wanted to visit the ‘Baths of Mithras’ as part of my discussion – imagine my horror, then, when we came across it, semi-flooded, and seemingly inaccessible. But the girls among our group were undaunted! In what was to prove one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip, we cast aside boots, socks and inhibition, and waded through freezing water into a slippery cellar. When we finally emerged from the gloom to rejoin the boys outside in the sunshine, it felt as though we’d really gone through some sort of rite of passage – our own initiation into the Mithraic Mysteries.
But, of course, one of the first things that even a casual interest in the Roman worship of Mithras tells you is that it was limited to men. Although many of the other received wisdoms about Mithraic rituals and beliefs – such as ideas about evolution, salvation, and initiation – have frequently been the subjects of intense debate, this limitation is generally accepted. Periodically, new evidence comes to light that might hint at the involvement of women, but nothing really concrete has been found so far. In fact, many fictional accounts of Mithraic practice play on this, downplaying religion in favour of an emphasis on some sort of men’s social club.
So why has this been such an enduring feature of modern interest in Mithraic worship? Perhaps it feeds into an interest in the unknown, and ideas of restricted access – we like to imagine what secret societies might get up to behind closed doors. Second, it provides something a bit more tangible for the way we think about an ancient cult; if we can understand who Mithraists were, it removes some of the distance between our world and theirs. The significance of this human factor is indisputable.
Third, and most important, it is one of the few statements about Mithraic worshippers that we can be reasonably confident in making. Its categorisation as a ‘mystery cult’ means that the character of Mithraic communities often appears quite elusive. We know that Mithras had a particular appeal among the Roman legions, with mithraea springing up practically wherever the army went, from Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, to the Rhine frontier, to the garrison at Dura-Europos in modern Syria. Mithras also seems to have enjoyed a degree of popularity among various other groups, including public slaves – an inscription on a relief now in the Vatican Museums records a dedication made by the Imperial slave Atimetus. But it is difficult to pin down why these particular groups worshipped Mithras. In most cases, we’re lucky if we even have the names of Mithraists, let alone any further details about them.
This is why the case of the mithraeum at Dura-Europos is so interesting. Not only has it been remarkably well preserved (and on display in Yale University Art gallery), it also gives us a fascinating snap-shot of a Mithraic community and its development over time. The Roman occupation of the city started in AD 165; we can date the first phase of the mithraeum to this period thanks to a relief showing the famous Mithraic tauroctony (bull-slaying) scene. Unusually, the inscription on this relief is not in Latin, as we might expect from a Roman military unit, nor even primarily in Greek, the more common language in the East of the Roman Empire. Instead it is in Palmyrene – the Semitic language of the nearby desert city of Palmyra – and the dating is given in the Palmyrene calendar. The inscription tells us the identity of the man who dedicated the relief: his name was Ethpeni, and he was the commander of a unit of Palmyrene archers stationed with the Roman garrison in Dura-Europos.
A second tauroctony relief, found just above the first, reinforces our impression of a strong Palmyrene community of Mithraists. Although the language of its inscription is Greek, the name of the dedicator – Zenobius Eiaeibas – is distinctively Palmyrene, and he is also the commander of the archers. Moreover, he seems to date his own dedication by referring to the Ethpeni relief, stating that it was set up “two years later”; in order to understand this allusion fully, the viewer would have to have been able to translate the Palmyrene script on the earlier inscription. This could suggest that, for the first few years at least, the Mithraic community in Dura had a predominantly Palmyrene membership.
After this first period of activity in the Dura-Europos mithraeum, the worshippers seem to have lost any particular Palmyrene identity. Later dedications are made by centurions with Roman names, and graffiti is in both Latin and Greek. Nonetheless, much of the decoration of the space looks characteristically eastern, such as the fabulous hunting frescoes that lead towards the rear wall of the mithraeum. There was clearly a peculiarly eastern flavour to Mithraic activity in Dura, which was, to an extent, established by the first Palmyrene worshippers.
This did not lessen Mithras’ status as a Roman god, but it does shine some light on the kinds of people to whom he appealed, and the kinds of communities we might otherwise overlook. The Dura mithraeum does not challenge our assumptions about the standard composition of Mithraic groups – they were clearly male, and soldiers as well – but it does give a tantalising glimpse into some of the characters involved in the Roman worship of Mithras. Names, status and communities: these all make this ancient cult seem more real, and hopefully a little bit more understandable.