Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, , at sacred-texts.com
And still we have to note what appears to be the strangest concrete survival of all, cherished where we should least count on finding it. At Rome there is religiously preserved a chair which is alleged to be that of St. Peter. It is significant of the measure of knowledge and judgment with which the Church has been governed that this belief should subsist concerning a chair which ostensibly
bears representations of the signs of the zodiac, and the twelve labours of the Sun-God. 1 Peter, we are to suppose, having found his way to Rome, and established a Latin Church with the facility which belonged to inspiration and the gift of tongues, proceeded to commission a sculptor, Pagan or Christian, to carve him an episcopal chair, ornamented with the best-known symbols of the heathenism which Christians were supposed to be bent on overthrowing. Such a legend need not be discussed. 2
We have already seen how at a variety of points the myth of Peter is a development of that of Jesus, and how, alike as leader of the twelve, fisherman, "rock," and bearer of the keys of heaven and hell, the first disciple assimilates with Mithra and Janus, who severally or jointly had those attributes, and whose joint cult acquired a special status in the Roman empire as being at once that of the army and (on the side of Janus) that of the immemorial city. And whereas the legendary Peter thus closely conformed in symbol to the "God out of the Rock," the chief priest of the Mithraic cult at Rome compared no less closely with the Christian bishop, ultimately distinguished as Papa = Father. Among the grades of the Mithraists were that of the Patres Sacrorum, or Fathers of the Mysteries, and that of the Pater Patrum, Father of the Fathers, whose seat was at Rome; and while there was a sacred Mithraic cave under the Capitol, we know from monumental remains that Mithraic worship was conducted on the Vatican Mount, where also was a temple of the Mother-Goddess Cybelê, and where also dwelt the Archi-Gallus, or arch eunuch, the head of the cult of Cybelê and Attis. 3 As the ruling tendency of the later paganism was to combine or "syndicate" all the leading cults, and as Roman patricians were then wont to hold at once the priesthoods of various Gods, it is not surprising to find that in the year 376, under the emperors Valens and Valentinian, one Sextilius Agesilaus Ædesius was Pater Patrum Dei Solis Invicti Mithræ, "born again for eternity through the taurobolium and the criobolium," and at the same time priest of Hecate and of Bacchus, as well as an adorer of the Mother of the Gods and Attis. 4 On the Vatican Mount, then, if anywhere, would be the seat of the pagan Pope who looked to the Sun-God as his Saviour, and worshipped the Mother of the Gods.
It has been unsuspectingly asserted on the Christian side that the pagans raised their later shrines on the Vatican Mount by way of profaning the site of the grave of St. Peter. We are now entitled to conclude that, on the contrary, the grave of St. Peter was located by tradition on the Vatican Mount because that was the Roman site of the pagan cult to which the myth of Peter was specially assimilated. His grave was assigned where his legend was adumbrated, and, it may be, where his chair was found. For there is some reason to suppose that the "chair of St. Peter" is simply the chair of the Pater Patrum, the supreme pontiff of Mithra at Rome.
In reality, the "Chair of St. Peter" is a somewhat nondescript object, of which the ornamentation does not fully exhibit either the twelve signs of the zodiac or the twelve labours of Herakles. It was exhibited to the public in 1867, photographed, and at that time examined by the eminent archæologist de Rossi, who pronounced it to be in part of old oak much worn, containing a number of inlaid panels of carved ivory in the classic style, representing the labours of Hercules; the whole structure, however, having been renewed by supports and cross-pieces of acacia-wood, of which the ornamentation is medieval. 1 In Rossi's opinion the older portions probably formed originally the curial chair of a senator; and it may be that the whole thing is thus a fortuitous importation, like so many other ecclesiastical relics. But there is an obvious possibility that it is a relic of a pre-Christian cult; and this is rather more likely than would be the sanctification of a mere senator's chair.
