10 Myths And Mysteries From The Cult Of Mithras

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10 Myths And Mysteries From The Cult Of Mithras



More than 200 temples dedicated to the worship of Mithras have been found from Britain to Syria, along the Rhine and into Italy. They’re buried under Christian churches and nestled away in natural caves, with imagery that remains constant across a huge territory and has been preserved for thousands of years. The rise of Christianity snuffed out the cult of Mithras, and what remains are some tantalizing clues to what lay at the heart of this secret cult.

10Cult Origins


Photo via Wikipedia

Today, we think of the worship of Mithras as “Mithraism,” but that’s a fairly recent title. Older references to the religion call it either the Mysteries of Mithras or even the Mysteries of the Persians, making the connection between the god and his Persian origins clear. The cult had a major stronghold in the Roman empire, and those Roman subjects who practiced it considered themselves Persian in a cultural respect. Those ancient Romans traced their cult’s lineage back to Zoroaster, but where the cult started is much less clear.

For about the 200 years leading up to 2800 BC, Mithras (who’s also known as Mitra, Meher, Meitros, Mihr, and Mehr) is mentioned in the occasional text with little real information or context. It’s thought that 2800 BC is something of a major turning point in Mithras’s career as cult god, but no one’s really sure what sparked his rather meteoric rise in popularity. After that year, there’s a major spread of references reaching out eastward into China and west through Europe and then across the entire Roman empire. By the time that empire was at its height, there were hundreds of temple to Mithras scattered across their territory, and even as the popularity of Mithras faded, the caves used in his worship remained holy sites. One of the largest temples ever found in Italy has religious ties today: The Church of St. Clemente was built above it.

The original Persian Mithras was a far cry from the one frequently depicted in European murals. Known as The Mediator, he occupied a position between Ahura-Mazda, the light, and Ahriman, the dark. By the time he was adopted by the Armenians, he became associated with the caves that would be integral to his later worship. According to their tradition, he confined himself to a cave and emerged only once a year in a symbolic rebirth. When he made it to China with the expansion of the Persian empire, he was The Friend, but for some reason Greece was virtually untouched by the cult of Mithras.


9The Spread Of Mithras Into Rome


While it seems the cult usually spread with the expanding Persian and later Roman cultures, the introduction of Mithras to Italy came in a weird way. According to Plutarch, it was the Cilician pirates who first brought the rites to Italy when they embarked on raids against Roman ships in the first century BC. It wasn’t until the rule of Pompey (above) that Rome really put the boot to the pirates, with the surviving members of their parties transported to Italy after their defeat. (But we aren’t sure if that story is true, as Plutarch’s purported timeline has the introduction of Mithras at the same time thatarchaeological finds suggest the cult had already taken root there.)

Even if the Cilician pirates did bring their religion with them into Rome, it’s not as clear-cut as that. One of the foremost scholars of Mithras, Franz Cumont, put forward the idea that the Roman Mithras was the same as Ahura-Mazda. But some major differences—like the Persian god dealing mostly with contract, law, and negotiations and the Roman god being a sun god—suggest that the Roman version is less like a grandson and more like a second nephew twice removed, then probably adopted. Pieces of the Persian religion still show up in Rome, but they don’t give the whole picture.

So what’s the deal? No one’s really sure. Some—like religious scholar Luther Martin and researcher Roger Beck—suspect the problem came in attitudes. At the same time the Romans thought they were on the top of the world, there was also an idea that Eastern cultures possessed an ancient knowledge. Adopting Mithras in name and in a few respects then making him their own might have been done in an attempt to preserve their “Roman-ness” while still tapping into ancient knowledge.

8The Mithraic Grades


Initiates into the cult of Mithras had the potential to rise through a series of different grades. We know that there were seven different levels, and most of what we’ve managed to uncover about them has only come to light in the past century. But we still don’t know a lot, including what an initiate might have actually been called.

Uncovering their roles took some work. Some of our primary sources are temple mosaics, like the one on the floor of the Mithraeum of Felicissimus in Ostia, and graffiti that was left on other temple walls. Comparing images has helped put together something of a list.

The Raven, or Corax, was associated with the cup, the staff of Mercury, and the planet Mercury. The Bridegroom, or Nymphus, seems to be associated with the oil lamp, a diadem, and a third symbol that no one’s been able to decode yet. It has some kind of connection with the planet Venus, and it’s one of the most debated in part because it refers to a creature that doesn’t actually exist—a male bride—and virtually nothing about the role they served has been uncovered. The third grade is the Soldier, or Miles, and it’s been associated with the helmet and lance, along with the planet Mars.

The Fourth is the Lion, Leo, symbolized by thunderbolts, rattles, and fire-shovel in mosaic depictions (above). Somehow connected with the planet Jupiter, we have a few texts that talk about the lions as moral guardians and how they were purified by honey.

The Persian, or Perses, is another we know nothing about aside from its symbolic associations: the Moon, the Persian dagger, the moon sickle, the plow, and the star.

The Runner of the Sun is also called Heliodromus, and they were under the protection of the Sun. It’s suggested that there was some connection to a bird that was said to follow the path of the Sun in the sky, and these were associated with the whip, the torch, and a crown with seven rays. Because of their connection to the Sun, it’s thought they were responsible for some sort of yearly ceremony relating to the Sun’s path.

