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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 11. The Vogue of Mithraism.

In view of this long series of signal parallels between the Mithraic and the Christian cults, it is difficult to doubt that one has imitated the other; and it may now be left to the candid reader to pass his own judgment on the theory that it was Mithraism which copied Christism. The Christian imitation took place, be it observed, because the features imitated were found by experience to be religiously attractive; Mithraism itself having, as we have seen, developed some of them on the lines of other Oriental cults. Its history, as far as we can trace it, is a series of adaptations to its environment. Mithraism in fact had spread in the west with just such rapidity as Christians have been wont to count miraculous in the case of their own creed. And we, looking back on Christian and other religious history with sociological eyes, can perfectly understand how such a cultus, with an elaborate ceremonial and an impressive initiation, with the attraction of august and solemn mysteries and the promise of immortal life, and with official encouragement as regarded the army, could spread throughout the Roman Empire in the age in which the primitive Roman religion crumbled away before the advance of far more highly specialised and complicated systems and a more philosophic thought. 3 So special was the favour accorded to it in Rome that a Mithræum was permitted to be dug in the Capitoline Hill under the Capitol, the most venerated spot in the city. 4 Above all was it popular in the

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army, which, though the type of the social disease, really seems to have been to some extent a school, albeit a savage one, of moral strength and order at a time when an appalling abjection was overtaking the Roman world, men reverencing rank as dogs reverence men. One of the first stages in the initiation, for men, consisted in the devotee's receiving a sword, and being called a soldier of Mithra. 1 Hence the association of Mithra with Mars, and his virtual absorption of Janus, whose attributes he duplicated. Thus Mithraism was specially the faith of the soldiery; 2 and in doing honour to the Invincible Sun-God Mithra—Deo Soli Invicto Mithræ, as the monuments have it—the Emperor Constantine vied with the most loyal Mithraists long after his so-called conversion to Christianity. 3

The explanation of this phase seems to be that it was through oriental militarism that the cult reached the west. We have it from Plutarch 4 that Mithraism was first introduced to Rome through the Cilician pirates, whom Pompey put down; and it is known that those pirates were a confederation of soldiers and others formerly employed by Asian rulers (in particular by Mithradates, in whose army Mithraism would be the natural cult) and thrown on their own resources by the Roman conquest. 5 As such piracy was not reckoned discreditable, and Pompey took many of the defeated pirates under his patronage, 6 their religion had a good start with the Roman army, in which so many of them entered, and which was for centuries afterwards so largely recruited from the East. It is very likely that the Roman authorities from the first encouraged the cult 7 as specially fitted for the soldiery. But the cult was not confined to them.

Among the non-military congregations, we learn from the inscriptions, there were both slaves and freedmen, 8 so that the cult was on that side as receptive as the Christian. But in one other respect it seems to have been less so. Among all the hundreds of recovered inscriptions there is no mention of a priestess or woman initiate, or even of a donatress; though there are dedications pro salute of women, and one inscription telling of a Mithræum erected by the priest and his family. 9 It would seem then that, despite the

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allusion of Tertullian to the "virgins" 1 of Mithra, women held no recognised place in the main body of the membership. 2 It would seem, indeed, that inasmuch as the cult was conjoined in the West with that of the Great Mother, Cybelê, as in the East with that of Anaitis, women must have been thus associated with it; 3 but if they were apart from the Mithraists proper the latter would be to that extent socially disadvantaged in their competition with Christianity, however appropriate their worship may have been to the life of the army.

Such an attitude of exclusiveness is probably to be set down in part to the spirit of asceticism which, on Tertullian's testimony, marked the Mithraic cultus as it did the Manichæans 4 and several of the Christian sects. Of none of the ancients can sexual asceticism be predicated more certainly than of Julian, the most distinguished Mithraist of all; and such facts dispose of the Christian attempt to charge upon the rival religion a cultus of sensuality. On a picture of the "banquet of the seven priests" in the Mithraic catacomb 5 there are found phrases of the "Eat and drink, for to-morrow we die" order; 6 and these may stand for an antinomian tendency such as was early associated with Christism; 7 though it is not at all unlikely that they were inscribed in a hostile spirit by the hands of Christian invaders of the Mithraic retreat. However that may be, there is absolutely no evidence that Mithraism ever developed such disorders as ultimately compelled the abolition of the love-feast among the Christians. The Mithraic standards, in fact, seem to have been the higher; though both cults alike were sustained mainly by the common people, apart from the special military vogue of the older system. A Christian historian has even held it likely that "what won sympathy for the worship of Mithra in Rome was the fundamental ethical thought that the deity is set in constant strife with evil......The pure and chaste God of light, of whom no myth related anything but virtue and strife against evil, won many hearts from sin-stained Olympus Above.....all, the most ideal characters in the history of imperial Rome gave their protection to the Mithra-worship." 8

