Mithraism in the Roman Empire

by Park, Hyeongsu
Fall 2006



Abstract

                  This paper comprehensively covers various aspects of Mithraism, the ancient Roman mystery cult which flourished from the second to fourth century AD. First, it takes a linguistic approach to study the possible origins of Roman Mithraism and the god Mithra, which even extends to India. Next, it studies symbolic and social aspects of Mithraism. The study includes a detailed description and cosmological meaning of Mithraic symbolisms based on the cult's relationship with Asia Minor region. It also comprises the chronological illustration of societal acceptance of Mithraism in the Roman Empire. Then, based on these analyses, this paper compares the doctrines and symbolisms of Mithraism and those of early Christianity, the two major religions in the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Finally, delving into the similarities between the two, the paper carefully studies whether their relationships were hostile and how Christianity won popularity over Mithraism, thus becoming the world religion.



Mithraism in the Roman Empire



Table of Contents


1. Overall Description of Mithraism
2. Constellations and Mithraism
     2-a. Tauroctony : a Bull-slayer Mithra
     2-b. Mithra vs Perseus
     2-c. Tauroctony as a Star Map
     2-d. Sol Invictus
3. Origin of Mithra
4. History and Spread of Roman Mithraism
5. Social Situation in the Time of Roman Mithraism
6. Christianity's Strength over Mithraism
7. Similarities between Christianity and Mithraism
8. Conclusion
Endnotes
Bibliography



1. Overall Description of Mithraism


            Mithraism is the ancient Roman mystery cult which flourished from the second century to the fourth century AD. It is thought to be first originated in Rome in the first century, and prospered for about four centuries, although there is disunity about its origin. Mithraism was especially popular among Roman soldiers and merchants, and Mithraism expanded rapidly with active Mediterranean trade. Although Mithraism reached all over Europe with the Roman Empire's growth in the second and third centuries, the cult abruptly declined after the Theodosian decrees in c. 395, which designated Christianity as a state religion and banned all the other pagan rites.
            Mithraism worshipped Mithra. Compared to other gods in various religions, Mithra as a young man without beard suggests the emphasis of Mithra's omnipotence which stretches all over the Universe. Mithra is the god of justice and covenant, as the word Mithra means treaty or contract in Avestan (the eastern dialect of Old Iranian).[1] In mythology, it is a Mediator who judges each soul's good qualities compared to bad ones and an arbiter between demons and angels. Emphasis of covenant in Mithraism infers the relationship with popularity among soldiers since loyalty to the king and the commander and trust among war comrades correspond with faith to Mithra. Linguistically, the fact that the word Mithras means friends in Sanskrit also supports the idea.
            Mithra as a Mediator continues to appear in his name. He is the god of the upper air (aether in Greek), mediating between heaven and earth. Mithra also appears in the battle between light and darkness, taking part of neither side. In dualism, representative symbols of Zoroastrianism,[2] Mithra appears as the arbitrator and the judge.
            Only men can initiate into Mithraism although the women of the Cybele-cult have fraternal relations with the Mithraists. The followers are classified into seven grades : Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, the Sun, and Father. In the Mithraeum of Felicissimus at Ostia, those grades are associated with seven planets[3] : Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Moon, the Sun, and Saturn.[4] This connection implied that the religious life of the initiates symbolized their ascension through the planetary spheres into the heavenly world.[5]
            How Mithra was created is not clearly proven. Nevertheless, as Gods whose names and descriptions are very similar to Mithra of Mithraism exist in many ancient religions before Mithraism, including Indo-Iranian mythology, the god Mithra is thought to come from a combination of ancient deities in Mesopotamian region. However, some scholars argue that one cannot say religions such as Zoroastrianism affected the emergence of Mithraism since there are no direct evidences of relationship between Roman Mithraism and ancient religions.
            Since Mithraism is a mystery cult, there are no written documents which can provide comprehensive information. As a result, the only references which Mithraic scholars are dependent upon are Mithraic temples, which are called Mithraea. They were often built inside or below existing buildings so that they are not noticeable from outside. Mithraea had no windows in order to keep them constantly dark, which provided the cult with a mysterious atmosphere. Having an oblong shape, the temples' vault and walls are filled with symbolic motifs. From these symbols and relieves, we can delineate the overall picture of Mithraism. Especially tauroctony, a symbol in which the god Mithra is killing a bull, indirectly shows Mithraic followers' comprehensive knowledge about constellation and their beliefs which related Mithra and motion of the Universe.
            Many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity triggered a debate which one is a predecessor of the other. Especially the god Mithra and Jesus Christ have so many similarities that no one can deny the close interaction between two religions. However, scholars have difficulty with which one precedes the other and how the earlier one affected the later. First, the emergence of Mithraism and Christianity happened in almost the same period so that it is hard to clearly say that the one affected the other. Although Mithraism prospered earlier than Christianity, lack of information about formation of both religions complicates the matter. Nevertheless, since competition between Mithraism and Christianity definitely existed and influenced each other during the second and the third century, analogy between the two religions is not surprising.


