Christianity wasn’t the only up-and-coming religion in the Roman Empire. Another god by the name of Mithras had attracted his own cult following around the first century CE. And this lasted a few hundred years until it disappeared by the fifth century. This so-called cult of Mithras is one of the least understood ancient religions. And unfortunately, one of the most misrepresented religions too. Part of the problem is that Mithras has become an unwilling hostage in a battle over the existence of Jesus himself. With some people arguing that both Mithras and Jesus spring from some universal savior god motif, and that both of these guys share certain characteristics, like the claim that they were born on December 25th, that they were born of a virgin, or that they both had twelve disciples. – There’s the Persian god Mithra 600 years before Christ, born December 25th, preformed miracles, resurrected on the third day, known as the lamb; the way; the truth; the light; the savior messiah… – Stop! The problem is, all of these claims that Bill Maher just cited are actually completely false. I’m sorry Bill, I really like you, you’re one of the best political satirists out there, but let’s leave the ancient history to the professionals. The cult of Mithras did indeed get its start during the rise of Christianity. They shared a cultural moment and shared sociological characteristics of late Roman religion. But all this hype that Mithras and Christ were cut from the same cloth is just that: hype. So let’s set aside the wild zeitgeist theories for a little bit, and delve into the archeological evidence, which reveals one of the coolest ancient religions. What do we really know about the cult of Mithras, and how much mutual influence did it have on Christianity? The cult of Mithras was a religious movement that got its start in Rome around the first century CE centered on the worship of a Romanized Persian god, Mithras. Commonly depicted as a man dressed in Persian garb slaying a bull. By the third century, it was widespread across the Roman Empire from Britain to North Africa to the Black Sea to Syria, but by the fifth century, it fizzled out and disappeared. But before I go any further, it’s important to say that the cult of Mithras was a new religious movement under the Roman Empire. This is a little confusing because the god himself, Mithras, is based on an old Indo-Iranian deity by the name Mitra or Mithra who predated the cult of Mithras by hundreds of years. The name Mithras is simply the Hellenized form of this god. Evidence from North India and Iran shows that this god Mitra dates at least to the second millennium BCE, and the worship of Mitra stuck around for centuries. By the fifth century BCE, the Persians were worshiping him as the god of the sun, and in the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism, Mitra was a god of light, waging an eternal war with darkness. The Roman historian Strabo knew this association, reporting that Mitra is the Persian’s name for the sun. Because of this association with the old Indo-Iranian deity Mitra, scholars in the early 20th century just assumed that the cult of Mithras was an old Persian religion transplanted into the Roman Empire by soldiers returning from battles in the near east. The historian Franz Cumont was the champion of this position. He was convinced that the Romans directly lifted elements of their theology from Iranian theology. So he studied ancient Zoroastrian text to try to shed light on the gaps of evidence that we had for the Roman cult of Mithras. But the problem is, what we know about the Roman cult doesn’t have any antecedent in Iranian religion. So scholars today try to downplay this theory that there was a direct line of influence from the east. Manfred Clauss, one of the premier scholars of this field, says it best: So yes, initiates of Mithras in the Roman Empire did worship a god inspired by a Persian god. And they did use some Persian words in their worship. But we are really dealing with a Roman religion here, and we should treat it as such. So let’s get into the evidence. And here is where it gets a little more tricky. We have zero writings from people who worshiped Mithras in the Roman Empire. No narratives, no mythologies or origin stories or theologies. No writings of any kind. Anyone who says otherwise is either mistaken, or they are referring to older Persian texts, which as I said earlier, might not have had any influence at all in the Roman Mithras cult. Aside from a few mentions in Roman historians like Strabo and Porphyry and a few highly polemical bits from Christian writers like Justin Martyr, the only evidence we have for the Roman Mithras cult is archaeology. Inscriptions, mosaics, sculptures, and the acutal meeting places where Mithraic initiates gathered, called Mithraea. Archaeologists have found these underground meeting places all over the Mediterranean showing how widespread this religion really was. Mithraea are not all the same, but they do share general characteristics. They are narrow, rectangular meeting rooms often built underground with vaulted ceilings. And they’re fairly small, most measuring only ten meters long. And these meeting rooms were meant to facilitate one of the central rituals of the Mithras cult: the ritual meal. Ritualized dining was a common feature in late Roman religion. One example that comes to mind is Christianity with the Eucharist. And in fact, some Christian writers thought that the Mithraic meal was a demonic parody of the Christian Eucharist. This famous example from Bosnia depicts Mithraic initiates drinking around a table with a plate of bread. And every Mithraim would have displayed an image of Mithras at the head of the room, which Manfred Clauss interprets as Mithras being the host of the meal. And what is striking about this image is