Ancient History & Civilisation

Gospels of Salvation

Meanwhile another, very different attitude to Sun-worship, more deeply rooted in religious feeling, enjoyed far greater success in providing the personal, emotional, dramatic satisfaction which the Sun cult, for all its imposing simplicity, lacked. This was Mithraism, which also linked solar theology with the other outstanding pagan movement of the time, the dualism of good and evil powers (p. 193). The religion of Mithras contained this dualism in its ancient Persian form-or rather in the popular Iranian versions of the belief which were current on and beyond the Persian borders. But Mithras, although the Romans regarded his origins as Persian,98 came to them, as his Phrygian cap shows, by way of Asia Minor, taking on Hellenistic elements there, and other accretions in the Balkans as the cult expanded towards the west.

In origin, he was an ancient Indo-European god dating back even before the legendary Zoroaster. Throughout Iranian lands he attended upon Ahuramazda, in eternal opposition to the evil power Ahriman, and was the ally and agent (or even sometimes the offspring) of the all-powerful Sun, who is shown feasting and riding with him in the chariot that at the last conveyed Mithras up to heaven. A sacrament celebrated his Last Meal, which he shared with the Sun. Mithras himself was god of the Morning Light: a small marble altar of his cult is inscribed ‘to the Rising One’ (p. 176).99And indeed from about the first century AD he and the Sun were identified with one another.

Mithraism, then, could seem to be a specialised form of the Sun-worship which was soon to assume increasingly official shape (p. 177). But the religion of Mithras always retained its private character. Certainly it received state approval. Otherwise there would not have been a large Mithraeum in the substructure of the Baths of Caracalla, nor (though Mithras figures sparsely in imperial sculpture) would there have been a bust of Mithras-Sol within the folds of Rome’s veil on a relief of Diocletian in the Roman forum. Moreover, if approbation by the authorities had been lacking, a dedication at Carnuntum (Petronell) in the Danubian region – where Mithraism was very strong – could scarcely have described Mithras-Sol as the favourer of the tetrarchs’ rule (AD 307).100 But the private nature of the cult, even if other evidence had been lacking, is confirmed by numismatic information: or rather, lack of information, because the imperial coinage shows a remarkable unanimity of silence. Among the hundreds of official coin-designs that venerated the Sun (and not a few which celebrated the mystery faiths), there is not one single specific reference to Mithras. This total contrast cannot be accidental. Even the local bronze coins which cities were allowed to issue for purely regional circulation include few representations of the god. In his characteristic bull-slaying role (p. 185) he only appears on a single isolated city-issue under Gordian III at Tarsus in Cilicia, a land of famous sanctuaries of the Sun and Moon where the Romans perhaps first encountered Mithraic devotees.101

In contrast to the intense, increasing publicity for its official counterpart the Sun-cult, Mithraism was not a court religion. Out of all the long list of emperors, only four are known to have had any direct interest in this faith.102 Moreover, the epoch in which Aurelian elevated the Sun to official supremacy (p. 178) comprises the very years when Mithraic inscriptions happen to be exceptionally infrequent; they are at their height before 250 and after 284. Despite its kinship with the religion of the Sun, Mithraism presented a contrast because it had no public ceremonies and no professional priestly class. Though loyal to the government, it was personal, supplying the intimate element which Sun-worship lacked.

Yet it had gone ahead very rapidly. This advance was less apparent in Asia Minor, from which the cult had originally spread, than throughout the great cosmopolitan ports and trading centres, in the west even more than in the east. Nearly fifty shrines of Mithras are identifiable in Rome and its suburbs alone, and eighteen more have been discovered at Ostia – eleven from the later second century AD, and seven after 200. Mithras was also venerated at Alexandria and the Piraeus, and at Carthage, Puteoli (Pozzuoli) and London, where the Walbrook shrine is sixty feet long.

