Mithras, Jesus and Josephus Flavius
Coin showing Emperor Constantine and the God Mithras on the opposite side
On 384 AD Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the last “papa” (acronym of the words Pater Patrum = Fathers’ Father) of the so called Cult of Mithras, died in Rome. His name, and his religious and political appointments, are written on the basement of St Peters’ Basilica, together with the names of a long list of other Roman senators, spanning a period from 305 to 390. The one thing that they have in common is that they all are “patres” of Mithras. As many as nine among them have the supreme title of Pater Patrum, clear evidence that it was here, inside the Vatican, that the supreme leader of the mithraic organization resided, on the site of the most sacred Basilica of Christianity, erected by Constantine the Great in 320 a.D. For at least 70 years the supreme leaders of two “religions” that were always supposed to be competitors, if not sworn enemies, lived peacefully and in perfect harmony side by side. It was the same Praetextatus, as prefect of the city, who defended Damasus against his opponents, on 367, and confirmed him as bishop of Rome.
Praetextatus often declared that he willingly had accepted to be baptized, if the see of St. Peter was offered to him. Following his death, however, the opposite happened. The title of Pater Patrum fell (today we would say by default) upon Damasus’ successor, the bishop Siricius, who was the first, in the Church’s history, to assume the title of “papa” (pope). Together with it he took also upon himself a long series of other prerogatives, titles, symbols, objects and possessions, which passed en masse from Mithraism to Christianity.
It was a true handover from the Mithraic pope to the Christian one, which we can only understand in the light of what had happened the year before, 383. On that date, the Senate almost unanimously voted for the abolition of paganism and all its symbols in Rome and throughout the Western empire. A vote that always puzzled the historians, because in their opinion the majority of the senators were pagans and represented the last stronghold of paganism against the irresistible advance of Christianity. This opinion, however, is utterly in disagreement with what during those same years the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, used to declare, that the Christians had the majority in the senate. Who is right, Ambrose or modern historians?
The bishop of Milan was a member of a great senatorial family and closely followed the Roman events; so it is unlikely that he could be wrong on a matter of that kind. On the other hand, we cannot give the lie to the historians, because written and archaeological evidence confirm that the majority of the Roman senators were at that time “patres” of the Sol Invictus Mithras (the Invincible Sun Mithras), and therefore, according to common opinion, they were definitely pagans. What nobody seems to have understood, however, is that the two affiliations, to Mithras and to Christianity, were perfectly compatible. There is no lack of historical evidence to prove it.
The most significant of many possible examples is emperor Constantine the Great. He was an affiliate of Sol Invictus Mithras and never disowned it, not even when he openly embraced Christianity, and declared himself to be “God’s servant” and a sort of “universal bishop”. His biographer Eusebius hails him as the “new Moses”, but Constantine was baptized only on his death bed, and he never stopped minting coins with mithraic symbols on one side and Christian ones on the opposite; he even erected in Constantinople a colossal statue of himself wrapped up in mithraic symbols.
As for the Roman senators, several contemporary sources, starting from St. Jerome, affirm that most of their wives and daughters were Christian. An extant example is St. Ambrose, himself a pagan and the son of a Mithraic pagan (the prefect of Gaul Ambrose), according to historians, although there is no doubt that his family was Christian and lived in a profoundly Christian environment. From his childhood, indeed, Ambrose loved to play the part of a bishop, and in the year 353, in St. Peter’s, his sister Marcellina, still a young girl, received the veil of the consecrated virgins from Pope Liberius in person. Formally, however, he remained a pagan until he was designated bishop of Milan. He was actually baptized only fifteen days before being consecrated bishop. The fact is that in that period, Christians destined for a public career were baptized only at the point of death, or when, for one reason or another, they decided to embrace the ecclesiastic career. This was normal practice. The senator Nectarius, who was designated bishop of Antioch by the council of Constantinople in 381, was forced to postpone the consecration ceremony because he had to arrange first for his own baptism.
After the abolition of paganism all Roman senators became Christians overnight, starting with the very Symmachus who went down in History for his stern defence of “pagan” traditions in front of emperor Valentinian. A few years later, in fact, emperor Teodosius, the most fanatic persecutor of heretics and pagans, appointed him as a consul, the highest position in the Roman bureaucracy.
