The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
On Swearing to Mithra in the Armenian and Iranian World in Late Antiquity
For Nader Rastegar
Oath taking and swearing by god(s) to uphold contracts has a long tradition in the ancient Near East. The method of swearing an oath and the names of the deities mentioned naturally differ and depend on the people involved in the treaty. When we first come across the meeting ground of the Indo-European and Mesopotamian people in the second millennium BCE, the Mittani treaty is our earliest and best kept evidence. In that treaty the deities invoked are all Indo-Aryan: Mitra-, Varuna, Indra- and Nāsatya1. One of these deities, (Sanskrit) Mitra / (Avestan) Mithra holds a special position in antiquity in that he was invoked and venerated not only in the Indo-Iranian tradition, but also among the non-Indo-European people. In Rome, Mithras came to represent a savior god and was identified as the ‘Invincible Sun’ (Sol Invictus)2.
In the Indo-Iranian world Mitra / Mithra played the role of the judge who punishes falsehood3. Mithra’s primary function seems to have been the personification of “covenant,” “contract,” and treaty,” and later on in the Indic world he came to be considered as the personification of “friendship,” which originally could have been derived from the concept of “alliance”4.
In this article I would like to explore some of the themes relating to oath and treaty and its breakage which may have led to war between Rome and Iran over Armenia in the third century CE. Specifically I would like to discuss what it meant ethically when kings and people took an oath and / or agreed to a treaty in the Armenian and the Iranian world by swearing to Mithra. It will be demonstrated that not only the ritual and political function of swearing was relevant, but also that its religious and moral implications in the Armeno-Iranian world were very important, an issue that has been overlooked in historical studies. The importance of the topic under discussion becomes manifest in the third century CE with Šābuhr’s Ka’be-ye Zardošt inscription in relation to Roman aggression towards Armenia.
It is well-known that in the third century CE the great kingdom of Armenia was a scene of warfare between the Sasanian and Roman empires. The reason for the sudden chaos and war was that in the second century CE the Romans under the rule of Severus had made further inroads into Mesopotamia. The Sasanians who came to power in the third century attempted to counter this move and conquer what was previously part of the Parthian Empire. Earlier, during the time of Nero, it had been agreed that the Armenian king would be from the Parthian family but that he would be crowned by the Roman emperor5. But with the coming of the Sasanians things had changed and not only had Armenia become a difficult place to be allowed to be independent, but Roman aggressions in Mesopotamia also mandated that Ardaxšīr and his son Šābuhr I retaliate and take the offensive. The reasoning for this only becomes evident when we understand the ancient Iranian worldview, where an oath taken, even with an enemy must be kept and its breakage/violation, even by an enemy, would lead to chaos and conflict.
In 243 CE, the Roman emperor Gordian invaded Mesopotamia to retrieve what had been taken by Ardaxšīr and Šābuhr I after Alexander Severus’ death. Šābuhr I, in his inscription, tells us that he was able to kill Gordian at Misikhe in 244 CE, close to the Euphrates river, which he later called Pērōz-Šābuhr (Victorious is Šābuhr)6. It is now known that Gordian had probably died in Zaitha in northern Mesopotamia in 244 CE at a time when warfare between the two sides seems unlikely7. Thus, it is suggested that the Roman forces, after the defeat at the hand of the Iranians, murdered Gordian while in retreat at Zaitha8. According to Šābuhr I’s inscription (ŠKZ), Gordian had come with a force composed of “Goths and Germans” (ŠKZ Pa4/37 gwt w grm’ny), and they were defeated in a frontal battle. Philip the Arab was forced to sign a treaty which ceded much territory and a large sum of gold as war reparations, amounting to 500,000 denarii9. The territories which now the Sasanians were able to hold were most of Mesopotamia and Armenia10.
