Sunday, June 23, 2013


Manfred Clauss, Mithras: Kult und Mysterium. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2012. Pp. 192; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9783805345811. $29.99.

Reviewed by Roger Beck, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Although not explicitly identified as such, Clauss's Mithras is a revised edition of his book of the same title, originally published by C. H. Beck in 1990.1 Accordingly, this review will concentrate on Clauss's coverage of the new material, both archaeological and scholarly, available to him over the intervening twenty-two years. The question of changes in Clauss's own approach is quickly answered. His methods and interpretations remain the same.

As before, Clauss's Mithras is the one indispensable general study of this Roman mystery cult. After an introduction to the god himself and to the religious scene of the Roman empire into which he migrated from the East, Clauss presents in order the cult's spread in time and space; its membership; its sacred space (the "cave" or mithraeum, as we now call it) and its furnishings; the cult-myth and its representation on the monuments (Mithras's birth from the rock, the so-called "water miracle," Mithras's pursuit and sacrifice of the bull); festivals (initiation, the cult meal which replicates in some way a banquet shared by Mithras and Sol on the hide of the bull); cult pottery and other utensils; the seven grades of initiation, which Clauss treats as a priestly hierarchy; Mithras as "helper" and the cult's moral teachings; Mithras and other gods, in particular Sol and the cult's own god of time (normally represented as lion-headed, snake- encircled, and winged); finally, Mithraism and Christianity and the end of the cult. There are useful new regional maps and an updating of the inventory of Mithraists which Clauss compiled in his (again, indispensable) Cultores Mithrae: Die Anhängerschaft des Mithras-Kultes (Stuttgart 1992).

So, what's new? First are the sixteen colour plates, which are gorgeous and on which the publishers are to be congratulated, given the book's very reasonable price. New and notable are no. 2 (see p. 25 and n. 42), the heads-on- wall fresco scene from the Hawarte mithraeum in Syria, discovered and excavated in the late 1990s; and no. 3 (see pp. 36 f. and n. 62), the fresco of side-scenes from the mithraeum in the Tribune's house in Aquincum (Budapest), discovered and excavated in the 1980s. Colourful old favourites are also well served: nos 7, 16 – the bull-killing relief of the Castra Peregrinorum (S. Stefano Rotondo) mithraeum in Rome; and nos 10-14 – the fresco initiation scenes on the side-benches of the Capua mithraeum.

Mithraism is an exciting field of research, for a steady stream of new discoveries, some of them quite unusual, still flows. Clauss has taken cognizance of most of them, though some of them rather cursorily. For example, he does not describe or try to account for the the full array of the strange Hawarte frescos (above), nor does he place them in a narrative of Mithraism in the late fourth century on the eastern margins of empire – something he does very successfully (see below) for the mithraea and the cult in the north-west. One important monument is missing altogether: the Syrian tauroctony with some unusual, indeed unique, side-scenes, published by Albert De Jong in 1997.2

Two of the most remarkable of the newer finds in the West are the bronze tablet from Virunum (in Noricum) with the album (membership list) of a Mithraic community over some nineteen years and the ritual vessel from Mainz showing on its sides representations of seven persons engaged in two ritual scenes. The former gives us a unique profile of a Mithraic community over time, which Klauss discusses in an addition to his section "Kultraum und Gemeinschaft" (62-64 with new fig. 63, 133). The latter, since it raises the question of whether and how the seven figures correlate to the seven grades of initiation, Klauss introduces briefly (99 f. with fig. 99) part way through his discussion of the Capua initiation scenes; note 139 sets out succinctly the interpretative solutions of four scholars.

The most successful of Clauss's additions, as I suggested above, concerns the end of Mithraism in the north-west of the empire and the evidence of the excavated mithraea there (some of them recent discoveries). For the final chapter, Clauss retains the title ("Mithras und Christus") but greatly expands his treatment of the struggle between the two religions; and he transfers to the end the section on the cult's suppression and/or collapse. This section also he greatly expands, appropriately drawing on the outstanding work of Eberhard Sauer.3 Here only, in my opinion, has Clauss really updated the history of Mithraism in a meaningful sense.4

On the massive presence of astral symbolism in the cult's monuments Clauss, unfortunately, has nothing to say; likewise, nothing on the testimony of Porphyry (De antro nympharum), borne out by considerable archaeological evidence that the mithraeum was designed as an "image of the cosmos" for "initiation into the descent and return of souls" and accordingly furnished with "symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos." Those who have argued, as has the present reviewer, that this evidence should be taken seriously are summarily dismissed in the Introduction (8-10).

As an interested party, I shall limit myself to just two criticisms. (1) For Clauss's denial that the tauroctony (the complex composition of the bull-killing) functions as a star chart to be credible, his case should have been argued, not merely asserted. In particular, he should have challenged, not just ignored, my article "Astral symbolism in the tauroctony: A statistical demonstration of the extreme improbability of unintended coincidence in the selection of elements in the composition."5 (2) The cogent evidence of mithraea supporting, at least for central Italy, Porphyry's statement (above) about the mithraeum's design and function should not have been altogether absent. Where in a a book with 140 figures and plates are pictures and plans of the Vulci mithraeum and of the Sette Sfere and Sette Porte mithraea?

It is for this reason that, while Clauss's revised edition of Mithras: Kult und Mysterium will remain the single most necessary work on Mithraism, it will not wholly satisfy every reader at every level.


1.   The book was translated into English by R. L. Gordon, with the title The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries (Edinburgh 2000). Gordon's translation has a selection of "Further reading" (185-90), valuable because it includes much more than just those works which had appeared in the decade following Clauss's original publication.
2.   "A new Syrian Mithraic tauroctony," Bulletin of the Asia Institute, N.S., 11, 53-63. See also my "Mithraism after 'Mithraism Since Franz Cumont'," Beck on Mithraism: Collected works with new essays (Aldershot and Burlington VT 2004), 3-23, at 10 f.
3.   The End of Paganism in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire: The example of the Mithras cult, BAR S634 (Oxford 1996); The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World (Stroud 2003); "Not just small change – Coins in Mithraea," in M. Martens and G. De Boe (eds), Roman Mithraism: The evidence of the small finds (Brussels 2004), 327-53.
4.   Nevertheless, there are several additions and changes, which are important in their own right. These include (1) the use of the Dura mithraeum as an example of a Mithraic community (42-5); (2) the Martigny mithraeum, published in 1995 (49 f. with fig. 7); (3) the so-called "Mithraic Catechism from Egypt," published in 1992 (98); the Tienen mithraeum, notable for the animal remains of a huge midsummer feast (108). This last discovery was the trigger for a salutary scholarly turn towards the "small finds" (see the volume mentioned in n. 3, above).
5.   Beck on Mithraism (above, n. 2), 251-65.

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