How is it possible, one might ask, that people could follow two different religions at the same time? This is the essential point. There is an enormous and incredible misunderstanding about the so-called “cult” of the Sol Invictus Mithras, which is always presented as a “religion”, arisen in parallel with Christianity and in competition with it. Some historians go so far as to maintain that this religion was so popular and deeply rooted in Roman society that it very nearly won the race with Christianity.
Yet there is absolute evidence that the so called “cult” of Mithras, in Rome, was not a religion, but an esoteric organization, with several levels of initiation, which from the oriental religion had borrowed only the name and a few exterior symbols. For what concerns contents, scope and operative procedures, however, the Roman Mithras had nothing in common with the Persian god.
The Roman Mithraic institution can in no way be defined as a religion devoted to the worship of the Sun – no more than modern Freemasonry can be defined as a religion devoted to the worship of the Great Architect of the Universe. The comparison with modern Freemasonry is quite appropriate and very helpful for understanding what kind of organization we are talking about. Actually, the two institutions are quite similar in their essential characteristic. Freemasonry’s adepts are not requested to profess any particular creed, but only to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, however defined. This Entity is represented in all masonic temples as the Sun, inserted in a triangle, and with a name which is the same given by the Pythagoreans to the Sun. In these temples ceremonies of various kind and rituals are performed, that never have a religious character. Religion is explicitly banned from masonic temples, but in his private life every adept is free to follow whatever creed he likes.
A link between the mithraic and the masonic institutions is far from improbable, as there are profound similarities in the architecture and decoration of the respective temples, symbols, rituals and so on; but it’s a theme outside the scope of this article. The comparison has been made only with the purpose of stressing the point that Mithraism was not a religion dedicated to the worship of a specific divinity, but a secret association of mutual assistance, whose members were free, in their public life, to worship whatever god they liked.
And yet all the adepts of Mithras apparently shared a common attitude towards religion. This is a well known fact. It is the same Praetextatus who exposes in an exhaustive way the philosophy of his organisation in the book “Saturnalia”, written by Macrobius around 430 AD (well after the abolition of paganism). In a long conversation with other great mithraic senators, like Symmachus and Flavianus, Praetextatus affirms that all the different gods of the pagan religion are only different manifestations (or even different names) of a unique supreme Entity, represented by the Sun, the Great Architect of the Universe. This syncretistic vision has been defined, with full reason, as “monotheistic paganism”.
Most historians agree that the followers of Mithras were monotheists; what they fail to underline is the fact that their particular syncretistic vision allowed them to “infiltrate” and get hold of the cult (and revenues) of all pagan divinities. In fact all mithraic grottos harboured (exactly as the masonic temples of today) a host of pagans gods like Saturn, Athena, Venus, Hercules and so on, and the adepts of Mithras in their public life were priests at the service not only of the Sun (who was worshipped in public temples which had nothing to do with the mithraic grottos), but also of all the other Roman gods.
In fact, all the senators who figure in the inscriptions at the base of St Peters’ Basilica, alongside the titles of vir clarissimus (senator), pater, or pater patrum in the cult of Sol Invictus Mithras, also held a long series of other religious positions: sacerdos, hierophanta, archibucolus of Brontes or of Hecate, Isis, and Liberius; maior augur, quindecimvir sacris faciundis and even pontifex of various pagan cults. They were also in charge of the college of the Vestal Virgins and of the sacred fire of Vesta. In the senate, there was no manifestation of cult connected to the pagan tradition that was not celebrated by a senator adhering to the Sol Invictus Mithras. That same senator most of the time was backed by a Christian family.
So, what were they, pagans or Christians? The available evidence on this point is ambiguous. Also the character of Mithras himself, as he is depicted by Christian writers, is absolutely ambiguous. A long series of analogies exists between him and Jesus. Mithras was born on December 25 in a stable to a virgin, surrounded by shepherds who brought gifts. He was venerated on the day of the Sun (Sunday). He bore a halo around his head. He celebrated a last supper with his faithful followers before returning to his father. He was said not to have died, but to have ascended to heaven from where he would return in the last days to raise the dead and judge them, sending the good to Paradise and the evil to Hell. He guaranteed his followers immortality after baptism.