The final grade is the Father, or Pater, who oversaw the rest of the community. They shared some symbols with Mithras himself, like the Phrygian cap, the staff, the dagger, and the sacrificial bowl, and were likely responsible for guiding others through the process.

There are more questions than answers about the seven grades. Were they arranged in a hierarchy, or were the roles independent from each other? Were they universal throughout the wide spread of the cult? We’re not really sure.


7The Elephant’s Tomb


Photo via Wikipedia

The Elephant’s Tomb is the modern name given to an ancient structure in a Roman necropolis in Seville, Spain, and the name came from a statue that was discovered in one of the interior rooms. More excavations done in the rooms suggest it wasn’t always a burial ground; it originally may have been a temple to Mithras.

Archaeological evidence shows that the structure as it stands now went through four distinct phases. A window was part of the first stage, and researchers from the University of Pablo de Olavide in Seville found that it had a symbolic purpose.

During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the light streaming into the central chamber would have shown directly on the center of the room. During the two solstices, the light would have lit the north and south walls. It’s also aligned with two of the constellations that were most important to the Mithraic order: Scorpio and Taurus. The image of Mithras killing a bull is the most commonly seen cult image, and it also shows the scorpion stinging the bull (above) as Mithras kills it.

They now believe that a statue of Mithras in his famous bull-slaying pose would have sat in the center of the room to be illuminated by the Sun’s rays on astronomically important days.

The first life of the tomb was hidden during three subsequent renovations, but there are, of course, still objections to the idea. Whether the three-chambered room was used for the mysterious rites and rituals of Mithras has yet to be proven, but it also raises the question of how many moretemples and caves are out there that we have yet to find.

6The Preparation


Photo via Wolfgang Sauber

The idea of the cult of Mithras as a mystery religion means that anyone who was participating in it needed to be initiated into the ceremonies. We have no idea how the faithful prepared for their initiation, though, and even studies of Mithraic temples have yielded almost no information about what was required of the devotees before they were accepted into the cult.

Examinations of the temple under what’s now a church in Rome sparked the suggestion that a brick platform and a series of niches served as a sort of lecture hall where future initiates would be told all they needed to know about the mysteries they were swearing themselves to—but others say it was probably just a meeting room of some sort.

We can surmise at least some things about the process of getting into the cult, most of which is based on what we know about most exclusive societies today. There was likely a period where a novice performed some sort of service, took a test, and was imparted with some of the knowledge that would go along with being a member. The layers and layers of secrecymeant it was possible that potential members knew nothing about what they were walking into, even the most basic ideas—ideas that we’ve since lost.

Some of the literary sources we have on the events that led to someone’s acceptance into the cult is undoubtedly exaggerated, but it shows what contemporary writers thought was happening. One sixth-century text described 80 tests ranging from being exposed to the flames of a bonfire to spending time living as a hermit. Another text from the eighth century claimed that initiates were required to fast for 50 days, were “abraded” for two days, and left out in the snow for the next 20 days.

5The Constellations

Stars with nebula background

The image of Mithras killing the bull—the tauroctony—is the most widely found image associated with the religion. It’s always oddly specific, too, with Mithras in the same position, with the same elements of the bull itself and the scorpion, and in reliefs, he’s always accompanied by two other figures called Cautes and Cautopates. A lion and a bowl are sometimes featured as well, and most of the intact reliefs are framed by an arch. For all the examples of the image we’ve found, no one has ever found a single text from anywhere near the era of Mithras telling how the image was supposed to be interpreted or why it’s so specific.

According to the writings of the Roman philosopher Porphyry, Mithras was symbolic of the figure of Mars and was tied to the constellation of Aries. The bull was, of course, Taurus, and associated with the planet Venus. The scorpion, the lion and the twins are constellations as well, and it’s now thought that the imagery of the cult was depicting exactly what they were seeing in the night sky. Scorpio is always stinging the bull, who’s always standing with a bent foreleg featured in the constellation. The snake is in the same position as Hydra, and even the occasional inclusion of the lion can be explained by the idea that only constellations that overlapped the equatorial line were important enough to be included in the imagery. Sometimes, Leo was on the line, and sometimes it wasn’t, depending on the perspective of the viewer.

This seems logical enough, but we’re still not sure exactly who Mithras was. Orion might seem the first choice, but the positioning is wrong. If the image is a map of the night sky, Mithras should be beneath the bull, not above it—and, the traditional weapon is wrong. There’s another figure in the night sky who’s also dressed in a Phrygian cap and who’s in the right position to be Mithras: Perseus. If Perseus was the inspiration for Mithras, it also explains one of the strangest elements of the Mithras relief. As he delivers the killing blow, Mithras is looking away from the bull, which matches how Perseus is positioned in the night sky.