2. Constellations and Mithraism

2-a. Tauroctony : a bull-slayer Mithra


            The essence of Mithraism is the universe and the constellation. Cave-like mithraea were originally intended to represent the image of the universe. Also, many animals and symbols inscribed in the walls of mithraea are related to the constellation and movement of the sun and planets. Such great interest in movement of the universe implies that Mithraic followers tried to know and worship the god Mithra by studying how the universe and stars work.[6]
            The most important symbol of Mithraism is tauroctony. It is the god Mithra, a man with a cap, killing a bull with animals surrounding. In the Mithraic myth, this bull is sent by Ahura Mazda, the supreme God, as a sacrifice. From this bull, plants, animals, and all the components of the Earth came out. This symbol is shown in almost every Mithraic temple, and interpreting its meaning has been the main concern of the scholars in order to know the philosophy of Mithraism. Previously, tauroctony had been thought to be a mere visual description of Iranian animal sacrifice scene. However, from the close relationship between astronomy and Mithraism, a new theory which states that tauroctony represents constellations' movements on the sky was proposed and is now gradually gaining acceptance.
            The theory gets its point from the fact that all the animals shown in tauroctony belong to the signs of the Zodiac - a scorpion, a dog, a cow, and a serpent. Also, the great importance of the movement of Universe for Mithraic followers also implies that tauroctony, the most important figure of Mithraism, must have contained the meaning about the cosmos.
            According to the theory, tauroctony is a star map which explains precession of the equinox. Precession of equinoxes means cyclic change of the day of equinoxes because of precession of the axis of the Earth. In astrology, there are two main celestial circles which devide the sky: the celestial equator and the ecliptic. The celestial equator is a circle perpendicular to the Earth's axis and thus tilted by 23.5 degree from the ecliptic, on which the band of zodiac rotates annually. Equinoxes are the points where these two circles cross, and the circles have two intersections called spring equinox and fall equinox respectively. As the axis of the Earth, along with the celestial equator, makes a precession movement, the equinoxes also changes along the ecliptic. This rotation repeats in a period of about 25000 years, and the equinoxes shifts from one zodiac to the next in every 2160 years.
            From these changes, the signs of the Zodiac which the celestial equator passes gradually move from one to the next one by every 2160 years. From 4000 BC to 2000 BC, the signs on the celestial equator were Taurus the Bull (in spring equinox), Canis Minor the Dog, Hydra, Corvus the Raven, and Scorpio the Scorpion (in autumn equinox), which are analogous with the animals in the tauroctony.[7] Especially, based on a constellation in spring equinox, this era was called the Age of Taurus, an animal of tauroctony. (Accordingly, the era from 2000 BC to 0 BC was called the Age of Aries because the celestial equator passed Aries the Ram in spring equinox.)
            Then, logically, death of bull must mean that the epoch of Bull ended and Age of Aries started in 2000 BC. Accordingly, the god Mithra who can "kill" the epoch of Bull and begin the Age of Aries, is a supreme controller of the Universe and constellation. Finally, the theory concludes that the symbol tauroctony is actually an expression and worship of Mithra's omnipotence and universality.
            To conclude, tauroctony, a main symbol of Mithraism, may provide a key to understand Mithraism as the symbol is proved to be accurately analogous with an astronomical observation. This theory has importance because it might reveal the indistinct connection between Mithra in Iranian religions and Mithraism. Roman Mithraism was highly likely to be a religion which was based upon new discovery of the movement of the Universe (precession of Equinoxes). Details of tauroctony and their connection with constellation and social situation in the first century would illustrate more, which will be explained in the following sections. The one thing readers should remind is, however, that lack of material evidence other than tauroctony itself serves as the weakness of this theory.


2-b. Mithra vs Perseus


            Based on the underlying relationship between a tauroctony and a star map, we can now have a question which constellation represents Mithra? Although Mithra may not be as explicitly described on a star system as a bull and other animals, many evidences demonstrate that Perseus, a mythological figure who killed Medusa, symbolizes Mithra.
            First, the position of Perseus on a star map and that of Mithra in tauroctony are unmistakably analogous; Perseus and Mithra are placed (or sitting) on a bull. Furthermore, Phrygian caps, which are perceived to be exotic and oriental among Europeans, were on both's head. In mythology, Perseus received the cap, which renders its wearer invisible, from Hades and used it in order to kill Medusa. While we can grasp a historical reason for Perseus' Phrygian cap, Mithra's irregularity to employ the cap, without doubt, gives us a speculation that there must be some connections between Perseus and Mithra.
            More minute account of Mithra's stance in tauroctony further provides more similarity with Perseus. When killing a bull, the god seems to intentionally turn his eyes away from a bull. This scene gives us a familiar episode of Perseus' murdering Medusa, when Perseus puts his eyes away from her lest he die. When we consider that in Nike's bull-slaying figure, one of the common bull-slaying figures, Nike doesn't turn the eyes away from a bull,[8] we cannot ignore the implication of the fact that Mithra and Perseus are watching at the same direction.
            Parallelism of symbolism also corroborates the underlying relationship between Mithra and Perseus. Among Mithraic believers, there are seven ranks of initiation which divide believers from the beginner to the father. For each rank, there is a symbol which represents it, and, remarkably, a bent sword which Perseus used to kill Medusa, or harpe, is shown in symbols for the fifth and seventh grades of initiation in Mithraism.[9] Besides, the name of the fifth grade is Perses, which is a name of Perseus's son. As the name Perses itself also implies the same linguistic basis with Perseus, we cannot deny the possibility of coincidental commonness between Perseus and Mithra.