Furthermore, the followers of Mithras believed in the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, and the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. They celebrated the atoning death of a saviour who had risen on a Sunday. They celebrated a ceremony corresponding to the Catholic Mass during which they consumed consecrated bread and wine in memory of the last supper of Mithras—and during the ceremony they used hymns, bells, candles, and holy water. Indeed, they shared with Christians a long series of other beliefs and ritual practices, to the point that they were practically indistinguishable from each other in the eyes of the pagans and also of many Christians.
Early picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the catacomb of Callixtus (Rome)
The existence of a connection between Christianity and the sun cult from the earliest times is recognized by the church fathers, too. Tertullian writes that the pagans “. . . believe that the Christian God is the Sun, because it is a well-known fact that we pray turning towards the rising Sun, and that on the Sun’s day we give ourselves to jubilation” (Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1, 13). He attempts to justify this substantial commonality to the eyes of the Christian faithful, attributing it to Satan’s plagiarism of the most sacred rites and beliefs of the Christian religion.
Constantine believed that Jesus Christ and Sol Invictus Mithras were both aspects of the same Superior Divinity. He was certainly not the only one to have this conviction. Neoplatonism contended that the religion of the sun represented a “bridge” between paganism and Christianity. Jesus was often called by the name Sol Justitiae (Sun of Justice) and was represented by statues that were similar to the young Apollo (strangely enough, Michelangelo represented the Christ of the Universal Judgment with the face of the Apollo Belvedere). Clement of Alexandria describes Jesus driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, and a mosaic of the fourth century shows him on the chariot while he ascends to heaven, represented by the sun. On some coins of the fourth century, the Christian banner at the top reads “Sol Invictus.” A large part of the Roman population believed that Christianity and the worship of the Sun were closely connected, if not the same.
For a very long time the Romans kept on worshipping both the Sun and Christ. On 410 pope Innocentius authorized the resumption of ceremonies in honour of the Sun, hoping so to save Rome from the Visigoths. And in 460 pope Leo the Great wrote: “most Christians, before entering the Basilica of St Peter, turn towards the sun and bow in its honour.” The bishop of Troy openly continued to profess his worship of the Sun even during his episcopate. Another important example in this sense is that of Synesius of Cyrene, a disciple of the famous Neoplatonic philosopher Hypatia, who was killed by the mob in Alexandria on 415. Synesius, not yet baptized, was elected bishop of Ptolemais and metropolitan bishop of Cyrenaica, but he accepted the position only on condition that he did not have to retract his Neoplatonic ideas or renounce his worship of the Sun.
In the light of all of this, how should we consider the position of Mithraists towards Christianity? Competitors or cooperators? Friends or enemies? Perhaps the best indication is given by the coins minted by emperor Constantine until 320 AD, with Christian symbols on one side, mithraic symbols on the other.
Were Jesus and Mithras two faces of the same coin?
The Origins of Mithraism and Christianity
In order to explain the strict relation between Christianity and Mithraism we have to go back to their origins.
Christianity, as we know it, is by universal recognition a creation of St Paul, the Pharisee who was sent to Rome around 61 AD, where he founded the first Christian community of the capital. The religion imposed by Paul in Rome was quite different from that preached by Jesus in Palestine and put into practice by James the Just, who was subsequently the leader of the Christian community of Jerusalem. Jesus’ preaching was in line with the way of living and thinking of the sect known as the Essenes. The doctrinal contents of Christianity as it emerged in Rome, at the end of the 1st century, are extraordinarily close instead to those of the sect of the Pharisees, to which Paul belonged.
Paul was executed probably in 67 by Nero, together with most of his followers. The Roman Christian community was virtually wiped out by Nero’s persecution. We do not have the slightest information about what happened to this community during the following 30 years; a very disturbing blackout of news, because something very important happened in Rome at that period. In fact, some of the most eminent citizens of the capital were converted, like the consul Flavius Clemens, cousin of emperor Domitian; besides the Roman Church assumed a monarchic structure and imposed its leadership on all the Christian communities of the empire, which had to adjust their structure and their doctrine accordingly. This is proved by a long letter of pope Clemens to the Corinthians, written towards the end of Domitian’s reign, where his leadership is clearly stated.
