Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • The Cult of Mithras in Late Antiquity: Development, Decline and Demise (ca. A.D. 270–430) by David Walsh
The Cult of Mithras in Late Antiquity: Development, Decline and Demise (ca. A.D. 270–430) David Walsh Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. 158. ISBN: 978-90-04-38080-6

This attractively illustrated monograph, on the Mithras cult throughout the Roman world from the late third century onward, is based on the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where he is now a member of Kent's Centre for Late Antique Archaeology. The introduction focuses on the cult of Mithras and changing scholarly views on religious change in Late Antiquity. In the past, it was widely accepted that temple destruction and coercive Christianisation played a significant part in the decline of polytheism in general and Mithraism in particular—a view still shared by many contemporary scholars, if alternative views are gaining ground. Walsh, sceptical of conventional wisdom from the start, seeks to re-evaluate the evidence by comparing and contrasting the fate of Mithraic monuments in different regions. Mithraism was not static and unchanging, and Chapter 1 explores the development of the cult in the late Roman world, postulating considerable changes over space and time. These range from a proven surge in coin offering to alleged ritual fragmentation of cult images. Investment in constructing and repairing mithraea progressively diminished in the course of the third to fourth centuries, as demonstrated in Chapter 2, and possible explanations for this are discussed in Chapter 3. These include a speculative decline in initiation rituals resulting in a [End Page 184] less committed community of worshippers. The fate of temples is the focus of Chapter 4. A vanishingly small percentage of pagan temples in the north can be proven to have been destroyed violently (82–83), the proportion of mithraea demonstrably affected being far greater. It might have been helpful to point out here that we simply cannot tell if a temple was peacefully abandoned or brutally desecrated if, as in the vast majority of non-Mithraic shrines, no stratified imagery or occupation layers survive. Damage is much easier to prove in, partially underground, mithraea than in sanctuaries surviving to foundation levels only. Walsh explores possible reasons for their fate and frequent proven destruction, concluding that "the claim that Christianity was the … dominant factor behind the end of the Mithras cult does not stand up to scrutiny" (94). What were the dominant factors?

Most mithraea suffering violent closure were, according to Walsh, on the northern frontiers pointing to barbarians as the most likely culprits (77, 98). Even mithraea as far from the borders as the Adriatic are attributed to frontier regions, and his own maps, not to mention iconoclasm at Vulci (115), disprove the claim that the "only mithraeum located in the interior provinces that looks to have been destroyed was found at Burdi{a}gala" (77). F. L. Schuddeboom's persuasive work (Babesch 91, 2016, 225–45), that thorough image destruction and church building over some mithraea at Rome point to Christian responsibility, is dismissed in a footnote (68 note 5; cf. 84). There is no mention of the mithraeum at Syracuse with fragmented sculpture, used into the fourth century (G. Sfameni Gasparro, I culti orientali in Sicilia, 1973, 281–90; R. J. A. Wilson, Sicily under the Roman Empire, 1990, 301, 413). The recent discovery of a mithraeum on Corsica suffering a violent end (Minerva 28.3, 2017, 5) is a further nail in the coffin of the hypothesis that there are virtually none in the interior provinces.

Walsh attributes the decapitation of statues at Dieburg and elsewhere to barbarian invaders, claiming that this closely mirrors their treatment of members of a family (and others) at a villa at Harting who had "their heads removed and their bodies thrown down a well. The point of note is that … the heads were absent" (86–87, 92–93, 98). In fact, body parts and skulls were found together in two wells (e.g. M. Schnetz, Bericht der Bayerischen Bodendenkmalpflege 54, 2013, 83–85), invalidating the argument, one of many cases of Walsh not consulting original excavation reports. In the Dieburg mithraeum two naked statues of Mercury were more thoroughly destroyed than other images on display (e.g. E. W. Sauer, in K. Kolrud and M. Prusac, eds., Iconoclasm from Antiquity to Modernity, 2014, 20–21) and the targeting of naked images is one of the few criteria Walsh accepts as a possible sign for Christian responsibility (79–80), so why not here? Abandonment around 260 does not disprove it, as some temples remained accessible ruins for centuries and some demonstrably suffered post-abandonment iconoclasm, as acknowledged elsewhere.

