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2.2.4 Roman Mysteries

The Mysteries of the Greco-Roman world were secret cults that offered to individuals religious experiences not provided by the official public religions. They originated in tribal ceremonies that were performed by primitive peoples in many parts of the world. Whereas in these tribal communities almost every member of the clan or the village was initiated, initiation in Greece became a matter of personal choice. Etymologically, the word mystery is derived from the Greek verb myein (“to close”), referring to the lips and the eyes. Mysteries were always secret cults into which a person had to be “initiated” (taken in). The common features of a mystery society were common meals, dances, and ceremonies, especially initiation rites. These common experiences strengthened the bonds between the members of each cult.

Expansion brought Rome into contact with many diverse cultures. The most important of these was the Greek culture that was brought to Rome in the aftermath of military victories, as Roman soldiers returned home not only with works of art, but also with learned Greeks who had been enslaved. The Greeks influenced nearly every facet of Roman culture, and it was a Greco-Roman culture that the Roman Empire bequeathed to later European civilization. The influence of Greek high culture was felt principally in a small circle of elite Romans who had the wealth to acquire Greek art and slaves, and also had the time and education to read Greek authors. A far wider audience perceived the influence of religions from the eastern Mediterranean as potentially subversive. Romans were famous for their extreme precision in recitation of vows and performance of sacrifices to the gods, meticulously repeating archaic words and actions centuries after their original meanings had been forgotten. Guiding these state cults were priestly colleges. In earlier centuries, Rome’s innate religious conservatism was, however, counterbalanced by openness to foreign gods and cults. As Rome incorporated new peoples of Italy into its citizen body, it accepted their gods and religious practices. The new cults were integrated into the traditional structure of the state religion, and their “foreignness” was controlled. The openness, never complete or a matter of principle, tilted toward resistance in the early 2nd century. In 186 Roman magistrates, on orders from the Senate, brutally suppressed Bacchic worship in Italy. Associations of worshipers of the Greek god Bacchus (Dionysus) had spread across Italy to Rome. Their members, numbering in the thousands, were initiated into secret mysteries, knowledge of which promised life after death; they also engaged in orgiastic worship. According to Livy, more than 7,000 were implicated in the wrongdoing; many of them were tried and executed, and the consuls destroyed the places of Bacchic worship throughout Italy. The senatorial decree prohibited men from acting as priests in the cult, banned secret meetings, and required the praetor’s and Senate’s authorization of ceremonies to be performed by gatherings of more than five people. The decree did not aim to eliminate Bacchic worship but to bring it under the supervision of senatorial authorities. The following centuries witnessed sporadic official actions against foreign cults.

The great period of the mystery religions began when the Romans imposed peace upon the Mediterranean world. The Dionysiac, or Bacchic, societies flourished in the whole empire. Hundreds of inscriptions attest to Bacchic Mysteries. In some circles, Orphic and Dionysiac ideas were blended, as in the community that met in the underground basilica near the Porta Maggiore at Rome. Their rite consisted of a bloodless sacrifice and included the use of incense, prayer, and hymns. In addition to the mystery cults that were familiar from earlier times, the national religions of the peoples of the Greek Orient, in their Hellenised versions, began to spread. A faintly exotic flavour surrounded these religions and made them particularly attractive to the Greeks and Romans. The most popular of the Oriental mysteries was the cult of Isis. It was already in vogue at Rome in the time of the emperor Augustus, at the beginning of the Christian era. The Emperor, who wanted to restore the genuine Roman religious traditions, disliked the Oriental influences. Isis, the goddess of love, was the patroness of many of the elegant Roman courtesans. The religion of Isis became widespread in Italy during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. To a certain extent, the expansion of Judaism and Christianity over the Roman world coincided with the expansion of the Egyptian cults. Far less important was the influence of cults from Asia Minor. By 200 BC the Great Mother of the Gods (Magna Mater) and her consort Attis were introduced into the Roman pantheon and were considered as Roman gods. The mysteries symbolized, through her relationship to Attis, the relations of Mother Earth to her children and were intended to impress upon the mystes the subjective certainty of having been united in a special way with the goddess. There was a strong element of hope for an afterlife in this cult. The Persian god Mithra, the god of light, was introduced much later, probably not before the 2nd century. The cult of Mithra was concerned with the origin of life from a sacred bull that was caught and then sacrificed by Mithra. According to Persian sources, the bull by its death gave birth to the sky, the planets, the earth, the animals, and the plants; thus Mithra became the creator of life. Adonis (a god of vegetation) of Byblos (in modern Lebanon) was often considered to be closely related to Osiris. Adonis’ female partner was Atargatis (Astarte), whom the Greeks identified with Aphrodite. The height of Syrian influence was in the 3rd century AD when Sol, the Syrian sun god, was on the verge of becoming the chief god of the Roman Empire. The emperor Aurelian (270-275) elevated Sol to the highest rank among the gods. Even the emperor Constantine the Great, some 50 years later, wavered between Sol and Christ.

