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The arrival of Mithras in Europe


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The circumstances which brought the god at last to Europe after hundreds of years are indeed strange. According to the historian Plutarch, who lived in the first century A.D., the Romans became acquainted with Mithras through pirates from Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor. These were the pirates who constituted such a threat to Rome until Pompey drove them from the seas.

In his biography of this skilful general, Plutarch writes of the pirates: 'They brought to Olympus in Lycia strange offerings and performed some secret mysteries, which still in the cult of Mithras, first made known by them [the pirates]'. In the middle of the second century A.D. the historian Appian adds that the pirates came to know of the mysteries from the troops who were left behind by the defeated army of Mithridates Eupator. It is well established that all kinds of Eastern races were represented in that army.

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates' homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as 'Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras'. The god was also worshipped in Tarsus, the capital of the province, as we know from coins of the Emperor Gordian III which bear a picture of the bull-slayer (Fig. 1.). One of the greatest campaigns against the Persians took place during the reign of Gordian III; the coin has propaganda value as Ernest Will has pointed out: ' L'hommage rendu au dieu perse adopte par Rome, au moment de la campagne contre sa patrie premiere, revet une valeur politique particuliere.'



Fig. 1. Coin with with bull-slayer from Tarsus, minted in the reign of Gordian III

Fig. 2. A Shephered, witness at the birth of Mithras

Fig. 3. Mithras on horseback hunting in a forest of Cypresses


But can this evidence from the second and third centuries A.D. be taken as a confirmation of Plutarch's remarks about the Cilician pirates of the first century B.C.? Probably it can. The fact that representation of the bull-slayer occur on coins from Tarsus, through which Gordian III almost certainly passed on his way to battle, is evidence that Mithras was worshipped in this town in particular. Since Tarsus was situated at a road junction it is probable that its citizens became acquainted with the Mithraic cult at quite an early date. Plutarch, moreover, relates that the pirates committed outrages against the gods on Olympus where Hephaistos was worshipped. As devotees of the Eastern god they apparently felt little respect for the gods of the Greeks.

The pirates, a group of drifting adventures and, occasionally, fallen noblemen, conducted a communal worship of Mithras, whose cult was an exclusively made one. It is quite possible that these pirates introduced the Mithraic mysteries into Italy after their defeat and subsequent transportation there by Pompey. This event then offers a terminus post quem for the spread of the Mithras mysteries. Other early evidence of the first decades B.C. refers only to the reverence paid to Mithras without mentioning the mysteries; examples which may be quoted are the tomb inscriptions of King Antiochus I of Commagene at Nemrud Dagh, and of his father Mithridates at Arsameia on the Orontes. Both kings had erected on vast terraces a number of colossal statues seated on thrones to the honour of their ancestral gods. At Nemrud we find in their midst King Antiochus (69-34 B.C.) and in the inscription Mithras is mentioned together with Zeus-Ahura-Mazda, Hermes, Apollo-Helios and Herakles-Verethraghna. Thus Persian gods were invoked as protectors of the royal house. Both Mithridates and his son were represented in reliefs clasping hands with Mithras. Yearly feasts were held in honour of the deceased kings. But the inscriptions do not say anything about a secret cult of Mithras; the god simply takes his place beside the acknowledged state gods.

Though Plutarch's information is important, it must be borne in mind that the historian wrote his life of Pompey at the end of first century A.D. and it is not until then that we actually find in Rome the characteristic representation of Mithras as bull-slayer. The poet Statius (A.D. 80) describes Mithras as one who 'twists the unruly horns beneath the rocks of a Persian cave'. One other point worthy of note is that no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D., and even the extensive investigations at Pompey, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, have not so far produced a single image of the god. There is therefore a complete gap in our knowledge between 67 B.C. and A.D. 79. The earliest datable monument is a statue from Rome, now in the British Museum; the inscription mentions a certain Alcimus, who calls himself the servant of T. Claudius Livianus, and, if the identification of this Livianus with the commander of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Trajan is correct, then the figure must date from the beginning of the second century A.D. From this period onwards, the trail blazed by Mithras is broad and clear; the god's cult becomes firmly established and traces are found even on the Capitol and the Palatine, the heart of Imperial Rome.




Continue: The Followers of Mithras





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