Monday, November 16, 2015


Franz Cumont, Les mystères de Mithra (volume édité par Nicole Belayche & Attilio Mastrocinque avec la collaboration de Daniela Bonanno). Bibliotheca Cumontiana. Scripta maiora, 3. Savigliano: Nino Aragno Editore, 2013. Pp. xc, 258. ISBN 9788884196101. €70.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew M. McCarty, University of British Columbia (

Version at BMCR home site


An era when even the whisper of terms like "doctrine" or "belief" sends historians of Roman religion scurrying may seem like a strange time to re-issue Franz Cumont's turn-of-the-twentieth-century synthesis of Mithraism. After all, it was Cumont who forged disparate textual and visual remains related to Mithras into a coherent system of ideas and spiritual content, into something that resembled a nineteenth-century, Protestant-looking "World Religion." Yet this volume, with its rich historiographic introductory essays and inclusion of Cumont's previously unpublished essay on the spread of Mithraism, offers much to those interested in the historiography of Classical and religious studies, as well as a chance to reflect critically on the method and practice of ancient history.

This edition of Les Mystères de Mithra (MM), originally the concluding synthesis of Cumont's corpus of Textes et Monuments Figurés Relatifs aux Mystères de Mithra (TMM, 1894-1899), appears as part of a grand project sponsored by the Academia Belgica in Rome. The project aims to re-contextualize the Belgian savant and his works within their particular milieu of cultural history; to acknowledge their impact on the theories and methods of historical enquiry and Continental Altertumswissenschaft; to understand the genesis and reception of each of Cumont's works; and generally to grapple with Cumont's long-lived grouping of "Oriental Cults," including Mithraism. In the words of the one of the directors of the Bibliotheca Cumontiana project, the goal of the project is to allow modern readers to appreciate "l'originalité, les qualités et les défauts, les limites et la portée, l'impact et l'actualité des textes de Cumont."1

In some senses, the earlier products of this program have already done most of the broader historiographic heavy-lifting by providing a number of insights into Cumont's place within Continental intellectual history and the burgeoning, non-theological study of religion, as well as the long afterlife of Cumont's grand narrative of "Oriental Cults."2 Indeed, one of the premises underlying the present edition of MM is the general coherence of Cumont's ideas over time (with the exception of minor adjustments to his historical schema), allowing for his later comments in letters and lectures to be brought to bear on the aims and genesis of MM. This premise frees the introductory essays here to focus very narrowly on MM, which they do in six parts: Cumont's formation and early engagement with Mithras; the scholarship on Mithraism prior to MM; the preparation of TMM and appearance of MM; Cumont's central arguments; the immediate reception of the work; and a brief account of changes in the interpretation of Mithraism since Cumont.

Using letters, unpublished notes, and Cumont's later publications, Nicole Belayche recounts the story of the genesis, publication, and reception of MM. In the midst of late nineteenth-century fascination with the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity, explaining these phenomena sat at the heart of Cumont's intellectual projects, even if Cumont himself explicitly disavowed this aim at the beginning of MM. Belayche closely documents Cumont's engagement with a network of other scholars (those living, like Alfred Loisy, or dead, like Félix Lajard) and their works: a task aided by the inclusion of Cumont's previously unpublished essay, "L'introduction du culte de Mithra en Occident" (c. 1889), edited by Daniela Bonanno and appended in this edition. Complete with Theodor Mommsen's comments and criticisms penciled in the margins, the essay shows how many of Cumont's main lines of enquiry and argument were largely set over a decade prior to the publication of MM.

Belayche's short but thorough summary of these five main arguments in the introduction provides a useful account for those unfamiliar with MM: that Mithraism was always, at heart, a form of Persian Mazdeism, with layers of Babylonian astrology, Hellenism, and local adaptation forming around that core; that Mithraism spread through the Roman Empire as soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Mithraism's heartland in Anatolia and Mesopotamia carried their cult around the empire; that Mithraism's success in the Roman Empire was tied to its "Oriental" promotion of divine monarchy, an ideology that went hand-in-hand with the growing despotism of Roman emperors; that myth and its meaning, reconstructable through the images that decorated mithraea across the empire, were central to Mithraism; and that, while the cult may have been comparable to Christianity in many ways, Mithraism did not pose a fully credible challenger to Christianity for social and geographic reasons.

