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The great Mithras exhibition: some personal notes

The cult of Roman Mithras attracted the attention of the academic scholarship and the greater public since the 19th century (and in the antiquarian traditions, even before, since the Renaissance). In the last few decades, the scholarship produced an incredible number of monographs and studies, there is almost every year a new book on Roman Mithras. Some might interpret this as a “renaissance” of the Mithraic Studies, however we prefer to say that finally, Mithraic Studies – which separated this cult from its own cultural, historical and polytheistic context – actually have changed and finally, interprets the Roman cult of Mithras in its own historical context, within the complex religious market of the Roman Empire (Rüpke 2018 – a short chapter on Roman Mithras, or Woolf 2019 where Mithras is one of the many global and mobile divinities of the empire scale network of religion).

One of the main issues of this research area is the materiality of the cult: with almost 120 sanctuaries excavated and thousands of epigraphic, figurative monuments and small finds in dozens of countries in Europe, Nothern-Africa and the Near East (and even in private collections in the New World), a new digital and interactive CIMRM Supplementum would be essential now. While the local studies and theoretical approaches are also important, collecting the material would be even more important. Exhibitions focusing on the cult aimed to produce important catalogues, which can serve as CIMRM Supplement, although none of these can be comprehensive and complete. Important exhibitions were organised in the last years, like the one in the Landesmuseum Karlsruhe in 2013, however that was focusing on several cults. Recently, an international project and collaboration between three major European museums produced the largest ever Mithras-exhibition, an itinerary project between Mariemont, Toulouse and Frankfurt (2021-2023). The catalogue of the itinerary exhibition was published in French and English and it is one of the best synthesis on the cult of Mithras with several new case studies and high quality photos of old and new finds as well.

Each of the exhibitions had a slightly different material and museological approach, influenced also by the local possibilities. The Mariemont exhibition was opened during the pandemic, therefore they invested a lot in the digital promotion of the event. In 12-13th March 2023 I had the chance to visit the exhibition in the Archaeological Museum of Frankfurt. The exhibition was focused around the amazing local finds from Nida-Heddernheim (today in the North-Western part of Frankfurt, in the area of the Rosa Luxemburg street and south of the Nordwestcentrum, Römerstadtschule). The Roman vicus of the fort had at least four, archaeologically well attested sanctauries of Mithras (a fifth is presumed) discovered in the 19th century (the earliest 200 years ago, in 1823). The finds are not presented in a comprehensive, catalogue-like manner, but there are several posters which explains the history of the discoveries, the context, the history of Nida-Heddernheim and the major finds of the 4 mithraea. Absurdly, there is no map with the modern Frankfurt, therefore the visitor will need to use the google map to find out where is Nida today (50.153406, 8.631575). The map of Roman Dacia appears incorrectly on one of the maps. A particuarity of these finds is the great presence of other divinities in the sanctuary: Epona, Mercurius, Hercules, which is rarely attested in other cases. The iconographic glocality of the visual narratives of Nida is only shortly presented. The great, two sided relief of Nida is in an unfortunate position in front of the reconstructed “mithraeum”, while the photo of the coloured version of this relief is in another room. The reconstructed mithraeum presents the objects in a dark room, which tries to imitate the feeling of a Mithraic sanctuary (darkness, warm environment), however the podia are too small and perhaps, using a projector, interactive voice and visual museology could make this mithraeum much more authentic. The large space of the museum (the former Carmelite Monastery) would be ideal for projections, videos, interactive solutions to use the walls and empty spaces of the monastery. Such methods we can find in Frankfurt, in the Liebieghaus, where is a temporary exhibition on ancient robots and machines presented in a really nice way which stimulates several senses of the visitor. That is what we call today sensory museology.

The second part of the material is exposed in a different room: there one can observe several interesting objects on the side-scenes of the panelled-reliefs, the amazing album from Virunum (which is indeed, a spectacular and historical find), the Brigetio signum of Mithras, several interesting, unique inscriptions and reliefs. Sadly, the amazing relief from Dieburg was not part of the exhibition, only a copy of it. Presenting the mosaics of the Felicissimus mithraeum from Ostia, the symbols of the miles are presented after the old theory, without mentioning the new approach of A. Chalupa and T. Glomb which was accepted also by R. Gordon recently. The amazing Krater from Mainz was also in the exhibition, however a presentation and contextualisation of the scenes of initiation would have been made this amazing object even more important with an interactive manner of presenting all the visualities of initiation presented amazingly recently by N. Belayche. I was happy to see two monuments from Roman Dacia too. The texts are written almost exclusively in German (which was not a problem for me, but what about foreigners with a poor-German knowledge). The work and life of F. Cumont was mentioned, however M. Vermaseren was not really evoked (he and numerous other big names of the research history would deserve at least some photos there – in Malaga, the archaeological museum and in the Ashmolean Museum there is an amazing way to present the history of discoveries, archaeologist biographies).