The worshippers included numerous merchants and imperial civil servants, members of a middle-class urban society which was prosperous in the earlier part of the period; and many freedmen and educated slaves. But it was the army, and particularly the officers, who more than anyone else diffused these beliefs. For Mithras had displayed unsparing, heroic, Herculean effort: like the Sun with whom he came to be assimilated, he was Unconquerable (p. 176). In grim times these were the qualities needed, and they spurred men to an active and militant form of the asceticism characteristic of the age (p. 135). Mithras had, indeed, much to offer. He provided a strong ethical basis that was lacking in Sun-worship and was weak or equivocal in the other mystery religions (p. 187). His worshippers must resemble him in purity and continence; moreover, as god of Light he became the business man’s patron of truthful dealings and obligations. Light must kill Matter, in dualist fashion (p. 201), and so Mithras, in the most familiar and typical of his sculptural representations, has to slay the first of living creatures, the Bull, in order that its blood and seed may create the world. But the god was also compassionate, for artists imprint upon his features the reluctance and emotion with which he did the deed that represents the tragedies of the whole world.

His worship also contained in melodramatic and even violent form all the excitements inherent in the initiation of an elect, which was such a prominent aspect of contemporary religion (p. 197). These secret initiations (mysteria) included rigorous and sometimes deliberately horrifying tests, ordeals and expiations aimed at developing by harsh means that imperviousness to circumstances which had long been an ideal (p. 136). In order to be at one with Mithras, who had risen to heaven, the would-be initiate had his hands bound with chickens’ intestines; and before these could be removed, he was thrown across a pit filled with water. A cell equipped for inflicting extremities of heat and cold has been found at Procolitia (Carrawburgh). There were also tortures and brandings and the shedding of blood. But after these pains came supremely rewarding privileges and promises for the hereafter. Another strength of Mithraism was its readiness to offer a welcome and an assimilation to other religions. For example, the statues, reliefs and emblems of a variety of mystery cults were found in the London temple, where they may have been collected together and hidden to avoid Christian wreckers.

The worship of Mithras, then, had ideas, moral urgency, emotional intensity and receptive breadth. It also possessed considerable superficial resemblances to Christianity. Mithraic baptisms, sacrifices, communal meals and martyrdoms seemed to the church a sinister mimicry of its own rites and sacraments.103 Yet Christianity won the day. In part this was because the story of Mithras, although the subject of a ‘biography’ recounting his ostensible exploits, sounded too mythical for his devotees really to feel that they had ever happened upon this earth: he seemed much more distant than Jesus, whose life as a historical figure kindled the imagination of millions. Moreover, the cult of Mithras was a stern one. Even if he showed pity, it was the pity which accompanied an act of killing. His religion lacked the tenderness and sympathy which alone could solace the poor for their misfortunes; the socially indiscriminate popular appeal of Christianity was not there. Besides, Mithraism was a masculine creed and had no place for women – who form the basic element in most successful religions – whereas Christianity incorporated them as its most faithful element.

Mithraism was only one of the mystery religions of initiation which promised and bestowed upon their elect salvation from the miseries of their lives. This salvation was effective already, if only symbolically, in this world, but more particularly in the next. For when people were initiated, they were progressively raised beyond the reach of fate and hostile heavenly bodies. Neither these nor the troubles and demons of this earth can touch the initiate any longer.

Although some of the mystery religions were very old, it was during the first three centuries AD, when the corporeal world increasingly seemed evil, that they spread with particular rapidity throughout the Roman empire. Their magical purifications promised escape and rescue through personal union with a Saviour God who was believed, in many cases, to have died and risen again. The initiations which carried the worshipper along this path of immortality provided sharp emotional experiences conveying a new conception of other-worldly power and holiness; and every device of elaborate organization and stage-management was exploited to intensify the excitement.

Participation in the ancient worship of Demeter (Ceres) and Persephone (Proserpina) at Eleusis ensured the favour of the subterranean deities who have power over the after-life. This blessed state was achieved by three stages of initiation. To the end of paganism, the Eleusinian mysteries were the most venerated institution in Greek religion, and Roman emperors still participated in ceremonies. One of them was Gallienus, whom an official coinage strangely feminises and turns into one of these goddesses asGALLIENA AVGVSTA, personified with corn-ears and wreath.

