Mithras and Mithraism: The Popularity of a Persian god in the Roman Empire

Mithras, a Persian god who was possibly adored just as much among Romans as with Persians.

Roman depiction of the Persian god Mithras

The Romans and Religion

It’s easy to think of the Roman Empire with a homogeneous religious creed among its citizens. This is a forgivable error to make. After all, one gets a sense of uniformity in almost everything considered Roman: the architecture throughout their Empire, their laws, traditions and of course their language, Latin. Surely, this must be the case with Roman religion as well, no?

Many peoples, many deities

Part of the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses
Actually it’s not that simple. The Romans were one of the world’s largest empires known to have existed until that time. Just as there was a wide diversity of peoples who were considered citizens of the Roman state, there were a variety of religious creeds and cults as well.

As is commonly known, the Romans, like the Greeks and Egyptians, initially worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Then in the 4th century, the majority of them began to replace Jupiter for Jesus, Apollo for the Apostles. Christianity, a religion that started in what was then the eastern frontiers of the Empire, eventually was responsible for forging a new state religion and identity for the Romans.

However, Christianity was in no way the only religion from the east to become popular with large multitudes of Roman citizens. In fact, there was another if not equally popular creed spreading westward into Europe, that of the Persian god Mithra, who the Romans called Mithras. It’s actually quite a strange phenomenon. After all, the Romans and Persians weren’t exactly friends and were culturally very dissimilar. However, something captivated many Romans, especially soldiers, to adopt Mithra as one of their own.

Who was (is) Mithra?

“Tauroctony” – Mithras slaying a bull. Pio Clementino Museum; Hall of Animals. Vatican Museums.
Mithra to put it succinctly was a Persian deity who represent truth and justice. He was the Guardian of contracts, treaties, and all fair dealings among men. He was also seen to be the protector of cattle and the harvest. Though in the orthodox Zoroastrian tradition he’s not considered a “god” per se, he does hold the rank of an angelic being (yazata) and essentially plays the same role as described above.

Similar to the Greek god/titan Helios, Mithra was also associated with the sun. In fact they even called him sol invictus, meaning “unconquered sun.” Due to this, Mithra was often portrayed with a halo or solar nimbus.

The Roman Mithras

Mithras as sol invictus or the “unconquered sun”
It should be noted here that while many Romans did adopt and worship Mithra as one of their own, their perception of him evolved into something a bit different than the original Persian or Zoroastrian view. We’ll discuss the Persian, Zoroastrian and even the Indian view of Mithra in another post. For now, let’s take a look at how the Romans viewed him. Due to this, we’ll use the more common Roman version of the name, Mitras.

The organized worship of Mithras is believed to have appeared sometime around the end of the late 1st century. Earliest written records come from a text written by Plutarch in which he describes a group of pirates worshiping the Persian sun god. Though we don’t know how, the cult spread quickly throughout all parts of the empire during the 2nd and third centuries. To date, there have been nearly 200 temples dedicated to Mithras that have been uncovered by historians and archaeologists. While most are in Italy, others have been found in Syria, Germany, Britain and parts of Eastern Europe. A few decades ago, a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras was excavated in London and is now famously located near the London Stock Exchange.

The Head of Sepharis discovered at excavation site of the Temple of Mithras , Walbrook, London, 1954.

According to Roman belief, Mithras’ greatest feat had been to battle with and kill a sacred bull, the blood of which was said to fertilize the Earth (like an ancient type of fertilizer). In fact, an image of Mithras slitting the throat of a bull in a sacrificial position was common in most Roman temples and shrines dedicated to the god. To Roman soldiers, this heroic deed represented the sort of sacrifice that they were to make for each other, bonding them as a sort of fraternity.

The Cult of Mithras

Ruins of old temple dedicated to Mithras
It’s not known for sure how the cult of Mithras actually developed among the Romans. Some early Greek and Roman writers, especially contemporaries of the cult, claim that it originated in Persia. This however is highly debatable because temples to Mithra similar to those in the Roman empire were pretty much non-existent in the ancient Persian world. Another, perhaps more plausible explanation is that early Roman followers of Mithras combined elements of the original Persian god with Roman-Hellenic culture to form a unique and independent creed. This however is all conjecture. The truth is that we really don’t know the real origin of this cult within the Roman Empire.

A Secret Society

One could also say that the cult of Mithras was like a secret society. The worship of the god was generally done in secret, often in temples built into caves that were hidden from public view. There were probably many reasons for this, the main being to give members of the cult a sense of exclusivity and fraternity. To enter a Mithraic temple, one usually had to say a special password. Some temples even had a secret hand shake.

Despite its secrecy, the cult of Mithras was not only tolerated by Roman authorities but in some cases, even endorsed by them. This is probably because as mostly soldiers and legionaries, devotees of Mithras were generally supportive of the Roman Emperor and the state. As the cult became more popular, other laymen and freed slaves began to enter and eventually became the majority of devotees. Women however were excluded from the cult. It is believed that this is part of the reason why Christianity, a religion whose followers early on were predominantly women, became more popular and eventually replaced Mithraism.

Mithraic Initiation Ceremonies

Ruins of an old temple to Mithras in Italy
Like any fraternity, the cult of Mithras had its own hazing ceremonies. Those who wished to be initiated into the creed had to prove themselves worthy by performing specified acts of courage. One ritual initiation went like this: the initiate is blindfolded and forced to be naked. He is then asked to kneel before a man known as the “father” and who holds a sword or torch to the initiate’s face. The initiate is then stretched across the floor of the temple as if he’s dead. This is interpreted as some sort of symbolic suicide, after which the initiate is reborn into the cult.

However, it wasn’t all ritual and mystical rites. Members of the cult also had strict practices of self-denial and a moral code that they were expected to live by. Mithraism taught them to be loyal, keep their oaths and to be upright in their conduct towards each other.

The end of Mithraism in Rome

Christians being fed to the lions
Christianity had a tough time during its early days within the Roman Empire. Christians were persecuted, imprisoned, fed to lions for sport and overall, lived lives mired in misery. Despite all this, the number of Christians actually grew. It should be noted that the Romans didn’t persecute them because of their religion; the Romans didn’t care what you believed as long as one paid their taxes and didn’t cause disorder. Christians though were definitely perceived as causing the latter by Roman authorities.

However with Christians seeking converts and multiplying exponentially throughout the Empire, it became hard for the Roman state to simply ignore them. With the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity and the eventual adoption of the faith by succeeding rulers, all of the other pagan forms of worship were put on notice.

It became hard for Mithraism to survive among Roman soldiers with their employer, the Emperor, officially supporting Christianity and outlawing all pagan faiths. Not only this, but being a relatively secret cult of a foreign god that forbade women to join didn’t exactly make the cult endearing to the masses.

Think about it. All the chicks were getting into this Christianity thing and going to church. If you were a Roman dude, would you rather go to church where the women are or, go to a sausage fest and practice weird rituals in the nude with some guy you call “father”?

Yeah, I think the choice for most was clear. It just wasn’t cool (or legal) to be a worshiper of Mithras in the Roman Empire any more. Thus, Mithraism probably simply died out due to neglect and lack of new followers.

Suggested Reading:

The Roman Cult of Mithras

Atlas Obscura: Temple of Mithras in London

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