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The Art of Cult: Identity and Iconography in the Roman Worship of Mithras

Philippa Adrych

Polychrome tauroctony found beneath S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome. Author's photograph.

The 'cult of Mithras' has taken root in popular imagination, appearing in poems, novels, computer games, television programmes and films about the Roman world, and acting as a symbol of mystery, exoticism and secrecy. In part, this is owing to a scholarly tradition that has painted it as a 'mystery cult', with necessary accompanying features of initiation and membership. It is also because the artistic and archaeological evidence for Mithraic worship is rich and extensive, while details of belief, ritual and practice remain largely subjective. This has made it a fertile ground for fictional reimagining, but has also contributed to intense scholarly debate.

This project examines the artistic and archaeological output of Mithraists in the Roman world. It analyses how the identities of worshippers, and their changing priorities and interests, might have affected their iconographic choices, and even the ways in which they put beliefs into practice. As its starting point, it takes one of the most remarkable features of Mithraic art – the tauroctony scene, and its apparent high level of consistency across regions and times. This scene is instantly recognisable, instantly a signifier of Mithraic activity. The study assesses regional variations in the tauroctony, and the ways in which the scene was used in sacred space, and how these could indicate the influence of individual and group identities. It has often been assumed that this seeming uniformity of image must imply a concomitant uniformity of cult underlying it. And yet, attempts to argue for a consistent view on sacred space, or on other artistic features, or on hierarchy, have demonstrably been shown to fall short. This project argues for a flexible conception of the Roman worship of Mithras, in which it can be seen to have been influenced by contemporary religious, cultural, and artistic traditions and innovations.

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