9. The Spread Of Mithras Into Rome
While it seems the cult usually spread with the expanding Persian and later Roman cultures, the introduction of Mithras to Italy came in a weird way. According to Plutarch, it was the Cilician pirates who first brought the rites to Italy when they embarked on raids against Roman ships in the first century BC. It wasn’t until the rule of Pompey (above) that Rome really put the boot to the pirates, with the surviving members of their parties transported to Italy after their defeat. (But we aren’t sure if that story is true, as Plutarch’s purported timeline has the introduction of Mithras at the same time that archaeological finds suggest the cult had already taken root there.)
Even if the Cilician pirates did bring their religion with them into Rome, it’s not as clear-cut as that. One of the foremost scholars of Mithras, Franz Cumont, put forward the idea that the Roman Mithras was the same as Ahura-Mazda. But some major differences—like the Persian god dealing mostly with contract, law, and negotiations and the Roman god being a sun god—suggest that the Roman version is less like a grandson and more like a second nephew twice removed, then probably adopted. Pieces of the Persian religion still show up in Rome, but they don’t give the whole picture.
So what’s the deal? No one’s really sure. Some—like religious scholar Luther Martin and researcher Roger Beck—suspect the problem came in attitudes. At the same time the Romans thought they were on the top of the world, there was also an idea that Eastern cultures possessed an ancient knowledge. Adopting Mithras in name and in a few respects then making him their own might have been done in an attempt to preserve their “Roman-ness” while still tapping into ancient knowledge.