Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") was the official sun god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers. On 25 December AD 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian made it an official cult alongside the traditional Roman cults. Scholars disagree about whether the new deity was a refoundation of the ancient Latin cult of Sol, a revival of the cult of Elagabalus, or completely new. The god was favored by emperors after Aurelian and appeared on their coins until the last third-part of the reign of Constantine I. The last inscription referring to Sol Invictus dates to AD 387, and there were enough devotees in the fifth century that the Christian theologian Augustine found it necessary to preach against them.
Invictus as epithet
Invictus ("unconquered, invincible") was an epithet utilized for several Roman deities, including Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, Apollo, and Silvanus. It had been in use from the 3rd century BC. The Roman cult to Sol is continuous from the "earliest history" of the city until the institution of the Christian cult as the exclusive state religion. Scholars have sometimes regarded the traditional Sol and Sol Invictus as two separate deities, but the rejection of this view by S. E. Hijmans has found supporters.
An inscription of AD 102 records a restoration of a portico of Sol in what is now the Trastevere area of Rome by a certain Gaius Iulius Anicetus. While he may perhaps have had in mind an allusion to his own cognomen, which is the Latinized form of the Greek equivalent of invictus, ἀνίκητος (aniketos), the earliest extant dated inscription that uses invictus as an epithet of Sol is from AD 158. Another, stylistically dated to the 2nd century, is inscribed on a Roman phalera (ornamental disk): inventori lucis soli invicto augusto ("I glorify the unconquerable sun, the creator of light.") Augustus is a regular epithet linking deities to the Imperial cult.
Sol Invictus played a prominent role in the Mithraic mysteries, and was equated with Mithras. The relation of the Mithraic Sol Invictus to the public cult of the deity with the same name is unclear and perhaps non-existent.
According to the Historia Augusta, Elagabalus, the teenaged Severan heir, adopted the name of his deity and brought his cult image from Emesa to Rome. Once installed as emperor, he neglected Rome's traditional State deities and promoted his own as Rome's most powerful deity. This ended with his murder in 222. The Historia Augusta refers to the deity Elagabalus as "also called Jupiter and Sol" (fuit autem Heliogabali vel Iovis vel Solis). While this has been seen as an attempt to import the Syrian sun god to Rome, the Roman cult of Sol had existed in Rome since the early Republic.
The Roman gens Aurelia was associated with the cult of Sol. After his victories in the East, the Emperor Aurelian thoroughly reformed the Roman cult of Sol, elevating the sun-god to one of the premier divinities of the Empire. Where previously priests of Sol had been simply sacerdotes and tended to belong to lower ranks of Roman society, they were now pontifices and members of the new college of pontifices instituted by Aurelian. Every pontifex of Sol was a member of the senatorial elite, indicating that the priesthood of Sol was now highly prestigious. Almost all these senators held other priesthoods as well, however, and some of these other priesthoods take precedence in the inscriptions in which they are listed, suggesting that they were considered more prestigious than the priesthood of Sol. Aurelian also built a new temple for Sol, which was dedicated on December 25, 274, and brought the total number of temples for the god in Rome to (at least) four. He also instituted games in honor of the sun god, held every four years from 274 onwards.
The identity of Aurelian's Sol Invictus has long been a subject of scholarly debate. Based on the Augustan History, some scholars have argued that it was based on Sol Elagablus (or Elagabla) of Emesa. Others, basing their argument on Zosimus, suggest that it was based on the Šams, the solar god of Palmyra on the grounds that Aurelian placed and consecrated a cult statue of the sun god looted from Palmyra in the temple of Sol Invictus. Professor Gary Forsythe discusses these arguments and adds a third more recent one based on the work of Steven Hijmans. Hijmans argues that Aurelian's solar deity was simply the traditional Greco-Roman Sol Invictus.
