Sol Invictus

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Coin of Emperor Probus, circa 280, with Sol Invictus riding a quadriga, with legend SOLI INVICTO, "to the Unconquered Sun". Note how the Emperor (on the left) wears a radiated solar crown, worn also by the god (to the right).

Ancient Roman Religion
Bacchian rite, from the Gay Bumming

Main doctrines
Imperial Cult · Festivals

Temples ·
Votive Offerings · Animal sacrifice

Ceres · Diana · Juno
Jupiter · Mars · Mercury ·
Neptune · Venus · Vulcan
Sol Invictus · Vesta
The Lares
Lesser deities
Adranus · Averrunci · Averruncus
Bellona · Bona Dea · Bromius
Caelus · Castor and Pollux · Clitunno
Cupid · Dis Pater · Faunus · Glycon
Inuus · Lupercus
Sibylline Books · Sibylline oracles
Aeneid · Metamorphoses
The Golden Ass
See also:
Persecution · Nova Roma
Greek polytheism

Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") was the Roman state-supported sun god created by the emperor Aurelian in 274 and continued, overshadowing other Eastern cults in importance,[1] until the abolition of paganism under Theodosius I. By far the earliest appearance of an inscription linking the unconquered emperor with the sun is the legend on a bronze phalera dated by its style to the second century, in the Vatican collections: INVENTORI LUCIS SOLI INVICTO AUGUSTO.[2]

The Romans held a festival on December 25 of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." December 25 was the date after the winter solstice,[3] with the first detectable lengthening of daylight hours. There was also a festival on December 19.[4]

The title Sol Invictus had also been applied to a number of other solar deities before and during this period. The type of Sol Invictus, though not the name, appears on imperial coinage from the time of Septimius Severus onwards.[5] 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[6]

Though many Oriental cults were practiced informally among the Roman legions from the mid-second century, only that of Sol Invictus was officially accepted and prescribed for the army.[7]


[edit] Use of the phrase

Repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus, Roman, 3rd century, found at Pessinus (British Museum)

Sol Invictus ("unconquered sun") was a religious title applied to at least three distinct divinities during the later Roman Empire: the aniconic Elagabalus local to Emesa, put forward (unsuccessfully) as the head of the official pantheon by his namesake emperor; to Mithras; and to Sol.

There was an earlier, agrarian cult of Sol Indiges ("the native sun" or "the invoked sun" - the etymology and meaning of the word "indiges" is disputed).[clarification needed]

[edit] Elagabalus

The title first gained prominence under the emperor Elagabalus, who abortively attempted to impose the worship of the sun-god of his native city Emesa in Syria. With the emperor's death in 222, however, this cult ceased, though emperors continued to be portrayed on coinage with the radiant sun-crown for close to a century.

[edit] Mithras

Sol Invictus

In the second instance, the title invictus was applied to Mithras in private inscriptions by devotees. It also appears applied to Mars.

[edit] Aurelian

Aurelian in his radiated solar crown, on a silvered bronze coin struck at Rome, 274-275

The Roman gens Aurelia was associated with the cult of Sol. After his victories in the East, the emperor Aurelian introduced an official cult of Sol Invictus, making the sun-god the premier divinity of the empire, and wearing his radiated crown himself. He founded a college of pontifices, and dedicated a temple to Sol Invictus in 274. It is possible that he created the festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "birthday of the undefeated Sun", which is recorded in 354 (in the Chronography of 354) as celebrated on the 25th December;[8] but no earlier reference to it exists. The cult of Sol Invictus was the leading official cult of the fourth century.

In the legions, where a policy of individual religious freedom is attested by personal inscriptions, on shrines and through votive offerings in every part of the Empire, outside the camps themselves, the only Eastern cult that was officially tolerated, probably from Aurelian's reign, and certainly under Constantine, was that of Sol Invictus.[9]

[edit] Constantine

Coin of Emperor Constantine I depicting Sol Invictus with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, circa 315.