4Cautes And Cautopates


Photo via Serge Ottaviani

In that famous image, Mithras is never alone. Standing on either side of him are the twins—Gemini—named Cautes and Cautopates. Some inscriptions on the reliefs mention them by name, so we know what those names are and which is which: Cautes holds his torch upright, while Cautopates holds his upside down. In some examples, Cautes is shown holding the head of a bull and Cautopates is given a scorpion, further cementing the idea that they’re related to the constellations by linking the imagery to the entrance of the Sun into the zodiac during the spring and fall equinoxes.

What we don’t know is there they came from, what their names mean, or where the names originated. There’s no mention of them in the original Persian and Zoroastrian mythology, and even though their names sound like they should be Iranian, they aren’t. Tracing the origins of the names means a lot of wading through waist-deep linguistic mud, but by the time you get through ancient Greek, Turkish, and Iranian, the closest thing you can possibly find as the basis for the names are words that we translate as “Heap” and “Collapse of a Heap.”

So that’s unlikely.

We’re not sure what they’re supposed to represent, either. One interpretation is that Cautes represents the dawn, Mithras (always between the two) is the midday sun, and Cautopates is the sunset. It’s also been suggested that Cautes is birth, Mithras is life, and Cautopates is death.

It’s made even more complicated that sometimes both figures are holding their torches upright. No one knows if they’re both supposed to be Cautes or if there’s some sort of other meaning to these images that we’ve likely lost forever.

3The Lion-Headed Statues


Photo via Mithraeum.eu

While the cult obviously centers on the figure of Mithras, there’s another figure that’s central to the cult ideas—and no one knows who he is. The figures have been found in the form of idols and as statues, and while there are some differences in their presentation, they’re basically the same. The figure has the head of a lion, wings draped across the back and sometimes folded around the front, with a snake wrapped around it from ankles to chest. The figure sometimes holds a sword, a staff, a key, or a torch, and sometimes the now-familiar figures of the zodiac are included. The mouth of the lion is always open, and some figures have a hole carved inside the mouth.

No one’s sure who it’s supposed to be or what it represents. Some think it’s the Zoroastrian god of time, called Zurvan. Zurvan was an eternal figure who stood in direct opposition to Ahriman, the Evil Spirit.

Others think it’s supposed to be the Evil Spirit himself. Some inscriptions refer to the burning of incense inside the statue to create the image of a fire-breathing beast, and the image of the lion itself seems to suggest a demonic nature, at least according to the Zoroastrian traditions. And snakes have a long history of being depicted as evil, but the answer might also lie in the writings of another mystery cult. The Yazidi mystery cult of Iraq and Armenia uses snakes as their Destructive-Creators, and a manuscript from the Iranian province of Luristan tells the story of an evil creature whose name translates to “Lionish-God.”

The lion-headed figure is thought to represent everything beyond the zodiac that features so heavily in Mithraic teachings. He might be a gatekeeper, he might be an evil creature holding the keys to knowledge or heaven, or he might have something to do with the binding and releasing of souls.

2The Initiation


Photo via Michelle Touton

While we’re not entirely sure what an initiation ceremony into the cult looked like, we have some tantalizing clues.

A manuscript from Florence tells us that the ceremony was performed by two men called the Father and the Herald. The initiate would recite an oath promising his secrecy and at the end he would have his hands branded or tattooed (although some portraits show the tattoos on a person’s forehead).

There were then a series of trials, which we know about from murals on the walls of a grotto in Capua. One image shows a naked and blindfolded initiate being guided by a white-robed figure. The next shows the same blindfolded initiate kneeling while someone approaches him from behind, armed with what looks like either a sword or a stick. The third shows the initiate on one knee, a sword on the ground next to him, with one of the men standing behind him with his hands on his head.

Other images show other parts of the ceremony and depict the initiate lying on the ground, being pushed over by one man while another walks toward them, and kneeling while holding his hands under his chin.

A fourth-century text says the sword is used to cut the chicken-gut bindings that ties the initiate’s hands. By this time, the records get increasingly fantastic with claims that initiates went through greater and greater challenges like spending days submerged in water and more.

Just where truth and fiction meet, we’re not sure.

1Paul And The Link With Christianity


Photo via Wikipedia

There are a lot of similarities between the cult of Mithras and Christianity, including the idea of a virgin birth and 12 followers, a December 25 birthday, and his position as the savior of man. The number of Christianity’s core beliefs and practices that have been taken from Mithraism is hotly debated, and one of the biggest questions is whether or not St. Paul had anything to do with the connection.

There’s an entire school of thought saying it wasn’t Christ who founded Christianity, but Paul. Different authors go about it in different ways. Some suggest that Paul was a highly literate adventurer who jumped at the chance to found a new religion when he saw Christ had no such inclinations, while others say Paul simply built on Christ’s teachings and filled in the blanks with parts of other world mythologies he was already familiar with. Regardless, the basic idea is that it was Paul who created the religion we all know today. And when it came to where he pulled his knowledge from, even Friedrich Nietzsche pointed the finger at the cults of Osiris and Mithras.

Paul was from Tarsus, which was a major center of Mithraic activity during his time. According to the theory, his writing is full of references to Mithras, like his comments in Ephesians 6:10-17 where he talks about putting on the armor of God and picking up the sword of the spirit. It’s an odd image in respect to what should be the following of a man who preached nonviolence, but it’s in line with the warrior cult of Mithras. Some suggest Paul was a priest of Mithras, while others take a huge leap to suggest he was the same person as Simon Magus. Evidence for that is extremely sketchy, but it has a little mainstream backing.