2-c. Tauroctony as a Star Map


            Connections between Mithra and Perseus can also be clearly demonstrated from constellation. As Mithra parallels with Perseus in various aspects, it is natural that the constellation of Perseus should show any pattern related to killing a bull; the star map definitely proves such relationship. The constellation Perseus is placed just above Taurus -- and the celestial equator --, as Mithra is riding on the bull in tauroctony. Aratos of Soli, a poet who fully described the constellation through a poem Phaenomena, even stated that the stance of Mithra is exactly same to that of Perseus in constellation.[10] Besides, the position of Pleiades, the brightest star of Taurus, is similar to that of where Mithra stabbed a knife. Such minute similarity even corroborates the validity of tauroctony as a star map and the connection between Perseus and Mithra.
            One remarkable thing which can imply the importance of Perseus in Mithraism is that the constellation Perseus is above the celestial equator while others seen in tauroctony are on or below it. This suggests that the celestial bodies are subject to the one with universal power, who is represented as Perseus, or Mithra, on the sky.
            The existence of the Milky Way was known in the time of Mithraism. According to Porphyry, Neoplatonist philosopher in the third century, the Milky Way, which connects Cancer the Crab and Capricorn the Goat, was thought to be related to after-life world.[11] Cancer was the gate through which souls in the sky were incarnated and came down to the earth, and Capricorn was that through which souls of dead people went up to the sky. Symbolically, the Milky Way was also considered as a path taken by souls to and from genesis.[12]
            In this context, Milky Way is very important to Mithraic symbolism because the Milky Way directly passes through the constellation Perseus. We can assume that as a guide of the road and souls taking it, Perseus, or Mithra in Mithraic symbolism, was thought to be the lord of genesis or the controller of the spiritual world.


2-d. Sol Invictus


            To followers of Mithraism, the god Mithra was perceived as a god with an absolute power. As a result, he was often compared with the sun or the shining light which never declines. Shine and light often accompanied the god Mithra. In many frescos portraying Mithra, it has either a halo or rays of light behind his head and body. They, with Mithra's young and energetic countenance, shaped Mithra as a powerful general or a vigorous controller. Later, as the concept of Mithra as the sun merged with the cult of Apollo, the syncretic cult was formed called Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun. That Mithra's description as a beardless young man with a halo looked similar to Apollo in ancient Greek mythology implies such relationship. Later, the concept of Sol Invictus was implemented by Roman Emperors, who looked for the measure to have absolute power and authority as powerful as religious figures. Even though they didn't precisely identify themselves as the god Mithra, they adopted much of the symbolism from Mithraism.
            Aurelian (220-225) is a Roman Emperor who instituted the sun-god cult in the 3rd century. He ordered the sun, called Sol, to be worshipped as a major cult in the empire and built a great temple in Rome for the god. Although the emperor didn't officially mention, the sun-god cult largely implemented many symbols of Mithraism including a halo, rays of light, and a god as a beardless young man. On Roman coins, Aurelian himself was depicted as a god, with a solar crown and a halo behind.
            Constantine (272-337) who accepted Christianity in Roman Empire also used Sol Invictus. He mentioned that Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) is a companion of the Emperor. On the coin, Constantine appears with Sol Invictus, with a globe in his left and a solar crown on his head. Under Sol Invictus, it says Soli Invicto Comiti which means companion, the sol unconquerable. As Constantine is the first emperor who was baptized and accepted Christianity, it is unlikely that Constantine believed in both religions. Rather, his implementation of Mithraic symbolism implies that Mithraism ¡ª not necessarily religion itself but its symbolism ¡ª is already widely spread when early Christianity started to be accepted in Roman society.
            Sol invictus even reached its influence to Christianity, and many characteristics of Jesus Christ's figure in churches. For instance, in icons of Christ in early Christianity, the God wears a radiated crown and rides on a solar chariot which is very similar to icons of halo of Jesus Christ's representation.
            Interestingly, the symbolism is also implemented in Christianity and remained for several centuries. Although explicit symbols of the sun god no longer remain in Christianity, haloes were successfully implemented in Christian culture. In many frescos or pictures, the saints are shown with haloes behind their head. The symbol of halo survived in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, so it became almost universal in European continent.