Emperors up to Constantine portrayed Sol Invictus on their official coinage, with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, thus claiming the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the Emperor. The 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 legends relating to Sol Invictus until 323.

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.

The religion of Sol Invictus continued to be part of the state religion until all paganism was abolished by decree of Theodosius I on February 27, 390.

[edit] Sol Invictus and Christianity

Whether the 'Sol Invictus' festival "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date" of Christmas (Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)[10]) or not has been called into question by Joseph 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).[11]

Just as Christmas coincides with the winter solstice, the March 25th date neatly coincides with the vernal equinox, and its pagan ritual themes of fertility and sexual congress with nature that were later associated with Christianity and Jesus. Other recent Christian commentators[12][13] agree with Ratzinger that the identification of Christ's birthday pre-dates the Sol Invictus festival, noting the earliest record of the celebration of Christ's birthday on December 25 dates to 243 A.D. The question of the historical origin of Christmas, and its relationship to the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti remains unresolved (it should be noted that the Romans also celebrated the end of the year with a festival called the Saturnalia, which ended on December 25).

December 25 is 4 days after the winter solstice (from latin solstitium, "the sun stays still"), and in this period, with the days starting to become visibly longer and the nights shorter, December 25 would have been a logical date to choose as the day of the rebirth of the sun, imagery then utilized by the Christian community. 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 c., 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.

But this sermon was not in any way related to Sol Invictus directly.

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 clearly establishes that the two feasts were held on the same day, but that they are also not related.

Solar symbolism was popular with early Christian writers[14] This is also apparent in the prayers and hymns of the Church, such as the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of the Nativity:

Thy birth, O Christ our God,
rose upon the world as the light of knowledge;
for through it those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Sunrise from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.

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"[15]. Some consider this to be in opposition to Sol Invictus[citation needed]. 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 twelfth 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." (cited in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155) 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." (cited in "The Story of Christianity, volume 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation", HarperCollins Publishers, 1984, p36)

This pagan feast is first documented only in the Chronography of 354, which also contains the earliest certain reference to 25 December as the feast of the birth of Christ.[16]

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Allan S. Hoey, "Official Policy towards Oriental Cults in the Roman Army" Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 70, (1939:456-481) p 479f.
  2. ^ Margherita Guarducci, "Sol invictus augustus," Rendiconti della Pont. Accademia Romana deiarcheologia, 3rd series 30/31 (1957/59) pp 161ff; it is also illustrated by Ernst H. Kantorowicz, "Gods in Uniform" Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105.4 (August 1961):368-393), p. 383, fig. 34.
  3. ^ When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In modern times, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.
  4. ^ "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 Invictuson December 19" (Hoey 1939:480 and note 128).
  5. ^ Hoey 1939:470, 479f and notes.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Hoey 1939:456.
  8. ^ The Ludi Solis, "Games of the Sun" are recorded in the Calendar of 354, under 19 through 22 October. (M. R. Salzman, "New Evidence for the Dating of the Calendar at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome" Transactions of the American Philological Association 111 (1981, pp. 215-227) p. 221.
  9. ^ Hoey 1939:456, 479ff.
  10. ^ 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia: Christmas: Natalis Invicti
  11. ^ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 108; cf. p. 100. He regards the old theories as no longer sustainable. March 25th was also considered to be the day of Jesus’ death (although obviously this has to be considered in relation to the dates of the Jewish passovers in possibly relevant years), and the day of creation. See also H. Rahner, Griechische Mythen in christlicher Deutung. Darmstadt, 1957. An English translation is available as Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, trans. Brian Battershaw (New York: Harper Row, 1963).
  12. ^ Tighe, William J. Calculating Christmas, 2003
  13. ^ Schmidt, Alvin J.(2001), "Under the Influence", HarperCollins, p377-9
  14. ^ "Christmas, Encyclopædia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006.
  15. ^ New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Christmas"
  16. ^ Text at [1] Parts 6 and 12 respectively.

[edit] Further reading

  • Halsberghe, L. 1972. The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden)

[edit] External links

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