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The Fall of Mithras


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In the third century A.D. the worship of Mithras had spread so widely within the Roman Empire that its position was able to survive the emergence of Persia as a competitor of Rome in the political and military field. Interest in the Eastern deities was encouraged by the kindship between the Roman emperors and the Syrian dynasty.



Fig. 37. Mithras as bull slayer


The attraction of the mystery cults was that through their initiation ceremonies one established a personal relationship with the god of one's own choice. The oriental cults laid great stress on personal salvation during life and after death. For anyone who feels the attraction of this oriental way of thought, but dislikes its more exotic manifestations, the teachings of Mithras have considerable appeal. The search for a monotheistic cult stimulated by the philosophical doctrines of the time led inevitably to the all-embracing cult of the unvanquished Sun-god. The extent of this sun-worship can be seen in the hostility which met the attempt of the young Syrian Emperor Heliogabalus in the year A.D. 210 to import a representation of the god Baal from Emesa to Rome; the Romans were still too much attracted to the traditional conception of the sun to be able to accept Baal in the shape of a black stone.

Aurelian built a large temple to the Sun in the Campus Martius, part of which is now the Piazza San Silvestro. There he worshipped the Sun-god as the only heavenly, almighty and divine power. It was decreed that every four years celebrations were to be held in honour of this new state god and the cult acquired a priestly college of its own. The anniversary of the Sun-god's birth was on December 25th.

Understandably the Mithraic cult took advantage of this favour. We have seen how in A.D. 307 or 308 Diocletian, together with the other imperial rulers, dedicated an altar to Mithras, 'the benefactor of the Empire', during a conference at Carnuntum on the borders of the Roman Empire. The fact that Mithras is mentioned by name distinguishes this dedication from the more general sun-cult of Aurelian.

The influence of the Mithraic cult was at its height during this period and for a short time indeed it looked as if it might reign supreme. An attempt was made to accord Mithras the place of honour on the Capitol. Naturally, it is impossible to tell whether, if its advances had not been stemmed by Christianity, Mithraism could ever have achieved complete dominance. The often quoted opinion of Renan in his book on Marcus Aurelius is too sweeping: 'Si le christianisme eut ete arrete dans sa croissance par quelque maladie mortelle, le monde eut ete mithraiste.'

The battle at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber (A.D. 312) was decisive not only for Constantine but also for the Mithraic cult. The vision of the symbol of Christ brought victory to Constantine, as on a previous occasion when the Sun-god appeared to Aurelian to pledge his support for the Emperor against Zenobia. It was due to Aurelian that the sun-cult was proclaimed the official state religion of Rome; now, similarly convinced, Convinced firmly planted the Cross on Roman soil.

The religion of the Romans, as Bayet so rightly remarks, always developed within the framework of their politics: 'therein lies the most surprising originality of its development'. H. Doerries, the biographer of Constantine, considers it anachronistic even to pose the question favour of the adoption of Christianity corresponded with his own personal thoughts and sentiments. According to him, 'politics were for him determined by religion, and religion was the consequence of politics'.

The second half of the fourth century was decisive for the outcome of the struggle between Christianity and paganism. The unwillingness of the Emperor Julian to conform to his rigid Christian upbringing led to his being named the Apostate. Strongly under the influence of the neo-platonic school, with an inclination towards the mystical, Julian declared himself a convinced Mithraist-and we should stress the word convinced, for the fourth century produced many sympathisers, but few true followers of Mithras. J. Bidez, who has written a fine biography of Julian, describes him in glowing terms as the last emperor who professed the Mithraic faith. Julian recognised that if Mithraism were to become the world religion, it had to discard many of its more primitive aspects and be prepared to assimilate more philosophical elements, a consideration which must have contributed to those signs of the mysticism of Iamblichus which appear in the Emperor's own 'Hymn to the Sun'. Mithras is the Sun and is one and the same with Apollo, phaethon, Hyperion and Prometheus. The other gods merely express different aspects of the power of the sun. Julian saw himself in the role of a good shephered, whose moral code was laid down by Mithras: 'Goodness towards the people he had to rule, piety towards the gods and moderation'. From the moment that he was initiated in a Mithraeum at Constantinople and entered into the highest grade of the cult he did everything in his power to encourage the triumph of the Mithraic cult, but his life was cut short by an arrow during his expedition against the Persian King Shapur. After his death in A.D. 363 a period of comparative tolerance set in, but this was cut short by an edict of the Emperor Gratian in A.D. 382. The altar of Victory was removed from the Senate, and state support for the upkeep of the Roman cult was withdrawn. Gratian was in A.D. 379 the first emperor to refuse the high dignity and title of pontifex maximus. Shortly before this (A.D. 377) the city perfect Gracchus had, according to Hieronymus, overturned, broken and destroyed a cave of Mithras filled with monstrous images. We do not know exactly which Mithraic temple this was; de Rossi though it might be the sanctuary at San Silvestro. Be that as it may, the traces of such an iconoclastic act are clearly visible in the temple of Santa Prisca.