3. Origin of Mithra


            Before Mithraism emerged in the Mediterranean region, several gods who had similar name to Mithra and almost same duties to those of Mithra existed in other religions or mythologies in Near East and India. Named either Mitra or Mithra, those gods seemed to emerge from India to Asia Minor to Europe, which shows gradual spread of Indo-Iranian culture into Europe.
            The ancient Indo-Iranians, who founded the Persian and the Indian Vedic culture, worshipped a God called Mitra.[13] As they settled into Persia and India and formed civilizations, ancient Indo-Iranian mythology greatly influenced to both Persian and Indian mythologies, and some gods including Mitra were implanted to them.
            First, a deity called Mitra is mentioned in Rig Veda, a collection of hymns for Indo-Aryan gods, Mitra is a god associated with light and truth, and it frequently appears with Varuna, representing darkness and lie.[14] The two deities with opposite attributes establish balance of the cosmic rhythm. For example, Mitra brings forth the light at dawn, which is covered by Varuna. In the later Vedic ritual, a white victim is prescribed for Mitra, a dark one for Varuna.[15]

GUARDIANS of Order, ye whose Laws are ever true, in the sublimest heaven your chariot ye ascend. O Mitra-Varuna whomsoe'er ye: favour, here, to him the rain with sweetness streameth down from heaven. This world's imperial Kings, O Mitra-Varuna, ye rule in holy synod, looking on the light. We pray for rain, your boon, and immortality. Through heaven and over earth the thunderers take their way. [...] Wise, with your Law and through the Asura's magic power ye guard the ordinances, Mitra-Varuna. Ye by eternal Order govern all the world. Ye set the Sun in heaven as a refulgent car.[16]

            Also in Zoroastrianism, a god Mithra was worshipped as a protector of souls. Under the rule of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, Mithra is a god of lightness and truth, and is associated with laws and order. In Avesta, Mithra is also depicted as a god who "protects the soul of the just against the demons that seek to drag it down to Hell, and under their guardianship it soars aloft to Paradise." From this, the concept of redemption is caused and this is very similar to what is in modern Christianity.

We sacrifice unto Mithra, the lord of wide pastures, who is truth-speaking, a chief in assemblies, with a thousand ears, well-shapen, with ten thousand eyes, high, with full knowledge, strong, sleepless, and ever awake;[17]

In the name of God. May the majesty and glory of Ohrmazd, the beneficent lord, increase. (Hither) may come Mithra of wide cattle pastures, the true judge. Of all sins ... I repent.[18]

            Even though many evidences support that there were several deities which have very similar names and characteristics with Mithra of Mithraism, the direct connection between Roman Mithraism and ancient religions in Asia Minor is not proven. First of all, tauroctony, the most important symbol of Mithraism does not exist in any other religions. Also, in Zoroastrianism, which is highly likely to be the one if there is any predecessor religion of Mithraism, Mithra is not the god of sun or solar energy. From such wide differences between Mithra and other ancient religions, no one is sure about the actual origin of Mithraism.[19]


4. History and Spread of Roman Mithraism


            Although the gods named Mithra or Mitra existed in Iranian religion and Indo-Aryan mythology, there is no direct evidence that Roman Mithraism and Mithraic cult of Iranian religion is on the same line of religious development. For example, even if there were evidence that bull-slaying rituals existed in the Mesopotamian region, tauroctony, a figure of Mithra killing a bull, was never been discovered outside the Roman Empire, Thus, historians' scope of Mithraic research is limited to the Roman Empire, and accordingly Mithraism's history is relevant from the first introduction of Mithraism in the Roman Empire.
            Spread of Mithraism from the West to the Roman Empire had two main routes, through the European mainland and through the sea. These routes had slightly different patterns from each other.
            The earliest material evidence about the European Mithraic fellowship proves that the Roman legion XV Apollinaris, stationed at Carnuntum, now in Austria, in the late first century moved to the East to fight against the Parthians and quell the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem. After AD 71, when it s members returned to Rome, they made Mithraic dedications in Carnuntum.[20] Based on the fact that the god Mithra existed in Asia Minor and the several kings in the kingdoms of Parthia and Pontus were even called Mithradates, which means "given by Mithra," it is highly likely that Roman legions who went to Parthia and Pontus implemented the Mithraic cult and transferred it to Roman Empire. Mithraic sculptures and motifs were discovered in legions near the Danube river, such as those in Nida and Carnuntum. This information also supports Roman Mithraism's close relationship with Asia Minor.
            Spread of Mithraism facilitated efficiently through the militants since the Roman Empire often required promoting soldiers and officers to move to the new places. Such an unbalanced popularity of Mithraists resulted in most of the Mithraic artifacts concentrated on the fortresses of the border. Even those in the inner territory, they often belonged to ex-soldiers or ex-officers.
            In Italy, merchants played a key role in importing Mithraism. Through Mediterranean, concept of Mithra is thought to be transferred from Asia Minor to Italy. The first written information about Mithraism is a passage written by Greek Plutarch about pirates of Cilicia, at the southern coast of modern Turkey.