Emperors portrayed Sol Invictus on their official coinage, with a wide range of legends, only a few of which incorporated the epithet invictus, such as the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, claiming the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the Emperor, used with particular frequency by Constantine. Statuettes of Sol Invictus, carried by the standard-bearers, appear in three places in reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. Constantine's official coinage continues to bear images of Sol until 325/6. A solidus of Constantine as well as a gold medallion from his reign depict the Emperor's bust in profile twinned (jugate) with Sol Invictus, with the legend INVICTUS CONSTANTINUS
Constantine decreed (March 7, 321) dies Solis—day of the Sun, "Sunday"—as the Roman day of rest
- On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.
Constantine's triumphal arch was carefully positioned to align with the colossal statue of Sol by the Colosseum, so that Sol formed the dominant backdrop when seen from the direction of the main approach towards the arch.
Sol and the other Roman Emperors
Berrens deals with coin-evidence of Imperial connection to the Solar cult. Sol is depicted sporadically on imperial coins in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, then more frequently from Septimius Severus onwards until AD 325/6. Sol invictus appears on coin legends from AD 261, well before the reign of Aurelian.
Connections between the imperial radiate crown and the cult of Sol are postulated. Augustus was posthumously depicted with radiate crown, as were living emperors from Nero (after AD 65) to Constantine. Some modern scholarship interprets the imperial radiate crown as a divine, solar association rather than an overt symbol of Sol; Bergmann calls it a pseudo-object designed to disguise the divine and solar connotations that would otherwise be politically controversial but there is broad agreement that coin-images showing the imperial radiate crown are stylistically distinct from those of the solar crown of rays; the imperial radiate crown is depicted as a real object rather than as symbolic light. Hijmans argues that the Imperial radiate crown represents the honorary wreath awarded to Augustus, perhaps posthumously, to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Actium; he points out that henceforth, living emperors were depicted with radiate crowns, but state divi were not. To Hijmans this implies the radiate crown of living emperors as a link to Augustus. His successors automatically inherited (or sometimes acquired) the same offices and honours due to Octavian as "saviour of the Republic" through his victory at Actium, piously attributed to Apollo-Helios. Wreaths awarded to victors at the Actian Games were radiate.
Festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti
The Philocalian calendar of AD 354 gives a festival of "Natalis Invicti" on 25 December. There is limited evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid-4th century. Whether this date was intended to celebrate solstice is doubtful; one scholar writes that "the cult of the Sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect".
According to many historians, Christmas was set to December 25th because it was the date of the festival of Sol Invictus. This idea became popular especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The charioteer in the mosaic of Mausoleum M has been interpreted by some as Christ. Clement of Alexandria had spoken of Christ driving his chariot across the sky. This interpretation is doubted by others: "Only the cross-shaped nimbus makes the Christian significance apparent", and the figure is seen by some simply as a representation of the Sun with no explicit religious reference whatever, pagan or Christian.
The traditional image of the Sun has also been used in early Jewish art. A mosaic floor in Hamat Tiberias presents David as Helios surrounded by a ring with the signs of the zodiac. As well as in Hamat Tiberias, figures of Helios or Sol Invictus also appear in several of the very few surviving schemes of decoration surviving from Late Antique synagogues, including Beth Alpha, Husefa, all now in Israel, and Naaran in the West Bank. He is shown in floor mosaics, with the usual radiate halo, and sometimes in a quadriga, in the central roundel of a circular representation of the zodiac or the seasons. These combinations "may have represented to an agricultural Jewish community the perpetuation of the annual cycle of the universe or ... the central part of a calendar".
- Astrological age
- Christ myth theory
- Christian views on astrology
- Christianity and paganism
- Esoteric Christianity
- Jesus in comparative mythology
- "Necropolis (Scavi) Tomb M". saintpetersbasilica.org. Archived from the original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
- Manfred Clauss, Die römischen Kaiser – 55 historische Portraits von Caesar bis Iustinian, ISBN 978-3-406-47288-6, p. 250
- See S. E. Hijmans, "The sun that did not rise in the east", Babesch 71 (1996) p.115–150
- See Gaston Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", Leiden: Brill, 1972
- As Hijmans states (p.115): "Scholars have consistently postulated a clear distinction between the Republican Sol Indiges and the Imperial Sol Invictus." and p.116 "We should keep in mind, however, that most scholars agree that this cult [Sol Indiges] was never important, and that it had disappeared altogether by the beginning of the second century AD"
- Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", p.155: "Up to the conversion of Constantine the Great, the cult of Deus Sol Invictus received the full support of the emperors. The many coins showing the sun god that these emperors struck provide official evidence of this." and p.169 "the custom of representing Deus Sol Invictus on coins came to an end in AD 323."
- Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", p.170 n.3: "CIL VI, 1778, dates from AD 387,"
- Halsberghe, p.170, n.4: "Augustine, Sermones, XII; also in Ennaratio in Psalmum XXV; Ennaratio II, 3."
- CIL VI.31181.
- Hijmans, S. E. (2009). "The sun which did not rise in the east", p. 124.
- Hijmans, Steven Ernst. (2009). Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome (diss., University of Groningen 2009), p. 18, with citations from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum.
- Hijmans (2009, pp. Chapter 1) (a reworking of Hijmans, 1996; Matern, 2001; Wallraff, 2002; and Berrens, 2004; all follow Hijmans.
- (Hijmans 2009, pp. 483–508 (Chapter 5))
- (Hijmans, 2009, 486, footnote 22)
- CIL VI, 715: Soli Invicto deo / ex voto suscepto / accepta missione / honesta ex nume/ro eq(uitum) sing(ularium) Aug(usti) P(ublius) / Aelius Amandus / d(e)d(icavit) Tertullo et / Sacerdoti co(n)s(ulibus)"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2009-11-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) (Publius Aelius Amandus dedicated this to the god Sol Invictus in accordance with the vow he had made, upon his honorable discharge from the equestrian guard of the emperor, during the consulship of Tertullus and Sacerdos); see: Campbell, J. (1994). The Roman army, 31 BC–AD 337: a sourcebook, p. 43; Halsberghe 1972, p. 45.
- Guarducci, M. (1957/1959). Sol invictus Augustus. Rendiconti della Pont, 3rd series 30/31, pp. 161 ff. Accademia Romana di Archeologia
- An illustration is provided in Kantorowicz, E. H. (1961). Gods in Uniform, 368–393, 383, fig. 34 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 105(4), (August 1961).
- Brill, E. J. (1993). The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (Second ed.). p. 87. ISBN 90 04 07180 6. Retrieved 29 May 2020.
- Ulansey, David. (1989). The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, p. 107. Oxford University Press.
- Salzman, Michele Renee. (2004). Pagan and Christian Notions of the Week in the 4th Century CE Western Roman Empire In Time and Temporality in the Ancient World, p. 192. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
- Alvar, Jaime, tr. Gordon, Richard (2008). Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, p. 100. Brill.
- (Alvar, 2008, p. 203)
- Historia Augusta, 1, 5: English translation (Loeb) from Thayer  & Latin text 
- See in particular Halsberghe 1972.
- Hijmans 1996, Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, Berrens 2004, Hijmans (2009)).
- J.C. Richard, "Le culte de Sol et les Aurelii: À propos de Paul Fest. p. 22 L.", in Mélanges offerts à Jacques Heurgon: L'Italie préromaine et la Rome républicaine (Rome, 1976), 915–925.
- (Hijmans 2009, pp. 504–5)
- For a full list of the pontifices of Sol see J. Rupke (ed.), Fasti Sacerdotum (2005), p. 606. Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus lists his priesthoods as pontifex of Vesta, one of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, and pontifex of Sol, in that order (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vol. 6, 1739–1742). In a list of eight priesthoods, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus puts Pontifex Solis in third place (CIL VI, 1779).
- The other three were in the Circus Maximus, on the Quirinal, and in Trastevere.(Hijmans 2009, chapter 5)
- Dirven, Lucinda (1999). The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: A Study of Religious Interaction in Roman Syria. BRILL. p. 169. ISBN 978-9004115897. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08.
- Forsythe, Gary (2012). Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History. Routledge. pp. 142–143. ISBN 978-0415522175.