Another cult of extreme antiquity was that of Cybele and Attis. ‘Be of good cheer, initiates’, cried their priests, ‘since the god is saved! Because we too, after our labours, shall find salvation!’104 For just as Attis, according to this primeval cult of Asia Minor, dies and is reborn annually with the vegetation of the year, so amid hysterical, orgiastic pageantry and the din of cymbals, horns and flutes his initiates are likewise saved. And this worship of Cybele and Attis was often accompanied by the sacrifice of bulls and goats, their blood pouring down into underground chambers to drench the initiates and confer upon them rebirth for ever.105 Even the sensible, serene Antoninus Pius was a devotee of the cult of Cybele. So was his wife Faustina the elder; unlike Mithraism, it was a religion particularly successful with women, and from that time onwards the official coinage confers upon many empresses, including especially the second Faustina who was the wife of Marcus Aurelius, implicit identification with the goddess.

But it was the initiation and resplendent cult-drama of the Egyptian Isis, though less prominent in numismatic propaganda, which gave the most glowing and exciting promises of escape from this world into a glorious life to come. At the Finding every November of her counterpart Osiris, god of the year’s birth and death and of the underworld, the initiate passed symbolically through all the elements, visited the lower world, and met the gods face to face in triumph. Plutarch identified Isis with the wisdom that confers a knowledge of the highest, and the novelist Apuleius, though he scoffs at the old gods, believed passionately that Isis was his salvation (p. 118). He clothes his belief in moving, shimmering words which, across the centuries and gulfs that separate our ways of thinking, make it almost possible to understand why countless men felt the same. And especially women: for Isis, even more than Cybele, exercised powerful feminine appeal.

Dionysus (Bacchus) too, whose worship was linked with the Sun-cult (p. 174) and other moods and currents of the time, punishes unbelievers and as a host of funeral reliefs testify, dramatically rewards men and women initiates alike in the world to come. But the weakness of this faith, in an age when thoughtful people hankered after austerity, was a too easy conception of the next world as a jolly, sensual place. In the long run this facile appeal meant unsuccessful competition with more ascetic convictions. Yet Dionysus mobilised countless adherents. Funeral reliefs show them in the company of their Saviour, celebrating for evermore a sacred reunion and marriage, and the eternal banquet of the blessed.

These numerous depictions of the immortality attained through Dionysus are only a small proportion of the sarcophagus reliefs illustrating people’s urgent desire for salvation from the evils of this world. Such sarcophagi, reviving a widespread Mediterranean custom which had spread from the orient to Greece in classical times, created one of the major art-forms of the later second and third centuries AD. The Roman world had experienced a massive, revolutionary, reversion from cremation to the long-since obsolete rite of burial.106 The change was due to the desire for an after-life which attracted so many to the mystery religions. That other world was envisaged in terms of human experience; there was an inarticulate but almost universal feeling that the future welfare of the soul depended upon comfortable repose of the body, which is its temple and mirror. This involved a contradiction. No doubt the dead dwell with the gods and heroes – or in some other spiritual sphere. Yet they also sleep in their sarcophagi, upon which their reclining forms are often depicted. What lies in the sarcophagi seems to possess something more than a purely symbolic significance, and the well-being of the dead still needs to be secured by reverent devotion to their material remains.

These remains were individual, and the receptacles and other attentions dedicated to them must be individual too. For the after-life was now understood to be a personal affair. Men must expect a posthumous reward or judgment; death was not the fullstop which it had often seemed to Marcus Aurelius (p. 134). There must therefore be a gentler, more respectful emphasis upon the dead man’s autonomous personality. In order that his remains should not be scattered, they were buried, and to do them honour the monuments of burial – steles, altars, chapels, pyramids, towers, but especially sarcophagi – were often adorned with sculptural reliefs that are the finest work of their time. They strike various tactful balances between terrestrial recognition and posthumous salvation. The human features are usually depicted with particular care and skill (p. 89), because they reflect the soul’s survival as a personal entity that has won its right to paradise.