Western Mystery religions and Christianity

Western Mystery religions and Christianity originated during the time of the Roman Empire, which was also the time when the mysteries reached their height of popularity. The simultaneousness of the propagation of the mystery religions and of Christianity and the striking similarities between them, demand some explanation concerning their relationship. The similarities can be explained by parallel developments from similar origins. The parallel development was fostered by the new conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire, in which the old political units were dissolved, and one monarch ruled the whole civilized world. The ideas of Greek philosophy penetrated everywhere in this society. Thus, under identical conditions, new forms of religious communities sprang from similar roots. The mystery religions and Christianity had many similar features -a time of preparation before initiation and periods of fasting; baptism and banquets; vigils and early-morning ceremonies; pilgrimages and new names for the initiates. The purity demanded in the worship of Sol and in the Chaldean fire rites was similar to Christian standards. The first Christian communities resembled the mystery communities in big cities and seaports by providing social security and the feeling of brotherhood. In the Christian congregations of the first two centuries, the variety of rites and creeds was almost as great as in the mystery communities; few of the early Christian congregations could have been called orthodox according to later standards. The Christian representations of the Madonna and child are clearly the continuation of the representations of Isis and her son suckling her breast. In theology the differences between early Christians, Gnostics, and pagan Hermetists were slight. In the large Gnostic library discovered in 1945 at Naj’Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, Hermetic writings were found side by side with Christian Gnostic texts. The doctrine of the soul taught in Gnostic communities was almost identical to that taught in the mysteries: the soul emanated from the Father, fell into the body, and had to return to its former home. There are also great differences between Christianity and the mysteries. Mystery religions, as a rule, can be traced back to tribal origins, Christianity to a historical person. The holy stories of the mysteries were myths; the Gospels of the New Testament, however, relate historical events. The books that the mystery communities used in Roman times cannot possibly be compared to the New Testament. The essential features of Christianity were fixed once and for all in this book; the mystery doctrines always remained in a much greater state of fluidity. The theology of the mysteries was developed to a far lesser degree than the Christian theology. There are no parallels in Christianity to the sexual rites in the Dionysiac and Isiac religion, with the exception of a few aberrant Gnostic communities. The cult of rulers in the manner of the imperial mysteries was impossible in Jewish and Christian worship. The mysteries declined quickly when the emperor Constantine raised Christianity to the status of the state religion. After a short period when they were tolerated, the pagan religions were prohibited. The property of the pagan gods was confiscated, and the temples were destroyed. To show the beginning of a new era, the capital of the empire was transferred to the new Christian city of Constantinople. Only remnants of the mystery doctrines, amalgamated with Platonism, were transmitted by a few philosophers and individualists to the religious thinkers of the Byzantine Empire. The mystery religions exerted some influence on the thinkers of the Middle Ages and the philosophers of the Italian Renaissance.

Common features in Roman imperial times

For the first three centuries of the Christian era, the different mystery religions existed side-by-side in the Roman Empire. They had all developed out of local and national cults and later became cosmopolitan and international. The mystery religions would never have developed and expanded as they did, however, without the new social conditions brought about by the unification of the Mediterranean world by the Romans. In the large cities and seaports, men from the remotest parts of the empire met. They longed for new acquaintances and for assimilation, and they needed the assurance that only the knowledge of belonging to a community can give. Economic and political conditions in the Roman Empire also accelerated the growth of the mysteries. Members of a mystery society helped one another. The mystery societies, thus, commonly satisfied both a taste for individualism and a longing for brotherhood. In principle, the members of the communities were considered equal: one man was the other man’s brother, irrespective of his origin, social rank, or nationality. Because membership in each of the mystery communities was a matter of personal choice, propaganda and missionary work were inevitable.

