Sol (Roman mythology)

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Apollo Sol with the seven- pointed halo of Helios , Roman floor mosaic , Tunisia, late 2nd century

Sol ( Latin sol "sun") is the sun god of ancient Roman mythology . It is best known in its appearance as Sol invictus (Latin; "invincible sun god", often less aptly translated as "invincible sun god"), which has been in use since the 2nd century AD . Sol corresponds to the Greek Helios , with which it also shows iconographically similarities, but it was not taken from the Greek religion, but is of native origin.

Republican time

Sol shrine on a Roman denarius of Mark Antony, 42 BC. Chr.

In Rome was already in Republican times an apparently very old sun cult, allegedly to the time the city was founded by Romulus fell and the legendary Sabinerkönig Titus Tatius had been introduced. The ancient Roman sun god was called Sol Indiges ("native Sol") and was worshiped together with the moon deity Luna ; the two were closely connected and shared a temple in the Circus Maximus , where their common feast day was celebrated on August 28th. In addition, Sol Indiges had its own temple on the Quirinal , where he was worshiped on August 8th and 9th. He was one of the deities of lesser rank according to his popularity. Sol does not appear in myths of gods; Helios does not appear as a personality in Greek mythology either. Only since the end of the Roman Republic did the sun god gain popularity. Rainer Albert suspects that Marcus Antonius propagated the Solkult on one of his coins and thus referred to the East ruled by him, where the Solkult was already widespread, in contrast to Rome.

Early imperial times

Sol Invictus Mithras in the Mithras relief from Heidelberg-Neuenheim , 2nd century, Badisches Landesmuseum

With its light, the sun brings everything to light, and so nothing remains hidden from the sun god. Helios is “all-seeing”, therefore all-knowing and a witness of atrocities. This characteristic also distinguished Sol, and so he was given a new and very important task in the 1st century AD, namely to protect the emperor from danger. The discovery of the Pisonian conspiracy against Emperor Nero was attributed to the help of Sol, who received a special offering of thanks for it. Emperor Vespasian dedicated a huge statue to the god in 75 AD. So Sol developed into the patron god of the rulers. Under Trajan and Hadrian he appeared on imperial coins. The name Sol Invictus is first attested to him in writing on an altar in 158 ( Soli Invicto Deo ). From the 2nd century onwards it was used as a nickname for Mithras - Sol Invictus Mithras .

Western and Eastern sun cult

Aureus of Elagabal with the holy stone of God on a triumphal chariot.
Inscription on the obverse: IMP CM AVR ANTONINVS PF AVG . Back: SANCT DEO SOLI ELAGABAL ("the holy sun god Elagabal").

Independent of the Roman Sol and Greek Helios, there was an ancient indigenous cult of the sun god Elagabal in Syria in the city of Emesa , to which the local population was apparently passionately devoted. The Empress Julia Domna , the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) and mother of his successor Caracalla (211-217), was the daughter of an Elagabal priest from Emesa. Under the emperors of the dynasty of Severus the worship took to the Sol Invictus; Septimius Severus had himself and his wife depicted on coins with the attributes of the sun (crown of rays) and moon (crescent moon) and also used solar symbolism for his two sons Caracalla and Geta , whose successor he was planning. The association with the sun aimed primarily at the aspect of eternity ( aeternitas ) of the star; The rule of the imperial family should be as permanent as the sun.

Julia Domna's great-nephew Emperor Elagabal (218–222) was an Elagabal priest and introduced the Elagabal cult as the state religion in Rome. So it was temporarily mixed with the already existing cult of Sol Invictus (the name Invictus Sol Elagabalus is attested in inscriptions). The holy stone that God was supposed to have sent down from heaven (not unlike the stone in the Kaaba in Mecca) was built a great temple in Rome, the Elagaballium . However, many Romans rejected the Syrian cult, and with the murder of Emperor Elagabal in 222 it disappeared from Rome in this form; the stone was returned to the Sol Elagabal Temple at Emesa. The local Sol cult persisted.

