The cult of Mithras was one of the most popular foreign cults to spread in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ad. Its origins were in Persia, where worship of the god is said to have been founded by the sage Zoroaster. Mithras was associated with the sun and with cattle-herding or stealing, and the most common representation of him, found in reliefs or statues in all Mithraic temples, shows him astride a large bull which he is stabbing in the neck.
There is a great deal of unresolved debate over how and why Mithraism spread from Persia, and the extent to which the Romans developed the cult for their own ends. In the Western Empire, Mithraism was especially popular among soldiers, slaves and ex-slaves. Women were excluded. Members met in small groups, up to 35, in sanctuaries which were designed to resemble caves, the traditional haunt of the god. At the eastern end there would be a relief or statue of Mithras, surrounded by symbols of constellations and two deities carrying torches. This was the ‘light’ end of the sanctuary, which contrasted with the ‘dark’ western end and made the point that this was a saviour god who brought the initiate from darkness into light. During ceremonies the initiates would recline on platforms along the side walls of the sanctuary and enjoy a ritual meal. Some 400 sanctuaries are known, a high proportion of them in Rome (35) and Ostia (15), which shows that the cult must have been very popular here. They are also found in army camps along the northern border of the Empire from Britain to the Danube.
In the Roman Empire the most important feature of Mithraism was its series of graded initiations, each of them associated with a planet (see caption). Surviving inscriptions show that there might be one or two ‘Fathers’ in each group and the status of this grade was such that, unlike the lower ones, it could be recorded on an initiate’s tombstone. It has been suggested that the disciplined ascent through the grades appealed especially to soldiers because their rise in status in the cult mirrored their own ascent through the ranks to officer; and to slaves hoping to make a similar transition into freedom.  C.F.

The seven grades of Mithraism, depicted by their symbols, at the Mithraeum of Felicissimus in Ostia:

1) Raven: beaker and caduceus. Planet: Mercury; 
2) Bridegroom: lamp (obliterated) and tiara. Planet: Venus;
3) Soldier: helmet, spear, leather pouch. Planet: Mars;
4) Lion: thunderbolts, sistrum, fire-shovel. Planet: Jupiter;
5) Persian: scythe, moon and star, dagger. Planet: Moon;
6) Heliodromos: torch, whip, crown with rays. Planet: Sun;
7) Father: Phrygian head-dress, sickle, staff. Planet: Saturn.



The Seuso Hunting Plate


The Cesena Plate


The Polgárdi silver stand