Date: 2nd-3rd century A.D.
Location: Vatican Museums
This statue of a Mithraic torch bearer, Mithra Chiaramonti (sometimes called the Torchbearer of Porta Portese), was found near a mithraeum (worship place of Mithra) outside Porta Portese in Rome around 1785. The torch bearer is wearing a Phrygian cap and a shortened chiton, also called a chitoniskos (Greek men’s tunic) in Doric style. The Phrygian cap had different connotations dependent upon what type of culture was being portrayed; it could have been a depiction of either Eastern influence upon the Greeks, or Roman art. This specific use of the Phrygian cap signified oriental origins, since Mithra was a “Persian god who had ‘come out of the East.’”
Mithraic mysteries were popular amongst the members of the Imperial Roman military, thus the reason why Mithra Chiaramonti relates to war, specifically the Roman army. As part of membership in this cult, followers had to undergo a seven-level initiation process that correlated with the planets or planetary deities (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Luna, Sol, Saturn). Prospective members had to swear “an oath of secrecy and dedication,” and sometimes involved “the recital of a catechism, wherein the initiate was asked a series of questions pertaining to the initiation symbolism and had to reply with specific answers.” The prospectives, in order to advance to each level, had to “undertake a specific ordeal or test, involving exposure to heat, cold, or threatened peril.” The grade associated with the planet of Saturn was the highest and thus denoted the name of pater, or father. There were often many members who had reached this level of pater.
Beyond speculation of the physical piece itself, not much is known about the actual origins of the piece; however, there is much to be determined as to why Mithraism permeated the culture of the Roman Empire. It is speculated that Syrian merchants brought the cult practice to major cities like Rome, Alexandria, and Carthage. Between 80 and 120 A.D., the Romans’ interpretation of the Indo-Iranian religion of Mithraism took flight and many artifacts were found near Rome. The religion has ties to Persian and Zoroastrian sources, but it is still debated as to how Mithraism developed in Roman culture. This cult belief was later suppressed by the growth of Christianity. The Romans’ interpretation, according to historians, differs somewhat from the Persians’ Mithraism.
The actual name Mithras is of Greek origin and derives from Mithra, which is a Persian god. Mithra mediated between the earth and the Ahura Mazda (“lord of light and wisdom”). Mithra himself represents covenant and oath. Researchers debate whether or not Mithra/Mithras is the same god or different variations of gods worshipped amongst other religions. Much of what is known about Mithraism is speculated from reliefs, sculptures, and other remnants, seeing as how no actual writings were recorded about the religion — save for the graffiti which was written on the walls of mithraea. Many of the secret mysteries of Mithraism died with the men who were initiated into the cult.
Mithras is a “close friend of the sun god Helios or Sol Invictus (the invincible sun).” Therefore, remnants of Mithraic artifacts usually depict torch bearers, called Cautes and Cautophanes, next to the god Mithra. Cautes is usually depicted holding his torch raised upward, and Cautophanes with his torch held downward. The symbolism of the manner in which the torches are held could signify the sunrise and sunset, or “the spring and autumn equinoxes.” It appears, in this depiction of the torch bearer, he was holding his torch (no longer part of the statue) downward with both hands, as Cautophanes would have done.