Art, Art History and Design, School of


First Advisor

Philip Sapirstein

Date of this Version


Document Type



A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree Master of Arts, Major Art History, Under the Supervision of Professor Philip Sapirstein. Lincoln, Nebraska: April, 2017

Copyright (c) 2017 Charles R. Hill


This thesis is a reassessment of scholarship concerning the origins of the cult mysteries of Mithraism in its Roman form during the Imperial Period. While much has been published in the debate over the cult’s true origins, we are still left without a satisfactory answer. The present work is an attempt to reconcile some of the arguments posed in the 19th and early 20th centuries with those of the later 20th and 21st centuries, focusing mostly on the cult’s art and iconography in Mithraea, the central spaces of Mithraic worship. First will be a summary of scholarly opinion on the cult’s origins and possible explanations for the cult’s later variations, followed by a section in which the typical aspects of Mithraic spaces are established by region, to the extent that is possible. Next will be a chapter in which specific sites in various regions of the Empire are discussed in more detail, focusing on the dichotomy between the typical form of a Mithraeum in that region and those aspects which point to variations between Mithraic groups in different settings. Additionally, divergences in artistic representation between spaces of civilian and military versions of the cult will be considered, as it is argued that the distinction between these groups of worshippers is responsible for the development of alternative aspects of the mysteries closer to the Roman core versus on the periphery of the Empire. It is concluded that Mithraism, while consistent in many ways across the Roman world and widely variable in others, was not exempt from the processes of Roman religious syncretism, and is in fact one of the strongest examples attesting to its efficacy. While this view is not new to the study of Mithraism, most recent scholars have preferred to describe the cult as either relatively uniform across time and space, or as entirely disjointed, to the extent that it should not be considered as a single cult tradition.

Advisor: Philip Sapirstein