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Mithraic studies: why is it so popular?

Studying the Roman cult of Mithras is still a “fashion” among the scholars of Roman religious studies and Roman archaeologists. Although since the seminal work of Franz V. Cumont, the literary sources didn’t really increase, the archaeological material of the cult is much more significant since Cumont’s or Vermaseren’s  monumental corpora were published. The “Mithraic studies”, as John Hinnells named it, is flourishing since the 1970’s, having a renaissance in the last years again.

After Roger Beck’s published his great book in 2006 where he introduced the notion of startalk, a series of new studies and books were published on the Roman cult of Mithras.  First, an entire volume was dedicated for the detailed analysis of Beck’s book in 2012.  In 9780198792536the same year, Manfred Clauss published a second edition of his seminal work on Mithras. Then, a largely debated article was published by C. Faraone in 2013, which contextualized the visual language of the Mithraic reliefs in a much larger picture of Roman art and religion. Following this idea, A. Mastrocinque published a book on the mysteries of Mithras, where he tries to argue, that the cult is originated in the Augustean religious reform and visual language of that age.

10964_00_detailIn 2014, M. Luther published a book on the Mind of the Mithraists, focusing on the cognitive aspects of this religion. A very similar book was published in this year by Roger Beck and Olympia Panagiotidou. A new project focusing on the network of “Mithraic” groups is run by A. Chalupa and his team, while I. Elsner and his team has another project focusing on the Images of Mithra(s) in a historical perspective. A recent book was just pubished in this year by Elsner’s students. A conference focusing on the cult of Mithras in the Danubian provinces was organized in 2016, while another focusing on the archaeology of the mithraea in 2017.

The big question is: why is this topic still, so popular? Hard to answer this question. 52111044Perhaps, the large amount of archaeological material, the numerous unanswered questions related to this cult, the increased number of scholars in classics and Roman religious studies? An interesting and very important review however can highlight some of the mistakes of this “sub-discipline”. Worth to read it to avoid notions as “Mithraists” or to analyze this cult as a separate entity within the large variety of Roman religious communication.

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Our blog is in the top 25 blogs on ancient Rome

Just received the email, that my blog is in the top 25 blogs on ancient Rome.

Let’s hope we can keep the good work together!

Many thanks!

See the list: here

Jupiter Dolichenus in the Kunsthistorisches Museum

In the Romanian literature focusing on the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus there is a wrong interpretation of a monument, copied and repeated in the last 40 years.

9568-1Ion Miclea and Radu Florescu published a book in 1979 presenting the Transylvanian monuments of the Kunsthistorisches Museum from Vienna (fig.1.). In this book, the authors presented a beautiful Dolichenian statue. The authors presented the monument as originated from Surducu Mare (Nagyszurduk) Caras-Severin (Krassó-Szörény), identified as the Roman settlement of Centum Putei. Their interpretation was based on the wrong reading of the original inventory sheet. Radu Florescu (1925-2014) was one of the prominent historians of his age, but he probably didn’t read Hungarian and German very well. The same was true for Ion Miclea (1931-2000), the Communist photograph of Nicolae Ceausescu. They interpreted the toponym of Szlankamen with Szurduk, mostly based on the phonetic similarities.

Unfortuantely, their mistake was repetedly copied later: all the major works on the so called Oriental cults (the works of Silviu Sanie, Sorin Nemeti, Carbó-Garcia and Imola Boda) mentioned the famous statue of Jupiter Dolichenus from the Kunsthistorisches Museum as discovered in Nagyszurduk (Surducu Mare).

_j_k_p_3_Actually, the statue was discovered in the first half of the 19th century in Zalánkemén (Стари Сланкамен / Sztari Szlankamen / Stari Slankamen), today Serbia. The settlement was identified as Acumincum already by Th. Mommsen. The monument was later bought and donated by Dr. Kiss Ferenc from Pest and it is part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum since 1851. The monument first was published shortly by Katancs and in 1854 by Seidl in his seminal work on the cult of Dolichenus (fig. 2, 3.). It was published also in the CIL (CIL III 3253) and in the major corpus of the Dolichenian monuments (Merlat, CCID) too. This is why it is highly surprizing that nobody from the Romanian scholars observed till now, that the “monument from Surducu Mare” is actually, the statue from Acumincum. The CIL III 3252 was probably also discovered in the same time and same spot, as part of a possible Dolichenum from Acumincum.