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford has a copy of a paper that King wrote, bringing up the idea that Paul’s familiarity with the cult had an impact on Christianity. He writes specifically about the early idea that Christ was born in a cave, and Paul’s comments, “They drank of that spiritual rock . . . and that rock was Christ.” That was lifted straight from Mithraic inscriptions, and so was the idea that Sunday was the Lord’s Day—originally, it was Mithras’s day. One of the likely sources for the inclusion of ideas that would have been familiar to mystery cult adherents was Paul, but it’s likely we’ll never really know how much influence he had in shaping mystery religions into Christianity.

10 Enigmatic Gold Artifacts

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10 Enigmatic Gold Artifacts



Mankind craves gold. Its rarity makes it extremely valuable, and its everlasting luster symbolizes the Sun’s power and immortality. The archaeological record is filled golden objects that have remained shining through the centuries. Given the value of this precious metal, these artifacts are almost always more than just art; they’re statements of power, faith, or cultural identity. Many remain a mystery to modern scholars.

10Golden Curse Tablets


Photo credit: Institute of Archaeology, Belgrade via the International Business Times

Curse tablets, or tabella defixionis, were common in ancient Rome. These inscriptions on metal were harnessed to bring vengeance. In August 2016, archaeologists discovered golden curse tablets in eastern Serbia. While some are written in Greek, others are written in an unknown language with indecipherable symbols. Some of the tablets are demonic invocations. Experts believe the unique symbols were a secret code between the user and the demon.

Dated to the fourth century AD, these tablets reflect a Roman Empire in flux. They reference Christian and pagan deities, revealing a slow transition in belief. Lead curse tablets have been discovered before, but these golden versions are unique. There was an ancient Roman prohibition against burying gold with the dead.


9Great Golden Bell Of Dhammazei


Photo via The Independent

The resting place of the Bell of Dhammazei remains one of Myanmar’s most enduring mysteries. Cast in the 15th century, the bell was composed of an alloy of gold, silver, and copper and weighed 300 tons. It once stood next to the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1608, a Portuguese mercenary named Felipe de Brito seized the bell and dragged it to the Bago River. While he was attempting to ferry his prize across, the bell sank.

Its location remains a mystery. International teams with the latest in technology have been unable to find its resting place. The murky waters do not make the search easy. The Bago River has also changed course over the past 400 years, so it’s unlikely the search parties are in the right area. Others aren’t even sure the bell exists. Three central historical texts written 200 years after its construction fail to mention the mysterious music maker.

8Gold Spirals Of The Sun Worshipers


Photo credit: Nationalmuseet via Ancient Origins

In 2015, 2,000 gold spirals were unearthed in Zealand, Denmark. Dating between 900 and 700 BC, they measure roughly 3 centimeters (1.2 in) and are composed of pure gold thread. Archaeologists believe they were part of ceremonial clothing worn by the region’s Bronze Age Sun worshipers. They may have been embroidered on ritual garb, woven into hair, or worn in a headdress. Sun worship was one of the principal forms of Bronze Age spirituality. Given its brilliance and eternal luster, gold was magically linked with the Sun.

The site has one of the highest concentrations of gold in Northern Europe. Several golden broaches were found during the same dig. Before that, four gold bracelets were unearthed. In the 19th century, local farmers dug up six golden bowls in a nearby field. Experts theorize that this concentration of precious metal suggests that the area was particularly important to Bronze Age inhabitants.


7Golden Rhino Of Mapungubwe


Photo credit: Tim Hauf/Corbis via The Guardian

The Golden Rhino of Mapungubwe is one of the most important artifacts discovered in South Africa. It is composed of thin sheets of gold foil hammered over a delicately carved wooden frame. Along with the rhino, 9 kilograms (20 lb) of golden jewelry, beads, and other animal figures have been recovered.

Mapungubwe was the biggest kingdom in 13th-century sub-Saharan Africa. It was located along the Botswana border in South Africa. This sophisticated state had vast trade routes that stretched to Egypt and Asia.

For decades, the golden rhino was charged with political importance. When the figurine was unearthed in 1932, white South Africans refused to admit that black Africans had created the rhino. Its craftsmanship was a threat to the apartheid ideology that provided the basis of the state. Now, experts agree that the Rhino of Mapungubwe was made locally in the precolonial period.

6Gold Rings Of The Griffin Warrior


Photo credit: University of Cincinnati, Pylos Excavations via Smithsonian

In 2015, archaeologists unearthed the grave of a warrior in Southwestern Greece. Dated to 1500 BC, the tomb contained a 30-year-old man dubbed the “Griffin Warrior.” The grave was filled with immaculate artifacts, including four mysterious golden rings. The rings are composed of several sheets of gold and contain intricate imagery from Minoan mythology. Experts believe these rings were crafted in Crete and used as seals for official documents.

