OUP (2017) h/b 211pp £65 (ISBN 9780198792536)
Arising from the ‘Empires of Faith’ research project, this volume represents a collaborative effort where the authors have contributed chapters individually written but shaped ‘according to our shared vision of this project.’ It is a book ‘about names and images’ of a god named variously Mithras, Mithra, Mihr or Miiro, and equally varied in relationships with other gods. It covers a wide geographical scope, from Gaul to Bactria.
At the core of the book are the five ‘case studies’ starting with a discussion of two free standing sculptures of the tauroctony, probably from Rome and now in the British Museum. From there chapters visit the mithraeum at Dura-Europos, a rock-cut tauroctony relief at Bourg-Saint-Andéol in France, a rock-cut relief in Iran of Mithra and two Sasanian kings, coinage depicting Miiro in Kushan Bactria and finally westward to Apollo-Mithras at Nemrut Daği in Commagene. There is an epilogue that discusses similar issues in the understanding of Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) in Mesoamerica.
Without denying the obvious eastern connections, the development of ‘Mithraism’ directly from an eastern source and even the concept of ‘Mithraism’ as a uniform religion are called into question. Besides the assumptions about the origins and development of the cult, other observations also remind us of the paucity of evidence on which our understanding of Mithraism is based: for example, the rock cut tauroctony at Močići in Croatia and 4 mithraea at Ostia challenge the idea of exclusivity. Other assumptions are occasionally called into question: what, for example, was purpose of the ‘benches’ or raised areas on either side of the nave in a mithraeum or spelaeum? Mithras’ eastern costume is not like the dress of the eastern images, but ‘a Roman imagining’, ‘a stereotypical conflation of clothes’ worn by the likes of Ganymede, Paris or Aeneas and not contemporary Parthian or Persian costume. Even the tauroctony emerges as a problem in comparative studies of Mithras: how does Mithras relate to ‘the Iranian guardian of cattle’? Does it have any connection with images of Nike killing a bull in much the same pose as Mithras?
With its focus on the comparative study of images and material culture, there is little room for astrological investigation (though the work of Roger Beck is briefly discussed) or examination of texts. But the focus on the few selected images and the context of each gives the authors a new perspective on this tantalising feature of Roman and Eastern religious life.