Depiction of the Temple of Sol Elagabal on a coin of the usurper Uranius Antoninus from 254

At times there was the view in research that Sol Invictus, in contrast to Sol Indiges, was a deity introduced from the Orient and, according to its origin, equated with Elagabal. Later, for good reasons, the prevailing conviction today was that Sol Invictus is also the old Roman Sol. The Elagabal cult shows particularly distinctive features that were perceived as un-Roman and have nothing to do with Sol. A certain mixture of Sol and Elagabal was probably only practiced by Elagabal supporters, a lasting influence is not discernible. Another difference is that the Elagabal cult did not mix with the imperial cult , which was the case with the Sol cult. Caracalla was already inscribed as Sol Invictus Imperator ; Emperor Elagabal, on the other hand, never called himself Elagabal, a name he received from opponents only after his death. In Syria the god Elagabal was not forgotten; the pretender to the throne there, Uranius Antoninus , put the image of the holy stone on his coins in 254.

Sol Invictus remained popular. Emperor Gordian III. (238–244) attached particular importance to the connection between his rule and the cult of the sun. He was concerned with the legitimation of rule - a medallion shows how he receives the globe from the sun god as a symbol of world domination - as well as the program of permanence already emphasized by the Severans. The motive of handing over the globe, with Sol becoming the guarantor of world domination, was taken up again by later rulers. It is noticeable that the emperor and god appear on the medallion in the same size; previously it was customary in such depictions to depict humans much smaller than God. In addition, Gordian, or the advisors of the young emperor, emphasized another parallel between God and ruler: one's own accession to government was compared with a sunrise; after a dark night a new, glamorous and happy epoch should begin. The comparison of the beginning of government with a sunrise had already played a role in imperial self-portrayal in the 1st century.

The designation of the sun god as invictus appears in coinage for the first time under Emperor Gallienus (253 / 260–268). The victoriousness of the sol was an aspect of the cult that came to the fore even more in the years that followed.

Sol Invictus as an imperial god

Coin of the emperor Probus (276–282) with Sol Invictus on a quadriga

Emperor Aurelian defeated the army of the Palmyrenian ruler Zenobia near Emesa in 272 and then went to the Sol Elagabal temple there to thank the god for help in the battle. From then on he regarded the sun god as his personal patron (on coins: conservator Augusti , "keeper of the emperor"), although he apparently had no special local manifestation of the sun cult in mind. Two years later he raised Sol to "Lord of the Roman Empire" ( dominus imperii Romani ), established a state cult for him and built a temple for him on campus Agrippae , which was part of Campus Martius . The temple was dedicated on December 25, 274. Competitions were held every four years in honor of God. Its priests came from the most distinguished families in Rome. With the new state cult, Aurelian tied in with the existing local Sol worship and not with the foreign Elagabal cult, but set a new accent with the connection to the imperial power of victory. The new state cult was generally well received; evidently it corresponded to a need of the time. According to the widespread opinion of Aurelian, the national holiday - the birthday of the sun god on December 25, mentioned for the first time in the chronograph of 354 - proved to be so popular that it possibly led to the determination of the Christian Christmas feast on this date. However, neither the meaning of December 25th for the cult of Sol Invictus nor the question of whether Christmas was linked to the date as a reaction to the Solfest or whether there is a reverse dependency has not been clarified.

Sol was often considered to be the highest and most powerful god, so his worship often bore henotheistic traits. In addition, the oriental cult of Mithras was popular in the empire at that time , especially among the soldiers. However, it never became the state religion and is not fused with Sol worship, but was viewed as something else, although the Mithras followers as well as the Elagabal followers also called their god Sol Invictus.

Constantine the Great (306–337) as Sol invictus . Minted approx. 309–310 in Lugdunum. Sol standing face to the right, right hand raised, globe in left.

The following emperors continued the tradition established by Aurelian with varying degrees of emphasis. Emperor Probus (276–282) showed a preference for the name of Sol Invictus, first attested under Gallienus and later popular, as comes ("companion") of the ruler on coins ("sol-comes coins"); Another coin type that was common at the time (“Sol-oriens-Type”) heralded the dawn of happy times as “Sunrise”. Numerous private inscriptions, some of which combine the cult of the sun with the cult of the emperor, testify to the popularity of the sun deity; Occasionally Sol was called "Imperator". Under Diocletian and his co-ruler Maximian , Jupiter and Hercules were in the foreground, but Sol coins were still minted. In the early 4th century, state worship of sol increased; Emperor Licinius showed particular zeal in this, and Constantine the Great also adored him for a long time. In addition, the common name among the worshipers of Mithras as Sol Invictus Mithras found imperial approval; the renovation of a sanctuary of Sol Invictus Mithras by the imperial college on the occasion of the imperial conference of Carnuntum in 308 is attested in inscriptions. Sol plays a very important but unclear role in Roman Mithraism ; partly, as I said, he seems to have merged with Mithras, but at the same time both Sol and Mithras appear as separate gods in the places of worship. In any case, Sol was considered to be the deity who installed the rulers.

