Social Mobility: Mithraism and Cosmography in the 2nd-5th Centuries CE


  • Sandra Blakely Emory University



pragmatic cognitive science, cosmology, Mithras.


Pragmatic cognitive science, rooted in Dewey's epistemology and models of distributed cognition, offers new hypotheses for the emergence and decline of the Mithraic rites. These models foreground the responsiveness of the rites to their economic and social environment, generating new form-meaning pairs through multimodal engagements inside the Mithraic caves. These moments of cognitive blending answered the needs of the early social catchment of the rites, which was predominantly freedmen and soldiers benefitting from the upward mobility of the thriving second century CE. Within the caves, multimodal engagements with the triumph of light over dark physical movement, imagery, gesture, role playing, and interaction with cult equipment - aligned the experience of the initiate with Mithras' cosmological triumph. The caves are also a confluence of mechanisms for social mobility that were broadly familiar in the imperial period, including patronage, symposia, engagement with exotic cultural forms and philosophical speculation. The decline of the rites was coincident with the dissolution of the economic opportunities that enabled the rise of the Roman middle class and of the social currency of these practices. The language of euergetism yielded to the language of service to the poor, and the cosmological imagery that characterized the caves shifted into the restricted spheres of exchange among competing princes. This model of the rites suggests dynamics with Christianity focused less on theology than on responsiveness to the economic and social transformations.

On cover:
Monks singing the Office and decorated initial A[sperges me.]. Gradual Olivetan Master (Use of the Olivetan Benedictines), illuminated manuscript on parchment ca. 1430-1439. Italy, Monastero di Santa Maria di Baggio near Milan, Ca 1400-1775.
Beinecke Ms1184: The olivetan Gradual. Gradual. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.




How to Cite

Blakely, S. . (2019) “Social Mobility: Mithraism and Cosmography in the 2nd-5th Centuries CE”, Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia, 31(n.s.17), pp. 11–41. doi: 10.5617/acta.7798.