Mithras was the chief god in an Indo-Persian mystery cult* that appeared in Rome during the late republic. Membership in the cult was restricted to men. Cult members believed that Mithras was their savior who offered rebirth and eternal life. The Romans worshiped him as a sun god. At its peak, during the A.D. 100s and 200s, the cult attracted soldiers especially, but it was also popular with minor government officials, slaves, and freedmen. In time, the cult spread throughout the empire. The emperor Julian the Apostate was the most famous initiate* in the cult of Mithras.
Small groups of members met secretly in dwellings they called caves. These were either actual caves, underground rooms, or hidden chambers. There the initiates were ranked in a hierarchy* of seven levels. Initiates passed through each level, approaching, but never reaching, actual priesthood. The celebration of a meal together was an important ritual in the cult of Mithras.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* initiate one who is just learning the rites of worship
* hierarchy order of authority or rank
Inscriptions on monuments hint at some of the beliefs and rituals of the cult. Mithras is often shown killing a bull whose tail looks like a shaft of wheat. He is generally accompanied by various animals as well as two lesser gods and by images of the sun and moon. Some scholars believe that the killing of the bull was intended to represent the sacrifice that Mithras made to save the world. Others interpret the slaughter of the bull and the presence of the sun and moon as an astrological allegory* for the heavenly journey of the soul.
Important cult centers were located in Rome and its port city of Ostia. Traces of the cult have been found in every part of the Roman empire, from Britain to the mouth of the Danube River. Mithraism never attracted the Roman upper classes, however, and its size remained small in comparison to other religions. (See also Christianity; Cults; Eleusinian Mysteries.)
* allegory literary device in which characters represent an idea or a religious or moral principle