Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Gabriel Sicoe, Mithräischen Steindenkmäler aus Dakien. Cluj Napoca: Editura Mega, 2014. Pp. 338. ISBN 9786065434974.

Reviewed by Csaba Szabó, University of Pécs; University of Erfurt (

Version at BMCR home site


In the last two decades, numerous books and articles dealing with the provincial aspects of Roman Mithraism have appeared.1 The new approaches brought by cognitive archaeology and the "archaeology of the sacred" have amplified the importance of the neglected archaeological material (small finds) creating the old-new concept of "sacred snapshots," or contexts and not objects.2 The new tendencies in Mithraic studies, including both— archaeological and theoretical approaches,—urge the necessity of a new, updated corpus of Marteen Vermaseren's monumental Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae.3

Gabriel Sicoe's monograph is an important contribution toward this end. His book is the first synthesis that deals with the extremely rich Mithraic material of the province of Dacia since CIMRM was compiled between 1956 and 1960. The book is a slightly modified version of Sicoe's Ph.D. thesis, defended at the Humboldt University in 2013 after a more than ten years of research conducted mainly in the museums and libraries of Romania, Hungary, Rome and Germany. Some preliminary results have already been published by the author.4

The first chapter presents the historiography of international and Romanian scholarship in Mithraic studies. Citing especially the works of Roger Beck, Sicoe highlights also the importance of the Tienen conference from 2001 and the proceedings of this meeting published in 2004, unanimously considered a turning point that introduced both new methodological approaches and hitherto neglected groups of archaeological artifacts (small finds, coins, votive contexts) . Yet Sicoe moves in a very different direction, underlining that his main aim is to present only the figurative monuments of Dacia, following in the footsteps of Will and Campbell to create iconographic typologies by comparing "local" or "Dacian" monuments to the "universal" iconography of the cult.5

In the next chapter, Sicoe briefly presents the discovery of the mithraea of Dacia, beginning with Pál Király's famous 1882-3 discovery in Sarmizegetusa, which included 96 reliefs and other important artifacts, the biggest find of this kind in the whole Roman Empire. An interesting part of this chapter deals with the estimation of the number of Mithras sanctuaries based on the number of the so-called "Kuldbilds" or cult-reliefs. He states that the size of a relief is not always relevant for these kinds of estimations and urges a reinterpretation of the interior of Mithraic contexts and the role of objects in them.

The three subsequent chapters deal with the archaeological data of the province, though still concentrating on the reliefs (22 sub-sections, as opposed to 3 for statuary and 5 for inscriptions). This tremendous disproportion is not surprising for a book that explicitly claims to focus on the figural and typological aspects of this material, a difficult task in itself, Dacia yielding the fourth richest trove of material— after Rome, the Germaniae and Pannoniae.

The author presents 110 inscriptions from Dacia, partitioning and presenting them in geographic order from north to south. This division could cause confusion, as it is organized around the place of the discovery of the inscription and not the original provenance of it (the examples from Vinţu de Jos and Doştat were found as pierres errantes). As always happen, the number of the inscriptions differs from that in the last great corpuses on the cult of Mithras in Dacia. 6 A very useful list is the summary of the dedicational form of the votive inscriptions, where the formula Soli Invicto Mithrae leads with 20 examples. It would be very useful if the author had analyzed the dedicational forms in comparison with other provinces and also in a chronological aspect; still, Sicoe's work provides a useful jumping-off point for such future work. As far as dedicants, Sicoe presents each follower and their social status, as well as their "ethnic" origins.

The next chapter presents the statuary monuments from Dacia in the same laconic way, counting 15 statues, 8 of them representing Mithras Petrogenitus in a particular iconography and 4 the torchbearers. One famous representation of Cautes drawn by Layard and Müller in the nineteenth century is missing today. Similarly, some problematic representations of the torchbearers or even Mithras—preserved as fragments—are presented very briefly.

Sicoe's most outstanding contribution comes in the next chapter, which analyzes for the first time all 182 Mithraic reliefs from Dacia. The author presents the local particularities of the reliefs, focusing especially the so-called "Sarmizegetusa workshop", where numerous specific iconographies are identified, including the torchbearers holding two torches, the presence of small altars (the bracca persica), the presence of the lion and the krater or some particularities of the dagger sheaths on the side of Mithras Tauroctonos. In the Sarmizegetusa collection, Sicoe identifies local types and their spread in Dacia as well as their spread in Moesia Inferior and other Danubian provinces. He deals in a separate subchapter with the iconography of the torchbearers in Dacia and for the first time gives a detailed analysis for all of the scenes in the small registers. Sicoe identifies 64 reliefs that could be considered local—only 15 of them being proved as such by petrographic analysis. 31 of these could come from the same workshop. The author does not proclaim the existence of a single, "provincial" workshop centered in Sarmizegetusa, but highlights with numerous analogies and sharp logic the obvious influence of the capital in the Mithraic iconography of Dacia and the Danubian provinces. Sicoe identifies three main specific iconographic elements as a specialty for this workshop: the position of the dagger in Mithras Tauroctonos' hand, the kneeling position of the bull already forced down onto the ground, and the rare iconography of the torchbearers with two torches.