They themselves offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus (in Lycia), where they celebrated secret rites or mysteries, among which were those of Mithras. These Mithraic rites, first celebrated by pirates, are still celebrated today.[21]

            As there is no archaeological evidence for the quote above, accepting what it said as truth is overreaching. Still, the Plutarch's comment indicates that there was a connection among Mithraism, Asia Minor, and Italy. After that, the Roman poet of Naples, Statius wrote a poem in AD 80 which described Mithra as one who "twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave"[22] Although no archaeologists could find single figure of the god Mithra produced in the late first century, the poem also poses a possibility of confound relationship between Mithraism and Asia Minor.
            Naturally, Mediterranean trades served as a means to disperse the cult. In Ostia, most of the civilians, among the foreign merchant class, dedicated to Mithraism during the second century. At least 15 Mithraea have been excavated in the city. From the port cities like Ostia, Mithraism spread into the Italian interior.
            Mithraism rapidly spread into Europe, especially in the Flavians(69-96). Mithraism's spread was effectively facilitated along trade route and campaign route as it became accepted among merchants and soldiers. With the return of the Legions from the east, Mithraism appealed many soldiers with Mithra as powerful and young god. God of armies and covenant, Mithra was seen as an ideal model for both soldiers and commanders, so the armies were easily attracted by Mithraism. As a result, groups of Mithraists concentrated in the military frontier- provinces, or in ports and emporia.[23]
            In the second and the third century, Roman emperors also encouraged Mithraism as they implemented Sol Invictus to sanctify emperorship. Mithra was depicted as a provider of emperors' authority and power. From the moment when Commodus (161?192), who actually participated in Mithraic cult, acknowledged the affinity between solar worship and autocracy, Mithraism enjoyed its first great period during Severan dynasty (193-235).[24] The second started in Diocletian's time when a sanctuary on the Danube was dedicated to Mithra as the sustainer of imperial power (307).[25] From that time, Mithraism's popularity reached into all social classes. However, the number of Mithraists was absolutely small compared to the total population of Roman citizens, as the size of Mithraea demonstrates.
            At that time, Mithraea spread all over the Europe, from Hadrian's Wall in northern England to Romania. They were often concentrated in the outskirts of Roman Empire although more recent Mithraea were excavated in the heart of Roman settlement. Mithraic temples were even discovered in Numidia and Syria. In Rome the capital, dozens of Mithraea were excavated, but archaeologists expect that as many as hundreds of the temples existed in the time of Roman Empire. Roman Mithraea are especially important to Mithraic scholars because of their abundance in intact artifacts and sculptures.
            However, from the late third century, influence of Mithraism struck with some problems as Roman Empire lost its frontier region. In the fifty years between 235, when the last emperor of the Severan dynasty died, and 284, when Diocletian was enthroned, the outward frontiers of the empire collapsed on many sides and barbarian invaders of every description treaded deep on Roman territory.[26] Mithraic temples along the frontier were destructed after continuous battles. Mediterranean trade was disrupted, and economic situation of the Roman Empire greatly deteriorated with high inflation and administrative corruption.
            Furthermore, the spread of Christianity damaged the popularity of Mithraism. Although Mithraism at first dominated over Christianity with religious tolerance and its flexible doctrines, it gradually declined because of their lack of structural systems and doctrinal literature. To make the matters worse, Licinius(c.250-325), the last Mithraist emperor, lost the battle of Chrysopolis against Constantine and surrendered his emperorship. Soon after, Constantine(272-337) tolerated Christianity around 310, and Mithraism began to decline with rapid spread of Christianity. Christian allowance of the women's initiation even facilitated the dispersion of Christianity.
            From the fourth century, Mithraism suffered from a series of problems. In 377 Gratian ordered the closing of Mithraea, and Thedosius I in 394 declared the persecution of all the non-Christian cults. Roman persecution against paganisms was very severe under Christian intolerance. According to the slightly exaggerated testimony of the rhetor Claudius Mamertinus, "people hardly dared to watch the sun rise or set, and farmers and sailors neglected to study the heavens for weather signs or guiding stars."[27] Also, the letter which Jerome, the translator of the Vulgata, wrote to a Christian woman, illustrates how heavy persecution was conducted during the late fourth century.