This means that during the years of the blackout, somebody who had access to the imperial house had revived the Roman Christian community to such a point that it could impose its authority upon all the other Christian communities. And it was “somebody” who perfectly knew the doctrine and thinking of Paul, 100% Pharisaic.
The mithraic organization also was born in that same period and in that same environment. Given the scarcity of written documents on the subject, the origin and the spread of the cult of Mithras are known to us almost exclusively from archaeological evidence (remains of mithraea, dedicatory inscriptions, iconography and statues of the god, reliefs, paintings, and mosaics) that survived in large quantities throughout the Roman empire. These archaeological testimonies prove conclusively that, apart from their common name, there was no relationship at all between the Roman cult of Mithras and the oriental religion from which it is supposed to derive. In the whole of the Persian world, in fact, there is nothing that can be compared to a Roman mithraeum. Almost all the mithraic monuments can be dated with relative precision and bear dedicatory inscriptions. As a result, the times and the circumstances of the spread of the Sol Invictus Mithras (these three names are indissolubly linked in all inscriptions, so there is no doubt that they refer to the same and only institution) are known to us with reasonable certainty. Also known are the names, professions, and responsibilities of a large number of people connected to it.
The first mithraeum discovered was set up in Rome at the time of Domitian, and there are precise indications that it was attended by people close to the imperial family, in particular Jewish freedmen. The mithraeum, in fact, was dedicated by a certain Titus Flavius Iginus Ephebianus, a freedman of emperor Titus Flavius, and therefore almost certainly a Romanised Jew. From Rome the mithraic organization spread, during the following century, all over the western empire.
There is a third event, which happened in that same period, connected somehow to the imperial family and to the Jewish environment, to which no particular attention was ever given by the historians: the arrival in Rome of an important group of persons, 15 Jewish high priests, with their families and relatives. They belonged to a priestly class that had ruled Jerusalem for half a millennium, since the return from the Babylonian exile, when 24 priestly lines had stipulated a covenant amongst themselves and created a secret organization with the scope of securing the families’ fortunes, through the exclusive ownership of the Temple and the exclusive administration of the priesthood.
The Roman domination of Judea had been marked by passionate tensions on the religious level, which had provoked a series of revolts, the last of which, in AD 66, was fatal for the Jewish nation and for the priestly family. With the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus Flavius in AD 70, the Temple, the instrument of the family’s power, was razed to the ground, never to be rebuilt, and the priests were killed by the thousands.
There were survivors, of course, in particular a group of 15 high priests, who had sided with the Romans, surrendering to Titus the treasure of the Temple, and for that reason they had been kept in their properties and were given Roman citizenship. They then followed Titus to Rome, where they apparently disappeared from the stage of history, never again to play a visible role – apart from the one who undoubtedly was the leader of that group, Josephus Flavius.
Josephus was a priest who belonged to the first of the 24 priestly family lines. At the time of the revolt against Rome, he had played a leading role in the events that tormented Palestine. Sent by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin to be governor of Galilee, he had been the first to fight against the legions of the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who had been ordered by Nero to quell the revolt. Barricaded inside the fortress of Jotapata, he bravely withstood the Roman troops’ siege. When the city finally capitulated, he surrendered, asking to be granted a personal audience with Vespasian (The Jewish War, III, 8, 9). Their meeting led to an upturn in the fortunes of Vespasian, as well as in those of Josephus: the former was shortly to become emperor in Rome, while the latter not only had his life spared, but not long afterward, was “adopted” into the emperor’s family and assumed the name Flavius. He then received Roman citizenship, a patrician villa in Rome, a life income and an enormous estate. The prize of his treason.
The priests of this group had one thing in common: they were all traitors of their people and therefore certainly banished from the Jewish community. But they all belonged to a millenarian family line, bound together by the secret organization created by Ezra, and possessing a unique specialisation and experience in running a religion and, through it, a country. The scattered remnants of the Roman Christian community offered them a wonderful opportunity to profit from their millennial experience.