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In all probability it was the poorer cult of the two, lacking as it did the benefactions of rich women. It has been inferred, from the special developments of Mithraism among the soldiers and the Syrian traders who followed the camp, that it was primarily, in the West, a religion of the humble, 1 like Christianity, and that like Christianity it only slowly attained wealth. But inasmuch as it never imitated the propagandist and financial methods which the Church took over from the later Judaism of the Dispersion, and always maintained a highly esoteric character, it escaped certain of the lowering forces of the Christist movement. One of these was the practice of systematic almsgiving, which attracted a motley mass of both sexes to the Christian churches. Mutual aid there probably was among the Mithraists, who in their capacity of organised groups or sodalitia were able to own their congregational property; 2 but their different religious outlook and tradition excluded large financial developments.


324:3 See Pliny, Hist. Nat. ii, 4-5 (6-7) for a passage acclaiming the sun as the true divinity, which is rightly connected by Mr. King with the religion of Mithra.

324:4 Lajard, Recherches, pp. 564-5. Cp. Beugnot, La Destruction du Paganisme. i, 159; Cumont, Textes et Monuments, ii, 193. It seems possible that the cave utilised was an early mundus. Chapels of the Egyptian deities also, however, had been set up in the temple of the Capitol, towards the end of the Republic. Boissier, Religion Romaine d’Auguste aux Antonins, 3e édit. i, 349, citing Corp. inscr. lat. i, 1034. Cumont (i, 352-4) gives a list of identified Mithræums in Rome—30 in all. "C’est la minorité."

325:1 Tertullian, De Corona, c. 15; Garucci, Mystères du Syncrétisme Phrygien, 1854, p. 34.

325:2 Of old, as we have seen, Mithra was a war-God. The institution of the great quadriennial Mithraic games was the work of the soldierly Aurelian. Lajard notes that the great majority of the monuments found seem to have been at military forts (Recherches, p. 565); and this is amply borne out by Prof. Cumont.

325:3 See his coins. Cp. Gibbon, cc. xx, xxviii; and Beugnot, i, 92-6.

325:4 Life of Pompey, c. 241.

325:5 Finlay, History of Greece, Tozer's ed. i, 29.

325:6 Id. pp. 30, 31.

325:7 This is argued by Canon (now Bishop) Hicks (Mithras Worship, as cited, p. 39), following Sir William Ramsay (p. 41).

325:8 Cumont, i, 327-8.

325:9 Id. i, 330.

326:1 M. Cumont recognises this testimony, but does not attempt to meet it save by the negative testimony of the monuments.

326:2 Jerome's list of the grades of initiates obscurely specifies one which has been variously read as "hyenas" and "lionesses" (cp. De Sacy's note on Sainte-Croix, it, 128); but the passage being corrupt, no inference can be drawn from it.

326:3 See Cumont, i, 334, note, as to matres sacrorum.

326:4 Baur (Das manich. Religionssystem, p. 355, note) traces the Manichæan separation between electi and auditores to the Mithraic example.

326:5 See Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 225.

326:6 Garucci, Mystères, passim.

326:7 1 Cor. v, 1-2; xi, 21. Cp. Jean Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères, p. 95.

326:8 Hausrath, History of the New Testament Times: Times of the Apostles, Eng. tr. 1895, p. 327 i, 95-6—instancing Antoninus Pius, Constantius Chlorus, and Julian, and citing Lampridius. Commod. 8; Himerius, vii, 2. The former reference tells only of Commodus; and it is but fair to add that Elagabalus also was tauroboliatus (Lamprid. Heliogab. 7).

327:1 Cumont, i, 327-8.

327:2 Cumont, i, 326.

Next: § 12. Absorption in Christianity