In summary: the catalogue of the exhibition is an amazing, great work, which serves as a methodological model for further studies, while we can learn for future exhibitions how to present ancient cults, religions, cognitive, historical, historiographic approaches, local and global case studies as well in an interactive, much more “sexy” manner for the 21st century visitors.

New books on Roman religion in 2022

Roman religious studies produced a rich corpus of books also in 2022. I listed 21 new titles, but this is certainly not a complete list (numerous books in France, Italy, Spain are hard to access and I am not able to follow the local scholarships from the West anymore). From the new titles of 2022 there are as usually, two Mithras books by Mastrocinque and Fear, several sanctuary monographs, local case studies on names and divine epithets, macro-regional analysis for the Danubian provinces, methodological approaches by Roubekas and Mackey and cognitive approaches by Eidinow and others.

It seems, that epigraphic material and the names of the gods represent a booming field and the divine agency is back in the focus of the research again.

You can check the detailed list of books on Roman religion in the last 10 years HERE. (the last 10 pages are from 2022).

Mithraeum I, III and V in Poetovio (Ptuj, Slovenia)

For those who are familiar with the Roman cult of Mithras it is not surprising, that Poetovio, one of the most important Roman settlements of south Pannonia (today in Slovenia) was a central place in the diffusion of the cult in the 2-3rd century AD. The quantity and quality of the Mithraic finds from Poetovio is extraordinary: since 1898 at least 5 mithraea were identified (although the functionality of the building known as mithraeum IV is problematic and the mithraeum V was poorly documented). Vermaseren in the 1950’s in his monumental corpus of Mithraic finds was able to indentify almost 130 Mithraic finds from the 3 known sanctuaries (CIMRM 1487-1618). The material of the so-called mithraeum IV and V were later published in the catalogue of the lapidar in 1988 and in numerous later studies analysed sporadically (see here a summary from 2018 by M. Gojkovici).

The first three mithraea discovered in the end of the 19th and early 20th century is no doubt, served as a mithraeum.

Mithraeum I was founded probably in the early 2nd century by the first generation of Mithras worshippers (if the cult was founded in the Flavian period and expanded in the early Trajanic period between 80 and 100 AD). The first mithraeum – which is much smaller than the third one – has some unique particularities, such as the beautifully decorated altars, a representation of Mithras Taurophoros or two identical texts on two statue bases (representing probably the founder of the first mithraeum). It is closely related to the Publicum Portorii Illyrici as P. Beskow and Tóth István argued already in the 1980’s. Although the altars were found in the mithraeum, their current position (for example Mithras Taurophoros inside the podium) does not reflect their original purpose.

Mithraeum III discovered in 1913 in a villa and domestic building complex area. Vermaseren presumed, that east to the mithraeum there was a temple of Magna Mater, however the functionality of the large building next to the mithraeum was never certainly established by excavation. The mithraeum is monumental, one of the largest mithraeum in the Roman Empire. Built in 2 phases at least, the building has its glory in the late 3rd century, around 260 AD, when vexillations from Potaissa and Apulum, the two legionary centres of Dacia stationed in Poetovio and transformed radically the innner sacred geography of the sacralised space. The altars dedicated almost exclusively by soldiers here reflects the emerging importance of Mithras as a protecting god of the Roman army and imperial power.

Mithraeum V was discovered in 1987 in the area of the Student Dormitory of modern Ptuj. The finds are clearly suggesting the presence of a mithraeum, however the building was poorly documented. A part of the finds are kept in the reception of the Hotel Mitra in Ptuj.

More exeptional photographs you can find on the webpage of Ortolf Harl: HERE. The photographs cannot be published in official academic papers or blogs without mentioning the source. My photos were made during the international conference entitled “Contextualising “Oriental Cults” organised by the Faculty of Humanities, Department of Archaeology of the University of Zagreb, 15-17th September 2022. Photographs with personal portraits cannot be used from this blog without the permission of the author.

