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The Roman Cult of Mithras by Manfred Clauss

Book Review by Ursus

Imagine you knew nothing about Christianity aside from the mere fact of its existence, but you wanted to know more. Now imagine that all practicing Christians had died two millennia ago and all scriptures sacred to the cult had disappeared.

All that remains to reconstruct the cult are some archaeological artifacts scattered across three continents, and a few oblique references in literature from mostly hostile sources. This is precisely the situation that confronts students of Mithraism.

Mithras though is still a compelling god, the most Roman of these non-Roman gods to sweep through the empire. Soldier, savior and solar deity all in one. There was an austerity to the cult that even Christians could not deny; indeed, they found the cult too eerily like their own and ascribed the similarities to the machinations of their devil.

In the past century there has been a concerted effort to understand this shadowy deity and his cult. The Belgian Franz Cumont wrote The Mysteries of Mithra in 1903. Using the archaeology available at the time, Cumont saw the Roman Mithras as descended from an old Persian deity, a god of light against darkness in the Zoroastrian eschatological tradition. For decades this was the prevalent view. But with new archaeological advances and new critical interpretations, others eventually disagreed. In the last twenty or thirty years some have seen Mithraism as a glorified astral cult having little or nothing to do with Iranian religion. Now, once again, others are dissenting against this view, not finding much evidence to really make any bold assertion on the origin or nature of the cult.

Manfred Clauss is a Professor of Ancient History at the Free University of Berlin. In the translator's preface, it is stated that the author wanted to convey a general interpretation of the cult as revealed by all existing material and literary evidence. His book sought in part to correct some of the theorizing of the past century, dispensing with speculations and instead focusing on what was known and what could be reasonably deduced from the known data.

Claus also wrote primarily for a German speaking audience, and so much is made of some of the discoveries found along the Rhine. Fortunately, outside of Rome and Ostia the greatest concentration of evidence happens to exist along the old Rhine and Danube frontiers, so this may not skew the scope of the survey as much as one might expect.

The man responsible for translating this two-hundred-page text into English is Richard Gordon. He is a Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and has published some works on Roman myth and religion. Gordon's translation is flawless; the prose flows smoothly and is engaging.

The work itself is a piece of clarity. It is divided neatly into fourteen chapters which are well written and neatly organized. There are 124 illustrations throughout the book (roughly one illustration for every page and a half), which bring to life some of the unusual visual art of this cult. There is also a bibliography, some suggested further reading, and various indexes designed to help you find information quickly.

After some brief words from the author and translator, the chapters are divided as follows. Chapter one looks at the history of the god Mitra/Mithras, from Indo-European times through the Hellenistic times and into the late Roman Empire. No definite origin on the particularly Roman era mysteries can be deduced from the available evidence.

Chapter two summarizes the wide variety of religious viewpoints in the Roman world which effected the cult: a belief in immediate access to godhood, the desire to project one's soul beyond the realm of the fixed stars, the influence of Fate and the need for saviors from Fate, and the rise of a solar monotheism under the Empire. Part three summarizes key points of the mystery religions in general, including their secret initiations and their beliefs in salvation or transcendence from death. The next chapter deals with the nature of the evidence. There were ultimately variations in the cult through time and space, and it seems to have operated as a religion of symbols which we today cannot fully understand.

The next five chapters finally delve into the cult itself. Chapter five surveys the growth of the cult, from somewhere in Italy through the Latin speaking regions, with particular concentrations in military sectors. There is not much evidence of the cult surviving beyond the late fourth century. Chapter six focuses on recruitment. Women were excluded by fiat; Senators seem to have been excluded by their own choice. The cult appealed mostly to soldiers, imperial clerks, and slaves and freedmen of the imperial household.

Chapter seven outlines the mithreaum, the representations of caves where cult adherents met. These mock caves were meant to resemble the entire cosmos. While many have been found, their small size means that the cult had a comparatively minor following. Chapter eight focuses on reconstructing the Mithraic mythology from cultic images. Mithras was born from a rock, performed certain miracles, and finally slew a bull in some act of cosmic significance. Chapter nine surveys what is known of cult ritual, particularly the sacred meal shared by adherents.

Chapter ten looks at utensils used by the cult; this is honestly a slow read, and can be safely skipped. Chapter eleven looks at the seven grades or levels of adherents and their various rights and duties. Chapter twelve surveys Mithras as a personal religion; while we do not know much, ultimately we know that it, like Christianity, imposed certain commandments on its followers.

The next chapter deals with Mithras and other pagan religions; Mithras was quickly identified with other solar deities throughout the empire, and its cult adherents were often members of other pagan cults. The final chapter looks at the relationship between Mithras and Christianity. Claus doubts that either religion influenced the other; both were simply heir to a common body of Greco-Oriental religions.

Clauss' work is an enjoyable and erudite read on an interesting topic. Ultimately we may never know some of the finer points about the cult, but the author explains such is the nature of the subject under scrutiny: "It may indeed be that, despite all one's efforts, much still remains opaque. But, in studying what is after all a mystery cult, should we really expect anything less?"

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