Did not your kinsman Gracchus, whose name recalls his patrician rank, destroy a cave of Mithras a few years ago when he was prefect of Rome? Did he not break up and burn all the monstrous images there? [...] Did he not send them before him as hostages, and gain for himself baptism in Christ?[28]

            Mithraism finally fell into its demise within several decades. Because of its exclusiveness and lack of internal organization, Mithraism was thoroughly and rapidly eradicated after the decree. There was so little information about Mithraism that the bishop Ambrose of Milan (374-97) even mistakenly thought that Mithras was a goddess.[29] However, many Mithraic creeds were succeeded by Manichaeism which strenuously competed with Christianity for the status of world-religion in the following centuries.[30]


5. Social Situation in the Time of Roman Mithraism


            In the time of Mithraism, not only the cult but also other paganisms such as Isis and Eleusinian mysteries prospered in the Empire. After rationalism which had been continued from Greek philosophies declines in the first and the second centuries, mysticisms started to gain in popularity. How did Mithraism so rapidly permeate through Roman Empire? The social situation of the Roman Empire explains the reason.
            In the first century when the Roman Empire expanded its territory, society didn't have to concern with grave problems directly related to its survival. People started to focus more on philosophies as ancient Greece did. Stoicism, created by Zeno, was the most influential philosophy at that time. The Stoic philosophers restrained their desire and pursued the truth through abstinence and temperance.
            However, in later time, the Empire started to face with loss of such common goals. Citizens' lives became separated from the empire, and their interest also changed from national issues to private problems. At the same time, wealth of the Roman Empire reached its peak and these resources provided the citizens with affordability to focus on individuals. As a result, people enjoyed luxury and sensuality rather than the empire's prosperity and development. On the other hands, many noblemen attempted revolution to satisfy their political ambition, and those events ruined righteousness and cleanness of the political institutions in the empire. Political life, a great source of power the Roman Empire inherited from Ancient Greece, halted and the state went far away from democracy.
            From the late first century, waste of wealth for satisfaction was stifled by occasional instability. Several civil wars and several emperors' abnormal rule made kept the citizens from spending the wealth. Outer powers continuously threatened the empire's territory and economic prosperity halted to continue. Uncertainty and anxiety dominated citizens, and they pursued a simple way of life instead.
            At the same time, the international influence of the Roman Empire over the Europe and the surrounding areas implanted cosmopolitanism into people's mind. Not only white people but also Africans and Arabs had Roman citizenship, and religions from the Orient implemented into the Empire. Naturally, the close bonds of state, society, and religion, which had existed in the early period of the empire, were broken down. Unbounded by social identity, thinkers focused on their spirits and minds, thereby fostering egoism. Finally, philosophy had made men feel themselves citizens of the world, but of a world whose center was the individual.[31] Individualism enabled the citizens to choose their confession on their own, unbounded by influence of the family or the official. In this time, street preaching was popular. Philosophers or religious preachers attracted pedestrians with fluent speech and clear-cut logic, and the citizens listened to some of the speeches and chose one which they mostly agreed or enjoyed. [32]
            Then, economic decay and failure of political system emerged in the later time of the Empire; the citizens deprived of previous material satisfaction fell into deep pessimism. As a measure to escape from emotional instability, they pursued satisfaction and assurance by the cults and beliefs in afterworld. In other words, people looked for their security not from reason but from penance and purification.
            Influence of such mysticism was grave in the Roman Empire. As a result, many cults were imported from outside or naturally created in the Empire. Not only Christianity and Mithraism, but also many other paganisms such as Gnosticism came out. At the same time, the victory of the cults inversely resulted in the demise of Roman philosophy, represented as Stoicism. Although it developed rapid with the growth of the Empire throughout several centuries, Roman philosophy failed to attract people who moved to pursuit of a divine source. For example, Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius and Cicero once dominated Roman people's mentality by street preaching, but lost their influence in the mid-second century.[33]
            These Roman paganisms which won over philosophy evolved in a distinct way. As the Roman Empire ruled over the vast land, its original religion, Graeco-Roman mythologies, underwent distortion or mixture with native gods in each region. For example, in Roman Britain, scholars found a wide variety of hybrid gods such as 'Mars Alator,' 'Sul Minerva.'[34] This Roman syncretism was widely spread in the Empire so that religions were different from place to place. Mithraism also was subject to this social trend, and the Roman Emperors created Sol Invictus cult by hybriding Apollo and Mithra.
            This syncretism explains why Mithraism and Christianity, although two main religions in the Empire of the second century, did not compete each other for popularity. In the society where differences between any two religions became irrelevant, competition itself was irrelevant. Even if there was any form of competition between two religions, it could not spread widely or last for a long time because Mithraism continued to be mysterious to the public: its existence was not known to many people.
            The balance between Mithraism and Christianity broke in the third century, as Christianity achieved great popularity over Mithraism. Noticeably, the main strength Christianity had was that it gained popularity both in the public and among the Emperors. The next chapter will look through the reason it succeeded to attract two different social classes, which Mithraism couldn't.