Rites and festivals

A period of preparation preceded the initiation in each of the mysteries. In the Isis religion, for example, a period of 11 days of fasting, including abstinence from meat, wine, and sexual activity, was required before the ceremony. The candidates were segregated from the common folk in special apartments in the holy precinct of the community centre; they were called “the chastely living ones” (hagneuontes). In all the mystery religions the candidates swore an oath of secrecy. Before initiation, a confession of sins was expected. It was believed that the rite of baptism would wash away all the candidate’s sins, and, from that point on, his life would be changed for the better, because he had enrolled himself in the service of the saviour god. The initiation ceremonies usually mimed death and resurrection. This was done in the most extravagant manner. In some ceremonies, candidates were buried or shut up in a sarcophagus; they were even symbolically deprived of their entrails and mummified (an animal’s belly with entrails was prepared for the ceremony). Alternatively, the candidates were symbolically drowned or decapitated. In imitation of the Orphic myth of Dionysus Zagreus, a rite was held in which the heart of a victim, supposedly a human child, was roasted and distributed among the participants to be eaten. The baptism could be either by water or by fire, and the rites often included actions that had an exotic flavour. In the Dionysus and Isis mysteries, the initiation was sometimes accomplished by a “sacred marriage,” a sacral copulation. The initiation ceremonies were usually accompanied by music and dance and often included a large cast of actors. In the Dionysiac societies, especially elaborate provisions were made for mimic representations. The ceremonies always contained a prayer for the welfare of the emperor and for the good fortune of the whole Roman Empire. In fact, the amalgamation of religion and politics was sometimes so close that the designation “imperial mysteries” is used. The pattern of imperial mystery ceremonies could vary widely.

Seasonal festivals

The religions of Dionysus and Demeter and of Isis and the Great Mother had something of an ecclesiastical year. The seasonal festivals were inherited from old tribal ceremonies that had been closely associated with the sowing and reaping of corn, and with the production of wine. Dionysiac festivals were held in all four seasons; vintage and tasting of the new wine were the most important occasions. But the religion of Dionysus was closely associated with that of Demeter, and, thus, sowing and reaping were also celebrated in Dionysiac festivals. In the religion of the Great Mother, a hilarious spring festival celebrating the renewal of life was enacted in Rome. The festivals of the Isis religion were connected with the three Egyptian seasons caused by the cycle of the Nile River (inundation, sowing, and reaping). About July 19 was the sacred New Year’s Day for the Egyptians, and the festival of the Nile flood was their greatest festival. There were, in addition, the festivals of sowing and reaping. In Roman times, important Isis festivals were held on December 25, January 6, and March 5. The greatest festival was held on December 24-25, at the time of the winter solstice. Because from this date the length of the day began to increase, it was regarded as the day of the rebirth of the god and of the renovation of life.

Nature and significance

The Romans, according to the orator and politician Cicero, excelled all other peoples in the unique wisdom that made them realize that everything is subordinate to the rule and direction of the gods. Yet Roman religion was based not on divine grace, but instead on mutual trust (fides) between god and man. The object of Roman religion was to secure the cooperation, benevolence, and “peace” of the gods (pax deorum). The Romans believed that this divine help would make it possible for them to master the unknown forces around them that inspired awe and anxiety (religio), and thus they would be able to live successfully. Roman religion laid almost exclusive emphasis on cult acts, endowing them with all the sanctity of patriotic tradition. In a sense, there is no Roman mythology, or scarcely any. Although discoveries in the 20th century confirm that Italians were not entirely un-mythological, their mythology was very limited.


Though Roman religion never produced a comprehensive code of conduct, its early rituals engendered a feeling of duty and unity. Its idea of reciprocal understanding between man and god not only imparted the sense of security that Romans needed in order to achieve their successes but stimulated, by analogy, the concept of mutual obligations and binding agreements between one person and another. Roman religion was unspoiled by orgiastic rites and savage practices. Moreover, unlike ancient philosophy, it was neither sectarian nor exclusive. It was a tolerant religion.