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Mithras—God of mysteries at Apulum

The cult of Mithras, a god of mysteries, developed not just in Rome but in Dacia too. Initially it appeared in ancient Orient and later filtered through interpretatio romana into the Roman pantheon. In Apulum this god had many worshippers recruited mostly from the military, as is greatly demonstrated by the number of sculptures and inscriptions, and by a mithraeum. The Mithras sculptures of Apulum represent fine examples of provincial Roman art.

The Roman cult of Mithras derived from ancient oriental religious forms and was a cult of mysteries born of interpretatio romana. This cult had a small presence in the Roman world of the early empire, but in the third century A.D. it spread vigorously in the Danube provinces such as Dacia, finding a great number of worshippers.

As a doctrine of the soul, Mithraism assured its initiates of a “neoplatonic salvation”. The doctrine had three main principles: Tauroctony (the central relief bearing the scene of the stabbing of the bull), the mithraeum and the system of initiation grades. Closed to commoners, the mithraic cult was reserved exclusively for men and had seven initiation grades: corax, nymphus, miles, leo, Perses, heliodromus, and pater. The “liturgy” was held in underground sanctuaries (mithraea), far from the public gaze. Its members met for dinners. The sanctuary was supposed to be a miniature copy of the universe and the seven spheres (planets).

A large number of worshippers of Mithras are attested in Dacia. More than 300 mithraic objects have been discovered, including reliefs and representations of secondary divinities associated with the cult. This is not unconnected to the fact that many military units were stationed in the province. In the two cities of ancient Apulum, there were about 30 adepts of Mithras and several sanctuaries dedicated to his cult, being the second community after the capital Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa.

Inside the mithraea, by the weak light of lamps, in darkness rather than light, a common liturgy was officiated (fig. 5). The actors of the ceremony were dressed in proper clothes, some of them wearing masks with personal symbols. They washed their hands and faces in the sanctuary’s basin. The room with no windows induced an atmosphere of mystery. Altars and statues filled the room of the sanctuary, and the air was hard to breathe not only because of lack of ventilation, but also from the smoke of the lamps and the offerings of meat burning on the altar. On the ceiling, the painting seemed to move in the mute play of the small torches: a mixture of flavors, lights, and shadows, part of a mysterious and slightly unsettling picture, in which the sounds murmured by a choir or the prayers of initiates ripped through the silence of an eternally holy place. The worshippers of Apulum were not few. Many of them were soldiers. Leaving their heavy weapons outside the temple, once they entered the sanctuary they discovered a world in which they allowed themselves to be initiated. Freed men, soldiers, and officers bowed down in front of ever victorious Mithras and of the reliefs depicting him in the celebrated scene slaughtering the bull. The most prominent of them was Marcus Valerius Maximianus, legatus augusti, who probably had the role of spreading the cult among the soldiers of the Thirteenth Twin Legion. The leader of such a community of worshippers, a pater, had to obtain all seven grades of initiation and to have a good knowledge of astronomy. The initiated were required to take a sacred oath, which we know from a famous papyrus: “I swear on the name of the god who separates the sky from the earth, the light from the darkness, day from night, east from west, life from death, creation from oblivion, that I shall preserve and hold the mysteries I have learned from Him. . . . If I keep the oath, I shall be helped by good luck, but if I do not, I shall be cursed. My road up into the spheres shall be checked by Cautopates and by Cautes. Nabarze Sol Invictus Mithras.” Such initiation ceremonies ended with banquets, where people ate bread with wine and poultry dishes.

Mithras images in Roman art represented essential episodes from his life, such as his birth from rock (Mithras Petrogenitus) and the slaughter of the bull (Mithras Tauroctonus). The sculptural art from Apulum, often presenting iconographic “anomalies”, most frequently displays him as Mithras Tauroctonus, in which Mithras appears as an individual wearing Persian clothes and a Phrygian cap. Such a monument (fig. 4), the largest of this type in Dacia, was discovered in 1905 in Partoș (Colonia Aurelia Apulensis, today neighborhood of Alba Iulia). Perhaps it occupied the central position in a sanctuary. Several such pieces were collected by Adalbert Cserni, the curator of the museum of Alba Iulia (figs. 1-3). From his correspondence with the famous specialist of Mithras studies, Franz Cumont, we observe his interest in understanding the iconography of this god at Apulum as well as the early integration of local discoveries into worldwide scientific circles. Recently, the earliest mithraeum of Apulum has been undergoing archaeological investigations. The final results of the research will most likely bring many answers to questions regarding the cult of this god in Apulum and an improved knowledge of the manifestations of the local cult in Dacia and the Danube provinces.

The spreading of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries A.D. stirred a real persecution of this god, who was expelled from the Roman pantheon. Some scholars debate a possible “competition” between Mithraism and Christianity, the two having similar theological and spiritual bases. Although in 307 A.D., at Carnuntum, Emperor Diocletian proclaimed Mithras protector god of the whole Roman Empire, gradually this god was “expelled” from cities, his sanctuaries being sacked and stolen, and the mystery of the central altar falling into oblivion. However, the modern world is rediscovering and recreating this god, as an “esoteric” god, even semi-Christian, suggestively called Mithras Internetus(!): a god of mysteries, at once ancient and modern, to whom we bid farewell using the salute employed by his worshippers: Nama, nama! (C. I. P.)