By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
It would not be possible to cover the cult of Mithras in this not-quite 2,000-word article. But I can give enough of an overview of the religion for the reader to at least understand what its basic beliefs were and its importance in ancient worlds: not only to the Greeks and Romans, but to the Indo-Persians as well. The emphasis of this article will be on the depiction of Mithras on ancient coins.
The term Mitra in Vedic Sanskrit refers to a sun god, and the Iranian Mithra is a pre-Zoroastrian god. There is even a reference to the term Mi-it-ra by the Hittites and the Mitanni in 1400 BCE, but its actual origin is lost in the mists of time. Under Zoroastrianism, Mithra evolved from a divinity of contracts–one who is infallible, all-seeing, undeceivable, and never resting–into a divinity co-identified with the Sun God, Hvare-khshaeta. He also became conflated with the Babylonian sun god Shamash and/or the Greek deity Apollo.
Mithra’s worship became very popular with the Persians; Shah Artaxerxes I, Artaxerxes II, and Darius of the Achaemenid dynasty referred to Mithra in their inscriptions. The name “Mithridates” is Greek for the Persian Mihrdāt, meaning “Given by Mithras”, and was used for royal names in Parthia, Armenia, Pontus, and Cappadocia. Images of Mithra(s) were also found in Commagene in southeast Asia Minor and in the Kushan Empire on the Indo-Iranian border. Ancient people were very tolerant of new deities and willing to identify the gods of strangers they encountered as simply different versions or aspects of their own gods; when the Greek soldiers of Alexander the Great saw the golden images of the god Krishna carried in battle by Indian armies, they identified him as their own hero, Herakles.
Though it is not possible to separate the Roman Mithras from the Persian version on coins, below are some specimens that may safely fit into the latter category. Figure 1 shows a Sassanid silver coin with the Sassanid ruler, Ardashir III, on the obverse and Mithras on the reverse wearing a radiant crown of the sun god. Figure 2 is a Kushan Empire gold dinar that has Huvishka on the obverse and Mithras standing on the reverse with a radian circle around his head.
The third coin, shown in Figure 3, is different in that it is a coin from the Greco-Baktrian Kingdom. The obverse has a depiction of Mithras on a square bronze coin from Baktria. Mithras is shown wearing the Phrygian cap that is associated with him in the Roman cult. The reverse is a typical Greek type with Athena standing left.
The Roman Cult of Mithras
How the god that became popular during the Roman Empire is related to the Persian Mithra is still being debated. The Roman cult discussed in this paper seems to have originated around the beginning of the first century BCE. There is a depiction of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 BCE) wearing a Phrygian cap and Iranian clothing and referencing Apollo Mithras Helios. Also, the Roman author Plutarch mentions that the pirates of Cilicia (in Asia Minor) were practicing the secret rites of Mithras in 67 BCE.
When the countries of Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean were absorbed into the Roman Empire, the Roman soldiers brought the local religion back to the rest of the Empire. Romans seemed to love foreign religions and this one must have hit a sweet spot because Mithraism spread throughout the Empire, from Britannia to Egypt, very quickly. Many Mithraea (temples of Mithras) are still extant and can be visited by tourists. It is estimated that there could have been 680 Mithraea in Rome alone. Since Mithras was born in a cave, the Mithraeum was either built inside a cavern or was made to look like a cave (Figure 4). It had a vaulted roof and was 75 feet long and 30 feet wide with some having a hole in the ceiling to let in light. An aisle ran down the length with stone benches on either side about 3 feet high to serve as seating. The vault could hold about 40 people.
At the end of the central aisle was a carved relief, statue, or painting of the central icon of Mithraism, the tauroctony or “bull-slaying scene” (Figure 5). In this typical depiction, Mithras is clothed in Anatolian (Persian) costume with a Phrygian cap, kneeling on an exhausted bull. He is pulling the bull’s head back with his left hand and stabbing it with his right while looking over his shoulder toward Sol, the Sun. A dog and a snake are reaching for the blood; a scorpion attacks the bull’s testicles; a raven is above the bull; and sometimes wheat ears are coming out of the bull’s tail. These attributes were not the same in all Mithraea, varying from location to location, and are thought to be associated with constellations and the planets. To the right and left are Cautes and Cautopates carrying torches and may represent sunrise and sunset. Sol is in the upper left, and Luna (the Moon) in the upper right.