Gratian found himself in opposition to a group of prominent intellectuals. These can be divided into two groups, one of which wished to follow the example of Julian and the other to support the gods whose existence, according to Altheim, was founded 'not in their being gods, but in their being gods of Rome'. Both groups, however, worked closely together against Gratian. Their leaders included Vettius Agorius Praetextatus who restored the Porticus Deorum Consentium with the statues of the twelve gods at the Forum. He occupied various priestly offices and was Father of Fathers in the cult of Mithras. Praetextatus was a faithful follower of Julian's ideas, while his successor and friend Q. Aurelius Symmachus was a staunch conservative. Verius Nicomachus Flavianus, a cousin of Symmachus, who was later to carry on the final struggle, was punished by the emperor in A.D. 377 because of his support of the Donatists in Africa. Various important inscriptions by Alfenius Ceionius Julianus Kamenius, a cousin of the Emperor Julian, show his faith in Mithras. Included in this circle of aristocrats and scholars was the author Macrobius who referred to the doctrine of the pagan world in his Saturnalia. Symmachus, an able diplomatist, took upon himself the thankless task of remonstrating with Gratian about his decision. Whereupon Ambrose, bishop of Milan, threatened the young Emperor with excommunication. The protagonists, however, were not Gratian and Symmachus but their respective associates Ambrose and Praetextatus, and when the latter died in A.D. 385 he left his party without a leader.

The struggle moved slowly to its close after the accession of Theodosius. When Christians in Syria looted and burned a synagogue, and monks set fire to a temple of the gnostic Valentinians, Theodosius demanded restitution and punishment. But again Ambrose intervened and Theodosius yielded. However much he struggled for independence, he ultimately became, in the words of Herbert Bloch, the 'spiritual subject of Ambrose'. He was excommunicated after another incident, but at Christmas in the year A.D. 390 the bishop allowed him to attend communion once more.

An edict of February 37th, A.D. 391 forbade all pagan worship in Rome and all visits to pagan temples, and shortly after this a beautiful Serapeum in Alexandria was destroyed. The final edict was issued on November 8th of the following year (392); all practice of pagan religions, private devotions included, was to be severely punished. But even now the supporters of the opposition refused to admit defeat. Flavianus, who had became the leader of the resistance, declared for Eugenius, who was in the north of Italy preparing for battle against Theodosius. The contest became a question of 'to be or not to be' for the old religion. At first it looked as though the battle by the Frigidus would bring victory to Jupiter. Then the next morning Theodosius knelt down and prayed. A storm swept up from the Adriatic and the arrows of the pagan enemy were turned back upon them. Yet again a miracle determined the outcome. Eugenius was murdered and Flavianus committed suicide.

For many years the spiritual struggle continued, causing Augustine to write his City of God in order to refute the imputation that the scorn shown to the Roman gods was to blame for the sack of Rome by the Goths.

It is possible that the worship of Mithras survived here and there in more isolated regions, but the power of the unvanquished god was shattered. He was conquered by the spirit of the new age and his cult perished. It is left to present-day scholarship to solve the mysteries and to seek out those secrets which the god took with him in his eclipse.





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