In the second half of the 3rd century, the influential writer Cornelius Labeo equated the sun god, whom he regarded as the highest deity, with various traditionally revered gods, including Zeus and Hades as well as the ancient Roman god Ianus .


In the 4th century, the birthday of Invictus (dies natalis Invicti) was December 25th. Julius Caesar set the shortest day of the year (Latin bruma ), the day of the winter solstice, on this date when he reformed the calendar . In Caesar's time, however, this day had no religious significance. Since a year in the Julian calendar, named after Caesar, is on average a little longer than an astronomical year, the solstice moved forward over the following centuries; in late antiquity it reached December 21st. However, the astronomical shift was not taken into account when the birthday party was introduced; Rather, they kept to the tradition that from December 25th the days get longer again. Therefore, under Aurelian, this day became the national festival of the birth of the sun god. The oldest evidence of the birthday is a note in an Egyptian calendar, which was probably entered in the late 3rd century. There it is noted on December 25th: “Birthday of the sun; the light increases ”. Another entry in the same calendar, however, records the winter solstice for December 22nd, because it was there when the entry was written. The contradiction arises from the fact that one entry reflects the actual astronomical facts, the other the traditional calendar date. Numerous authors, including Christian ones from the late antiquity, stuck to the assumption that December 25th is the date of the winter solstice. The entry must not be interpreted as evidence of an actual celebration of December 25th, as it is not a festival calendar and therefore does not contain a single indication of public holidays.

End of the sun cult

After overcoming his opponent Maximian in 310, Emperor Constantine the Great was a particularly zealous admirer of Sol Invictus, whom he apparently equated with Apollo . Before that he had practiced the Hercules cult in particular . He saw himself as the earthly representative of the sun god, under whose constant protection he believed he stood. Its coinage shows its close connection with God. After his victory over the usurper Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine continued to use sun motifs, but replaced the traditional religious terminology with a more vague one. So he highlighted Sol Invictus on his triumphal arch , but did not refer to him by name in the inscription on the arch, but only to an anonymous "deity" ( divinitas ). This deity could be understood as Sol, but also the supreme deity of the Neoplatonic philosophers or the god of Christians. After the victory over the rival Licinius in 324 and the achievement of sole rule, the minting of Sol coins largely ended; the last surviving Sol coin dates from the year 325.

The Christianity of late antiquity , now on the threshold of final victory, could not be merged with the sun religion, despite the adoption of some elements, but demanded its removal and thus finally prevailed. A temporary revival of the state sun cult under Emperor Julian (361–363) could not change this development. The sun priesthood existed until the late fourth century; It is attested in inscriptions for the last time in 387. At least since the religious decree of Emperor Theodosius I of November 8, 392, the cult was illegal. Nevertheless, there were still numerous sol admirers in the 5th century; the church father Augustine preached against them. Around the middle of the 5th century, Leo the Great rebuked the custom, which was still widespread among “simpler souls” in Rome, of considering December 25th as worthy of worship only “because of the rising of what they say was the new sun”. The same Roman bishop also lamented the continued devotion of many Christians to the sun; so it is often customary for believers to turn around after climbing to St. Peter's Church to bow before the rising sun (Serm. 27: 3f.).

In the Syrian city of Baalbek (Heliopolis), a stronghold of pagan cults, the public veneration of Sol in the main temple there only ended after this sanctuary with the cult image of Sol 554 or 555 was destroyed by lightning - that is, according to the perspective of the time, by divine influence was. Even after this catastrophe, the Sol followers in Baalbek remained in the majority for decades, and in the late 6th century there was still an organized resistance to Christianization in Roman Syria by followers of Sol invictus Mithras , which was carried out by Emperor Tiberios I. was forcibly terminated.

