The proud Roman general stood with his commanders and retinue as the wild hillsmen, dressed in the ragged but still-flamboyant clothes of corsairs, fell before him in turn, begging for clemency. It was about 75 B.C. in the rugged hills near Coracesium in Cilicia, an untamed region along the coast of southwestern Asia Minor, and the Cilician pirates, possibly the most successful race of brigands the world has ever seen, were surrendering to the Roman general Pompey.
Pompeius Magnus, as he was afterwards styled, would go on to conquer the Levant and to challenge Julius Caesar for supremacy over the fledgling Roman Empire, but his lightning-swift campaign against the Cilician pirates was perhaps his finest moment. The pirates, taking advantage of Roman naval weakness during a span of decades that saw Rome wracked by civil war, had controlled much of the Mediterranean, as far west as the Balearic Islands.* Now, thanks to Pompey's masterful combination of resolute military action and unconditional clemency for all pirates who surrendered to him in person, the once-feared Cilicians were admitted to the Roman Empire and given the opportunity to live respectable lives. Most, according to Plutarch's account of events, accepted Pompey's offer. They were resettled in various parts of the Roman dominion, bringing their families and possessions with them. They also, according to Plutarch, brought with them a peculiar system of religious beliefs and practices, one of the so-called "mystery cults" typical of the pre-Christian Mediterranean.
The cult of the Mithras was doubtless regarded at first as just another Oriental import, a product of Mediterranean multiculturalism. But it grew into the most formidable occult secret society in the ancient world, claiming emperors and legionaries alike in its membership. At the peak of its power and influence--when it held hostage the very machinery of empire--it threatened to fling the Roman world back to its pagan roots and to eradicate the young Christian faith.
No one knows the precise origins of the cult devoted to the Persian deity Mithras, which came to be known as the Mithraic mysteries or Mithraism. Plutarch says only that the Cilician pirates "offered strange sacrifices upon Mount Olympus, and performed secret rites or religious mysteries, among which those of Mithras have been performed to our own time [i.e., the second century A.D., roughly two centuries after Pompey's time], having received their previous institution from them." It is also possible that the mysteries of Mithras, like certain other mystery cults in Roman dominions, were popularized by the mysterious "Chaldeans," itinerant sorcerers from the East who were periodically expelled from Roman territory for encouraging the formation of subversive cultic secret societies.
From Persian Antiquity
The name of Mithras is the Latinized equivalent of Mithra, an important deity in Persian Zoroastrianism. This god was worshipped far back into remotest antiquity by the ancestors of the Persians and Indians alike (in the Vedic Hymns of ancient India, he is known as Mitra, 'the friend'). To the Persians, he was the god of oaths and covenants, and was worshipped far and wide across central Asia and the Middle East, from Armenia to the empire of Kushan in modern-day Afghanistan.
The mystery cult, meanwhile, was a distinctively Mediterranean form of religious worship, a cult within a cult, as it were, in which esoteric beliefs withheld from the general populace were taught and secret rites performed. Among the ancient Greeks, the mysteries of Eleusis or Demeter proved most enduringly popular, while in Egypt, the mysteries of Isis reigned supreme. On Asia Minor the mysteries of Cybele, a goddess popular with the Phrygians, flourished.
One particular mystery cult--that of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry--acquired a sinister reputation in Rome in the second century B. …