Citations of Romanian scholars of antiquity

Recently the leaders of the European Research Council announced, that the old tradition which obsessively quantified the citations, H-indexes and hierarchyical – often patriarchal – system of academia need a radical change. They published a 20 pages long document where they presents the major changes. This is actually very similar to the so-called Leiden Manifesto.

These are good and welcomed initiatives, which might change hopefully the landscape of academic life, where Central-Eastern Europeans are still marginalised as scholars (financially and in citations too). It is prooved, that “famous scholars” who are dominating the field are authomatically cited and their citation and research indexes are artificially increased.

So based on these old-fashioned academic traditions, it is odd to see the studies of Walter Scheidel focusing on the statistics of citations and quantifying the impact of Anglo-Saxon (American and Brittish) scholars of Roman studies. He published already two studies (here and here) on this issue. A similar list was published by Pilkington. Interestingly, they are focusing only on the impact of American scholars mostly. Scheidel introduced also the impact of Moses Finley and Ronald Syme – the later being one (if not the most) cited historian of Roman Studies (now around 14.000 citations in Google Scholar). His Roman Revolution is cited almost 4000 times. He didn’t analysed the impact of Theodor Mommsen (around 8900 citations), Werner Eck, Géza Alföldy and numerous other scholars from German Altertumwissenschaft. Géza Alföldy for example has at least 6000 citations in Google Scholar, his Social History of Rome is cited 300-400 times in each language (mostly Spanish, German, English). Mary Beard has around 8800 citations, the same as Fergus Millar, Greg Woolf 7300, Jörg Rüpke 7100, Franz Cumont 6000, András Alföldi 4000 and so on.

When it comes to the Romanian scholars of Roman studies, the most cited scholar is Ioan Piso (850 citations). His most popular book is the Fasti I (101 citations). He is followed by Nicolae Gudea (738) – his most cited work is his RGZM chapter on the Limes (79 citations). Dan Dana is cited more than 670 times (his Onomasticum Thracicum more than 100 times), Vasile Parvan is cited almost 500 times, his most popular work is Getica (240 citations for 2 editions). Constantin Daicoviciu is cited 485 times (probably much more in Romanian literature which is not listed in Google Scholar however), his most cited work internationally is his book on ancient Transylvania from 1938 (61 citations). Ioana Oltean is the most cited Romanian woman in Roman studies with more than 450 citations (her synthesis on Dacia is cited 112 times and it is the most cited book on Roman Dacia). Dionisie M. Pippidi is cited 430 times (his Contributii la Istoria Veche a Romaniei is cited 47 times). Vitalie Bârcă has 430 citations (his book on Sarmatians has 57), Sorin Cocis has 402 citations (his book on Roman brooches has 114 citations), Mihai Barbulescu is cited 391 times (his synthesis on history of Romanians is cited 167 times, Interferente spirituale 43 times). Florian Matei-Popescu has 385 citations, his book on Moesia Inferior has 116 citations. Dumitru Protase 354, Doina Benea has 345 citations. Cristian Gazdac is the most cited in Romanian numismatic (318 citations). Eugen S. Teodor has 270 citations, Ovidiu Tentea 262, Lucretiu Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 260, Radu Ardevan 250 (his book on municipal systems of Dacia has 90), Mariana Egri 240, Mihail Macrea 228 (his book on Viata in Dacia romana has 92), Sorin Nemeti 216 (his Sincretismul religios is cited 52 times – the most popular book on Roman religion from Dacia), Alexander Rubel 185, and Emil Condurachi is cited 156 times.

From this list we can see, that the most cited scholars are from the post-war generation, who dominated the Romanian scholarship since the 1970’s (for more than 5 decades) and those senior scholars, who are living abroad (Dan Dana, Ioana Oltean) or well-connected internationally in the last two decades. Epigraphy and military studies (Limesforschung) is still the two strongest fields of the Romanian research, however new approaches (social history, numismatics, religious studies) are also emerging.