The Minoan civilization of Crete disappeared mysteriously in 1200 BC. The prevailing theory has been that Mycenaean Greeks conquered the Minoans and absorbed their culture. However, some suggest that the rings reflect cultural interaction and an exchange of ideas. Minoan objects may even have held special reverence as symbols of political power, as Minoan culture was penetrating the mainland at this time. Their aesthetic and building styles had already influenced the Mycenaeans. Others believe the rings are plunder.

5Undiluted Scythian Style


Photo credit: Vera Salnitskaya via The Siberian Times

In 1998, archaeologists unearthed a mysterious cache of gold near Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva in Southern Siberia. In the tomb of a sixth-century BC man and woman, they discovered 5,000 gold pieces, weighing 20 kilograms (44 lb) total. These decorative pieces included earrings, pendants, and beads. Many are animal figures or depict images of beasts. The panthers, lions, camels, and deer represent the animals that once wandered Siberia.

These pieces represent the traditional Scythian style of the Altai Mountains. These techniques eventually spread to the Black Sea region and merged with Greek styles. Many pieces of Scythian gold dated from after contact with the Mediterranean have been discovered. However, this recent find is unique because it reflects an undiluted Scythian style, which archaeologists havenever seen before.


4Golden Crown Of The Love Goddess


Photo credit: Dukes/BNPS via Ancient Origins

An elderly British man made a shocking discovery under his bed. In a cardboard box inherited from his grandfather, he found a 2,300-year-old Greek crown made of pure gold. Experts determined it to be an authentic myrtle wreath crown and dated it to 300 BC. The crown is 20 centimeters (8 in) across and weighs roughly 100 grams (3.5 oz). Stylistic elements suggest a master goldsmith in Northern Greece forged the piece. Dirt embedded deeply in the crown suggests it was once buried.

Ancient Greeks used wreath crowns for religious festivals and athletic competitions. Myrtle wreaths were specifically associated with Aphrodite. Myrtle was sacred to the goddess, and crowns composed of it were tangible reminders of love’s power. No one knows where the discoverer’s grandfather picked up the crown. He traveled extensively in the 1940s and 1950s and was particularly interested in Alexander the Great’s Macedonian homeland.

3Old Gold


Archaeologists recently unearthed the world’s oldest processed gold in Bulgaria. Dated to 4500 BC, the 3-millimeter gold bead was discovered at Tell Yunatsite. The find is 200 years older than the previously oldest-known gold, which was also discovered in Bulgaria at Varna. Experts believe Tell Yunatsite may be one of the oldest urban sites in Europe. A 2.7-meter (9 ft) wall surrounded the Bronze Age Balkan settlement, suggesting that they hadgreat resources to protect.

Archaeologists believed that the inhabitants of Tell Yunatsite had migrated out of the Anatolia only a few centuries earlier. How they developed advanced metallurgy remains a mystery. Researchers now believe the inhabitants were part of a vast trade network and may have practiced industrial metalworking for the first time in history. Mysterious symbols discovered on a votive tablet from nearby Gradeshnitsa may prove that they also developed one of the earliest-known written scripts.

2Gold-Hilted Sword


Photo credit: Paul Reid via the Archaeology News Network

While excavating a new soccer field, Scottish workers unearthed a treasure trove of Bronze Age artifacts. Among these, they discovered a mysterious sword with a golden hilt. Believed to be 4,000 years old, the sword is so delicate that researchers are unable to remove it from the ground. Their goal is to lift the entire block of surrounding soil and transfer it to a lab environment. Given its delicate nature, the find may be either a spear point or a broken sword.

Scotland is filled with Bronze Age sites. Researchers were recently able to recreate the likeness of a Scottish woman, “Ava,” who died 3,700 years ago. It turns out the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands are physically indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. Work on the soccer field has been halted until archaeologists can investigate the site.

1Golden Plates Of The Wind Gods


In 2016, workers in Java discovered a box containing 22 small golden plates. Dated to the eighth century AD, the plates contain divine symbols and characters. Workers discovered the remains of a candi, or temple, in the same vicinity.

The plates were found in a rock pile in Ringilarik village. They are 18-karat gold and etched in ancient Javanese script. The inscriptions give the cardinal directions of the wind gods of the ancient Javanese version of Hinduism. So far, experts have recorded the names of eight separate wind gods from the tablets.

Many discoveries were made in the region in 2016. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of another temple and statues dating to Java’s ninth-century Shiva Hindu period. The Central Java Heritage Conservation Agency has declared the location where the gold tablets were discovered a heritage site—a significant achievement in a Muslim-dominated country.

Abraham Rinquist is the executive director of the Winooski, Vermont, branch of the Helen Hartness Flanders Folklore Society. He is the coauthor of Codex Exotica andSong-Catcher: The Adventures of Blackwater Jukebox.

10 Ruthless Women Who Secretly Ruled Rome

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10 Ruthless Women Who Secretly Ruled Rome



Ancient Rome wasn’t known for its enlightened attitude toward women. They were expected to be homemakers and to stay out of public life. Yet some women did manage to gain political power behind the scenes—even if they had to be ruthless to keep it.



Photo credit: Hans Makart

Messalina is best remembered for accusations about her wild sexual escapades, which Roman writers tended to throw at anyone they didn’t like. Pliny the Elder even claimed that she had sex with 25 men in a row to win a contest with Rome’s most famous prostitute.