Relationship to Christianity

The correspondence between the Sol holiday on December 25 and the Christian Christmas festival is significant in terms of religious history . The day of Christ's birth is unknown; it was set to December 25th around the middle of the 4th century, after the Constantinian turning point . This dating can be found for the first time in the so-called chronograph from 354 . There is no evidence that Sextus Iulius Africanus assigned any importance to December 25th in the 3rd century, but is indirectly deduced from the fragments of his work.

In the past, various other days were assumed, which were often not in winter, but mostly in spring. For example, the Christmas story assumes that Jesus was born at the time when the shepherds are with their flocks at night (Luke 2: 8) - that is, in the spring, when the lambs are born.

Since the birthday celebration of Sol Invictus was known in the 4th century, the question arises whether the consistency of the date was wanted by the Christian side. Metaphorically, Christ has often been compared to the sun, especially since the biblical promise “The sun of righteousness will rise to you” was applied to him. Already in the year 243 Pseudo-Cyprian had used this passage from the Bible in his work De pascha computus for the calculation of Christ's birthday, but he came to March 28th. A scholiast with Dionysius bar Salibi († 1171) wrote:

According to a solemn custom, the pagans used to celebrate the birth festival of the sun god on December 25th and light lights to increase the festivity. They also allowed the Christian people to participate in these festive customs. Since the teachers of the church made the perception that the Christians were attached to this feast, after careful consideration they came to the decision that on this day ... henceforth the feast of the true rising (i.e., birth), but on January 6th to celebrate the Feast of Apparition (Epiphany).

Although the assumption that the holiday of Sol Invictus was consciously adopted and “Christianized” has generally been accepted in research since Hermann Usener , considerable doubts have been expressed about this thesis in the last few decades.

The replacement of the Sabbath by the Christian celebration of Sunday , which in 321 was declared by Constantine the Great as a "venerable day of the sun" by decree as a public day of rest, has often been interpreted as a reference to the sun cult. The official designation of the day ( dies solis ), which Christians mostly celebrated as the “Lord's Day” ( dies dominica ), referred explicitly to Sol. However, Sunday is already mentioned as the day on which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus by Justin the martyr in the 2nd century.

The question of continuity between Sol worship and Christian custom plays a role today in disputes about Christianity. For the critic of religion Karlheinz Deschner , the correspondence between Christmas Day and the feast day of Sol Invictus is an argument for the assessment of Christianity as syncretistic . Representatives of this position show that early post-Apostolic Christianity took over elements of older pagan religions and fused them together.


Denarius from the year 132 BC Back: Sol in a quadriga with a whip
Mosaic of Christ as Sol Invictus in the Vatican Necropolis, 3rd century

Sol first appears on Roman coins around the late 3rd century BC. BC with a head crowned with rays , just like on much older Etruscan mirrors. A coin from 132 BC. BC shows him on the sun chariot (a quadriga ) drawn by four horses . These features remained important during the imperial era .

Since the emperor Septimius Severus it has been customary to depict the radiant god with a raised right hand and whip in his left hand in his capacity as a charioteer, and since Caracalla also with the globe in hand. The anthropomorphic representation distinguishes Sol Invictus from Elagabal, who never appears in human form. The Sol Invictus Aurelian and his successors is usually (as on the coins of his predecessors) a beardless youth with a halo, clad only in a cloak, the right hand raised, in the left the whip or the globe. Under Aurelian, however, the god is also shown with a whip in one hand and a globe in the other or handing the globe to the emperor or with a team of four. On Aurelian's coins, the god is depicted like an emperor with captured enemies at his feet. The iconography shows the merging of the cult of the emperor and the cult of the sun, which lasted until the end of the worship of Sol. Constantine the Great was conspicuously portrayed like the sun god. Traditional Sol symbolism even appeared on images of his Christian successors. Under Constantine the Great, Sol Invictus usually appears standing or in a bust, but also with the quadriga or with prisoners, sometimes with the head of Serapis .

Iconographic evidence from Christian tombs from the time before Constantine the Great shows that there was even less fear of contact then than later: Images of the personified sun god occasionally appeared in the artistic furnishings of Christian graves in the 3rd century, so they were at least made by some Christians not perceived as offensive. It is unclear whether Christ was identified with Sol not only in a metaphorical sense, but also ontologically . Famous is a 3rd century vault mosaic in the Julier Mausoleum in the Vatican Necropolis . It shows a sol with a nimbus and a halo, to be interpreted as Christ, in the sun chariot traveling from east to west; in his left hand he holds the globe. This representation corresponds exactly to the traditional Sol iconography.