We don’t know anything about their activity in Rome, but we have clear hints of it through the writings of Josephus Flavius. After a few years he started to write down the history of the events of which he had been a protagonist, with the aim, apparently, of justifying his betrayal and that of his companions. It was God’s will, he claims, who called him to build a Spiritual Temple, instead of the material one destroyed by Titus. These words certainly were not addressed to Jewish ears, but to Christian ones. Most historians are sceptical about the fact that Josephus was a Christian, and yet the evidence in his writings is compelling. In a famous passage (the so called Testimonium Flavianum) in his book Jewish Antiquities, he reveals his acceptance of two fundamental points, the resurrection of Jesus, and his identification with the Messiah of prophecies, which are necessary and sufficient condition for a Jew of that time to be considered a Christian. The Christian sympathies of Josephus also clearly emanate from other passages of the same work, where he speaks with great admiration of John the Baptist as well as of James, the brother of Jesus.
Roman bust (Israel) said to be of Josephus Flavius
Josephus Flavius and St Paul
The arguments used by Josephus Flavius to justify his own betrayal and that of his brethren seem to echo the words of St. Paul. The two seem to be perfectly in agreement with regard to their attitude towards the Roman world. Paul, for example, considered it his task to free the church of Jesus from the narrowness of Judaism and from the land of Judaea and to make it universal, linking it to Rome. They are also in agreement on other significant points: for example, both of them declare their belief in the doctrines of the Pharisees, which were those that were wholly received by the Roman church.
There are sufficient historical indications to lead us to consider it for certain that the two knew each other and were linked by a strong friendship. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that after reaching Jerusalem, Paul was brought before the high priests and the Sanhedrin to be judged (Acts 22:30). He defended himself:
“Brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.” And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, “We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.” And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them.”
Josephus was a high-ranking priest and he was in Jerusalem at that time; he certainly was present at that assembly. He had joined the sect of the Pharisees at the age of nineteen and so he must have been among those priests who stood up to defend Paul. The apostle was then handed over to the Roman governor, Felix, who kept him under arrest for some time, until he was sent to Rome, together with some other prisoners (Acts 27:1), to be judged by the emperor, to whom, as a Roman citizen, Paul had appealed. In Rome, he spent two years in prison (Acts 28:39) before being set free in AD 63 or 64.
In his autobiography (Life, 3.13), Josephus says:
"Between the age of twenty-six and twenty-seven I embarked on a journey to Rome, for the following reason. During the period when he was governor of Judaea, Felix had sent some priests to Rome to justify themselves before the emperor; I knew them to be excellent people, who had been arrested on insignificant charges. As I desired to devise a plan to save them, . . . I journeyed to Rome.”
Somehow, Josephus succeeded in reaching Rome, where he made friends with Aliturus, a Jewish mime who was appreciated by Nero. Thanks to Aliturus, he was introduced to Poppaea, the wife of the emperor, and through her agency, he succeeded in freeing the priests (Life, 3.16).
The correspondence of dates, facts, and people involved is so perfect that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Josephus went to Rome, at his own personal risk and expense, specifically to free Paul and his companions, and that it was due to his intervention that the apostle was released. This presupposes that the relationship between the two was much closer than that of a simple occasional acquaintance. Thus Josephus must have known much more about Christianity than is evident from his works, and his knowledge came directly from the teaching of Paul, of whom, in all likelihood, he was a disciple.
When Josephus returned to Rome in AD 70, his master had been executed, together with most of the Christians he had converted, his fatherland had been annihilated, the Temple destroyed, the priestly family almost exterminated, his reputation tarnished by the stain of treachery. He must have been animated by very strong desires for redemption and revenge. Besides he probably felt responsible for the destinies of the humiliated remnants of one of the greatest families in the world, the 15 high priests who shared his same condition. There is information about a meeting presided over by Josephus Flavius, unquestionably the strongest and most important character in that group of people, during the course of which the priests examined the situation of their family and decided on a strategy to improve its fortunes. Josephus lucidly conceived a plan that in those circumstances would have appeared to anybody else to be of the utmost folly. This man, sitting amid the smoking ruins of what had been his fatherland, surrounded by a few humiliated, disconsolate survivors rejected by their fellow countrymen, aspired to no less than conquering that enormous, powerful Empire that had defeated him, and establishing his descendants and those of the men around him as the ruling class of that Empire.
The first step in that strategy was taking control of the newborn Christian religion and transforming it into a solid basis of power for the priestly family. Having come to Rome in the entourage of Titus, and thus strong in the emperor’s protection and well supplied from an economic point of view, these priests could not have encountered great problems in taking over the leadership of the tiny group of Christians who had survived Nero’s persecutions, legitimated as they were by the relationship of Josephus Flavius with Paul.