6. Christianity's Strength over Mithraism


            Underlying Christianity's popularity in the public over that of Mithraism is difference between the atmosphere of Mithraism and Christianity. First of all, openness of religions differentiated their accessibility to the public. Mithraism was a mystery cult; its religious creeds or rituals were perfectly concealed from outsiders. On contrary, Christianity's great emphasis was on evangelization. Naturally, Christianity was easily accessible to Roman citizens by giving up surreptitious mysteries or complicated initiation procedure.
            Furthermore, the social class of followers also contributed to Christians' wide influence on the Empire. Social class of Mithraists was mostly concentrated in merchants and soldiers, either in higher aristocracies or in low classes. In contrast, Christianity succeeded in attracting middle class people, especially women from working classes.[35] Since most religions warded off women from initiation, women population had remained to be an unclaimed frontier. As a result, acceptance of women ignited a great boost of the number of Christians.
            Christian doctrine's noticeable difference from other cults' kept the religion from falling into obscurity. Although many cults had the concept of human figures, such as Jesus Christ in Christianity and Mithra in Mithraism, who came down to the earth in order to rescue people, their identities were very different from cult to cult. While Mithraists, along with many other religions, considered Mithra as a god, Christianity called Jesus Christ as one with dual identities, both as a human being and a god.[36] The identity of Jesus Christ was so important to Christianity that it served as the main standard for distinguishing Roman paganism from the orthodox in the creed of Nicaea. At the same time, Jesus' duality evaded many fallacies in definition of God, and easily attracted laymen without complicated logic or rhetoric. Recently, some historians have claimed that Christianity's choice of dualism is the intelligent strategy to differentiate itself from other competing paganisms which advocated Christ either as God or as man. However, since the speculation doesn't have sufficient material evidences, it is not yet acknowledged to be reliable.
            Christians' acceptance in the Roman Empire was more or less depended on the Emperors' confessions. With the absolute power over Roman citizens, the Emperor had authority to promote one religion and persecute others to perfect eradication. As a result, competition between Mithraism and Christianity in Roman society was not similar to that between competing corporations, and some scholars even argue that Mithraism was never a dangerous competitor of Christianity.[37] Rather, one religion dominated the society under imperial protection until the ruler with different confession changed a state religion. As a matter of fact, at the time of Theodosian decree, only about one-tenth of the total population was even nominally Christian.[38] Also, Christianization of the Empire was very gradual lest harsh persecution of pagans, who comprise a majority of the Roman citizens, threatens social stability. Nevertheless, Christianity, once a negligible cult in the Empire, spread without stagnation and ascended to the major religion in the Empire.


7. Similarities between Christianity and Mithraism


            While Christianity and Mithraism were distinct religions in aspect of doctrines, they have remarkably similar symbolism each other. Early Christianity, which emerged from the 1st century, started to dominate northern Mediterranean region in the 3rd century. Based on the fact that Mithraism reached its prosperity around the 2nd and 3rd century, it definitely competed with Christianity for its popularity. Thus, until Christianity was accepted as a state religion, there must have been interactions between Mithraic people and Christians. Surprisingly, many common characteristics between Mithraism and Christianity corroborate the possible communication between the two.
            First, both religions had the rite of baptism, which symbolizes purification of one's sin. The concept of purification is remarkably similar each other. According to Betz, the inscription on the wall of Santa Prisca Mithraeum, in Rome, says as shown below.

Et nos servasti eternali sanguine fuso "And you saved us after having shed the eternal blood"[39]

            Almost the same verse exists in the Bible, as shown below.[40]

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.

            Along with the concept of salvation by blood, both employed wine and bread to symbolize blood and flesh of their saviors, respectively. During the Last Suffer of Christianity, Jesus Christ talks about these symbolisms as shown below.

And as they [Jesus' Disciples] did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.[41]