A second part of the introductory material, by Attilio Mastrocinque, unevenly assesses some recent developments in the study of Mithraism, and how they relate to Cumont's main arguments. The chapter neither intends nor offers an encyclopedic account of Mithraic studies since Cumont (more complete bibliographies can be found elsewhere),3 but it offers a selection of new finds related to Mithras and summary of some post-Cumontian debates over the origin, spread, and intellectual content (philosophical, astrological) of Mithraism.

If the historiographic essays and Cumont's own unpublished essay, bracketing the text of the third French edition of MM, offer a range of informational nuggets and useful insights, they rarely stake claims about the greater and continued import of MM, except in passing or where later studies have confirmed portions of Cumont's arguments. Besides being the foundational text for the study of ancient Mithraism—a work that is still the point of departure or disagreement for all current studies—MM still has much to offer the study of ancient religion, Mithraic or otherwise.

First, although Cumont's basic premise of what constituted "religion" as an object of enquiry might be suspect in an age when Durkheim (whose ideas never registered in Cumont's writings) casts a far longer shadow over Roman cults, and when ritual has supplanted creed in ancient religion, Cumont's aim of reconstructing the thought-world of Mithraism through its myth-narrative offers a reminder that even in the Roman world, myth and pensée could be important subjects of study. Without downplaying the significant and continuing contributions of ritual and sociological analysis to religion in the Roman world, understanding the potential thought-worlds of ancient cult, whether couched in terms of epistemology or cognition, remains an important desideratum. 4

Formulating methods to do so through material, rather than textual, sources, is not only a second desideratum, but part of the other key methodological claim made by MM. For Cumont, images, like the scenes of Mithras stabbing the bull, were central to the study of ancient religion in their own right. If Cumont's contemporary (and the other major francophone father of the study of Roman religion), Jules Toutain, could criticize Cumont for straying too far from the seeming realia of inscriptions,5 Cumont constructs the central chapters of MM almost solely on the basis of Mithraic iconography. With a few exceptions, Toutain's vision seems to have won out in modern scholarship: images are at best illustrations in accounts of Roman religion derived from epigraphic sources (like the Arval Acts) or built up through literature. Even if Cumont's universalizing readings of the iconography of Mithraic reliefs can be rejected, it may be time to move images and objects back to the center of ancient religion, and to articulate new means of interpretation.6

Many of the central arguments of MM have been supplanted in the last century, both as more data have become available through excavation of mithraea (or chance finds) and as Cumont's methods and assumptions have come under fire. Yet as the introductory essays here, and the text itself, make clear, MM deserves to be read and re-read, not just as a historiographic curiosity or product of its time, but as a reminder of alternative ways to think about ancient religion: ways that can still bear valuable fruit.


1.   C. Bonnet, "Rééditer Franz Cumont : pourquoi ? comment ?" Anabases 4 (2006): 269.
2.   C. Bonnet and A. Bendlin (eds), "Les 'religions orientales': approches historiographiques," Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 8 (2006): 151-273. C. Bonnet, J. Rüpke, and P. Scarpi (eds), Religions orientales – culti misterici (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2006). C. Bonnet, S. Ribichini, and D. Steuernagel (eds), Religioni in contatto nel Mediterraneo antico (Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2008). C. Bonnet, V. Pirenne-Delforges, and D. Praet (eds), Les religions orientales, cent ans après Cumont. Bilan historiographique et perspectives historiques (Rome: Institut historique belge de Rome, 2009).
3.   R. Beck, "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," ANRW II.17.4, 2002-2115. R. Beck, "Mithraism after 'Mithraism since Franz Cumont," in Beck on Mithraism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 3-23. M. Martens and G. de Boe, "Bibliography of Mithraic Studies," in M. Martens and G. de Boe (eds), Roman Mithraism: The Evidence of the Small Finds (Brussels: IAP, 2004), 363-385.
4.   Important contributions in these areas include C. Ando, The Matter of the Gods (Berkley: UC Press, 2008), alongside his recent articles on the underpinnings of cult in the Roman world; R. Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford: OUP, 2006).
5.   J. Toutain, Les cultes païens dans l'empire romain II: Les cultes orientales (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1911), 124.
6.   It is telling, perhaps, that many of the most important theoretical works on images and religion in the ancient world have been penned or inspired by scholars of Mithraism, including many of the essays collected in R. Gordon, Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996) and, under the direction of one of the editors of the present volume, S. Estienne et al. (eds), Figures de dieux (Rennes: PU Rennes, 2015).

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