Only six years had passed since he sought Paul’s freedom from Roman imprisonment. The Apostle of the Nations must have died at least three years before. Josephus must have felt a moral obligation to continue the deeds of his ancient master whose doctrine he knew perfectly, and, sensing its potential for propagation in the Roman world, he dedicated himself and his organization of priests to its practical implementation. Once he had created a strong Christian community in the capital, it could not have been difficult for the priests to also impose its authority on the other Christian communities scattered around the Empire—first of all, on those that had been created or catechized by Paul himself.
Josephus Flavius and Sol Invictus Mithras
Josephus Flavius knew all too well that no religion has a future unless it is an integral part of a system of political power. It was a concept innate in the DNA, so to speak, of the priests of Judah that religion and political power should live together in symbiosis, mutually sustaining each other. It is unimaginable that he could think that the new religion would spread throughout the Empire independently, or even in opposition to political power. His first aim, therefore, was to seize power. Thanks not only to the millennial experience of his family, but also to his own life experience, Josephus knew all too well that political power, especially in an elephantine organism such as the Roman Empire, was based on military power, and military power was based on economic power, and economic power on the ability to influence and control the financial leverage of the country. His plan must have envisaged that the priestly family would sooner or later take control of these levers. Then the Empire would be in his hands, and the new religion would be the main instrument to maintain control of it.
What was Josephus’ plan to achieve this ambitious project? He didn’t have to invent anything; the model was there: the secret organization created by Ezra a few centuries earlier, which had assured power and prosperity to the priestly families for half a millennium. He only had to make a few changes, in order to disguise this institution in the pagan world as a mystery religion, dedicated to the Greek god Helios, the Sun, for his undoubted assonance with the Jewish god El Elyon. He was represented as invincible, the Sol Invictus, to spur the morale of his adepts, and at his side was put, as an inseparable companion, a solar divinity of that same Mesopotamia from where the Jews had originated, Mithras, the Sun’s envoy on Earth to redeem humanity; and all around them, in the mithraea, the statues of various divinities, Athena, Hercules, Venus and so on. A clear reference to God Father, and his envoy on earth Jesus, surrounded by their attributes of wisdom, strength, beauty and so on, that was well understood by the Christians, but was perfectly pagan to a pagan’s eye (probably this organization was proposed by St. Paul himself, who came from Tarsus, a town dedicated to Mithras, with a bull on its banner).
This organization didn’t have any religious purpose: its scope was to preserve union between the priestly families and assure their security and wealth, through mutual support and a common strategy, aimed at infiltrating all the positions of power in the Roman society.
It was secret. In spite of the fact that it lasted for three centuries and it had thousands of members, most of them very cultured men, there isn’t a single word written by a member about what was going on during the meetings of the mithraic institution, what decisions were taken and so on. This means that absolute secrecy was always maintained about the works that were held in a mithraeum.
Access was evidently reserved to the descendants of priestly families, at least at the operative level, from the fourth grade up (occasionally people of different origins could be accepted in the first three grades, as in the case of emperor Commodus). This system of recruitment is perfectly in line with the historical and archaeological evidence. Even at the peak of its power and diffusion, the Sol Invictus Mithras appears to be an elitist institution, with a very limited number of members. Most mithraea were very small in size and could not harbour more than 20 people. It was definitely not a mass religion, but an organisation to which only the top leaders of the army and of the imperial bureaucracy were admitted. Yet, we don’t know anything about the enlisting policy of the Sol Invictus Mithras. Did it recruit its members amongst the high ranks of Roman society, or was the opposite true – that it was the members of this organization who “infiltrated” all the positions of power of that society? Historical evidence favours the hypothesis that membership in the institution was reserved on an ethnic basis. Access to it, at least at the operative level, was most likely reserved for descendants of the group of the Jewish priests who came to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Sol Invictus Mithras conquers the Roman Empire
The monumental pivoting altar of Mithras of Heddernheim, near Frankfurt (Germany)
Written sources and the archaeological testimonies give evidence that from Domitian on Rome always remained the most important centre of the Sol Invictus Mithras institution, which had become firmly entrenched at the very heart of the imperial administration, both in the palace and among the Praetorian Guard. From Rome, very soon the organization spread to nearby Ostia, the port with the greatest volume of trading in the world, as goods and foodstuffs from every part of the Empire arrived to delight the insatiable appetite of the capital. In the course of the second and third centuries, almost forty mithraea were built there, clear evidence that the members of the institution had taken control of trading activities, source of incomparable incomes and economic power.