Web links

Commons : Sol Invictus  - album with pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Overview Richard L. Gordon: Sol I . In: Der Neue Pauly 11 (2001), Col. 692ff.
  2. CIL 6, 715 = Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae selectae No. 2184; it is a private inscription.
  3. ^ Steven E. Hijmans: The Sun which did not rise in the East. The Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of Non-Literary Evidence. In: Babesch. Bulletin Antieke Beschaving. Volume 71, 1996, pp. 115-150.
  4. Stephan Berrens: Sun cult and empire from the Severers to Constantine I (193–337 AD). Steiner, Stuttgart 2004, pp. 61-71.
  5. For a discussion see Steven E. Hijmans: Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas. In: Mouseion Volume 47, number 3, 2003, pp. 377-398 and on this C. Philipp E. Nothaft: The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research. In: Church History. Volume 81, 2012, pp. 903–911, with further literature, which with clear arguments reject December 25th as the date of the Aurelian celebration.
  6. Gaston H. Halsberghe: The Cult of Sol Invictus. Brill, Leiden 1972, p. 162 ff.
  7. CIL 3, 4413 = Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae selectae No. 659.
  8. ^ William Seston: Diocletianus. In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christianentum , Volume 3, Stuttgart 1957, Sp. 1044 f.
  9. Martin Wallraff: Christ verus sol. Sun worship and Christianity in late antiquity. Aschendorff, Münster 2001, pp. 177-179.
  10. Gaston H. Halsberghe: The Cult of Sol Invictus. Brill, Leiden 1972, pp. 169f .; on the dating of Martin Wallraff: Christ verus sol. Sun worship and Christianity in late antiquity. Aschendorff, Münster 2001, p. 133 and note 34, Stephan Berrens: Sun cult and empire from the Severians to Constantine I (193–337 AD). Steiner, Stuttgart 2004, p. 167 and note 231.
  11. Gaston H. Halsberghe: The Cult of Sol Invictus. Brill, Leiden 1972, p. 170.
  12. Martin Wallraff: Christ verus sol. Sun worship and Christianity in late antiquity. Aschendorff, Münster 2001, p. 187.
  13. Otto Eißfeldt: Baalbek . In: Real Lexicon for Antiquity and Christianity. Volume 1, Stuttgart 1950, Col. 1114-1117.
  14. Article Christmas / Christmas / Christmas Sermon I. In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie . Volume 35, 2003, p. 453 ff.
  15. Annunciation (and also Passion) of Christ on March 25th, from which one can infer a date of birth in late December, see article Christmas / Christmas / Christmas Sermon I. In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie . Volume 35, 2003, here p. 454; but see Steven E. Hijmans: Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas. In: Mouseion Volume 47, Number 3, 2003, p. 377 Note 3.
  16. Times 4.2 in the Vulgate = times 3.20  EU according to today's counting.
  17. Syrian Scholiast with Dionysius bar Salibi see Giuseppe Simone Assemani : Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticana. Volume 2: De scriptoribus Syris monophysitis. Rome 1721, p. 164 ( digitized version ) = CIL I², p. 338 f. ( Digitized version ).
  18. ^ Translation by Hermann Usener : Sol Invictus. In: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie . Volume 60, 1905, p. 466.
  19. Hermann Usener: The Christmas Festival. Bonn 1889; Hermann Usener: Sol Invictus. In: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie. Volume 60, 1905, pp. 465-491
  20. For a discussion see Steven E. Hijmans: Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas. In: Mouseion Volume 47, number 3, 2003, pp. 377-398 and on this C. Philipp E. Nothaft: The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research. In: Church History. Volume 81, 2012, pp. 903-911.
  21. Michael H. Crawford : The Roman Republican Coinage. Volume 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1974, ISBN 0-521-07492-4 , p. 280 No. 250.
  22. Martin Wallraff: Christ verus sol. Sun worship and Christianity in late antiquity. Aschendorff, Münster 2001, pp. 158-162; David Knipp: Christ Medicus in the early Christian sarcophagus sculpture. Brill, Leiden 1998, p. 42f.