Ioan Piso – the most cited Romanian scholar of Roman Studies
Dan Dana
Nicolae Gudea

My book presented in Vienna, Szeged and Sibiu

I was lucky, that my book attracted the interest of several scholars from the Central European University, the Archaeological Institute of Belgrade and cultural institutions of Sibiu too. The first book launch was organised at 30th May 2022 by the Center for Religious Studies, Central European University in Vienna, where I had the honour to have as respondents prof. dr. Volker Menze and dr. Gabrielle Kremer from the Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

The second book launch was organised at 2nd June 2022 by my current hosting institution, the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Szeged. It was a special event, hosting two books and authors: dr. Nadezda Gavrilovic from the Archaeological Institute of Belgrade and myself. We analysed not only the two books published in the last one year, but also contextualize the role and importance of Central-Eastern European scholarship in the study of Roman religion today.

The third book launch took place on 10th June 2022 organised by the Astra Library from Sibiu, Romania. The book was presented by prof. dr. Radu Vancu followed by a fruitful discussion with archaeologists, students and members of the local intellectual community.

Main results of the project published in Oxbow volume

The main results of the project (2018-2022) were published in March 2022 in a volume at Oxbow Books, Oxford. The book entitled “Roman religion in the Danubian provinces. Space sacralisation and religious communication during the Principate (1st-3rd century AD)” is the first English monograph on Roman religion from this macro-region of the Roman Empire.

You can order the book from Oxbow BooksAmazonWalmartBook Depository too.

Abstract of the book:

The Danubian provinces represent one of the largest macro-units within the Roman Empire, with a large and rich heritage of Roman material evidence. Although the notion itself is a modern 18th-century creation, this region represents a unique area, where the dominant, pre-Roman cultures (Celtic, Illyrian, Hellenistic, Thracian) are interconnected within the new administrative, economic and cultural units of Roman cities, provinces and extra-provincial networks. This book presents the material evidence of Roman religion in the Danubian provinces through a new, paradigmatic methodology, focusing not only on the traditional urban and provincial units of the Roman Empire, but on a new space taxonomy. Roman religion and its sacralised places are presented in macro-, meso- and micro-spaces of a dynamic empire, which shaped Roman religion in the 1st-3rd centuries AD and created a large number of religious glocalizations and appropriations in Raetia, Noricum, Pannonia Superior, Pannonia Inferior, Moesia Superior, Moesia Inferior and Dacia.

Combining the methodological approaches of Roman provincial archaeology and religious studies, this work intends to provoke a dialogue between disciplines rarely used together in central-east Europe and beyond. The material evidence of Roman religion is interpreted here as a dynamic agent in religious communication, shaped by macro-spaces, extra-provincial routes, commercial networks, but also by the formation and constant dynamics of small group religions interconnected within this region through human and material mobilities. The book also presents for the first time a comprehensive list of sacralised spaces and divinities in the Danubian provinces.

New books on Roman religion in 2021

In the second year of the collective madness and pandemic, the academic world produced less books on Roman religion, however some of these books will be important references for future generations.

The most important book probably is a synthesis on Roman religion edited by Greg Woolf and Jörg Rüpke, two of my former supervisors. The book is one of the last volumes – and the best synthesis so far – on lived ancient religion, focusing on the religious life of the Roman Empire. This book is certainly an important one, the first one after decades which will offer a new approach on Roman religion in the imperial period. Another important volume was published by BRILL focusing on the role of senses in ancient religious communication.

This year opened also new and intriguing chapters on the study of Roman Mithras, marked by the fascinating project of the Musee Mariemont, Toulouse and Frankfurt. The scientific group produced several volumes and a monumental catalogue focusing on the cult of Mithras.

Several other works were also published on local sanctuaries or cults (Carnuntum, Güglingen) and global approaches (religious dialectics, divination, egyptionisms, religious mobility, religion, as such).

Several projects focusing on Roman religion are still ungoing, focusing on ancient Urban Religion, sanctuaries in the Danubian provinces or religious mobilities and the cult of Asclepius.

A list of books published in the period of 2013-2020 see HERE.