In 252 CE, however, there was a second campaign against a Roman force of 60,000 at
Barbalissus, which ended in total defeat of the Romans11. The reason for this campaign by Šābuhr I is explained by the following phrase which draws our attention (ŠKZ 9):
Here Tirdates was promising loyalty, and by mentioning Mithra he was most probably saying that he was bound through the deity of covenant to Nero. Going against such an oath would have made Tirdates a mihr-druj which was punishable not only politically, but also as a religious and ethical sin. Why was Tirdates bound by an oath (Armenian
uxt) to Mithra? This is because Mithra (Armenian Mher / Mihr) along with Ahuramazdā (Armenian Aramazd /
Ohrmazd) and Anahita (Armenian Anahit / Anāhīd) were the great deities of pre-Christian Armenia14. The authority on pre-Christian Armenia, James R. Russell, has shown the importance of these deities which, although similar in origin to those in the Iranian world, were also separated from them by native influences. The very word for temple in pre-Christian Armenia is mehean from Old Iranian
*mithrayana-. The temple dedicated to Mher / Mihr in Armenia once stood at Bagayarič15 and was intact at least until the fourth century CE.
It is only then that, on the behest of Saint Gregory, king Tirdates began to destroy “the former ancestral deities of his forefathers, falsely called gods”16. Aghathangełos provides us with a detailed finale of the temple at Bagayarič:
“He (Tirdates) came to the temple of Mihr, called the son of Aramazd, to the village called Bagayarič in the Parthian tongue. Then he destroyed it down to its foundations.”17
But before this event, which signaled the beginning of the breakdown of the shared religious tradition between Armenia and Iran, Mithra was quite important. In fact we see time and time again that the Armenians feel bound to their oath, which was taken to Mithra, to the Iranian or Roman rulers. In the fourth century when the Iranian king wrote to his Armenian counterpart, the very idea of oath conjured up only Mithra. A good example of such a tradition is found in Moses Khorenats‘i where Šābuhr II in a letter tells king Tiran:
“The most valiant of the Mazdeaans (Mazdezants‘ k‘aj), the equal of the sun (bardzakits‘ aregakan), Shapuh, king of kings, in our bounty have remembered our dear brother Tiran, king of Armenia, and send many greetings… And we shall in no way harm your kingdom, we swear by the great god Mihr…18
Khorenats‘i tells us that the reason for which Tiran trusted Šābuhr II was that “he lost his senses,” but a more probable supposition is that as the Iranian king had sworn to Mithra to not harm him, and Tiran felt assured of his safety because he understood the importance of swearing to Mithra. This means that an Armenian writer in a Christian milieu could not, or intentionally did not, clearly understand the socio-religious implication of this oath to Mithra that binds the two people. In the late sixth century CE when Wahrām Čōbin had taken flight to Azerbijān, he was surprised that he was not aided in his campaign against Xūsrō II by the Armenians. According to Sebēos to persuade the Armenians he wrote a letter which stated:
“If I shall be victorious, I swear by the great god Aramazd, by the lord Sun and the Moon, by fire and water by Mihr and all the gods, that I will give you the kingdom of Armenia, and whoever you wish you may make king for yourselves.”19
The oath taken by Wahrām Čōbin is repeated by Thomas Artsruni20. Now Wahrām Čōbin would not invoke these deities if they were not understood in the Armenian world, even in the late sixth century CE. This becomes clear when we remember that these deities were the “ancestral deities of his (king Tirdates’) forefathers, falsely called gods”21. The mention of worship of such a deity as Mithra in Armenia is again clear from Ełishē’s testimony. When Mihr-Narseh made the proclamation that Armenians must revert to Zoroastrianism, the Christian Armenians respond to his letter by stating that “we no longer believe in fables”22, suggesting that they once did believe in these “fables,” and the “fable” discussed has to do with Mithra / Mihr23.