just how universal it was. It’s been found all over the Mediterranean without much deviation in style. A scene depicting Mithras slaying a bull, yanking its head up while Mithras turns, looking over his shoulder. He also frequently appears with a snake, a dog, a raven, and a scorpion as he stabs the bull. Now, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Mithraic initiates actually practiced bull-slaying. But this must have represented some sort of foundational story in Mithraic mythology. But the long and the short of it is, we just don’t know. Remember, we don’t have any sort of narratives or mythologies from worshipers of Mithras in the Roman Empire. So we’re left trying to piece together the myth from incomplete evidence. Franz Cumont thought it represented some sort of Zoroastrian cosmological myth, but later scholars interpret it as an astrological myth. Astrological interpretations make a lot of sense because a lot of Mithraea have astrological imagery. The Mithraem of the Seven Spheres in Ostia for example portray zodiac symbols along the benches, and some scholars think initiates considered Mithraea as a microcosm of the universe. But let’s turn to the organizational structure of the cult of Mithras. I’ve been using the word ‘initiates’ to describe these people in the most literal sense, because the Mithras cult was an initiation cult, meaning that you had to perform a series of rituals to get into the club. Once you were initiated, you would go through a series of levels or grades. The Christian writer St. Jerome says that there were seven grades, which seems to be corroborated by the mosaic floor decorations of a Mithraem in Ostia near Rome. You start at the bottom rung of the latter at the raven level, going up through the bridegroom, soldier, lion, Persian, runner of the sun, and father levels. What is interesting though is that only male names appear in the inscriptions dedicated by worshipers of Mithras. This implies that women were not allowed to join. And it seems to have been really popular within the Roman army. Lots of inscriptions seem to come from military men. Another inscription discovered under the church of St. Stefano Rotondo in Rome was dedicated by two guys, one who was the priest of the local military barracks in Rome, and another who was a member of the Equites class; a low-ranking aristocrat. But inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire shows that men from all walks of life would join the cult. We have names from Roman politicians, merchants, and even slaves. But don’t go thinking this wasn’t an egalitarian cult. Even though slaves could become initiates, there is no evidence that they rose very far in the ranks. The mid-rank lion seems to be one of the most popular ranks, suggesting that very few people went beyond this. And social superiors like a centurion, for example, wouldn’t allow a lowly soldier to be above him in the Mithraic hierarchy. So even though this grading system was innovative, it really only served to reinforce the highly stratified Roman society. We don’t know much else about the rituals that you would have needed to perform to go through the grading system, either. These rituals by and large were kept secret by Mithraic initiates. And this is one reason why scholars sometimes use the word “mystery cult” to describe Mithras worship in the Roman Empire. And there were several mystery cults in the Roman Empire, including worshipers of Isis and the cult of Magna Mater. But the term “mystery cult” shouldn’t make you think that the cult of Mithras was somehow hidden from society. In fact, some Mithraea are found in public buildings. There is a large Mithraem located in the Baths of Caracalla, a public bath house in Rome, and another in Crypta Balbi, a large apartment complex in Rome. So if you are a neighbor to the Baths of Caracalla, you probably had some sort of idea what was going on inside of there, and maybe you even knew somebody who attended the ritual meals there. So yes, even though the cult of Mithras was a mystery cult, the secrecy probably only went so far. So now that you hopefully have a basic understanding of the cult of Mithras, what was its relationship with Christianity? Remember, both Christianity and the Mithras cult were thriving sometime in the first century CE. But this fact has kind of let people’s imaginations run wild, so let’s start with dispatching the myths that Bill Maher mentioned earlier in the episode. First of all, the claim that Mithras had a virgin birth just like Jesus. Remember, we have no texts from worshipers of Mithras. So we don’t have any sort of narrative or myth, like the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, what we do have are sculptures depicting Mithras being born from a rock. All of these portray him holding a torch and a dagger. We don’t exactly know the myth that corresponds to this rock-born motif, but it’s definitely a stretch to say Mithras was born of a virgin like how the gospels describe Jesus’ birth. I’ve never really thought of a rock being virginal. Or the idea that Mithras had twelve disciples. Well, Mithras does appear with the zodiac symbols, but it’s kind of a stretch to call these disciples. I would sooner say this is evidence that Mithraic initiates thought of Mithras in astrological terms. Others claim that Mithras died on a cross, celebrated a last supper, or was visited by Magi. Again, none of these come from any ancient source, and we have no archaeological evidence that backs up these claims. All of these claims come from non-scholarly writers in the 18th and 19th centuries which have persisted as rumors for decades. A guy named Godfrey Higgins in 1836 for example claims that Mithras had 12 disciples, like Jesus, but provides no sources. The American author T.W. Doane wrote in the late 1800’s that Mithras was