This hostility probably came from the fact that Messalina was the most powerful woman in Roman history up to that point. Her husband was Claudius, who became emperor mostly because his ambitious relatives considered him a drooling idiot and never bothered having him murdered. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and took the throne as the last man standing.

Messalina dominated her meek husband and soon controlled his administration. Anyone who opposed her risked being arrested on false charges. She even persuaded Claudius to execute her stepfather by saying she’d dreamed he was plotting against the emperor.

But she went too far in AD 48, when she married another man. It was probably a coup attempt, with Messalina and her new husband planning to replace Claudius entirely. Unfortunately, Rome’s bureaucrats preferred the easily manipulated Claudius and persuaded him to put the conspirators to death. They prevented Messalina from seeing Claudius before her execution, fearing she would be able to talk him out of it.




After Messalina’s death, Claudius rewrote Rome’s incest laws and married his niece, Agrippina, a hardened veteran of imperial intrigue. (Her sister had been starved to death on Messalina’s orders.) As before, Claudius was easily pushed around by his new wife, who quickly took control of the empire. Agrippina even signed government documents and officially dealt with foreign ambassadors.

Agrippina had a son, Nero, from a previous marriage, and she was determined to make him emperor. She talked Claudius into adopting Nero and favoring him over his biological son, Britannicus. Anyone who opposed Nero was systematically eliminated.

After Claudius granted Nero equal imperial power, Agrippina decided that she no longer needed Claudius and served him a tasty dish of poisonous mushrooms. Lucky to the end, Claudius suffered a massive bout of diarrhea, which saved him from the poison. But Agrippina’s allies were everywhere, and Claudius’s doctor pushed more poison down his throat with a feather. Nero became emperor, and Agrippina’s triumph was complete.

8Poppaea Sabina


Photo credit: Nanosanchez

After Nero became emperor, Agrippina continued to exert influence behind the scenes. However, she met her match in her son’s lover, Poppaea Sabina.

Poppaea wanted Nero to marry her, but he was already married to Octavia, daughter of Claudius and Messalina. Agrippina had worked hard to secure the match (even framing Octavia’s first fiance for treason) and refused to allow her son to get divorced. Meanwhile, Poppaea (whose mother had been forced into suicide by Messalina) hated Octavia and demanded that Nero stand up to his mother.

Trapped between the women in his life, Nero chose Poppaea and gave his mother a boat designed to collapse and kill her. But Agrippina survived and swam to safety. Worse, she knew it was an assassination attempt because she had seen the crew of a “rescue” ship clubbing survivors to death with their oars. In a panic, Nero gave up on making it look like an accident and had his mother hacked to death. She supposedly went out bravely, telling the her son’s henchmen to strike the first blow at her womb.


7Julia Domna


Photo credit: I, Sailko

After a male-dominated century, powerful women made a major comeback in Rome during the Severan dynasty, which was arguably a dynasty of women. The trend started with Julia Domna, wife and trusted adviser to Emperor Septimius Severus.

Domna really came into her own following Septimius’s death in AD 211, when he was succeeded by their sons, Caracalla and Geta. Domna played a dominant role in their administration and officially ran the empire while Caracalla was on campaign.

Although Domna was an excellent administrator, she was unable to prevent tragedy from stalking her family. First, Caracalla killed Geta in a fit of rage. Then, Caracalla was murdered by the prefect Macrinus. This was too much for Domna, who chose to commit suicide after hearing the news.

6Julia Soaemias


Photo credit: Marco Prins via Livius

After murdering Caracalla, Macrinus seized power and declared himself emperor. But he underestimated the Severan women. Julia Maesa (Domna’s sister) and her daughter, Julia Soaemias, were determined to get revenge on Macrinus and restore their family to power.

In a campaign of furious intrigue, Soaemias and Maesa persuaded the legions of the East to support Soaemias’s son, Elagabalus. Since Elagabalus wasn’t actually a blood relation of Septimius Severus, they started a rumor that he was Caracalla’s illegitimate son by incest, which somehow worked in their favor.

Macrinus raced to put down the rebellion, but he was defeated and executed outside Antioch. Elagabalus became emperor, but the 14-year-old was uninterested in governing. Maesa and Soaemias were the real rulers of Romeduring his reign.

5Julia Maesa


Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology via Ancient Rome

While Soaemias helped rule the empire, Elagabalus was allowed to indulge his every whim and soon developed a reputation for wild debauchery. He supposedly prostituted himself in the imperial palace and married a charioteer named Hierocles. Cassius Dio claimed that he offered a fortune to any surgeon who could give him a vagina.

On another occasion, he fell for an athlete named Zoticus, who supposedly had a huge penis. The jealous Hierocles spiked his rival’s drink, and “after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, he wasdriven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy.”

Whether these stories are true is debatable, but it’s clear that Elagabalus quickly alienated most of Rome, and his mother was unwilling to rein him in. His grandmother, Maesa, eventually stepped in and staged a coup, deposing Elagabalus in favor of his cousin Alexander, the second emperor she’d put on the throne. In a shocking show of ruthlessness, Maesa had her daughter and grandson executed to secure Alexander’s power base.


