Religio Romana

The Religio Romana, also called the Cultus Deorum Romanorum, has a very long history that has always been moving. 

The Roman religion arose from the private religion where household gods were worshipped on the lararium (home altar), and from the ancestor worship.  While Rome grows from a village to a city, a public religion starts to build.  This includes the archaic trias Iuppiter, Mars, Quirinus and some household gods (such as Vesta and Juno) which have been exalted to state gods. 

As long as the territory of the Urbs was extended, the Religio Romana grew larger.  The gods of conquered peoples were not destroyed but brought to Rome (for example Iuno Regina from Veii) and there further honoured.  Next to the Roman gods, Italian, Greek and Oriental gods also found a place in Rome.

There is much to tell about the Religio Romana, but we will only focus on the cult of Mithras for the moment.



For more than 400 years Mithras was worshipped in the entire Roman Empire.  He was known in Europe and Asia under the names Mithra, Mithras, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr or Meher.  His worship reached Europe through Asia minor and spread very quickly, in the beginning of our era, all over the Roman Empire, from Spain to the Black Sea, from Scotland to the Sahara.


The Mithras cult dates back to the time that the Aryan Hindus and the Persians were still one people.  The god Mithras appears in the holy books of both peoples.

In the Indian Veda, he is the rising sun, the sky during the day, he's a light or a solar deity.  In the Persian Avesta he is more a living and ruling god than with the Indians.

The Persians spoke about Mithras as "The Light of the World", "the Spiritual Sun", symbol of truth, justice, loyalty and honesty.

He was also the mediator between the people and the one, unreachable god, the guard of the Gate of Heaven.

As a fertility god, he was also "the Lord of Vast fields", the "Good Shepherd".  According to the Persian myth, Mithras was born from the virgin Anahita, who therefore received the name "Mother of God".

He was a Yazad, a demigod or a genius.  Fathered by Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, he was non the less his equal in worship.


The religion in Persia was reformed by Zarathustra, but Mithras retained his high place in the Iranian Highlands.  He became the god of the Achaemenid Empire.


At the conquest of Babylonia by the Persians the cult came in contact with the Chaldean astronomy and the cult of Marduk and Tammuz (also a solar deity, born from a virgin).


This adapted form of the cult travelled further north and westward and became the state cult of Armenia.  From here it went to Pontus, Cappadocia and Cilicia.  Mithras came here into contact with the Phrygian cult of Cybele and Attis.

Asia Minor: Hellenism

In Asia Minor Hellenism mixed with the Iranian-Babylonian thought.  A syncretion with Orphic and Dionysian mystery cults was created.

Mithras absorbed everything in itself and around 230 BC, mithraism as we know it in Rome gave rise.

When the Romans conquered Pergamon (133 BC), and two legions were stationed in Asia Minor, the success of Mithras in the West was secured.

Roman soldiers

Mithras spoke to the soldiers: he was a fighter, he was the god of masculinity and fedelity.  He attached great importance to friendship and fraternity.  Soldiers, Oriental slaves and traders spread the cult to all cities of the Roman Empire.


More than 100 inscriptions, dedicated to Mithras, were found in Rome, along with about the same amount of fragments of images.  Mithraea were found in all parts of the city.  One of the largest temples, built in Rome, lies beneath the present Church of San Clemente, near the Coliseum.


Many historians, even Roman ones, were, and still are, amazed at the similarities between the faith of Mithras and in the faith of Christ.

Mithras: the doctrine

We really don’t know much about the cult.  We can only go by what we found: remains of mithraea, crockery, images, graphics and texts.  We also have references to two Roman writers who have written about the cult, but their works are lost.


We do know that Mithras had a militant character, that he was always ready for battle, ready to help his followers in their struggle against evil and to bring them to victory.  The cult of Mithras was, therefore, a form of military service; life on Earth was a campaign led by the victorious god.


Just like in the army, there were ranks in the cult.  We know seven:

  • Corax (the raven)

  • Nymphus or Chryphos (the bee doll or the hidden one)

  • Miles (the soldier)

  • Leo (the lion)

  • Perses (the Persian)

  • Heliodromus (the sun runner)

  • Pater (the father)


Each degree knew his own initiation rites.  What those were, we can only suspect on the basis of the images.  Each level had its own features.  Some degrees possibly belonged to a priestly caste.