These sarcophagus reliefs exhibit a bewildering, endlessly ramifying multiplicity of doctrines indicating the manner of escape from this world’s evils that the next world is to bring. This multiplicity is reflected in an equally massive diversity of aesthetic methods and attitudes. At Rome, the typical sarcophagus is carved on three sides, the fourth being intended to stand against a wall. These Roman sarcophagi are primarily intended as display-surfaces for narrative pictures; according to the Assyrian-Babylonian formula of overall composition favoured by the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (p. 88), their long front side is often covered with a single, intricate, many-figured relief. Sarcophagi from the eastern provinces show less interest in narrative, and greater structural sensibility. They are carved not on three sides only like their Roman counterparts, but on all four. These monuments are freestanding eternal dwellings, and so their reliefs display architectural frameworks founded on the classical Orders and sometimes intended to represent the tomb itself. Within these frames are niches containing human or mythological figures, in high relief or partly in the round.

While Attic workshops prefer austerer treatments, the rich forms of this recessed, columnar decoration occur frequently in Asia Minor. And it was there that the revival of decorated sarcophagi seems to have begun. One of the earliest known examples, found in Lydia (c.AD 170), has twisted columns, and round and pointed niches hollowed out in the form of shells.107 But the Asian sarcophagus reached its zenith of diversity and technique in c. 220, when architectural designs achieve an elegant elaboration dissolving in strong plastic effects of light and shade.108

A predominant theme of sarcophagi in this period is the animated, elaborate scene of battle, standing for the annihilation of death and evil by the victorious dead. Pictures of the chase, reminiscent of an ancient Mesopotamian tradition which was revived in contemporary Persia, have a similar meaning109; and certain artists make the hunted lion display a pitilessly grinning mask of death. Sometimes the hunters of these animals are Erotes or Cupids, symbols of Love representing Good triumphant over Evil,110 as in Platonic and contemporary philosophers and the romantic novelists (pp. 148, 125).

The Four Seasons, too, are seen on the wing. In the first century AD, these Seasons had been shown as women, but then they were changed to masculine shape. Ovid had compared them with the four ages of man, yet on sarcophagi they are vigorous children or youths, because they stand for rebirth and immortality. A sarcophagus shows them beside this central Gate of Heaven of which they are the guardians111; the design inspired Michelangelo’s first plan for the tomb of Julius II, just as other sarcophagi had guided Italian sculptors from Nicola Pisano onwards. A sarcophagus of c.220–40 shows the Four Seasons with Dionysus,112 from whom the pious dead receive the gifts of prosperity and bliss that the Seasons symbolise. The static foreground, displaying the calm assurance of salvation, is skilfully contrasted with an animated backcloth which illustrates the teeming life beyond the tomb.

Often there are frameworks of cosmic symbols, suggestive of nature’s continuity. Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri who preside over the alternations of night and day, represent the passage from this world to the light hereafter; and similarly at Edessa in Mesopotamia a series of mosaics which depict the soul’s future life includes a Phoenix symbolising resurrection (235–6). Later in the same century, a sarcophagus portraying Prometheus’ creation of human beings, which foreshadows their rebirth in another world, adds a new subtlety by showing the image of a dead child as if life is only suspended, not extinct.113 Moreover, as philosophy attained a new fashionable stature during and after the time of Plotinus, the philosopher-sage is frequently seen on sarcophagi, and so are the Muses. These are restrained Hellenic representations expressing the soul’s freedom from the passions and oppressions of matter, and its nostalgic hope of joining the lofty spirits of the past after the appropriate guidance and initiation (p. 156).

Reliefs showing boys at school are likewise reflections of this instructional, initiatory motif. They came from Noviomagus (Neumagen) on the Moselle, and throughout the western provinces there are local variations and elaborations upon the Roman and Attic and Asian funeral themes. In addition to the school-scenes, Germany and Gaul provide a number of other attractive realistic studies (imitated by Romanesque sculptors) of the living man at his daily work – compliments to his worldly activities, which at the same time allegorise his soul’s struggle in this world to happiness in the next.

