Sol Invictus was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. The cult was created by Aurelian in 274, who made it an official cult alongside the traditional Roman cults. Scholars disagree 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 favoured by emperors after Aurelian and appeared on their coins until Constantine. The last inscription referring to Sol Invictus dates to 387 AD. and there were enough devotees in the 5th century that Augustine found it necessary to preach against them. A festival on 25 Dec. is sometimes thought to be responsible for the date of Christmas.
Use of the phrase
Repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus, Roman, 3rd century, found at Pessinus (British Museum)
Invictus (unconquered) was an epithet used for various Roman divinities in the Roman Empire. In the Roman Calendar of the early empire these include Jupiter Invictus and Mars Invictus. It was in use from the late Republic and throughout the Imperial period for a range of deities, such as Hercules, Apollo and Silvanus, and was therefore a well-established form when applied to Mithras by Roman devotees from the 2nd century onwards. It has a clear association with solar deities and solar monism; as such, it became the preferred epithet of Rome's traditional Sol and the novel, short-lived Roman state cult to Elagabalus, an Emesan solar deity who headed Rome's official pantheon under his namesake emperor.
The earliest dated use of Sol invictus is in a dedication from Rome, AD 158. Another, stylistically dated to the 2nd century AD, is inscribed on a Roman phalera: "inventori lucis soli invicto augusto" (to the contriver of light, sol invictus augustus ). Here "augustus" is most likely a further epithet of Sol as "august" (an elevated being, divine or close to divinity), though the association of Sol with the Imperial house would have been unmistakable and was already established in iconography and stoic monism. These are the earliest attested examples of Sol as invictus, but in AD 102 a certain Anicetus restored a shrine of Sol; Hijmans (2009, 486, n. 22) is tempted "to link Anicetus' predilection for Sol with his name, the Latinized form of the Greek word ἀνίκητος, which means invictus".
The first sun god consistently termed invictus was the provincial Syrian god Elagabalus. According to the Historia Augusta, 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).
This has been seen as an abortive attempt to impose the Syrian sun god on Rome; but because it is now clear that the Roman cult of Sol remained firmly established in Rome throughout the Roman period, this Syrian Sol Elagabalus has become no more relevant to our understanding of the Roman Sol than, for example, the Syrian Jupiter Dolichenus is for our understanding of the Roman Jupiter.
Aurelian in his radiate crown, on a silvered bronze coin struck at Rome, 274-275
The Roman gens Aurelian 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 a 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, bringing 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 AD 274 onwards.
The confusion surrounding Aurelian's reforms has been significant, much of it rooted in the mistaken opinion that he was introducing a new cult, which, as is now clear, he was not. The following constitute the most common errors of fact attributed to Aurelian and his reforms.
1. Aurelian called his sun god Sol Invictus to differentiate him from the earlier Roman god Sol.
Actually, Aurelian is twice as likely to call Sol Oriens on his coins as he is Sol Invictus. Only one of the fifteen or so pontifices of Sol adds the epithet invictus; all others simply call themselves "pontifex Solis".
2. Aurelian built his new temple for a Syrian sun god, not the Roman one.
There is no credible evidence to support this, and ample evidence to refute it. The "Syrian Sol-hypothesis" is therefore now rejected by all specialists in the field.
3. Aurelian inaugurated his new temple dedicated to Sol Invictus and held the first games for Sol on December 25, 274, on the supposed day of the winter solstice and day of rebirth of the Sun.
This is not only pure conjecture, but goes against the best evidence available. There is no record of celebrating Sol on December 25 prior to CE 354/362. Hijmans lists the known festivals of Sol as August 8 and/or 9, August 28, and December 11. There are no sources that indicate on which day Aurelian inaugurated his temple and held the first games for Sol, but we do know that these games were held every four years from CE 274 onwards. This means that they were presumably held in CE 354, a year for which perchance a Roman calendar, the Chronography of 354 (or calendar of Filocalus), has survived. This calendar lists a festival for Sol and Luna on August 28, Ludi Solis (games for Sol) for October 19–22, and a Natalis Invicti (birthday of the invincible one) on December 25. While it is widely assumed that the invictus of December 25 is Sol, the calendar does not state this explicitly. The only explicit reference to a celebration of Sol in late December is made by Julian the Apostate in his hymn to King Helios written immediately afterwards in early CE 363. Julian explicitly differentiates between the one-day, annual celebration of late December 362 and the multi-day quadrennial games of Sol which, of course, had also been held in 362, but clearly at a different time. Taken together, the evidence of the Calendar of Filocalus and Julian's hymn to Helios clearly shows, according to Hijmans and others, that the ludi of October 19–22 were the Solar Games instituted by Aurelian. They presumably coincided with the dedication of his new temple for Sol.
4. After Aurelian, Sol became supreme deity of the Roman Empire.
(Hijmans 2009, chapter 9) raises serious doubts about this contention.
Coin of Emperor Constantine I depicting Sol Invictus with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, circa 315.
Identical reverse as above but with Emperor Licinius on head
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 [CJ3.12.2]:
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 first 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.
Sol Invictus and Sunday
One day of the week was named after Sol, the sun. But there was no observance of any of these days in the way that the Jews observed Saturday or the Christians Sunday. The first Sunday closing law was enacted by Constantine in 321 AD, and refers to the "day of the sun", and forms the basis of subsequent Christian legislation in this area.
Sol Invictus and Christianity
The Philocalian calendar of 354 AD gives a festival of "Natalis Invicti" on 25 Dec. There is no evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid 4th century AD. It also contains the earliest certain reference to 25 December as the feast of the birth of Christ.
Whether the 'Sol Invictus' festival "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date" of Christmas (Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)) or not has been called into question by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who challenged this theory by arguing that a December 25 date was determined simply by calculating nine months beyond March 25, regarded as the day of Jesus’ conception (the Feast of the Annunciation).
Some Christians accept the idea that Sol Invictus may be behind the date of Christmas, with the idea that the early church "baptized" the holiday by imbuing it with a new, Christian meaning. In the 5th century, Pope Leo I (the Great) spoke of this in several sermons on the Feast of the Nativity. Here is an excerpt from his 26th sermon:
But this Nativity which is to be adored in heaven and on earth is suggested to us by no day more than this when, with the early light still shedding its rays on nature, there is borne in upon our senses the brightness of this wondrous mystery.
In his 22nd sermon, he directly addressed those who attributed the Nativity to Sol Invictus:
Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you, Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men's hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honour to the luminaries that minister to the world.
In this sermon, Pope Leo I claims that, while the two feasts were held on the same day, they are not related.
Mosaic of Sol (the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-fourth-century necropolis under St Peter's Basilica. Some have interpreted it as representing Christ.
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, article on Constantine the Great:
"Besides, the Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios in a mausoleum (c. 250) discovered beneath St. Peter's in the Vatican."
Indeed "...from the beginning of the 3rd century "Sun of Justice" appears as a title of Christ". Some consider this to be in opposition to Sol Invictus. Some see an allusion to Malachi 4:2.
The date for Christmas may also bear a relation to the sun worship. According to the scholiast on the Syriac bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, writing in the 12th century:
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day."
However, this statement directly conflicts with what we know of the early Christians, namely, that they were ridiculed, tortured, and cast apart from operative society precisely because they would not participate in the pagan feasts and celebrations. The early Christians set themselves directly in opposition to the paganism which ruled the day:
"Since Christians worshipped an invisible God, pagans often declared them to be atheists."