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The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries [Hardcover]

Manfred Clauss , Richard Gordon
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

27 July 2000
Since its publication in Germany, Manfred Clauss's introduction to the Roman Mithras cult has become widely accepted as the most reliable, as well as the most readable, account of its elusive and fascinating subject. For the English edition the author has revised the work to take account of recent research and new archaeological discoveries. The mystery cult of Mithras first became evident in Rome towards the end of the first century AD. During the next two centuries, carried by its soldier and merchant devotees, it spread to the frontier of the western empire from Britain to Bosnia. Perhaps because of odd similarities between the cult and their own religion the early Christians energetically suppressed it, frequently constructing churches over the caves (Mithraea) in which its rituals took place. By the end of the fourth century the cult was extinct. Professor Clauss draws on the archaeological evidence from over 400 temples and their contents including over a thousand representations of ritual in sculpure and painting to seek an understanding of the nature and purpose of the cult, and what its mysteries and secret rites of initiation and sacrifice meant to its devotees. In doing so he introduces the reader to the nature of the polytheistic societies of the Roman Empire, in which relations and distinctions between gods and mortals now seem strangely close and blurred. He also considers the connections of Mithraicism with astrology, and examines how far it can be seen as a direct descendant of the ancient cult of Mitra, the Persian god of contract, cattle and light. The book combines imaginative insight with coherent argument. It is well-structured, accessibly written and extensively illustrated. Richard Gordon, the translator and himself a distinguished scholar of the subject, has provided a bibliography of further reading for anglophone readers.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Edinburgh University Press (27 July 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0748612300
  • ISBN-13: 978-0748612307
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 7,530,005 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

In what he explains and demonstrates of the Roman version of the faith, Clauss can hardly be faulted ... [He] gives a good indication of the sociological implications of the religion in Europe, delineating the interaction of the community of its believers with Roman society ... The book is richly illustrated [with] good graphic material: an instructive map and fine outline drawings of rock and temple motifs and depictions, as well as ground plans of a temple. There are excellent and lucidly outlined descriptions of the initiation, the rituals and the seven grades, with the meaning of the symbolism and the text of inscriptions explained in a vivid way for the lay person ... [Clauss's] work constitutes the first simply written guidebook for the reader of this age and therefore has great merit as a work that is well organised and highly readable. This book is a welcome addition to Mithraic scholarship in English. [Clauss's] presentation is careful and concise, and gives a detailed presentation of the material evidence. A model of clarity. The author has included mention of important new finds in the notes of this English translation. There is a good up-to-date bibliography, compiled by Gordon, of works in English. The translation itself is very readable and smooth. The volume is attractively produced and carefully edited. Illustrations are well chosen and for the most part appear clear and sharp in the printed text. The book belongs in all college and university libraries ! The Roman Cult of Mithras is by far the best introduction to the subject now available in English, and advanced scholars will return to it constantly. In what he explains and demonstrates of the Roman version of the faith, Clauss can hardly be faulted ... [He] gives a good indication of the sociological implications of the religion in Europe, delineating the interaction of the community of its believers with Roman society ... The book is richly illustrated [with] good graphic material: an instructive map and fine outline drawings of rock and temple motifs and depictions, as well as ground plans of a temple. There are excellent and lucidly outlined descriptions of the initiation, the rituals and the seven grades, with the meaning of the symbolism and the text of inscriptions explained in a vivid way for the lay person ... [Clauss's] work constitutes the first simply written guidebook for the reader of this age and therefore has great merit as a work that is well organised and highly readable. This book is a welcome addition to Mithraic scholarship in English. [Clauss's] presentation is careful and concise, and gives a detailed presentation of the material evidence. A model of clarity. The author has included mention of important new finds in the notes of this English translation. There is a good up-to-date bibliography, compiled by Gordon, of works in English. The translation itself is very readable and smooth. The volume is attractively produced and carefully edited. Illustrations are well chosen and for the most part appear clear and sharp in the printed text. The book belongs in all college and university libraries ! The Roman Cult of Mithras is by far the best introduction to the subject now available in English, and advanced scholars will return to it constantly.

About the Author

Manfred Clauss is Professor of Ancient History at the Free University of Berlin.

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It is convenient to term the Persian and Hellenistic deity Mitra, to distinguish him from the god of the Roman mystery-cult. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
For many years, the only general account of Mithraism available in English has been the 1903 translation of Franz Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithra. This was indeed last reprinted as recently as 1995, but is now listed by Amazon as 'not available'. It is inevitable that, after a century, the progress of archaeological discovery has rendered much of Cumont's book, hopelessly out of date - to say nothing of his style and manner. The decision of the Edinburgh University Press to issue a translation of Manfred Clauss's popular German introduction to the cult, which appeared in 1990, is therefore most welcome. The main problem in writing about the Roman cult of Mithras is that virtually nothing is known about it from literary sources, and what little there is of that kind is difficult to use because of its tendentiousness. On the other hand, there is a great deal of archaeological evidence, the quantity of which has rapidly increased in the past twenty years. With the scholarly abandonment of Cumont's main thesis, that the cult was a direct development of Iranian religion, which occurred in the 1970s, the 'interpretative vacuum' has led to the proliferation of highly speculative theories, many of them based on the claim that the cult-icon, the image of Mithras killing the bull, is in reality, or preferably, to be read as a star-map. Clauss' book is a model introduction, pressing no particular interpretation but concentrating on the presentation, in a thoroughly readable way, of the archaeological remains, combining this where possible with a sensitive treatment of such literary evidence as there is. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars The standard undergraduate handbook of Mithras 13 July 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a translation of a German textbook, and is itself now the standard university introduction to the subject. It is very well translated (thank you Richard Gordon) and very clear and precise. It's solid stuff all the way through, except for the cover image which is reversed (Mithras always is depicted with the bull's head to the right).