Subsequently, it spread to the rest of the Empire. The first mithraea to arise outside the Roman circle were built, shortly before AD 110, in Pannonia, at Poetovium, the main customs centre of the region, then in the military garrison of Carnuntum, and soon after in all the Danubian provinces (Rhaetia, Noricum, Pannonia, Mesia, and Dacia). The followers of the cult of Mithras included the customs officers, who collected a tax on every kind of transport dispatched from Italy toward central Europe and vice versa; the imperial functionaries who controlled transport, the post, the administration of finance and mines; and last, the military troops of the garrisons scattered along the border. Almost in the same period as in the Danubian region, the cult of Mithras started to appear in the basin of the Rhine, at Bonn and Treves. This was followed by Britannia, Spain, and North Africa, where mithraea appeared in the early decades of the second century, always associated with administrative centres and military garrisons.
Archaeological evidence, therefore, conclusively demonstrates that throughout the second century AD, the members of Sol Invictus Mithras occupied the main positions in the public administration, becoming the dominant class in the outlying provinces of the Empire—especially in central and northern Europe. We have seen that the members of Sol Invictus Mithras had infiltrated also the pagan religion, taking control of the cult of the main divinities, starting with the Sun.
The winning move, however, which made the success of the Mithraic institution irresistible, was that of seizing control of the army. Josephus Flavius knew, from direct experience, that the army could become the arbiter of the imperial throne. Whoever controlled the army controlled the Empire. The main aim fixed by him for the Mithraic organization, therefore, must have been infiltrating the army and taking control of it.
Soon, mithraea sprang up in all the places where Roman garrisons were stationed. Within a century, the cult of Mithras had succeeded in controlling all the Roman legions stationed in the provinces and along the borders, to the point that the worship of Sol Invictus Mithras is often considered by historians to be the “religion” typical of Roman soldiers.
Even before the army, however, the attention of Sol Invictus had been concentrated on the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal guard. It is not by chance that the second known dedicatory inscription of a Mithraic character regards a commander of the Praetorium, and that the concentration of mithraea was particularly high in the area surrounding the Praetorian barracks. The infiltration of this body must have started under the Flavian emperors. They could count on the unconditional loyalty of many Jewish freedmen who owed them everything—their lives, their safety, and their well-being. The Roman emperors were somewhat reluctant to entrust their personal safety to officers who came from the ranks of the Roman senate, their main political adversary, and so the ranks of their personal guard were mainly filled with freedmen and members of the equestrian class. This must have favoured the Sol Invictus, which made the Praetorium its unchallenged fief from the beginning of the second century on.
Once it achieved control of the Praetorium and the army, the Sol Invictus Mithras was able to put its hands also on the imperial office. This actually happened on 193 AD, when Septimius Severus was proclaimed emperor by the army. Born in Leptis Magna, in North Africa, to an equestrian family of high-ranking bureaucrats, he was certainly an affiliate of the Mithraic organization, having married Julia Domna, sister of Bassianus, a high priest of Sol Invictus. From then on, the imperial office was the prerogative of the Sol Invictus Mithras, as all emperors were proclaimed and/or removed by the army or by the praetorian guard.
As far as we can judge with hindsight, the final objective of the strategy devised by Josephus Flavius was the complete substitution of the ruling class of the Roman Empire with members of Sol Invictus Mithras. This result was achieved in less than two centuries, thanks to the policy enforced by the Mithraic emperors. The backbone of the Roman imperial administration was formed by new families of unknown origins, that had emerged at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second, in antagonism to the senatorial aristocracy, traditionally opposed to the imperial power. They formed the so called “equestrian” order which soon became the undisputed fiefdom of the Sol Invictus Mithras. For sure most of the families of the 15 Jewish priests of Josephus Flavius’ entourage, rich, well-connected and enjoying imperial favour, ended up belonging to this order.