The Mithraeum was used for initiations, where the initiate would be showered in the blood of a bull and required to swear an oath of secrecy and dedication, and for feasts. Mithraism had no sanctuary or cult center and, since it was a secret mystery cult, no liturgy or “bible” to describe its activities exists. Thus, there is a lot of conjecture as to what activities were held.
In his origin myth, Mithras is usually depicted as being born from a rock in a cave, wearing his Phrygian cap and holding something–a dagger, a torch, a thunderbolt, a globe, etc.–in each hand. He can also be shown being born with a variety of animals and gods. In other words, there were many ways of depicting his birth from his natal rock. Mithras is closely associated with Sol Invictus and was frequently shown feasting with Sol. In some cases, the two seemed to overlap, with Mithras portrayed with the sun’s rays around his head. Mithras’ official day was December 25 and Sunday was his day of worship. Because these dates were familiar to Romans, they were easily adopted by Christians when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.
The cult became very popular among soldiers but also among merchants, officials, and bureaucrats. It did not seem as appealing to either the upper class of aristocrats or the lower classes of freedmen and slaves. This and the fact that the cult did not allow women as members hurt it in its competition with Christianity. The cult reached its apogee in the second and third centuries of the Common Era, was heavily persecuted by Christians during the fourth, and finally died out in the fifth.
Roman Coins of Mithras
The imperial mint in Rome did not show Mithras on any of its coins; all the coins are from the provinces. This may reflect the fact that the cult was more popular with soldiers than with senators or others of the ruling class. Besides, Mithras was not in the pantheon of gods that were traditionally shown on imperial coins. Almost all the Roman coins I found were from the second and third centuries CE, which was probably when the cult reached enough cultural recognition to permit placing his image on coins.
There are only a few main ways in which Mithras is depicted on Roman colonial coins. The first is the tauroctony (Figure 5). Figure 6 shows a large bronze (35 mm) of Tarsus in Cilicia with Gordian III (238-244 CE) on the obverse wearing a radiant crown and the Mithras tauroctony on the reverse. This type is rare, seen only on this coin of Tarsus. The nice thing about this coin is that there is no doubt that Mithras is the one being honored. There are many coins in which the deity on the coin could be interpreted as Mithras or as someone else.
The second type of depiction has Mithras as the sun god. This is the type seen in Persia (Figure 1). The coin in Figure 7 is from Trapezus in Pontus (Asia Minor) and has Lucius Verus on the obverse and the head of Mithras wearing a radiant Phrygian cap reverse. This coin seems to have only been minted in Trapezus and with the Lucius Verus obverse. It was probably minted during Verus’ campaign against the Parthians. Trapezus did mint another type of Mithras coin that has the Lucius Verus obverse and the head of Mithras with a horse’s head slightly behind. These are rare.
The third type was to have Mithras riding a horse. As to how a horse related to Mithras is unclear, but it has been suggested that it is a result of Persian influence. The Pontus coin in Figure 8 shows Severus Alexander’s portrait on the obverse and Mithras wearing his Phrygian cap and riding a horse right on the reverse. This is how he is usually portrayed on the coins of Trapezus in Pontus (a third type from this city). In the third century, coins of this type are known to have been issued during the reigns of Caracalla, Elagabalus, Severus Alexander, and Philip the Arab.
A slightly different version of Mithras on a horse is depicted on the coins of Istrus of Moesia Inferior. In Figure 8, Septimius Severus is shown on the obverse, and a god is shown right. This god is wearing a polos (a crown worn by gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East) and is dressed as an eastern god. The bird (raven) and torch to the left indicated that this is probably Mithras. He is also sporting a beard, though Mithras is traditionally depicted as a beardless young man. These attributes again may be due to Persian influences. This type of coin seemed to have been minted only during the reigns of Septimius Severus and Gordian III.
Even though the cult of Mithras was very popular among legionaries during the first four centuries of the Roman Empire, his depiction on coins was not common. Only three cities–Tarsus, Trapezus, and Istrus–consistently minted coins with his image, and this was only starting in the late second through the third century. He is associated with the sun god (Sol Invictus), and one of his coin types shows him wearing a radiant cap (Figure 7), so some have suggested that the images of Sol Invictus may actually refer to Mithras. Also, there are a number of coin images in which the god depicted may or may not be Mithras (such as the god Mên). In spite of his popularity, Mithras never broke into the large pantheon of gods and goddesses that were commonly seen on coins, meaning he remained a widespread but essentially regional god.
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About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).