4Julia Mamaea


Maesa died shortly after putting Alexander on the throne. She was succeeded by her daughter, Julia Mamaea, Alexander’s mother and the last of the dynasty of women who effectively ruled Rome. Historians agree that Mamaea “totally dominated” her young son and ran the empire with the help of a council of senators.

She even joined the army on military campaigns, which was unheard-of for a woman. Unfortunately, the wars went badly, and the legions eventually mutinied. Soldiers murdered Alexander and Mamaea as they clung together in their tent, ending the Severan dynasty.

3Ulpia Severina


Photo credit: Rasiel Suarez

Ulpia Severina was the wife of Emperor Aurelian, a renowned general who was murdered by his own soldiers in AD 275. Other than that, almost nothing is known about her. We’re only aware of her existence from monuments and coins, which suggest that she ruled for a brief period after Aurelian’s death.

During Aurelian’s reign, Roman mints issued some coins in his name and some coins in Severina’s name. (This was standard practice.) However, coins from the time of Aurelian’s death only appear to have been issued in Severina’s name. The coins also bear images consistent with Severina trying to shore up her power.

Ancient sources mention a gap between Aurelian’s death and Tacitus taking the throne, and some historians speculate that Severina ruled during this period, only to be erased from history after Tacitus took charge. However, her coins were already in circulation and couldn’t be erased. Severina may have been the first woman to rule the Roman Empire in her own right.

2Aelia Pulcheria


Photo credit: I, Sailko

Aelia Pulcheria was a childhood prodigy who declared herself regent for her brother when she was 15—only two years older than her brother. She kept a tight grip on power for the next four decades. To shore up her position, she took a vow of perpetual chastity and cultivated a religious reputation.

However, Pulcheria ran into problems when her brother died in 450. Although she had long been the true power in the Eastern Roman Empire, it was unheard-of for a woman to rule alone. The easiest solution was for Pulcheria to get married, but she refused to violate her vow of chastity. In an unusual move, she eventually did marry a senator named Marcian, who became her co-emperor after he publicly agreed that they would never have sex.

1Galla Placidia


Photo credit: Mr. Granger

The daughter of Emperor Theodosius, Galla Placidia lived during the dying days of the Western empire. As a young woman, she proved her toughness by confirming a death sentence for the woman who had raised her. A few years later, the Visigoths sacked Rome and kidnapped Placidia. They intended to ransom her to her brother, Emperor Honorius, but he declined to pay, and the Visigoths dragged Placidia around Europe for the next six years.

In 414, Placidia married the young Visigoth king Athaulf. They were supposedly genuinely in love, but Athaulf was murdered within the year. Placidia returned to Rome, where she married Emperor Constantius. After Constantius died, a usurper tried to steal the throne from the couple’s infant son. Placidia fled to Constantinople, where she persuaded her niece, Pulcheria, to give her an army.

Returning to Rome, Placidia made her son emperor and ruled as regent for the next 14 years.

10 US Archaeological Discoveries Shrouded In Mystery

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10 US Archaeological Discoveries Shrouded In Mystery



Most people consider the start of US history to be 1776, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are, in fact, thousands of years of North American history. Who lived there? What did they leave behind? This list explores these questions by taking a look at some of the most interesting and mysterious archaeological discoveries ever made in the United States.

10Lake Winnipesaukee Mystery Stone


Photo credit: John Phelan

Discovered in 1872 buried close to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, the eponymous mystery stone is dark, smooth, egg-shaped, and about 10 centimeters (4 in) tall and 6.4 centimeters (2.5 in) wide. On its surface are a number of carved symbols and images, including a face, ears of corn, and a teepee, among other unknown images.

Questions have emerged regarding the stone: Who made it? And what is it? One theory suggests that the stone may have been made by Native Americans to commemorate a peace treaty between two tribes. Other theories contend that the stone could be Celtic or Inuit in origin.

The mystery was further complicated when researchers investigated two holes in the stone, one at the top and one at the bottom. These holes were drilled with a level of precision that seems inconsistent with the ability of premodern tools. This has led some to believe that the stone may be an elaborate hoax, while it has convinced others that the stone may be a “thunderstone” crafted by supernatural forces.


9Indian Cave Petroglyphs


In Harrison County, West Virginia, a small cave was explored in the 19th century. Inside this cave are a number of incredible prehistoric petroglyphs. These petroglyphs portray a number of animals, including rattlesnakes and fish. Indian Cave is unique for its incredibly preserved state and has been described by archaeologists as “virtually unchanged.” Its petroglyphs are unique for their curious use of the color red, which can be seen on a number of the figures.

Archaeologists have determined the petroglyphs to be the work of early Native Americans but cannot identify which culture. Pottery found within the cave suggests that it was occupied sometime between AD 500 and 1675. Similar to other petroglyphs, the motivation for their creation is unclear.

8America’s Stonehenge


Outside of Salem, New Hampshire, lies the ruins of what some believe to be an ancient settlement. Known today as America’s Stonehenge, the site is made up of numerous man-made stone chambers, walls, and other rock structures.