The German original has just been updated and extended. But nobody reads German. Let's hope the publishers give Richard Gordon lots of money to update the translation too!
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Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent overview 8 Jan 2004
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The Roman cult of Mithras is known to us from a large collection of its cave-temples, known as Mithraea, a certain number of inscriptions from a Mithraeum, and some sculpture. In addition there are scanty references to the cult in the Christian fathers, and a handful of other references. The cult was a mystery religion, and its beliefs and rituals must be inferred from this scanty base. Wild theorisings are unfortunately common.

The entire data base then known was published in the early 20th century by Franz Cumont. (An English language version of his conclusions is still available). He believed Mithras to be an importation of the ancient Persian deity Mitra, doubtless influenced by descriptions of Mithras as Persian. His work remained standard until the 1970's. Since then many theories have been published -- those of David Ulansey perhaps have attracted much attention.

This book by Manfred Clauss is a careful piece of scholarship, that will be of great use to the newcomer to Mithras studies. He believes the cult was invented in Rome itself, and points out that the 3 earliest inscriptions and the first literary mention, all ca. AD90, are indisputably by people with close links to the city of Rome. The story is taken through various aspects of the cult, as illustrated from the monuments and whatever literary information is available. Parallels with Christian practise are mentioned, but Clauss dismisses the idea of influence in either direction, preferring to point out the shared heritage of oriental religion in classical times. He highlights the close relation of Mithraism with other mystery religions, and rightly is sceptical about the idea that Mithraism always involved believing the same things. Regional and temporal variants are documented.

In short, no better introduction to the subject could be devised. Richard Gordon's translation is excellent -- no hint of another language underlying it comes through --, and his choice of translations for ancient texts likewise.

The only thing that I missed was a list of all the ancient literary sources, or indication of where to find these. The illustrations are far better chosen than those of Cumont. In short, the book is a gem.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Concise clear and well researched 10 Mar 2008
By Konrad Baumeister - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the best currently available introduction to the Roman cult of Mithras you can read. It is completely up to date, lavishly illustrated, very well organized and written, and thoroughly engrossing from cover to cover.

Note I said, "the Roman cult" of Mithras. While Clauss respects the giants leaps of scholarship and knowledge represented by Franz Cumont's books (over 100 years back, but still available in reprints), he rejects the idea that the Roman god Mithras is a direct carry-over from the Persian Mitra, and is careful to distinguish clearly between the two early in the book. Instead, Clauss develops the idea that Mithras was essentially a purely Roman invention, in fact originating in the city of Rome itself, and carried out to the provinces by soldiers and government clerks, officials, and the like. He makes a convincing argument, so far as this reader is concerned.

While Clauss does mention the idea in passing, he is also not presenting Ulansey's 'star-map' argument over the meaning of the Mithras cult. Instead, Clauss' focus is centered on the general worship of an all-powerful Mithras, in league with/identified with/conjoined with Sol (the sun), with the myths of Mithras' birth, his attributes and function as the creator and sustainer of all life, his achievements and their symbolic significance. The major themes are systematically explained and so far as possible analyzed; the various personalities involved in the myths are discussed, and the general worship patterns covered.

Clauss does most of this through a close examination of the mithraea discovered around the Roman world. There are dozens and dozens of photos illustrating and illuminating his discussion; further illustrations show details, or implements, or variations in iconography as occurred around the Roman Empire and over the approximately 350 years or so of active worship. Finally, Clauss covers the comparison of Mithras worship to Christianity, the degree to which the worshippers of Mithras also included the worship of various Roman and Greek gods, and how finally the Christians suppressed and extinguished the cult of Mithras. Photos of dozens of sculptures, reliefs, and votive-reliefs show how statues were decapitated, defaced, destroyed, and temples ruined.

For those interested in a relatively short, but well well written book on the Roman aspects of Mithras worship, there is no better out there now.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, detailed, and grounded. 12 Aug 2013
By Filip Andjelkovic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The headline pretty much sums this book up. It's the most concise yet packed history of the Roman Mithras Cult I've come across. It doesn't descend into the pitfalls of assumtions and fanciful history, Mr. Clauss gives us the facts in a clear manner, making sure to distinguish between what is historically accepted and what is just assumed.
11 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best on the subject - without a doubt. 15 April 2006
By Jonathan LVX - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you are interested in Roman Gods and Goddesses, if you are interested in Mithras and his worship, if you want to read a bit of good history.... then what are you waiting for?

Clauss' writing style is academic, but not boring. A great plus ++++ His research is great and indepth, bringing together so much great information in one volume, that this book is a must read for anyone with an interest on the subject. No need to say very much more, just read the book and get on with it!
5.0 out of 5 stars Good history 31 July 2014
By unsworthyeti - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Beautiful history. Nice to feel connected w/ deep roots.
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