The ivory panels, eighteen in number, and not easy to decipher in a photograph, answer in part to the labours of Herakles; a few have simply the zodiacal signs from which the legend of the twelve labours was originally framed; some suggest rather the labours of Perseus; and some closely resemble episodes in the Mithraic monuments. It is not impossible, then, that the whole is an ancient artist's combination, for a syncretic cult, of a number of the symbols of oriental sun-worship, to which all three legends belong. The myth of Perseus (perhaps = the Persian) is at bottom identical with that of Herakles; and in Rome the Mithraists would be very ready to bracket the later conquering Sun-God with the older, the more so because their monuments presented scenes of the same order, and conjunction of cults was the fashion of the day. The old Roman Hercules, it will be remembered, was a quite different deity from the
[paragraph continues] Grecian Herakles, who was a variant of the Semitic Melkarth and Samson; and though that Herakles was worshipped under the later pagan emperors by his Latin name, it does not appear that at Rome his cult was latterly flourishing. Tertullian indeed asserts that in his day there has been seen (vidimus) a man burnt alive as Hercules (= Herakles); 1 but though this was a ritual sacrifice its solitary celebration tells rather of a Roman show than of a cult. There were two shrines of Hercules Victor on the Capitoline Hill, and some three other aedes in other districts; 2 but the inscriptions of the period show no such interest in his cult as in those of Mithra and other eastern deities. There was in fact no ritualistic worship of Hercules or Herakles at Rome; nothing to account for the use of such a chair; whereas the mysteries of Mithra were among the most elaborate then in existence, and the Mithraic priesthood one of the most august. Finally, we know from Porphyry, and from the monuments, 3 that Mithra was habitually represented in the midst of the zodiacal circle, so that the pretended Petrine chair is in every way congruous with his worship. The fact that, in the Mithraic monuments, the zodiac begins with Aquarius, who in ancient art is represented somewhat as a fisherman, would of course appeal to the champions of Peter, whose ancient festival at Rome (Jan. 18) coincided with the sun's entering Aquarius in the calendar: and it is the historic fact that the Mithraic order of the zodiac, beginning on the right with Aquarius and ending on the left with Capricorn, was imitated in Christian art. 4
If, as we have surmised, an official substitution of Christism for Mithraism began under Jovian when the latter cult was discredited for Roman purposes by the defeat and death of Julian at the hands of the Persians, it is likely enough that an official change of the kind was effected at Rome, the Mithraic Pater being either superseded or simply Christianised. In taking over the status of the Mithraic pontiff, the Christian Papa of Rome would acquire whatever remained of his influence in the army and in the civil service, besides completing the process of uniting in his own person the symbolisms in virtue of which he was head of the visible Church. It was thus in many ways fitting that he should take to himself the actual chair of the Pater Patrum. However that may be, the historical and documentary facts enable us to infer broadly the line
of adaptation of Mithraism to the Christian cult. It was presumably thus:
1. Before the gospels were written, Jesus as "Lamb" was assimilated to Mithra in respect (a) of his attributes of "Seven Spirits" and "seven stars"; (b) of his symbol of the Rock; and (e) of the mystic keys borne by the Time-God in his mysteries. In all three cases there seem to have been ancient Judaic myths to proceed upon.
2. The resurrection ritual, with its rock tomb, and the eucharist of bread and wine, may have been equally ancient even in Jewry; but there is reason to suppose that both were consciously assimilated to the Mithraic mysteries.
3. As the Mithraic Pater Patrum assumed the symbols of the God, and the Christian bishop of Rome imitated the Pater Patrum, the tradition came to transfer from Jesus to Peter, the reputed founder of the Roman see, the attributes of the Persian God, and of those with whom he was identified in Rome. Thus whereas Jesus had been key-bearer and Rock before the gospels were current, Peter finally was foisted on the gospel in both capacities, while the more exclusively divine attribute of headship of the Seven Spirits was practically dropped from Christian doctrine; and even the symbol of the lamb was discountenanced. They had done their work, and were finally both incongruous and inconvenient.
335:1 Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire, 8th ed. p. 49, note.
335:2 It is now abandoned even by orthodox Catholic scholars (e.g., Orazio Maruchhi, S. Pietro e S. Paolo in Roma, 1900, p. 99), though the chair is still officially cherished.
335:3 Beugnot, Hist. de la Destr. du Paganisme en Occident, 1835, i, 159.
335:4 Beugnot, i, 334-5, citing the inscription from Gruter, p. 28, No. 2. Cp. the other, on p. 334, also from Gruter, p. 1087, No. 4; also that on p. 335 from Muratori, p. 387, No. 2; and those cited on pp. 162-4.
336:1 Guido di Roma e suoi dintorni, ed. 11a, a cura del Prof. F. Porena, Torino, 1894. p. 383. I am indebted for the extract and a photograph of the chair to the good offices of M. W. Lessevitch. See a copy in Marucchi's S. Pietro e S. Paolo, as cited.
337:1 Tertullian, Apolog. c, 15.
337:2 Beugnot, i, 259-65.
337:3 See that found at Housesteads and preserved in the Black Gate at Newcastlerepresented in the local guide of the Society of Antiquaries, p. 11, and in Bishop Hickss Mithras Worship, p. 39; also the London monument. ib. p. 36.
337:4 See the admissions of Wellbeloved, Eburacum, 1842, p. 86, as to the zodiacal arch of the Church of St. Margaret's in Walmgate, York.