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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 Villa of the Mysteries

Main doctrines

Polytheism & numen
Imperial cult · Festivals


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Other major deities

Divus Augustus · Divus Julius · Fortuna
The Lares · Quirinus · Pluto · Sol Invictus

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The Golden Ass

See also

Decline and persecution
Nova Roma
Greek polytheism

Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") was a Roman god identified in the later Roman empire with Sol, accompanied with the epithet invictus meaning unconquered that was commonly given to Sol from the second century CE onwards. There is much confusion about Sol Invictus because modern scholarship long maintained that he was actually a distinct sun god introduced from Syria by the emperor Aurelian in 274 CE.[1] In recent publications this older view has been definitively refuted, and it now seems certain that the Romans revered the sun, Sol (with various epithets, including invictus) as a god, without interruption, from as far back as we can trace Roman religion until the end of antiquity.[2]

As a result of these new studies, many of the older notions concerning the role of the sun god in Late Antiquity are falling by the wayside.


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 second 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.[3]

The earliest dated use of Sol invictus is in a dedication from Rome, AD 158.[4] 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 ).[5] 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.[6] These are the earliest attested examples of Sol as invictus, but in 102 AD 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".[7]


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).[8]

This has been seen as an abortive attempt to impose the Syrian sun god on Rome;[9] but because it is now clear that the Roman cult of Sol remained firmly established in Rome throughout the Roman period,[10] 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.

Sol Invictus


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.[11] 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,[12] 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.[13] Aurelian also built a new temple for Sol, bringing the total number of temples for the god in Rome to (at least) four[14] 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.[15] Only one of the fifteen or so pontifices of Sol adds the epithet invictus; all others simply call themselves "pontifex Solis".[16]

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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] 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[23]

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.[24]

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.[25]

Sol and the other Roman Emperors

Berrens[26] deals with coin-evidence of Imperial connection to the Solar cult. Sol is depicted sporadically on imperial coins in the first and second centuries CE, then more frequently from Septimius Severus onwards until CE 325/6. Sol invictus appears on coin legends from CE 261, well before the reign of Aurelian.[27]

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 CE 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[28][29] 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.[30] 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.[31]

Sol Invictus and Christianity

There was not a longstanding tradition of a festival for the sun on December 25. Only one, late source mentions a Natalis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered one." on that day.[32] It is true that December 25 was the Roman date for the winter solstice,[33] with the first detectable lengthening of daylight hours, and in his Hymn to King Helios which was written in 362, the last pagan emperor, Julian, records a festival for Sol celebrated in late December, but his protestations that this festival was an ancient one do not ring true.[citation needed] There is no evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid fourth century AD.[34] Whether the 'Sol Invictus' festival "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date" of Christmas (Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)[35]) or not has been called into question by Cardinal 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).[36]

Just as Christmas coincides with the winter solstice, the March 25 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[37][38] 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 AD.[citation needed] 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 23).

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 claims that, while the two feasts were held on the same day, they are not related.

Solar symbolism was popular with early Christian writers[39] This is also apparent in the prayers and hymns of the Church, such as the Eastern Orthodox Troparion of the Nativity:

Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You.[40]

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"[41]. 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." [42]

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.[citation needed] 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." [43]

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.[44]