visited by Magi carrying gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Again, citing absolutely no sources and seemingly pulling these notions out of his own imagination. So to cut to the chase, the claim that Jesus and Mithras are cut from the same mythological cloth are from 18th and 19th century pseudo-historians, and have no basis in any ancient source or archaeological evidence. If you don’t believe me, I have citations in the descriptions below, and I highly encourage you to go read them for yourself. These 200-year-old rumors continue to persist because no one bothers to check the historical sources. If you go study the archaeology of the cult of Mithras, none of these claims hold water. The only one of these claims that’s sort of based in reality is the claim that Jesus and Mithras both were thought to have a birthday on December 25th. It’s true that the emperor Aurelian declared December 25th as a holiday for Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun god in the third century. And it’s true that some thought of Mithras as a god of the sun, and even referred to him as Invictus. But if anything, this just tells us about how different religious groups in the Roman Empire were fighting over December 25th as an important day. Or how Christian authorities tried to appropriate December 25th for their own religion. This doesn’t really tell us anything about a shared mythological origin story for Jesus Christ and Mithras. So now that we have those misconceptions out of the way, what do we really know about the relationship between Christianity and the cult of Mithras? Well, they do share some similarities, which is to be expected. They both started in the Roman Empire, and therefore share similar cultural influences that we see in Roman religion, like meeting together in small places to share a ritual meal. Like I said earlier, ritual dining was a common practice among all sorts of Roman cults. So even though Justin Martyr definitely thought the Mithraic initiates were engaging in a demonic parody of the Eucharist, Christians and Mithras worshipers weren’t really copying each other. They were just doing what everyone else was doing in the Roman Empire. And there were probably differences. The theological significance of the Eucharist was almost certainly different from the significance of the Mithraic meals. And both religions regularly met with their co-religionists in small buildings. The small Roman garrison town of Dura-Europos for example had a Christian house church of sorts right down the street from a Mithraem. But some of the interactions between Christianity and the cult of Mithras were antagonistic. Like I said, Christian authors like Justin Martyr and Tertullian thought the cult of Mithras was demonic. And some Christians went so far as to destroy Mithraea. The Mithraem in the Syrian village of Hawarte for example has Christian graffiti scratched on the walls and a Christian church built on top of it. So the theory is that some sort of religious vandalism must have happened shortly before or shortly after the Mithraem went out of use. Occasionally, you’ll find Mithraic images that have been defaced, suggesting again some sort of vandalism from Christians, such as the Mithraem under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome. By the fourth century, more and more Mithraea were abandoned and fewer and fewer new ones were being built. This has been interpreted as the decline of the cult of Mithras. But why? The scholar and archaeologist of the cult of Mithras, David Walsh, thinks that there must have been some sort of combination of factors. By the fourth century, Christianity was well on its way to being the dominant religion. Following emperor Constantine, Christianity gained powerful patrons in the imperial government that Mithras worshipers just couldn’t match. Many worshipers of Mithras were probably converted to Christianty. And it’s also possible that they suffered some sort of backlash for worshiping a Persian god during a time when the Roman Empire was at war with Persia. Worshiping a Persian god probably was unpopular when your eastern border was under attack. Dr. Walsh also poses the theory that barbarian tribes destroyed many Mithraea since a lot of them were in settlements on the frontiers, outside of the late Roman defenses. And finally, it’s possible that worshipers of Mithras just lost interest. Some Mithraea are found completely intact. No evidence of destruction, people just abandoned the site. So David Walsh concludes that there is no single explanation as to why numerous Mithraea were abandoned during the fourth century. The combined effects of invasions, Christian vandalism, the imperial government starting to favor Christianty, and Mithraic groups losing interest all might have contributed to the religion’s decline. But nevertheless, the Cult of Mithras remains one of the most interesting religions in the ancient Mediterranean. If you’d like to learn more, go check out the archaeological evidence for yourself, and if you ever meet somebody with some weird theories about the Mithras cult, send them this video. As always, thanks for watching. The bulk of this research came from Manfred Clauss’ indispensable book, “The Roman Cult of Mithras,” with some aditional information from Roger Beck’s “The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire.” I highly recommend you check them out. Clauss’ book in particular is very readable for a popular audience. The archaeologist of the Roman Mithras cult, David Walsh, also graciously shared a copy of his dissertation with me and read over early drafts of this research, so thank you so much, David. As always, if you’d like to support the show, head on over to Patreon and help donate to keep this channel alive. As always, thanks for watching, and see you next time.