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Silver disc dedicated to Sol Invictus from the 3rd century CE.

Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") was the official sun god of the later Roman empire. In 274 Aurelian 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,[1] a revival of the cult of Elagabalus[2] or completely new.[3] The god was favoured by emperors after Aurelian and appeared on their coins until Constantine.[4] The last inscription referring to Sol Invictus dates to 387 CE.[5] and there were enough devotees in the 5th century that Augustine found it necessary to preach against them.[6] A festival on 25 December is sometimes thought to be responsible for the date of Christmas.[7]

Use of the phrase

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,[8] 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.[9]

The earliest dated use of Sol invictus is in a dedication from Rome, 158 CE.[10] Another, stylistically dated to the 2nd century CE, is inscribed on a Roman phalera: "inventori lucis soli invicto augusto" (to the contriver of light, sol invictus augustus ).[11] 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.[12] These are the earliest attested examples of Sol as invictus, but in 102 CE 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".[13]


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).[14]

This has been seen as an abortive attempt to impose the Syrian sun god on Rome;[15] but because it is now clear that the Roman cult of Sol remained firmly established in Rome throughout the Roman period,[16] 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.


The Roman gens Aurelia was associated with the cult of Sol.[17] 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,[18] 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.[19] Aurelian also built a new temple for Sol, bringing the total number of temples for the god in Rome to (at least) four[20] He also instituted games in honor of the sun god, held every four years from 274 CE 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.[21] Only one of the fifteen or so pontifices of Sol adds the epithet invictus; all others simply call themselves "pontifex Solis".[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] There is no record of celebrating Sol on December 25 prior to 354/362 CE. 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 274 CE onwards. This means that they were presumably held in 354 CE, 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.[25] 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 363 CE. 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.[26] 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.[27]

4. After Aurelian, Sol became supreme deity of the Roman Empire.[28]


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.[29] 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[30]

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.[31]

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.[32]

Sol and the other Roman Emperors

Berrens[33] deals with coin-evidence of Imperial connection to the Solar cult. Sol is depicted sporadically on imperial coins in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, then more frequently from Septimius Severus onwards until 325/6 CE. Sol invictus appears on coin legends from 261 CE, well before the reign of Aurelian.[34]

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 65 CE) 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[35][36] 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.[37] 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.[38]

Sol Invictus and Sunday

One day of the week was named after Sol, the sun. However, 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 CE, and refers to the "day of the sun", and forms the basis of subsequent Christian legislation in this area.[39]

Sol Invictus and Christianity

The Philocalian calendar of 354 CE gives a festival of "Natalis Invicti" on 25 December. There is limited evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid 4th century CE.[40][41]

Whether the 'Sol Invictus' festival "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date" of Christmas (as per the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia[42]) or not has been called into question by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later 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).[43]

In the 5th century, Pope Leo I (the Great) spoke of how the celebration of Christ's birth coincided with the sun's position increasing in the sky in several sermons on the Feast of the Nativity. Here is an excerpt from his twety-sixth sermon:[44]

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.

According to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia, a standard library reference, in an article on Constantine the Great:

Roman mosaic which is usually interpreted as representing Christ with attributes of a sun god.

"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".[45]

Some consider this to be in opposition to Sol Invictus. Some see an allusion to Malachi 4:2.

According to Ramsay MacMullen, the Syriac bishop Jacob Bar-Saliib wrote 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." [46]


  1. See S.E.Hijmans, "The sun that did not rise in the east", Babesch 71 (1996) p.115-150
  2. See Gaston Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", Leiden: Brill, 1972
  3. 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"
  4. 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."
  5. Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", p.170 n.3: "CIL VI, 1778, dates from AD 387."
  6. Halsberghe, p.170, n.4: "Augustine, Sermones, XII; also in Ennaratio in Psalmum XXV; Ennaratio II, 3."
  7. Heim, "Solstice d'hiver, solstice d'ete", Latomus 59 (1999), p.640-660 reviews the different opinions.
  8. Hijmans, "The sun which did not rise in the east", p.124: Hercules lnvictus is also mentioned on coins, and on inscriptions he is almost as popular as Sol Invicnts. Other invicti on inscriptions include Jupiter, Mercurius, Satumus and Silvanus.
  9. 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) (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. Sol Invictus
  10. 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)[1] (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.[2]
  11. 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.
  12. 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 BC (Hornum 1993, 37 n. 23), decades before it was granted to Octavian.
  13. On that shrine, Hijmans (2009)
  14. Historia Augusta, 1, 5: English translation (Loeb) from Thayer [3] & Latin text [4]
  15. See in particular Halsberghe 1972.
  16. Hijmans 1996, Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, Berrens 2004, Hijmans (2009).
  17. 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.
  18. Hijmans (2009)
  19. 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 .
  20. The other three were in the Circus Maximus, on the Quirinal, and in Trastevere. Hijmans (2009)
  21. Sol Oriens: Göbl, "Die Muenzpraegung des Kaisers Aurelianus", MIR 47 (1995), precise p. numbers to be inserted soon; Sol Invictus, idem. (
  22. 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
  23. Hijmans 1996, Matern 2001, Wallraff 2002, Berrens 2004, Hijmans (2009)
  24. The best English summary of this issue is Hijmans (2009), with ample references to earlier literature (primarily in German).[5]
  25. The full text of the calendar is available here
  26. 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).
  27. 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.
  28. Hijmans raises serious doubts about this contention.
  29. A comprehensive discussion of all sol-coinage and -legends per emperor from Septimius Severus to Constantine can be found in Berrens 2004.
  30. 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
  31. Excellent discussion of this decree by Wallraff 2002, 96-102.
  32. E. Marlowe, “Framing the sun. The Arch of Constantine and the Roman cityscape”, Art Bulletin 88 (2006) 223-242.
  33. S. Berrens, Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193-337 n. Chr.) Stuttgart: Steiner 2004 (Historia-Einzelschriften 185).
  34. Berrens 2004, precise p. number to follow. The coinage Elagabalus does not use invictus for Roman Sol, nor the Emesan Solar deity Elagabalus.
  35. Bergmann 1998, 121-123
  36. 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}}
  37. Bergmann 1998, 116-117; Hijmans 2009, 82-83.
  38. 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.[6]
  39. 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 so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time [A.D. 321].) -- Source: Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; trans. in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3 (5th ed.; New York: Scribner, 1902), p. 380, note 1.
  40. 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).
  41. Text at [7] Parts 6 and 12 respectively.
  42. 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia: Christmas: Natalis Invicti
  43. 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 passover 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).
  45. New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Christmas"
  46. (cited in Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155)


External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Sol Invictus. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.