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The Followers of Mithras


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It has already been explained that in Iran Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assis others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition. Material evidence from the second century A.D. shows that wherever the Romans planted the standards, Mithras and his cult followed. M. Valerius Maximianus is a case in point. He was born at Poetovio (the modern Pettau or Ptuj) in the province of Dalmatia, now north-western Yugoslavia, where there were three large Mithraic temples, and as commander of the Thirteenth Legion (Legio XIII Gemina) he consecrated an altar in a Mithraeum at Apulum (Alba Julia in Dacia, modern Rumania). Subsequently as commander of the Third Legion (Legio III Augusta) between the years A.D. 183 and 185 he consecrated altars at Lambaesis in Numidia. There is throughout a strong connection between the Danubian provinces, where the Mithras cult is widespread in the outposts, and Africa. Evidence of Mithraism can be found at Troesmis in Moesia and also in Sitifs (Setif) in Africa, both places where the Second Legion (Legio II Herculia) was stationed at different times. M. Aurelius Sabinus, who came from Carnuntum (Deutsch-Altenburg) east of Vindobona (Vienna), where Mithras enjoyed profound reverence, consecrated as commander an altar at Lambaesis, and L. Sextius Castus, a centurion of the sixth Legion, who was in all probability of African origin, erected a Mithraic altar at Rudchester.

The pattern of the soldiers following the legions, the legions following the orders of their commanders and the Mithras cult following the army is continually repeated. An inscription from Palaepolis on the island of Andros shows how military service led to initiation. During the occupation of this island, when troops were being transported to the East for Septimius Serverus' expedition about A.D. 200, M. Aurelius Rufinus dedicated a cave to Mithras. Rufinus was a select member (evocatus) of the Praetorian Guard and as such he is also mentioned on an inscription found at Siscia in Bulgaria, in which it is recorded that he was a native of Bizye in Thrace. From examination of the extant evidence we know that in these Balkan regions Mithraism did not extend south of Bessapara and Philippolis. Rufinus therefore received his Mithraic initiation in his native district, but only while on military service, most probably in those regions where he served before joining the Praetorian cohorts. In Rome itself there was a Mithraeum close to the castra praetoria, paid for in all likelihood by public subscription, but erected for the benefit of the Praetorian cohorts.

There were also followers of the Eastern god to be found among the cavalry (equites) and bowmen (sagittarii) of the Roman army. Mithras the invicible was in a special degree the protector and patron of archers since he was himself the divine archer, who had power to shoot water from barren rocks with his arrows; a Roman relief shows that he possessed a bow from birth. Again, he was conceived as the Rider-god whose aim was so unfailing that his arrows never missed the gazelle or the wild boar. Palmyrene archers at Dura-Europos represented him on two paintings in their sanctuary as a mounted huntsman armed with bow and arrow (Fig. 4.). In Germany (for example at Dieburg and Ruckingen) there are other representations of the god hunting, attended by a pack of Molossian hounds. On a relief from Neuenheim he is shown as a powerful ruler riding a horse and holding the globus in his right hand (Fig. 3).

Although Mithras enjoyed considerable respect amongst the inhabitants of coastal towns, it was not by sailors that his teachings were spread to these places, nor are there many inscriptions set up by followers serving with the Roman fleets, in spite of the fact that he is known to have gained the gratitude of those engaged in commerece and navigation. The importance of the main land routes, ports and rivers was to faciliate the transport of troops and merchandise, but at the same time the great rivers formed a natural defence line and castra or castella, bigger or smaller fortresses, were often established along them before civilian settlements. The remains of these defence lines (limes) are to be found along the Euphrates, in Africa, in Dacia and Moesia along the Danube, in Germany along the sinuous course of the Rhine and in Britain between the Solway and Tyne, where Hadrian constructed a vallum or wall against the hostile Picts-and in all these places evidence of the Mithras cult is to be found, in the most distant outposts and in the furthest corners of the empire. In the Crimea on the Black Sea, at an important crossroads, it is recorded that beneficiarii (soldiers with special privileges) erected a Mithraeum, although the exact site is as yet unknown. In the last ten years Mithraea have been discovered at Rudchester and Carrawburgh, while the Walbrook Mithraeum in London shows a certain general similarity to the sanctuary at Merida in Spain and to another in Rome, on the Aventine below the present church of Santa Prisca. A follower of Mithras living in the Jewish quarter of Rome on the far side of the Tiber owned property in Ostia, where he had his name engraved on an altar dedicated to the god. At Dieburg and Stockstadt in Germany there are Mithraea containing statues of Mercury with his purse, a form less unusual in the East (e.g. at Commagene) where Mithras was occasionally invoked in the same breath with Hermes-Mercury.

However much human beings differ in character, rank and position, in a religious community all become united. In many Mithraea we come across expressions of simple popular faith side by side with the expansive dedications of the high and mighty. Some votaries are known to us by name, such as Jahribol, commander of the archers who had himself portrayed at Dura-Europos on the great bull-slaying relief making a sacrifice in the company of two distinguished acquaintances. Mareinos or Mareos, who executed the paintings in this sanctuary, scratched his name on one of the coloumns. It is a matter for speculation whether this talented artist was paid for his work or whether he gave his services for nothing. In the Aventine Mithraeum the followers of the god were shown in procession offering their gifts. They were mainly people of Eastern origin, as is evident from their names; their hair is short and their beards are cut close around the jaw. The painter has endowed each individual with a lively personality and the work shows considerable stylistic originality.


Continue: The Figures round the Bull-Slayer



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