All such examples of funeral art reflect religious views which promised their initiates escape in the hereafter from the evils inherent in our world. Others preferred the even more ancient methods of astrology and magic. For example, sarcophagi of the Danubian area specialise in solar and astrological signs, and north African monuments abound in magical symbols to ward off evil. Moreover, magic had the further advantage of being able to alter one’s lot in this world without waiting for the next.

In previous centuries certain Greeks, and even occasionally a few Romans, had made valiant attempts at rationality, but these had not usually been very widespread or lasting. Adrift in the vast, impersonal world of later Rome, people lost their nerve when they considered the hopelessness of working out their own futures by themselves. And so they fled from the thought into total unreason. Fortune had long seemed to many the only governor of the universe (p. 120). Or was it Fate ? As a third-century philosopher pointed out, you could not consistently believe in both at the same time.114 In this religious age, an interfering Fate seemed on the whole more likely than a capricious and inconsistent Fortune. Besides, belief in Fate was less discouraging because, although it was impossible to influence Fortune, surely Fate could somehow be turned.

This must be done through the heavenly bodies; for an enormous majority of the people in the Roman Empire identified Fate with these celestial powers. Since universal sympathy binds heaven to earth, movements of the Sun, Moon and stars must direct the fates of mankind, predestining all that will happen (p. 175). There were dissentients,115 but few thinkers questioned the influence of the heavenly bodies upon human affairs. And yet countless men and women found acceptance of this mechanistic destiny unendurable, and sought means whereby its oppressiveness could somehow be mitigated. The first step was to investigate what heaven was intending; and then to determine and time one’s own activities so as to avoid its most hostile influences. But these difficult tasks could only be performed with the help of professional astrologers, who consequently became an extremely influential class in the ancient world. Reliance upon their powers was almost universal.

Astrology was an easy and pseudo-scientific way of escaping the intolerable burden. And there were other ‘solutions’ where the veneer of rationality was thinner still. For throughout the whole of this period magical practices of all kinds, always strong, waxed still more abundant and powerful. Dreams, too, seemed to offer counsel; even Marcus Aurelius believed in them, and Tertullian’s Christianity allowed him to say that most people obtain their knowledge of God from dreams.116 The novelists of the time bear repeated witness to an intense faith in oracles and prophecies. Such beliefs received fresh impetus from the ‘Chaldaean oracles’. This theosophical hotch-potch of horoscope-making, which purported to provide translations from Zoroaster, throve upon popular interest in Babylonian antiquities after Trajan’s conquests, and developed further in about the time of Marcus Aurelius when a certain Julianus evolved a higher or religious form of magic known as theurgy, later favoured by Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus (p. 156). There was also an ever-increasing use of private spiritualistic mediums, especially boys.117 Egypt had always sought to influence events by magic,118 and before developing a national literature the Coptic language was an adjunct of magicians. They and they alone seemed able to prevail against the miseries of the times, as well as performing a variety of special tasks: in Africa for example, inscriptions employ witchcraft for the doping of race-horses. As these primitive irrational elements surged up to drown the man-centred self-assertion of the classical age, there was a ready belief in miracles. Nor was it always officially discouraged. The Column of Marcus Aurelius shows a military engine on the enemy side struck by a thunderbolt as a result of prayer, and then illustrates the salvation of Rome’s armies by the Miracle of Rain (c. 173), weirdly depicted in ghostly, semi-personalised form. This event was later attributed to the prayers of Christian soldiers of the Twelfth Legion. But in pagan and official circles it was ascribed to invocations of Thoth (identified with Hermes or Mercury), offered by an Egyptian magician Arnuphis, a companion of the emperor (p. 199).

Why, it was asked, are serious men interested in lies about miracles, and why do sick people long to invent them and make them plausible?119 Because the age had lost all hope or prospect or desire of solving its problems by common-sense means; this was an epoch in which hardly anyone any longer had his feet on the ground.