A subchapter deals with the imported reliefs found in Dacia. The identification of these was made on the basis of the petrographic analysis of several international projects and on some particular iconographic features (the absence of Luna and Sol for example) that appear only on these reliefs.

About the chronology of the Dacian corpus, Sicoe is very careful: based on the epigraphic data and the iconography of the finds, he found eleven reliefs dated in the second century A.D. Some of the reliefs from the so-called "Sarmizegetusa workshop" are dated to the Antonine period, others to the Severan period. He dates the earliest mithraeum to the time of Hadrian and the latest to the Severan period. In the case of Dacia, where the Roman presence was focused mainly in two short centuries (106-271 A.D.) the chronology is much more relative than in other provinces.

The book ends with a detailed catalogue of the finds and the presentation of the 254 pieces with 145 photos, many of them published first time with high-resolution pictures.

Gabriel Sicoe's book is an important step, marking the new tendencies of Romanian historiography to fill the great lacks of the discipline.7 One cannot expect a single book to resolve all the problems and missing tasks of Mithraic studies in Dacia—especially when several new projects and excavations are focusing now on this topic. Sicoe's book deals only with the iconography of the finds, giving also the first unified corpus of Mithraic finds of the province after Vermaseren. However, the corpus is not complete: the author does not mention some notable recent inscriptions ( 2010, 1369). Other, recently rediscovered Mithraic pieces (CIMRM 1938) and the new finds of the so-called Mithraeum III from Apulum will also change his corpus. The problematic relation of Mithras—Sol Invictus and their appearance in Dacia is mentioned in a single footnote (nr. 96). Similarly, the highly attested megatheism and henotheist tendencies of some communities from Apulum and Sarmizegetusa—some of them strictly related to the Mithraic communities—are also neglected.

However, the author chose as his book's main aim the iconographic typology; a detailed study on the social network of the Mithras worshippers and their relationship within the province would paints a much more complex picture than the one obtained from these objects alone. The functionality of the reliefs and their role in the interior "star talk" of a mithreaum is mentioned very briefly. The discovery and the context of the Sarmizegetusa mithraeum and the Oancea mithraeum (discovered in 1930 and not in 1941) are presented too briefly.

In sum, Gabriel Sicoe's book is a milestone in the Romanian—but also in international—Mithraic studies. Even if this book treats only a particular aspect of the Mithras cult in Dacia—a synthes is still needed—it is an important step for further studies and an essential corpus for researchers. Its great merits include— its extremely accurate, clear language; logical construction; argumentation; meticulous analysis of the iconographic program of the reliefs; and the high quality of some images. Sicoe's book is one of the first steps towards establishing a CIMRM Supplementum.


1.   Sagona, Claudia, Looking for Mithra in Malta. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion, 10. Leiden, 2009, Hensen, Andreas, Mithras: Der Mysterienkult an Limes, Rhein und Donau, Theiss, 2013.
2.   Martens, Marlene - Boe, de Guy (ed.), Roman Mithraism: The Evidence of Small Finds, Bruxelles, 2004.
3.   A new initiative for a Supplementum was the Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies (EJMS). Similar projects are in progress by Darius Frackowiak from the University of Heidelberg and Matthew McCarty from Princeton University.
4.   G. Sicoe, Lokalproduktion und Importe. Der Fall der mithraischen Reliefs aus Dakien. In: Martens, Marlene - Boe, de Guy (ed.), Roman Mithraism: the evidence of small finds, Bruxelles, 2004, 285-303.
5.   Campbell, Leroy, Mithraic iconography and ideology, Leiden, 1969, Will, Ernst, Le relief culturel gréco-romain. Contribution a l’histoire de l’art de l’Empire romain, Paris, 1955.
6.   The last corpus for the Mithraic inscriptions from Dacia: Carbó García, Juan-Ramón, Los cultos orientales en la Dacia romana. Formas dedifuzión, integración y control social e ideológico, Salamanca, 2010, 717-741.
7.   Nemeti, Sorin – Marcu, Felix, "The historiography of religions in Roman Dacia. A brief account", in: Boda Imola – Szabó Csaba, The bibliography of Roman Religion in Dacia, Cluj – Napoca, 2014, 9 – 20.

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