The Zoroastrian priests speaking in the fifth century CE to the Armenians say that Mithra is evenhanded and impartial and that he has no deceit24. In the Zoroastrian world, Mithra resides over contract, but also over Order, not only in the material world (Middle Persian gētīg) but also the spiritual realm (Middle Persian mēnōg)25. In a sense Mithra / Mihr upholds Order (Aša / Arta)26, and Truth. Thus, those who disrupt this order are in violation of cosmic Order and represent Chaos. P. O. Skjærvø has observed that as God ensured peace and prosperity and Order in the cosmic world, the king mirrored his function in the corporeal world27. I suggest this idea was very much in existence in the Sasanian period. Šābuhr I most probably couched the conflict with the Roman emperor in such a worldview. In this context the Roman emperor is a mihr-druj “breaker of oath” and thus an instigator of Chaos. Then the Iranian king, on behalf of his Armenian brothers who are also Zoroastrian and who uphold the tenets of Mithra / Mihr, has to go to battle because wrong has been done to Armenia. Returning to the Ka’be-ye Zardošt inscription, thus, droxt used by Šābuhr I belongs to the Zoroastrian moral terminology, where to deceive or speak falsehood, or to lie and, more specifically, to break a treaty makes one evil, giving cause for retaliation28.
In this conflict, then, there is a dualistic ethical worldview involved, where the Sasanians represent Order and the Romans represent Chaos by harming Armenia. One may suggest that the King of Kings was the representative of Ohrmazd / Armaz on earth, while the Roman emperor represented Ahreman / Arhmn. An earlier pictorial evidence for this worldview exists with Ardaxšīr I’s rock relief at Naqš-e Rustam, showing that king having vanquished the Parthian ruler Ardawān / Artabanūs V. One may take this issue further and suggest that then Ērānšahr became the embodiment of Order while the Rome and the Romans represented the Lie and Chaos by breaking their oath about Armenia. In this way the Romans replaced the Parthians.
Something must be said of the Roman views on Mithra / Mithras. Indeed, we do not find much in the way of Romans swearing to this deity. Recent works on Mithraism have been mainly reactions against the influence of the Iranian traits29, which miss several points of influence even if one accepts that Armeno-Iranian Mithra was completely different from Roman Mithras30. The difficulty in seeing the relation is mainly due to the different and varied nature of the sources in the East and the West, and furthermore the fact that Armenia acted as the conduit, where Mithraism was encountered by the Roman Legion XV Appolinaris31.
In relation to oath and Mithraism in the West the difficulty is the concept of “mystery oath,” which one swore with respect to a deity of his/her preference32. Indeed there does not seem to have been the need for the Romans to publicly swear to Mithras, as in Roman Mithraism the process was a personal and communal ceremony in caves with a group of men. Thus, we can not detect to whom exactly oaths were taken and when, if ever, they were taken to Mithras. The Romans of the third century, however, should have known that they had broken their oath / treaty, but the Iranians had placed this breakage of covenant in a Zoroastrian worldview which was little, if at all, understood by their enemy. In Mihr Yašt (Yašt 10), Mithra carries the epithet karšo.rāzah- “Director of (boundary) lines,” and the Romans certainly had crossed the boundary with Armenia as far as the Iranians were concerned.
I believe the Avestan nature of Mithra still appears in some Roman
reliefs, such as the one from Virunum in Noricum where Mithras and Sol (Sun) shake hands in the form of a pact of friendship33. The Avestan Mithra was also the all seen, like the Invincible Sun (Sol
Invitcus), traversing the sky to watch over oaths. How these correspondences would have been accidental is difficult to explain34. Whether the Romans understood the
Armeno-Iranian oath to Mithra or not, the topos of lying and doing wrong to Armenia in the inscription attempted to create a moral justification for Šābuhr I’s “shock and awe” campaign against the Romans. For Šābuhr I, the Romans had lied and harmed Armenia, thus representing chaos which made it incumbent upon the Zoroastrian king to punish them and bring back order.
1- P. Thieme, “The ‘Aryan’ Gods of the Mitanni Treaties,” Thieme, P. 1960, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1960, vol. 80, p. 303.
2- J.R. Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia, Harvard Iranian Series, volume 5, Cambridge, 1987, p. 268.
3- I. Gershevitch, The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge, 1959, p. 7.
4- Gershevitch, p. 26; H.-P. Schmidt, “Indo-Iranian Mitra Studies: the State of the Central Problem,” Études Mithriaques, Tehran, Liège, 1978, pp. 345-393. For further comments on Mithra see W.W. Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 55-58.