But who could have asked such a question as this ? – for it shows precisely that note of unbelief which had become so unfamiliar. Its author was the man who also made fun of contemporary ‘travel’ literature, Lucian of Samosata on the Euphrates (p. 123). His native language was Syriac, but his books are in Greek which he had learnt at school120; and he wrote with penetrating adroitness throughout most of the later second century AD. During an epoch of gravity, tension and unreason, ‘the steady advance of the irrational in the form of an escapist mysticism or banal superstition is accompanied by the laughter of a man whose outlook was scepticism and whose trade ridicule’.121 Many a sparkling, scoffing dialogue or literary letter of Lucian hits hard, if sometimes superficially, at these overwhelming tendencies of his time. Religion is the target of a number of his pamphlets. He tells how the sensible philosopher, following the anti-conventional Cynic principles of Diogenes, flies to heaven in order to rise above the confusion of contradictory dogmas. Jupiter, and elsewhere Minos the judge of the dead, is hard put to it to understand his own relationship with Fate. The gods are upset – because they have been proved not to exist. And one of their spokesmen deplores the large influx of new members to the Olympian club.122

These entertainments are more or less in the realm of literary religion, but then Lucian turns to some of the peculiar hysterical phenomena of his own day. He writes scathingly of the wandering, abusive preacher Peregrinus, an amorist, temporary Christian, flagellant and suspected parricide, called after the shape-changing Proteus because of his versatility, whose morbid craving for notoriety impelled him to throw himself in the fire at the Olympic Games (AD 165) – whereupon his memory became the object of devotions attracting numerous pilgrims.123 Next Lucian shows up an even more disgraceful adventurer who had long battened on contemporary credulity, Alexander of Abonutichus in northern Asia Minor. The quack prophet of a snake, whose macabre sheep-headed, human haired image has recently been found at Tomis (Constanta in Rumania), Alexander used every kind of sleight of hand, confidence trick and lechery to win a considerable following, in which upper-class female supporters were prominent; his daughter married the governor of Asia, and the cult even survived its founder’s death.

Lucian analyses the methods by which a rascal like this comes to the top.

Just as Alexander was beginning to grow a beard, his master died and left him without any means of support – for he couldn’t live on his looks any more. However, he now had more ambitious plans, so he teamed up with an even lower type, a ballet-dancer from Byzantium – I think he was called Cocconas – and the two of them went round cheating and fleecing ‘fatheads’ – a technical term used by magicians to denote people with money. While they were so engaged, they came across a Macedonian heiress who was past her prime but still liked to be thought attractive. They lived on her for some time, and when she went back to Macedonia, they went too.…

There they saw some enormous snakes, which were so tame and domesticated that women used to keep them as pets, and children even took them to bed with them. They didn’t mind being pinched or trodden on, and would actually take milk from the breast like babies. The couple bought a magnificent specimen for a few coppers, and that, as Thucydides would say, was how it all started. For those two unscrupulous adventurers put their heads together, and decided ‘that human life is ruled by a pair of tyrants called Hope and Fear’, and if you treat them right, you can make a lot of money out of them. They saw that the one thing people want, the one thing they must have when they’re oppressed by either Hope or Fear, is information about the future. That was why places like Delphi, Delos, Claros (Colophon) and Branchidae (Didyma) had become so fabulously wealthy – because the tyrants I mentioned made people keep going there and paying exorbitant prices, in cattle or in gold, for any sort of prophecy. Having turned these facts over in their minds, they finally cooked up a plan to establish an oracle of their own. If all went well, they expected it to show an immediate profit – and in fact the results surpassed their wildest dreams.…124

But Lucian’s scepticism about such impostors, like scepticism in general (p. 196), was out-of-date – an almost isolated survival from a past age in which intellectual penetration had been more widespread and more highly regarded. Nowadays the problems that racked people’s minds were spiritual, and their solutions ranged all the way from the charlatanism of Alexander of Abonutichus to the profundity of Plotinus or Mani.

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