Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Mithraism

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius and Mithraism.

mithraeumThese are just some rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Mithras.  My hypothesis is that Marcus Aurelius may have been initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.

Marcus would certainly have been familiar with Mithraism. ¬†It was extremely popular during his reign, particularly with the army and merchants. ¬†His adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, constructed a Temple to Mithras at the port of Ostia, just outside¬†Rome. ¬†(Numerous mithrea have now been uncovered at Ostia.) ¬†So arguably it seems likely Pius would have been made an initiate of Mithraism, although perhaps just as a political gesture. ¬†We are also told in the Historia Augusta¬†that Marcus’¬†son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism.

He [Commodus] desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror.

So there’s evidence that his father and his son were both initiates of Mithraism. ¬†What we don’t know for sure is whether¬†Marcus was initiated into Mithraism himself, although arguably it seems very likely that he was. ¬†Marcus was enrolled in all four of the traditional Roman priestly colleges as a young Caesar and he took his role as high priest very seriously. ¬†Later in life, when he toured Athens, he made a point of being¬†initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. ¬†He had far more opportunity and motivation, though, to be initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism, as we’ll see.

At Carnuntum, the legionary fort where Marcus spent most of his time during the Marcomannic Wars, archaeologists have unearthed six Temples to Mithras. ¬†The modern-day museum at Carnuntum contains an impressive reconstruction of a mithraeum. It’s believed Carnuntum was a location of special importance to the cult. ¬†Indeed, Mithraism was particularly associated with the legions posted along the Danube, where Marcus stationed himself for most of his reign. ¬†Porphyry says that Mithras was depicted armed with the “sword of Aries, which is a sign¬†of Mars”, and therefore a military symbol.

Unsurprisingly for a cult so popular with the military, it’s believed that Mithraism strongly encouraged loyalty to the emperor, the supreme commander of the Roman legions, who was in fact appointed by the army to rule. ¬†Several inscriptions describe Mithras as protector or patron of the empire. ¬†It would therefore appear¬†more important for Marcus to show his support for Mithraism by being initiated while at Carnuntum, than to be initiated into the Eleusianian Mysteries, which we know he did as soon as the first war was concluded and he was able to visit Greece.

Contemplation of the Stars

Unfortunately, because the cult was shrouded in secrecy virtually no written information survives about it today, despite all the archaeological evidence. ¬†The image above shows a modern reconstruction of a mithraeum or temple of the god Mithras. ¬†Numerous chambers such as this, referred to as caves, although often constructed as long narrow sunken halls, have been found throughout the Roman empire. ¬†The Temples to Mithras¬†were normally filled with astrological symbolism and its believed the ceilings were painted with stars, intended to look like the night sky. ¬†If Marcus stepped into one of the many mithraea at Carnuntum, which seems very likely indeed given the amount of time he spent there, he would have found himself in a mystical atmosphere, surrounded by stars, an image that’s bound to remind us of this passage from The Meditations:

Contemplate the course of the stars, as if you were going alongside them.  And constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another.  Because such thoughts purge away the impurity of life on earth. (Meditations, 7.47)

Likewise, Marcus elsewhere says:

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations, 11.27)

Although Marcus nowhere refers to Mithras, he must surely have seen the obvious relevance of these comments to the symbolism of the mithraea and the initiations that took place there. ¬†The neoplatonist Porphyry wrote that “the cave bore the image of the cosmos, which Mithras had created, and the things contained in the cave, by their proportionate arrangement, provided symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos” (On the Cave of the Nymphs).

Mithras and the Sun God

Mithras himself was either a sun god or associate of the sun god, sometimes equated with¬†Sol Invictus¬†who was also popular as a patron of the Roman army. ¬†His¬†two torch-bearing companions,¬†Cautes and Cautopates, are believed to symbolise the stations of the rising and setting sun. ¬†Cautes holds his torch raised up, and Cautopates holds his torch pointed downward. ¬†According to Cassius Dio, on his deathbed, Marcus reputedly said¬†“Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” ¬†To the many¬†followers of Mithras among his legions on the Danube, that must surely have sounded like an allusion to the symbolism of their cult.¬† More generally the pair are taken to denote¬†the cycles of nature, through which opposites such as day and night, life and death, succeed one another. ¬†Many references to this theme of cyclical change can be found in The Meditations,¬†although it is also common¬†in philosophical literature generally.

The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)

Marcus Aurelius Bull SlayingThe central image of Mithraism is that of the god Mithras slaying a bull, which is the focal point of each mithraeum. ¬†Scholars refer to this characteristic Mithraic image as the tauroctony. ¬†We do know that the bull is sacrificial because some of the depictions show it dressed in a conventional Roman sacrificial blanket. ¬†The relief shown here depicts Marcus Aurelius presiding at the ritual sacrifice of a bull, although it probably pertains to one of the conventional state cults of Rome. ¬†There’s no evidence that real bull-sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism. ¬†As far as we know the bull-slaying in Mithraism was purely symbolic.

The image of the bull was also very important to Stoicism.  It can be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, used as a metaphor for the good man.  The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently described the ideal society as like a herd of cattle feeding in a common pasture and later Stoics frequently refer to the image of the Stoic hero as a mighty bull protecting the rest of his herd.  Marcus refers to himself as emperor, as a bull set over the herd.  The bull was also the sacred animal of the eastern city of Tarsus, which was the home of many famous Stoics and reputedly also the home of Mithraism.  Some scholars believe there are links between the Stoics of Tarsus and the cult of Mithras.

Aion: Eternity

leontocephalusIn addition to the images of Mithras, these temples often include depictions of a mysterious lion-headed figure, wrapped in a serpent, called leontocephalus by scholars.

It’s believed he represents universal¬†time and corresponds with the Hellenistic deity called Aion, or Eternity. ¬†We also know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION¬†as a dedication,¬†adding to his links¬†with the cult.

Indeed, the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, which was erected by Marcus Aurelius in his honour, is thought to depict the god Aion.  He is shown in the apotheosis scene, carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to heaven.

Marcus refers very frequently to the vastness of time, in some of the most obviously mystical passages of The Meditations.  He uses the Greek word AION twenty times altogether.  Sometimes he even appears to personify the concept, such as in the following striking passage:

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus, has Aion already swallowed up! (7.19)


I initially left this passage out of the article because as far as I can see Vermaseren is the only author to make this claim:

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates’ homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as ‘Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras’. (Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963)

As I understand it, the inscription on this altar is damaged and has been read by other experts in a completely different way, not as a reference to Marcus Aurelius. ¬†However, if Vermaseren were correct about the¬†inscription on this altar being consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as “Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras”, that would directly¬†support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism. ¬†Indeed, it would go even further and provide evidence that he was actually a consecrated priest of the cult. ¬†The equation of Mithras and Helios is typical but making him synonymous with Zeus would be particularly interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.