5- D.S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay (AD 180-395), Routledge, London and New York, 2004, p. 237.
6- Roman sources are divided as to the cause of death of Gordian. Oracaula Sibyllina XIII, 13-20 predicts Gordian’s downfall as a betrayal; Aurelius Victor, liber de Caesaribus 27, 7-8: 7 states that he was a victim of intrigues of his Praetorian Perfect, Marcus Philippus; Festus, Breviarium 22 mentions that Gordian was returning, victorious from his war against the Iranians when he was murdered by Philip. For all these sources see M.H. Dodgeon and S.N.C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, A Documentary History, Routledge, London and New York, 1991, pp. 36-45.
7- Potter, op. cit., p. 236.
8- Potter, op. cit., p. 236.
9- ŠKZ 5/4/9.
10- Zonaras XII, 19; Evagrius, Historia Ecclesiastica V, 7 which talks only about Armenia, see Dodgeon and Lieu, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
11- ŠKZ 12/9/11.
12- Ph. Huyse, Die dreisprachige Inschrift Šābuhrs I. an der Ka‘ba-I Zardušt (ŠKZ), Band I, Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, London, 1999, Passage 9, p. 28.
13- G. Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy or the Geography, History, and Antiquities of Parthia, New York, 1872, pp. 281-283.
14- J.R. Russell, “Pre-Christian Armenian Religion,” in Armenian and Iranian Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004, p. 374.
15- Ibid., p. 375.
16- Agathangełos, History of the Armenians, Translation and Commentary by R.W. Thomson, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1976, 778.
17- Agathangełos, 790.
18- Moses Khorenats‘i, History of the Armenians, Translation and Commentary on the Literary Sources by R.W. Thomson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978, 17.
19- The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, translated, with notes, by R.W. Thomson, Historical commentary by J. Howard-Johnston, Assistance from T. Greenwood, Part I, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1999, 78-79, p. 21.
20- Thomas Artsruni, History of the House of the Artsrunik‘, Translation and Commentary by R.W. Thomson, Detroit, 1985, Book II, p. 153.
21- Agathangełos, 778.
22- Ełishē, History of Vardan and the Armenian War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1982, p. 35.
23- The discussion in regard to Mithra being born of a mortal mother and being born of noble gods which evokes a Christian tradition in regard to Jesus, Ełishē, p. 35.
24- Ełishē, p. 165.
25- This idea invokes the early Mitra-Varuna pair whose association was certain with rta “Order.”
26- Gershevitch, op. cit., p. 2; J. Amouzegar, “Paymān,” The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli, eds. T. Daryaee and M. Omidsalar, Costa Mesa, 2004, pp. 34-35.
27- P.O. Skjærvø, “Ahura Mazdā and Ārmaiti, Heaven and Earth, in the Old Avesta,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 122, no. 2, 2002, p. 400.
28- For droxt see H.S. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi, Part II: Glossary, Wiesbaden, 1974, p. 67.
29- For the view that the Roman cult of Mithras was very much influenced by Iranian Mithra see G. Widengren, “The Mithraic Mysteries in the Greco-Roman World with special regard to their Iranian Background,” La Persia e il mondo Greco-Romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma, 1966, pp. 433-455. For the reaction against such an idea see M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, The God and His Mysteries, Routledge, New York, 2001.
30- For these traits see J.R. Russell, “The Craft and Mithraism Reconsidered,” in Armenian and Iranian Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004, p. 308.
31- Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia, p. 268.
32- W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987, p. 50.
33- M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras, The God and His Mysteries, Routledge, New York, 2001, pp. 150-151.
34- MacDowall has observed that the cult of Mithras was hidden behind the figure of Sol invictus, “Sol Invictus and Mithra: Some Evidence from the Mint of Rome,” Mysteria Mithrae, Roma-Leiden, 1979, p. 568; Calllieri suggests the same may hold true for Sasanian Iran as well, where Mithra’s name abounds, but his image is rare, “On the Diffusion of Mithra Images in Sasanian Iran: New Evidence from a Seal in the British Museum,” East and West, vol. 40, nos. 1-4, 1990, pp. 88-89.