tezaure-transilvane-la-kunsthistorisches-museum-din-viena-radu-florescu-si-ion-miclea-buc-1979-p30544-01

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Szilágyi János György and the Hungarian classical studies

Szilágyi János György (1918-2016) was the last living student of Karl Kerényi, one of the leading scholars of the Hungarian classical studies (Altertumwissenschaft). As a doyen of his field and a well known etruscologist, art historian and classical-philologist, Szilágyi was respected not only in Hungary, but also in Italy, where he was known as one of the biggest etruscologists of the 20th century. His almost one century long life and carrier was the living book of the Hungarian classical studies in the 20th century and Szilágyi János György. Photo of the author from 2011beyond. He was active already in the 1930’s and remained a cited and active person even in the 2010’s. Coming from an intellectual Jewish background of Budapest – the city dominated by the Jewish middle-class intellectuals in the beginning of the 20th century – due to his family, he had already as a child and student a very rich network with the Hungarian intellectual, cultural and political elite of the 1920’s and 30’s. He preserved this attitude of openness and holistic view on the world till his death, having probably one of the biggest network in academia and beyond.

I was privileged to speak with him and made an interview in 2011, focusing on his life, work and the perspectives of the Hungarian classical studies, but we discussed also about the Hungarian roots of Angelo Brelich – a project which I still keep in standby, hopefully I will have the opportunity to continue.

After his death, there were numerous Hungarian obituaries of Szilágyi, however the most detailed  biography published recently is the life-interview of Szilágyi, made in 2003 by György Litván and Adrienne Molnár, published in two special volumes of the Enigma journal (nr. 87-88, 2017). The volumes contains also numerous letters and special writings related to the life of Szilágyi, written by his friends and colleagues, mostly writers and literary persons. The interview (173 pages) is the longest life-interview made with a Hungarian classical scholar. Litván – who died shortly after this interview in 2006 – was a well known historian of the 19th and 20th century, so his IMG_4395questions and the entire structure of  the interview was consciously built up to present not only the life of a single person, but it’s a detailed and obviously subjective kaleidoscope of the Hungarian classical studies from 1918 till 2003. Szilágyi was not only the oldest member of the Hungarian Classical Association, but also with the biggest academic network in Hungary and abroad (Europe and even the United States).  His bird eye perspective and ability to synthesize his life in a historical context made this interview actually the most detailed history of Hungarian classical studies published till now.  With more than 500 footnotes, the editors of the volume (especially Géza Komoróczy) made a great job, uniting the entire literature on the  history of Hungarian classical studies published till now. From these footnotes and the interview of Szilágyi we get an impression how monumental is his life and how rich was his academic network (almost 1000 personalities are mentioned in the text).

These two volumes – together with the rich historiographic bibliography of Szilágyi János György, Ritoók Zsigmond, Török László and others – could consist basically the starting point of a project which would focus on a comprehensive history of Hungarian classical studies in the 20th century.

(photos made by myself in August 2011 in the office of Szilágyi János György from the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

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On companions to Roman religion in the Hungarian scholarship

We live in an age, when humanities – to survive or just because it is fancy – produces dozens of companions on almost everything. In ancient studies (Altertumwissenschaft) there are companions on personalities (Ovid, Aristotel, Galen, Vergil, Tacitus) and of course, on several aspects of Roman civilization too (sports, medicine, architecture, art, sculpture, army, epigraphy).

In Western literature and in the undergraduate education, the most popular introduction on Roman religion is the two volume seminal work of Simon Price – Mary Beard – John North from 1998, which had a great impact not only on the education of Roman religion, but also on the scholarship itself. Some universities are using also the Companion to Roman religion edited by Jörg Rüpke in 2007 or two of his volumes published till now, Religion of the Romans from 2007 and his From Jupiter to Christ volume from 2011. His latest – and perhaps, the most important book – the Pantheon will be published soon, but not sure if can be used as a guide or manual for undergraduate students or can replace the dominant position of Price-Beard-North 1998.

covers_22509In Hungarian scholarship and university-education none of these books are translated and are rarely used. There are 3 books used as an introduction on Roman religion in Hungary now. The first is the 1975 volume of István Hahn (Gods of Rome), published in thousands of copies is more for the greater public, but written by one of the doyens of Hungarian Altertumwissenschaft and it is a great introduction into the archaic and republican religions. Influenced by the works of Wissowa, Latte and Dumezil, Hahn presents pantheons, gods and festivals, mostly the divine agents and experiences in public spaces focusing exclusively on literary sources. His brilliant style as story teller and his huge knowledge on literary sources makes this small volume – pocket book – still a good guide for the greater public, however it is not enough for students of Roman archaeology, history or classical philology.