The site has sparked a series of heated debates among historians and archaeologists as to the origins and use of the complex. The most prominent theory is that it was built by Native Americans some 2,500 years ago and was used for centuries as a place for religious ceremony. Another popular theory suggests that the structures were created and used by Irish monks around AD 1000.


7Poverty Point


In Louisiana, there is an extensive complex of earthworks known as Poverty Point. The complex contains a series of mounds and ridges and was built by Native Americans sometime between 1700 and 1100 BC. What makes Poverty Point interesting is it’s the only known example of large construction done by a hunter-gatherer society.

No one knows exactly what purpose Poverty Point served. Some archaeologists suggest that the site was used for periodic ceremonial events, while others contend it was a permanent settlement. Similarly, we don’t know which culture built it, as there have been few artifacts found to link to any specific people.

6The Upton Chamber


Photo credit: Peter Muise

Throughout the New England countryside, there are hundreds of mysterious stone chambers and structures. There are various theories as to who built these structures, including everything from Native Americans and early settlers to Norsemen and Irish Monks. One of the most impressive of these man-made chambers can be found in Upton, Massachusetts. The Upton Chamber is built into a hill and has a long passageway that opens up into a beehive-like dome.

The chamber indicates a fundamental knowledge of stonework on the part of its builders and is also astronomically aligned. On the summer solstice, the entrance of the chamber aligns perfectly with the Sun, allowing the inner dome to be fully illuminated. This has led some experts to believe that the chamber was not built by any settler but could be the work of an ancient people.

According to some researchers, the chamber could be the work of Irish monks. These researchers claim that the beehive structure of the chamber as well as the stonework bare striking resemblances to structures found in Ireland dating back to the eighth century.

5Great Serpent Mound


Photo via Ancient Origins

The Great Serpent Mound is an ancient earthwork discovered in Ohio. It’s an effigy mound, which is a mound in the form of an animal, in this case a giant snake. Archaeologists have been unable to figure out what culture built it, when it was built, or what its use was. Radiocarbon dating has suggested that the mound may have been built around AD 1000, while other studies have suggested it could be around 2,000 years old.

There are a number of theories as to what the effigy was used for. Some scholars believe it was used in religious ceremonies and possibly sacrificial offerings. Others believe it is some sort of calendar, due to its astrological alignments.


4Petroglyphs Of Winnemucca Lake


Near the dry Winnemucca Lake in Nevada, archaeologists believe they have discovered the oldest petroglyphs in North America. They’re located on a number of large boulders and vary in their design. Some of the boulders have circular designs, while others have diamond-like shapes. These petroglyphs are unique for a couple reasons: First, they’re much more numerous than other petroglyphs found across the country. Second, the markings are at least 10,000 years old.

Many questions remain as to the origin and meaning of the designs. They’re undoubtedly the work of early Native Americans, yet no one is quite sure as to who exactly these people were. Similarly, the reason for such artistic creation and what the glyphs themselves are supposed to mean, if anything, remains unknown.



Photo credit: Heironymous Rowe

Cahokia was the largest city in pre-Columbian North America, with a population of around 15,000 people. Based in the fertile Mississippi Valley near where St. Louis is today, it lasted from about AD 700 to 1300. By all accounts, Cahokia was a complex urban society with a unique culture and a ruling class. They farmed, fought other tribes, and also apparently practiced human sacrifice.

Then, without a trace, they vanished. Historians have debated what happened but haven’t come to a consensus. It has been suggested that deforestation, climate change, disease, and fear of invasion may have been factors.

2The Maine Penny


Photo credit: National Museum of Natural History via Ancient Origins

While excavating a Native American settlement in Maine in 1957, archaeologists found something amazing. Buried in the dirt was a small coin of unknown origins. The coin was first misidentified as a 12th-century British penny, but upon further inspection years later, English researchers declared the coin to be Norse. Experts at the University of Oslo stated that the coin was most likely minted between 1065 and 1080. It is the only pre-Columbian Norse artifact ever found in the US.

So how does a Norse coin almost 1,000 years old end up on the coast of Maine? Some are convinced that the coin is evidence of contact between early Norse settlements in Newfoundland and mainland Native Americans. If this is the case, it would change the entire time frame of first contact between the New World and the Old World.

1Dighton Rock


Photo creidt: Davis

Dighton Rock is a 40-ton boulder that was discovered in the Taunton River of Berkley, Massachusetts, in 1690. It’s remarkable for its mysterious markings. The markings are seemingly inconsistent with any particular writing style, and the mysterious origins of the rock have baffled many. Throughout the years, a number of theories have been floated as to who the creators of the cryptic inscription may be.

One of the most popular theories is that the markings are Norse in origin. This theory suggests that the rock was a portrayal of a Viking voyage into the area as early as AD 1000. Another popular theory suggests that the markings are the work of Native Americans. There was a significant population of natives in the area where the rock was found, and similar markings have been found and attributed to various native tribes across the Northeast. Other theories suggest that ancient Phoenicians, the Portuguese, or the Chinese may be responsible for the markings.

Brad Sylvester is a student at Fordham University with interests in history, literature, music, politics, and writing. He can be reached at bsylvester3@fordham.edu.