The Sol Invictus emperors all belonged to the equestrian order and governed in open opposition to the senate, humiliating it, depriving it of its prerogatives and wealth, and striking it physically with exile and execution of a great number of its high-profile members. At the same time, they started introducing equestrian families into the senate. This policy had been initiated by Septimius Severus and developed by Gallienus (who, we must remember, was also the author of the first Edict of Tolerance toward Christianity) who established by decree that all those who had held the position of provincial governors or prefects of the Praetorian Guard, both appointments reserved for the equestrian order, would enter by right into the senatorial ranks. This right was later extended to other categories of functionaries, high bureaucrats and high-ranking army officers (all members of the mithraic institution). As a result, within a few decades, virtually the whole equestrian class passed into the ranks of the senate, outnumbering the families of the original Italic and Roman aristocracy.
In the meantime the spread of Christianity throughout the empire proceeded at a steady pace. Wherever the representatives of Mithras arrived, there a Christian community immediately sprang up. By the end of the second century, there were already at least four bishop’s sees in Britannia, sixteen in Gaul, sixteen in Spain, and one in practically every big city in North Africa and the Middle East. In 261 Christianity was recognized as lawful religion by the mithraic Gallienus and was proclaimed the official religion of the empire by the mithraic Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century, although it was still a minority in Roman society. It was then gradually enforced upon the population of the empire, with a series of measures that culminated at the end of the fourth century with the abolition of the pagan religions and the mass “conversion” of the Roman Senate.
The final situation regarding the ruling class of the Western Empire was the following: the ancient nobility of pagan origin had virtually disappeared and the new great nobility, that identified itself with the senatorial class of the landowners, was made up by former members of the Sol Invictus Mithras. On the religious level, paganism had been eliminated and Christianity had become the religion of all the inhabitants of the Empire; it was controlled by ecclesiastical hierarchies, coming entirely from the senatorial class, endowed with immense landed properties and quasi-royal powers within their sees.
The priestly families had become the absolute masters of that same Empire that had destroyed Israel and the Temple of Jerusalem. All its high offices, both civil and religious, and all its wealth were in their hands, and supreme power had been entrusted in perpetuity, by divine right, to the most illustrious of the priestly tribes, the “Gens Flavia” (starting from Constantine all Roman emperors bore the name of Flavius), in all likelihood descendants of Josephus Flavius.
Three centuries earlier, Josephus had written with pride: “My family is not obscure, on the contrary, it is of priestly descent: as in all peoples there is a different foundation of the nobility, so with us the excellence of the line is confirmed by its belonging to the priestly order” (Life 1.1). By the end of the fourth century his descendants had every right to apply those same words to the Roman Empire.
At that point the institution of the Sol Invictus Mithras was no more necessary to boost the fortunes of the priestly family and it was disposed of. It had been the instrument of the most successful conspiracy in History.
- F. Barbiero, The secret society of Moses, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2010
- B. Griffith, The archaeological evidence for Mithraism in imperial Rome, University of Michigan, 1993
- Cumont, Franz, The Mysteries of Mithras, White Fish, Mont. Kessinger, 1910
- M.J. Vermaseren, Corpus inscriptionum et monumentorum religionis Mithriacae, 2 vols. (1956 and 1960)·
- Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras il Signore delle grotte [Mitsras: The Master of the Caves] Genoa: ECIG, 1988
- Daniels, C. M., “The role of the Roman Army in the spread and practise of Mithraism” in John Hinnells, ed. Mithraic Studies, Vol. II, 1975
- K. Bihlmeyer and H. Tuechle, Storia della Chiesa [The History of the Church], (Brescia: Morcelliana,1994),
- Lucio De Giovanni, L’ imperatore Costantino e il mondo pagano [The Emperor Constantine and the Pagan World] (Naples: D’Auria, 2003)
- Marta Sordi, I cristiani e l’impero romano [The Christians and the Roman Empire] (Milan: Jaca, 1983).
- Gavin, F. The Jewish Antecedent of the Christian Sacraments. London: Macmillan,1928.
- Leon, H. J. The Jews of Ancient Rome. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society
- Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Penguin, 1994
- Maier, Paul L. Eusebius—The Church History. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999
- Josephus Flavius, Autobiography, The Jewish War
- Macrobius, Saturnalia
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994.