Mithras and the Taurobolium

The Taurobolium was a pagan Roman ritual in which the worshipper stood in a pit and was drenched in bull’s blood.  It was supposed to confer immortality, or something of the kind, although I’ve not researched it. 

Sometimes people assert that this was part of the cult of Mithras, which seems to be untrue; the inscriptions that record the rite are not associated with Mithras, and no Mithraic literary text mentions it.

There is an inscription which associates Mithras with the Taurobolium (CIL VI, 736).   In his article “The Mithraic bas-relief of Pesaro” (“Le bas-relief Mithraique de Pesaro”, Revue archeologique, 3rd series, t. 13, pp. 64-69, 1889), J. Lebegue raises the question of whether the inscription is authentic. I’ve been sent the article, and asked to summarise its argument for non-French speakers: here it is.

The inscription appears on a relief, found at Rome, then transfered to the Olivieri museum at Pesaro. It appears on a stone plaque which represents the familiar scene of Mithras sacrificing the bull. The inscription appears almost completely on a column to the right of the scene; some words are inscribed on the body of the bull being immolated by the god.

The inscription is almost complete, and can be restored as:

Deo magno Mithrae pollenti consenti Lari sancto suo M. Philonius Philomuses Eugenianus delibutus sacratissimis misteriis per omnia probatissimus qui et arcanis perfusionibus in aternum renatus taurobolium crioboliumque fecit et bucranium signavit.

(“To the great god Mithras, with the agreement of the holy Lares, for his health, M. Philonius Philomuses Eugenianus did this, having been anointed in the most sacred mysteries, through it all most worthy (?), who also in the secret bloodshed reborn into the eternal Taurobolium and Criobolium, and sealed the bull-head on the altar (bucranium). “)

On the body of the bull appear the words:

Absolvit | K(alendis) mart(iis) | Agria Ceresi pa(ter) | et pont(ifex) s(a)c(ris) [f]ac(iundis?) | dei magni

(“Paid off on the kalends of March, when Agria Ceresius was Father and pontiff of the holy things that must be done for the great god.”)

And further down:

Tatiano et Simacho consulibus.

Tatian and Symmachus being consuls.

This dates the inscription to 391 AD. The question is whether the inscription is authentic. There are numerous anomalies.

Line 1: Mithras never bears the title “Magnus”, but instead “Invictus”, or sometimes “summus”. The “dii magni” are part of the cult of Cybele, not Mithras. The term is not reserved entirely for that cult, tho, so might be used generically. If so, then it would be very odd that this is the only title given here to Mithras. Further, if in line 27 (on the bull) “dei magni” is correct, then it is certain that this is the only title being given in this inscription to Mithras, and so that the inscription is false. Mommsen has given a different explanation of that line, tho.

Line 3: The “dii consentes” belong to the cult of Jupiter, in which Mithras does not figure. Pollenti, next to consentes, is inappropriate.

Line 4: If Mithras is really being labelled “lare”, then this is a first. The term “lares sancti” is otherwise unknown. (?)

Line 6ff: M. Philonius Philomusus Eugenianus is a strange name for the period. In the 4th century the praenomen is generally omitted.

Line 9-11. “Delibutus sacratissimus mysteriis” is a phrase more literary than epigraphic. But it must be recognised that in the 4th century the epigraphic style had lost much of it conciseness.

Line 12: “Oia” for “Omnia” is a frequent abbreviation in manuscripts. It is only found, to my knowledge, in one inscription, now lost, and which may have been copied incorrectly.

Line 14ff: “Arcanis perfusionibus in aeternum renatus”. There is mention of someone “taurobolio criobolio q. in aeternum renatus” in an inscription discovered longer ago, and which may have served as a model for a falsification. If correctly copied, this too seems strange. The baptism in blood of the taurobolium, carried out in public, could confer immortality; but it isn’t from the taurobolium that Philonius asks this. It is *after* secret and doubtless Mithraic ablutions that he has been “regenerated for eternity”; then he was offered the taurobolium and criobolium. So this is some other baptism producing the same effects as the sacrifice of blood (and in the same terms) before receiving the aforementioned sacrifice.

The next inscription, engraved on the bull, can’t be much studied as it is very obscure and has been variously restored. This concerns the priest who carried out the sacrifice, and who is described as “pater et pontifex”; no doubt the pater of the cult of Mithras, and pontifex in the taurobolic ceremony.

The position of the inscription seems ill-chosen to me. It is engraved on the body of the bull, but the legendary bull, immolated by Mithras himself, and surrounded by allegorical personages, is not the victim of the real sacrifice of Philonius. Also, why degrade the bas-relief in inscribing it there? It would be understandable if the forger, in common with the scholars of his period, confused the bull with the sacrifice.

These anomalies fall into two groups: some against the general rules of epigraphy…; others against our knowledge of the cults themselves. If this discusses a public ceremony then there is nothing to say; this must be a fake. But it is possible that, like Alexander Severus, this relates to a private ceremony, which the dying paganism sought to revive. A special taurobolium may have been carried out, in 391, at a period when it was already illegal. This would make him the founder of a special, private cult, comprising elements from Cybele and Mithras, placing them among the ranks of the “consenting gods”, to make the god one of his lares and his great god. But this hypothesis hardly seems satisfactory. Why does Mithras not bear his characteristic epithet “Invictus”? Furthermore, it would not be Philonius who was the creator of this special cult, but Arcesius, the pater and pontifex. The latter, in mentioning the taurobolium was in public “spectatum”, and dating it by the names of the consuls, would strangely parody an official ceremony.

I believe that this inscription is false. This is fortified by the evidence taken from general epigraphy, and the font (?) declared suspect by contemporary scholarship.

But the enquiry must be completed by examining the monument itself. I have written to the learned conservator of the museum of Pesaro, who has described to me with much competence and precision the details of the Mithraic bas-relief. It is almost entirely very good. Is this a proof of authenticity, and that it cannot have been copied? I would advance another hypothesis; that the monument is ancient, but that the inscription is fake; I will furnish another remarkable example of this sort of falsification. A specialist with the aid of a stone-mason could help us here. Lacking this skill, I will merely demand that the examination is made.

Be that as it may, we can reach the following conclusion. I do not hesitate to condemn the inscription; if I am deceived, it means only that Philonius invented his own religion. There is nothing that need be considered here for the history of Roman religion and public worship.

UPDATE (13/3/2013): I have added the online link and corrected the reference.

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