            In Mithraism, blood and flesh of the bull Mithra kills in tauroctony are used in rituals to cleanse their sins and renew their lives. Wine and bread are also employed in the same context. According to Reynolds, The adherents of Mithras believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again, just as life itself has been created anew from the blood of the bull. Participation in this rite would give not only physical strength but lead to the immortality of the soul and to eternal light. Justin also mentioned the similarity between the Mithras ritual and the Eucharist.[42]
            Their weekly holidays are both Sunday. Both strenuously pursued abstinence and self-control. Heaven-hell concepts were core philosophy of both religions although many other religions also had them. The great battle between good and evil at the end of the world was also common in both.
            Mithra and Jesus also have many aspects in common. According to tradition, they both had virgin births celebrated on December 25th, although Mithra was also known to born from rock. When they were born, shepherds and Magi visited them.[43] Furthermore, twelve disciples followed both deities.[44] Metaphors and symbols for Mithra and Jesus are also analogous; both were called the shepherds, who keep lambs from threats of lions, and were compared to the way, the truth, and the light.[45]
            From the facts that both have many common traits and that Mithraism was introduced to the Roman Empire earlier than Christianity, some historians even argued that Christianity implemented those themes and symbols from Mithraism.[46] However, other scholars reject the statement by mentioning that the Gospels were written before AD 100 when Mithraism started to be organized.
            Ronald H. Nash, one of writers who defended Christianity's originality, proposed several reasons to reject the argument that Christianity copied many mysterious cults at that time. First, he pointed out the common characteristics of mystery cults, such as the concept of life cycle (death and rebirth), resurrection, and immortality. Thus, early Christianity might be influenced by such general characters of the cults, but one cannot conclude from such similarities that Christianity directly copied components of the mysterious cults. Second, the period in which Mithraism organized its form was the first century, when most of the New Testament was completed. Because of chronological priority, Nash argued that Christianity based on Mithraism is nonsense.[47]
            On the other hand, Clauss rejected any conjecture of relationship between the two religions based on their similarity. He contends that since they both emerged in the same society, several similarities in their creeds are natural phenomena. He argued that, rather than implementing Mithraic creeds, Christian leaders have strived to ¡°distance themselves from pagan ideas"[48] by making subtle changes in Christian doctrines or taking over pagan elements. For example, Christianity distorted Sol Invictus into Sol Institiae, the Sun of righteousness, to employ. Also, Christian doctrine implemented Three Kings, priests of Mithraism, as the wise men from the East, who worship the birth of baby Christ in the Bible. This employment of Mithraic symbol implies Christianity's pride over the triumph over Mithraism.[49] Basically, Clauss' arguments conclude that there was any competition between Mithraism and Christianity because they have neither some common goals to compete with nor common situation.


8. Conclusion


            Mithraism is a mystery cult which emerged in the first century, flourished from the second and the third century, and demised in the fourth century. The god Mithra is depicted as a young, beardless man, symbolizing his omnipotence. He is a god of justice, covenant, and often represents himself as the sun god, Sol Invictus. Although its origin is not clearly proven, there are some relationships with ancient religions in Asia Minor such as Zoroastrianism. Mithraism first appealed merchants and soldiers and finally spread to all the classes after Roman emperors' implementation of Mithraism.
            In the second and the third century, Mithraism competed with Christianity which was imported from Asia Minor. At first, Mithraism prospered greatly over Christianity, but it could receive designation as a state-religion. After the fourth century, with destruction of Mithraic temples along with loss of the empire's territory, Mithraism started to decline. Finally, it completely lost the basis after a series of recognitions of Christianity, first by Constantine and last by Thedosius. Although Mithraism lost in competition with Christianity, it greatly influences to Christian symbolisms, which were finally decided in Nicaean Council. As a result, many Mithraic symbolisms survived through several thousand years and still remain in the present.


Endnotes


[1]
Clauss 2000 p.3
[2]
Lee 2005 p. 7
[3]
Surely, the sun and the moon are not classified into planets, but I use the term in a broader sense
[4]
Ferguson 1991 p. 120
[5]
Betz 1986 p. 88
[6]
Ulansey (http://www.well.com/~davidu/)
[7]
Ulansey (http://www.well.com/~davidu/)
[8]
Ulansey 1989 p. 30
[9]
Ulansey 1989 pp. 38-39
[10]
Ulansey, 1989 p. 59
[11]
Jackson 1985 p.25
[12]
Ulansey, 1989 p. 62
[13]
Wikipedia : Indo-Iranian Mythology
[14]
Mainyu (http://www.geocities.com/spenta_mainyu/)
[15]
Wikipedia : Mitra
[16]
Rig Veda Book 5 Hymn 63 verse 1-7
[17]
Mihr Yasht paragraph 2 verse 7
[18]
Mihr Niyayesh paragraph 1 verse 0
[19]
Catholic Encyclopedia : Mithraism
[20]
Griffith. 1995
[21]
Shandruk, 2002
[22]
Sadjadi (http://www.farvardyn.com/)
[23]
Ferguson 1991 p. 48
[24]
Wikipedia : Commodus
[25]
Ferguson 1991 p. 49
[26]
Ferrero 2004 p.6
[27]
Clauss 2000 p. 170
[28]
Clauss 2000 p. 170
[29]
Betz 1986 p. 88
[30]
Wikipedia : Mithraism
[31]
Moore 1909 p.229
[32]
Jevons 1908 p.176
[33]
Wikipedia : Stoicism
[34]
Beard p. 321
[35]
Fererro, 2004 p. 12
[36]
Fererro, 2004 p. 9
[37]
Scott, 1916 p.603
[38]
James, 1947 p.361
[39]
Betz, 1968 p. 77
[40]
Romans 5:9, KJV Bible
[41]
Mark 14:22-24, KJV Bible
[42]
Reynolds 1993 p. 78
[43]
Wikipedia : Mithraism
[44]
Gill (http://ancienthistory.about.com/)
[45]
Holding (http://www.tektonics.org/)
[46]
Wikipedia : Christianity and World Religion
[47]
Nash, 1994
[48]
Clauss, 2000 p. 169
[49]
Clauss p. 169

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