Personal relationship

The success of Mithras is easy to understand.  Through the initiation rites, a personal relationship between man and his god was formed.  The Oriental cults laid the emphasis on personal salvation throughout life and in the hereafter.  Such a bond between God and believer was missing with the traditional Roman gods.

Fight against evil

Followers of Mithras placed self-control, self-denial and sexual abstinence, high in their priorities.  Mithras represented an ethical system, in which brotherhood was encouraged, to jointly fight against the forces of evil.


His followers believed that the beneficial forces of Mithras would relieve their suffering and that he would give them the immortality and eternal bliss in the world which was to come.  Everyone was looking forward to the Last Judgement, the day when the dead would rise and Mithras would lead the true believers into Paradise.  The Light would overcome the Darkness and the evil would be destroyed forever.


Through a baptism the believer underwent a ritual purification.  This happened during a ceremony, in which was also drunk wine and eaten bread and this ritual was announced with the following words: "He who does not eat my body and drink my blood, so that he is not one with me and I am not with him, the same will not be saved".


Sundays were dedicated to Mithras the high, it was the day of the Lord.


The birth of the god Mithras was annually celebrated on December 25th.

"Easter": killing the bull

The main act that Mithras performed, was his struggle with a symbolic bull, which he overcame and sacrificed.  From the blood of this sacrifice, peace and plenty came forth, symbolized by ears of wheat.  In the ancient Persian writings Mithras was the bull itself; therefore the god sacrificed himself for the salvation of mankind.


Later on the bull was replaced by a ram; but the ram from the Zodiac (Aries) was in the Persian Zodiac a lamb (Bundahish, 11, 2).  So a lamb was sacrificed.


After accomplishing his earthly mission, he takes a Last Supper with his twelve companions.  Then he ascends to heaven, to protect from there the faithful forever.

Mithras in Rome

The cult of Mithras had its greatest peak in the 2nd to early 4th century, when there were even emperors initiated and there was always a Pater Patrum at the Imperial Court.

Sol Invictus

The Roman search for a monotheistic cult, supported by philosophical doctrines, led to a comprehensive state cult of the Invincible Sun.

In 210 emperor Elagabalus tried to impose the presentation of the Syrian sun god Baal of Emesa to Rome, but the Romans didn’t accept that a piece of black rock symbolised the sun.  Elagabalus was deposed.

Sol and Mithras

Because a Damnatio Memoriae was pronounced over everything related to Emperor Elagabalus, Sol also shared in the blow.  This problem was handily circumvented by making Mithras more prominent.

Did Mithras not start as an Indian sun god?  Was Mithras not the light?  In the Mithraic cult the redeeming god was already strongly associated with Sol.

Emperor Aurelian (270-275) built a large temple on the Campus Martius in honour of the Sun, as the only heavenly, almighty and divine power.  Now every four years there were great festivities in honour of the new state god and the cult of the Sun got its own priest corps.


This solar cult wasn't really the same as the mithraism, but it did have its advantage.  Sol was the divine personification of the crowd.  While Mithras was meant to still the spiritual hunger of him, who wanted to emerge deeper in faith.

In 307 emperor Diocletian and his fellow emperors named Mithras as the Only protector of the Empire.  The cult was now at the height of his power.

Christ and Mithras

"To have peace in the empire during these difficult times, we need one cult".  These words were of Constantine (also a follower of the Sun).  He first wanted to coalesce one of Mithras and Jesus, but finally chose in 310, for political reasons, for the Christians.

During his reign and those of his sons, there was still a good understanding between the Christians (which, incidentally, were more fighting with each other) and the pagan majority.  In Rome almost everyone was still a follower of the ancient religion.

Gradual sunset

From 376-377 Paganism started to be sued legally in the empire.  But the disappearance of the pagan cults should also be sought in the fact that their ceremonies and doctrines were taken over by the Church so that they were as it were absorbed by their enemy.  So did the cult of Mithras.

The difficulties began with an edict of Gratian from 382, that forbade non-Christian images in the building of the Senate of Rome.

The end came further by the edicts of Theodosius I: February 27, 392; all public pagan sacrifices in Rome and all visits to pagan temples were banned.

The final blow came on November 8, 392, when any non-Christian practice, also private, was heavily punished.  That things didn’t went so quickly is proven by the repeated annual renewals of these laws.  Yet Christianity took gradually power in the Roman Empire.  The demise of Mithras was a fact.