Religion in the Roman Empire (Die Religionen Der Menschheit, 16): Rupke,  Jorg, Woolf, Greg: 9783170292246: Books

Sanctuaries in the Danubian provinces: about an important conference

After two years of hard and almost impossible circumstances and organisation we finally had our international conference on Sanctuaries in the Danubian provinces organised. Due to the ongoing and apparently, neverending Covid-phenomena, we organised our conference in the online space. The conference united succesfully researchers representing 7 provinces of the Roman Empire (Noricum, Dalmatia, Pannonia Superior, Pannonia Inferior, Moesia Superior, Moesia Inferior, Dacia) from seven different countries. The case studies were focusing on several new, often unpublished sacralised spaces and new discoveries, but also on the systematic reinterpretation of the old material. The idea of the conference was born in autumn 2018 in Belgrade, during the Limeskongress, where I have initiated my postdoctoral project. We organised there an ad hoc think-tank and it was a pleasure to see most of the participants from that meeting at our conference. The idea get a strong support in 2019 after Christian Gugl and the Austrian Archaeological Institute expressed their participation as co-organisers with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Szeged. The conference received also a grant from the Thyssen Stiftung just before the pandemic, which unfortunately represented a terrible obstacle for us. After 3 unsuccesful dates proposed for the conference, the event finally took place at 15-16th October 2021 in an online space. The conference had also the keynote lecture of prof. dr. Michael Blömer on the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus and the impact of the central sanctuary from Doliche on the Danubian provinces and beyond.

The conference was an important one also in a historiographic perspective: there were few similar initiatives in the last few decades, focusing on sanctuaries and archaeology of religion in the Danubian area. There were conferences or exhibitions focusing on the cult and archaeology of Mithras (one organised in the late 1990’s in Ptuj and another in Alba Iulia in 2017 – Mccarty-Egri 2020), sanctuaries and religion in Pannonia (Fitz 1998, Humer-Kremer 2011), sanctuaries in Noricum (Leitner 2007) new perspectives in Roman Dacia (Szabó et al. 2016) and general issues of Roman religion in the Danubian provinces (Zerbini 2015). This conference is the first one focusing especially on archaeology of religion going beyond a single divinity or province.

The proceedings will be published in 2023 or 2024.

Keynote lecture of prof. Michael Blömer

Materiality of religion in Central-Eastern Europe

On 24-25th September 2021 the Department of Religious Studies from the University of Szeged organised an international conference on materiality of religion in CEE. The topic has a long history now in Western scholarship, where the major results of the material turn, cultural anthropology and post-processualist archaeology influenced also the works of several scholars of religion already in the 1960’s and 70’s. Ninian Smart was among the firsts, who argued, that materiality is a fundamental dimension of religion. Later, prehistoric archaeologists had an essential contribution to understand the religious communication of the pre-textual human communities. Materiality of religion therefore became not only a topic of archaeologists, but also a methodology for religious scholars. In the recent years, several important books, companions and monographs were published in this field, where “materiality” gained an extremly subjective, versatile and transformative dimension, with several terminological shifts and changes. Notable the book edited by Brent Plate (Key terms in Material Religion). New materialism is also popular now in contemporary religious studies. The journal “Material Religion” is focusing now exclusively on this issue. Materiality of religion now goes much beyond the notion of N. Smart and it discuss not only the role of objects, as tools used in religious communication, space sacralisation, but also the possible agency of materiality in belief, sensescapes, religious media, gender, body, mapping and many other features.

Our conference was the first attempt to open a dialogue in Central-Eastern Europe about this emerging field in religious studies. The participants (archaeologists, historians, historians of art, scholars of religious studies) proved, that this field can be discussed only in an inter- and transdisciplinary approach.

Some of the most relevant publications in material religion, materiality of religion:

Topography of Roman Napoca

The Roman city of Colonia Aurelia Napocensis (founded by Hadrian as Municipium Aelium Napocensium probably from a rural settlement, a pagus or – after some opinions – a military vicus) is lying under the modern city of Cluj (Kolozsvár) in Transylvania, Romania.

The Roman ruins and the Roman past of the city was well known since the 16th century, many of the Roman inscriptions were reused in the latest wall of the city built in the 14-15th century. The identification of the city however occured only in the 19th century, although Szamösközy István, the Hungarian historian from the 16th century presumed already that under the Renaissance city of Kolozsár (Claudiopolis in that time) lies the ancient Napoca known from Ptolemy and few epigraphic sources.

Today, almost a hundred inscriptions and numerous archaeological sites are known from the Roman city, due to the systematic and rescue excavations which intensified after 1990.

This map unites just the major excavations known from the Romanian Archaeological Register (RAN.CIMEC.RO) and several older literature and publications. A comprehensive study on Roman Napoca was never written, the most important studies on the history of the city were published in the 19th century by Jakab Elek and in the 20th century by András Bodor and Constantin Daicoviciu. Several new studies were published in the 49th volume of the Acta Musei Napocensis in 2012.