- A comprehensive discussion of all sol-coinage and sol-legends per emperor from Septimius Severus to Constantine can be found in Berrens (2004).
- The medal is illustrated in Jocelyn M.C. Toynbee, Roman Medallions (1944, reprinted 1987) plate xvii, no. 11; the solidus is illustrated in J. Maurice, Numismatique Constantinienne vol. II, p. 236, plate vii, no. 14
- Excellent discussion of this decree by Wallraff 2002, 96–102.
- E. Marlowe, "Framing the sun. The Arch of Constantine and the Roman cityscape", Art Bulletin 88 (2006) 223–242.
- S. Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193–337 n. Chr.) Stuttgart: Steiner 2004 (Historia-Einzelschriften 185).
- Berrens 2004, precise p. number to follow. The coinage Elagabalus does not use invictus for Roman Sol, nor the Emesan Solar deity Elagabalus.
- Bergmann 1998, 121–123
- S. Hijmans, "Metaphor, Symbol and Reality: the Polysemy of the Imperial Radiate Crown", in: C. C. Mattusch (ed.), Common ground. Archaeology, art, science, and humanities. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Boston, August 23–26, 2003, Oxford (2006), 440–443; (Hijmans 2009, pp. 80–84, 509–548)
- Bergmann 1998, 116–117; Hijmans 2009, 82–83.
- Hijmans 2009, 509–548. A mosaic floor in the Baths of the Porta Marina at Ostia depicts a radiate victory crown on a table as well as a victorious competitor wearing one."Regio IV - Insula X - Terme di Porta Marina (IV, X, 1-2)". Archived from the original on 2008-11-09. Retrieved 2009-11-12.
- Wallraff 2001: 174–177. Hoey (1939: 480) writes: "An inscription of unique interest from the reign of Licinius embodies the official prescription for the annual celebration by his army of a festival of Sol Invictus on December 19". The inscription (Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 8940) actually prescribes an annual offering to Sol on November 18 (die XIV Kal(endis) Decemb(ribus), i.e., on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of December).
- Text at  Archived 2007-12-04 at the Wayback Machine Parts 6 and 12 respectively.
- Michael Alan Anderson, Symbols of Saints (ProQuest 2008 ISBN 978-0-54956551-2), pp. 45–46
- Bishop Jacob Bar-Salabi (cited in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155)
- Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, Volume 2, p. 270; John Murray, London, 1871; revised edition 1889.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 3, 1885, T and T Clark, Edinburgh, page 396; see also Volume 4 in the 3rd edition, 1910 (Charles Scribner's Sons, NY).
- Anderson, Michael Alan (2008). Symbols of Saints. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-54956551-2.
- "The Day God Took Flesh". Melkite Eparchy of Newton of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. 25 March 2012. Archived from the original on 23 December 2014.
- Martindale, Cyril (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.).
- Webb, Matilda (2001). The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome. Sussex Academic Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-90221058-2.
- Kemp, Martin (2000). The Oxford History of Western Art. Oxford University Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-19860012-1., emphasis added
- Hijmans 2009, p. 567-578.
- David R. Cartlidge, James Keith Elliott, The Art of Christian Legend (Routledge 2001 ISBN 978-0-41523392-7), p. 64
- Weitzmann, pp. 370, 375
- Berrens, Stephan (2004), Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193–337 n. Chr.), Geschichte (Franz Steiner Verlag); Historia (Wiesbaden, Germany) (in German), F. Steiner, ISBN 978-3-515-08575-5, OCLC 57010712
- Hijmans, S (2003), "Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas", Mouseion Calgary, 3 (3): 377–398, ISSN 1496-9343, OCLC 202535001
- Hijmans, Steven E (2009), Sol : the sun in the art and religions of Rome (Thesis/dissertation), ISBN 978-90-367-3931-3
- Matern, Petra (2002), Helios und Sol : Kulte und Ikonographie des griechischen und römischen Sonnengottes (in German), Ege Yayınları, ISBN 978-975-8070-53-4, OCLC 53857589
- Weitzmann, Kurt, ed., Age of spirituality : late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century, 1979, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; fully online from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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