See also


  1. ^ G. Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, Leiden 1972; see also for instance 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. ^ See: S.E. Hijmans, "The Sun which did not rise in the East", Bulletin Antieke Beschaving 75 (1996): 115-150; M. Wallraff, Christus Verus Sol, Muenster 2001; P. Matern, Helios und Sol, Istanbul 2002; S. Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaiseertum, 2004; S. E. Hijmans, Sol, the sun in the art and religions of Rome, 2009 [1]
  3. ^ The Roman cult to Sol is continuous from the "earliest history" of the city to (at the latest) the institution of Christianity as an exclusive Roman State religion. Scholarly assertions that Rome's traditional Sol and Sol Invictus as different deities are refuted in Hijmans (2009, pp. Chapter 1) (a reworking of Hijmans, 1996. Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, and Berrens 2004 all follow Hijmans in rejecting the notion that Sol Invictus was somehow a separate, distinct solar deity.
  4. ^ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 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)[2] (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: J. Campbell, The Roman army, 31 BC-AD 337: a sourcebook (1994), p. 43; Halsberghe 1972, p. 45.[3]
  5. ^ Guarducci, M., "Sol invictus augustus," Rendiconti della Pont. Accademia Romana di archeologia, 3rd series 30/31 (1957/59) pp 161ff. An illustration is provided in Kantorowicz, E. H., "Gods in Uniform" Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105.4 (August 1961: 368-393) 383, fig. 34.
  6. ^ For "august[us]" as divine epithet, see Hornum, Nemesis, the Roman state and the games (1993), 36-9. (on-line) Augusta is a common epithet for Nemesis (51 occurrences according to Hornum) but augustus is quite rare for Sol. Hornum also cites august as an epithet for the Lares from 58 BCE (Hornum 1993, 37 n. 23), decades before it was granted to Octavian.
  7. ^ On that shrine, (Hijmans 2009, pp. 483-508 (chapter 5))
  8. ^ Historia Augusta, 1, 5: English translation (Loeb) from Thayer [4] & Latin text[5]
  9. ^ See in particular Halsberghe 1972.
  10. ^ Hijmans 1996, Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, Berrens 2004, Hijmans (2009)).
  11. ^ J.C. Richard, “Le culte de Sol et les Aurelii. A propos de Paul Fest. p. 22 L.”, in: Mélanges offerts à Jacques Heurgon. L'Italie préromaine et la Rome républicaine, Rome, 1976, 915-925.
  12. ^ (Hijmans 2009, pp. 504-5)
  13. ^ 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 , 1779).
  14. ^ The other three were in the Circus Maximus, on the Quirinal, and in Trastevere. (Hijmans 2009, chapter 5)
  15. ^ Sol Oriens: Göbl, "Die Muenzpraegung des Kaisers Aurelianus", MIR 47 (1995), precise p. numbers to be inserted soon; Sol Invictus, idem. (
  16. ^ We know the names of fourteen pontifices: L. Caesonius Ovinius Manlius Rufinianus Bassus, Virius Lupus Iunius Gallienus, L. Aelius Helvius Dionysius, T. Flavius Postumius Titianus, L. Crepereius Rogatus, M. Iunius Priscillianus Maximus, Iunius Postumianus, Iulius Aurelianus, Gaius Ceionius Rufius Volusianus, Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus (father-in-law of Symmachus), Vettius Agorius Praetextatus (one of the leading figures in the pagan Renaissance of the late 4th century), Gaius Vettius Cossinius Rufinus, and Q. Clodius Flavianus. All are listed s.v. in Rupke's Fasti Sacerdotum with references to the primary sources. Only Iunius Gallienus adds the epithet invictus to Sol
  17. ^ Hijmans 1996, Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, Berrens 2004, (Hijmans 2009)
  18. ^ The best English summary of this issue is (Hijmans 2009, pp. 585-592), with ample references to earlier literature (primarily in German).[6]
  19. ^ The full text of the calendar is available here
  20. ^ See three different sections of the hymn: near the beginning, in c. 3 he exhorts his reader to celebrate the annual festival of Sol as it is celebrated in the ruling city; in c. 41, he draws a contrast between the quadrennial games for Sol (tet?aet??????? ????a?) which he characterizes as relatively new, and this annual festival - the two are clearly not the same; in c. 42-3, lastly, he states that this annual festival in honour of the rebirth of the sun takes place immediately after the Saturnalia (which ended on December 23).
  21. ^ Besides (Hijmans 2009), see (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.
  22. ^ A comprehensive discussion of all sol-coinage and -legends per emperor from Septimius Severus to Constantine can be found in Berrens 2004.
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Excellent discussion of this decree by Wallraff 2002, 96-102.
  25. ^ E. Marlowe, “Framing the sun. The Arch of Constantine and the Roman cityscape”, Art Bulletin 88 (2006) 223-242.
  26. ^ S. Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193-337 n. Chr.) Stuttgart: Steiner 2004 (Historia-Einzelschriften 185).
  27. ^ Berrens 2004, precise p. number to follow. The coinage Elagabalus does not use invictus for Roman Sol, nor the Emesan Solar deity Elagabalus.
  28. ^ Bergmann 1998, 121-123
  29. ^ 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)
  30. ^ Bergmann 1998, 116-117; Hijmans 2009, 82-83.
  31. ^ 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.[7]
  32. ^ The Calendar of Filocalus which dates to 354, see: [8] and note that the calendar does not specify that Sol is the "unconquered one" meant
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Wallraff 2001: 174-177. Many earlier scholars were so convinced that the winter solstice must have been a longstanding festival of Sol that they see evidence where there was none. Hoey (1939: 480), for instance, 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).
  35. ^ 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia: Christmas: Natalis Invicti
  36. ^ 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 25 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).
  37. ^ Tighe, William J. Calculating Christmas, 2003
  38. ^ Schmidt, Alvin J.(2001), "Under the Influence", HarperCollins, p377-9
  39. ^ "Christmas, Encyclopædia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006.
  40. ^ "Hymns of the Feast". Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 2009. 
  41. ^ New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Christmas"
  42. ^ (cited in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155)
  43. ^ (cited in "The Story of Christianity, volume 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation", HarperCollins Publishers, 1984, p36)
  44. ^ Text at [9] Parts 6 and 12 respectively.


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