The second volume – and after some opinions, the best introduction in Hungarian language on Roman religion – is the book of Thomas Köves-Zulauf from 1995covers_158746 (Introduction into the history of Roman religion and myths). The volume presents in details the history of research on Roman religion, some of the key notions on Roman religious practices (evocatio, dedicatio, precatio, triumphus, etc.) and shortly, the historical aspects of the changes in Roman religious communication. As a phenomenologist, Köves-Zulauf presents the literary sources from the archaic and republican Rome in a unique manner, focusing on the particularities of Roman religious communication. Because it presents phenomena and situations, where religious practices and experiences are emphasized in the communication between the divine and human agency, his book is very close to those written recently by J. Rüpke. However, Köves-Zulauf didn’t focus on the religious changes and transformations of the imperial era and – similarly to Hahn – omits the archaeology of religion.

The last book – used rarely however in university education – is the manual of Gesztelyi Tamás, The history of Roman religion from 1995. His book is the only one, which presents also the religious changes during the Principate and includes the arrival of early Christian groups, philosophies of religion in antiquity, superstitio presenting the key notions very shortly in chronological order. His book – a combination of Hahn’s volume with the 1985 volume of John Fergusson – could be a good starting point to write a new, modern and short introduction on Roman religion(s) for Hungarian students and the greater public too.

None of the above mentioned major volumes on Roman religion from Western scholarship are translated yet.

The fight of the eagle with the snake: the old narrative(s) behind iconography and epigraphy

Minories-Eagle-and-Serpent-c-MOLA-Andy-ChoppingIn September 2013 a spectacular Roman find was discovered in London, ancient Londinium. A beautifully carved Roman statue dated on the late 2nd century A.D. was found on the territory of a Roman cemetery.

The particularity of this statue lies in its iconography: the small sized eagle is represented in a fight with a snake, wrapped around the predator’s neck and body. This iconography appears on few representations in Britannia but not only, often appears in the Eastern provinces too., as it was highlighted by professor M. Henig and his co-authors in the latest publication of the famous statue. (I’m very thankful for prof. Henig citing me in his article).

IDR III.5. 136bWhen I saw the statue in the press in 2013 I was remembering suddenly one of the most peculiar inscriptions of Apulum from Roman Dacia, which mentions a prodigy, a “miracle” associated with the fight of an eagle and the snake (IDR III/5, 136):

I(ovi) o(ptimo) m(aximo) / Aur(elius) Marinus / Bas(s)us et Aur(elius) / Castor Polyd/ i circumstantes / viderunt numen / aquilae descidis(s)e / monte supra dracone(m) / res validavit / supstrinxit aquila(m) / hi s(upra) s(cripti) aquila(m) de / periculo / liberaverunt /v(oto) l(ibentes) m(erito) p(osuerunt)

This unique inscription dedicated by two Syrians shows, that a particular story, a narrative or even many versions of a myth existed and was wide-spread in the Roman Empire about the fight of the supreme god and the symbol of the evil power, the snake.

Daniel Ogden just sent me a reference, which serves a great analogy for this narrative behind the iconogaphy of the London-statue and the inscription from Apulum (Alba Iulia, Romania). The passage of Aaelian (Characteristics of Animals 17.37) describes exactly the mythical fight of an eagle with the snake:

 

Bemutató1The story of Aelian, the inscription of Apulum and the iconography of the new statue from Londinium shows not only the mobility and wide spread of ancient myths and religious narratives, but also the local appropriations of these stories beyond iconography and epigraphy.

Mithras in the Danubian provinces

Copy of IMG_8414Last year, exactly a year ago (June, 2016) we organized the very first session dedicated to the Roman cult (or religion) of Mithras in the Danubian provinces. Although nowadays the study of Roman religion do not promote the focus on singular divinities, but on more holistic, complex views on religious communications, our session was an important one, because collected new materials from an area of the Roman Empire which is less known for the Western scholarship.

The seven contributions of our panel (around 200 pages) will be published in the forthcoming number of the Acta Antiqua. The articles will focus on particular aspects of the Mithras mysteries in Dalmatia, Pannonia, Dacia and Moesia Inferior. It will contain also the first comprehensive Supplement for the CIMRM of Dacia.