Agathangełos, History of the Armenians, Translation and Commentary by R.W. Thomson, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1976.
Amouzegar, J. “Paymān,” The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli, eds. T. Daryaee and M. Omidsalar, Costa Mesa, 2004, pp. 32-42.
Boyce, M. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. One, The Early Period, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1989.
-----, Zoroastrianism, Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Columbia Lectures on Iranian Studies, Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, California, 1992.
Burkert, W. Ancient Mystery Cults, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987.
Callieri, P. “On the Diffusion of Mithra Images in Sasanian Iran: New Evidence from a Seal in the British Museum,” East and West, vol. 40, nos. 1-4, 1990, pp. 79-98.
Clauss, M. The Roman Cult of Mithras, The God and His Mysteries, Routledge, New York, 2001, pp. 150-151.
Dodgeon, M.H. and Lieu, S.N.C. The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, A Documentary History, Routledge, London and New York, 1991.
Ełishē, History of Vardan and the Armenian War, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1982.
Evagrius Scholasticus, The Ecclesiastical History of Evagrius Scholasticus, Translated with an introduction by M. Whitby, Liverpool University Press, 2000.
Gershevitch, I. The Avestan Hymn to Mithra, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1959.
Huyse, Ph. Die dreisprachige Inschrift Šābuhrs I. an der Ka‘ba-I Zardušt (ŠKZ), Band I, Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, London, 1999.
Kettenhofen, E. Die römisch-persischen Kriege des 3. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. nach der Inscrift Šāpuhrs I. an der Ka‘be-ye Zartošt (ŠKZ), Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1982.
Garsoian, N. “The Aršakuni Dynasty (A.D. 12-[180?]-428,” Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, ed. R.G. Hovannisian, vol. I, New York, 1997, pp. 63-94.
Moses Khorenats‘i, History of the Armenians, Translation and Commentary on the Literary Sources by R.W. Thomson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.
Malandra, W.W. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion, University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
MacDowall, D.W. “Sol Invictus and Mithra: Some Evidence from the Mint of Rome,” Mysteria Mithrae, Roma-Leiden, 1979, pp. 557-551.
Nyberg, H.S. A Manual of Pahlavi, Part II: Glossary, Wiesbaden, 1974.
Plutarch, Lives, The Dryden Translation, edited, with Notes and Preface by A.H. Clouch, Modern Library, New York, 2001.
Potter, D.S. The Roman Empire at Bay (AD 180-395), Routledge, London and New York, 2004.
Rawlinson, G. The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy or the Geography, History, and Antiquities of Parthia, New York,, 1872.
Russell, J.R. Zoroastrianism in Armenia, Harvard Iranian Series, volume 5, Cambridge, 1987.
-----, “Pre-Christian Armenian Religion,” in Armenian and Iranian Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004, pp. 371-388.
-----, “The Craft and Mithraism Reconsidered,” in Armenian and Iranian Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2004, pp. 305-317.
Schmidt, H.-P. “Indo-Iranian Mitra Studies: the State of the Central Problem,” Études Mithriaques, Tehran, Liège, 1978, pp. 345-393.
Sebēos, The Armenian History attributed to Sebeos, translated, with notes, by R.W. Thomson, Historical commentary by J. Howard-Johnston, Assistance from T. Greenwood, Part I, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1999.
Skjærvø, P.O. “Ahura Mazdā and Ārmaiti, Heaven and Earth, in the Old Avesta,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 122, no. 2, 2002, pp. 399-410.
Thieme, P. “The ‘Aryan’ Gods of the Mitanni Treaties,” Thieme, P. 1960, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1960, vol. 80.
Thomas Artsruni, History of the House of the Artsrunik‘, Translation and Commentary by R.W. Thomson, Detroit, 1985.
Widengren, G. “The Mithraic Mysteries in the Greco-Roman World with special regard to their Iranian Background,” La Persia e il mondo Greco-Romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Roma, 1966, pp. 433-455.
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