The old Indo-Iranian cult of the celestial deity of light led to the development of a widely popular solar mystery cult in the Roman Empire— Mithraism. The deity Mithras had been identified with the sun from at least the first century C.E. A personal but exclusively male religion, Mithraism flourished in the second and third centuries C.E. spreading rapidly through the military and among traveling merchants. Rome's port city Ostia was a major area of concentration and there are remains of some fifteen mithrea, "meeting places for the worship of Mithras," in the excavated portion (about one-half) of the town. The legendary Mithras was both a hero and a model of honesty and morality. There is archaeological evidence that the mithraeum was usually situated in a cave, as a model of the Greco-Roman universe, and a strong iconographic tradition of Mithras slaughtering a bull and then dining with the sun god. The ubiquitous image, called the Tauroctony, is that of Mithras under a male sun and a female moon astride a bull and plunging a knife into its side. A shaft of wheat springs from the bull's tail and a scorpion, a dog, and a serpent appear near the wound. These figures form the basis of an astrological interpretation in which Mithras is the sun and the mithraeum the cosmos. There is some evidence for a taurobolium, a ritual reenactment of a taurine slaughter by which fraternal worshippers could rise through seven grades of initiation associated with the planets, but there is no consensus among scholars about what the ritual may have meant for the worshippers.

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