Not just barbarians, but votaries themselves and those fighting in civil wars are blamed for intentional fragmentation of Mithraic art. Walsh envisages Mithras votaries decapitating their own images to continue to worship severed heads, as the army of usurper Magnus Maximus [End Page 185] approaches the Septeuil mithraeum, an "unsympathetic Roman soldier" subsequently disfiguring the face of the rock-borne Mithras that had somehow escaped the earlier Mithraic trophy hunting (89–90, 93, 98–99, cf. 33, 38). Keen on anthropological parallels elsewhere, none is provided for cult members decapitating their own statuary. Walsh believes that Tetrarchic anti-Manichaean laws indicate that Mithras was seen as "an enemy (Persian) deity," leading to temple desecration (88, 92, 97), without explaining why in the famous Carnuntum inscription the imperial initiators of this legislation and their successors describe this supposedly "enemy" deity as "Protector of their Imperium" (1, 26). There is no shortage in creativity in attributing damage to anybody other than religious zealots. In an endeavor to argue that Christians are no likely suspects for image destruction in the north, Walsh goes as far as to claim that there is no strong evidence for Christian presence on the late antique Rhine and Danube frontiers (1, 83–85) despite copious evidence to the contrary.

Walsh does not accept particularly laborious forms of destruction, such as smashing cult images into hundreds of fragments, as possible indication for religiously motivated acts, despite the fact that his own study shows that such events occur almost exclusively from the late fourth century onwards, the very time when written sources attest a surge in Christian iconoclasm. Smashing of images datable to the third century and plausibly attributed to Germanic invaders, affecting for example some Jupiter Giant columns, does not show the same "overkill" mentality. Walsh accepts only religious symbols, such as chi-rho monograms, at the scene of iconoclastic attacks and the targeting of naked images as possible evidence for religiously motivated iconoclasm (12, 77–85). Judged by these criteria, the Taliban must be innocent of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Walsh has overlooked several relevant recent discoveries and does not mention the Angers mithraeum in Gaul with 765 coins up to 388/402, traces of fire and image destruction (J. Brodeur and M. Mortreau, Archéopages 36, 2013, 10-19; M. Molin et al., Gallia 72.2, 2015, 417–33), a mithraeum at Mainz with coins to ad 347/48 (I. Huld-Zetsche, Der Mithraskult in Mainz und das Mithräum am Ballplatz, 2008), the mithraeum of Rapperswil-Jona on the shores of Lake Zürich with a fragmented cult image and around 500 coins, perishing in a conflagration towards the end of the fourth century (R. Ackermann et al., Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz 99, 2016, 206–7; 100, 2017, 241–42), the mithraea of Els Munts on the Iberian Peninsula, in use into the later fourth century and Savaria in Pannonia, reportedly burned down in the fourth century (I. Klenner, in P. Jung and N. Schücker, eds., Utere felix vivas, 2012, 116–17, 120) and a mithraeum at Camporosso in southern Noricum, with late fourth-century coins, glass and fragmented Mithraic imagery (P. Casari, in L. Zerbini, ed., Culti e religiosità nelle province danubiane, 2015, 209–25). Such gaps diminish the value of the otherwise interesting distribution maps (69–73). These pay also insufficient attention to chronology; the differentiation between temples supposedly still in use in the fifth century and those abandoned in the late fourth (72–73) is a result of Walsh basing his chronology sometimes on the earliest and sometimes on the latest possible date of mintage of the latest coins found inside. The claim that Mithraism [End Page 186] declined earlier in Gaul than in the Upper Danubian provinces (43, 94–95) is also erroneous.

There are positive aspects, too. Walsh offers a useful compilation of data for late construction and repair of mithraea as well as valid, if hardly novel, observations on regional variations in the cult and large-scale coin deposition being a late antique innovation. He argues plausibly that population decline will have affected Mithraic communities in the north. Yet, numerous errors, omissions and heavily biased analysis mean that the book should be used with great caution.

Walsh wrote his work as Daesh reduced to rubble unique monuments and works of religious art at Palmyra, the Mosul museum and many other sites in the "Islamic State," within a fraction of the time Christianity dominated the territories under investigation. Many late antique and early medieval Christian writers endorsed the destruction of pagan images and none, to my knowledge, openly opposed it, except where it was opportune to reuse monuments. Walsh's attempt to downplay the phenomenon of religious extremism is not just unconvincing, but dangerous.

Eberhard W. Sauer
University of Edinburgh

Additional Information

ISSN
1942-1273
Print ISSN
1939-6716
Pages
184-187
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-27
Open Access
No
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