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).
Sol Invictus ("the Unconquered Sun") or, more fully, Deus Sol Invictus ("the Unconquered Sun God") was a religious title applied to at least three distinct divinities during the later Roman Empire: El Gabal, Mithras, and Sol.
Unlike the earlier, agrarian cult of Sol Indiges ("the native sun" or "the invoked sun" - the etymology and meaning of the word "indiges" is disputed), the title Deus Sol Invictus was formed by analogy with the imperial titulature pius felix invictus ("dutiful, fortunate, unconquered").
The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the patron god of Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-274); and Mithras, a soldiers' god of Persian origin. (1) Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday. (2)
Repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus, Roman, 3rd century,
found at Pessinus (British Museum)
December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma. It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be "unconquered" despite the shortening of daylight hours. (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.) The Sol Invictus festival has a "strong claim on the responsibility" for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Solar symbolism was popular with early Christian writers (3) as Jesus was considered to be the "sun of righteousness." (4) More recent sources (5) (6) suggest that Christian celebration of Christmas pre-dates the Sol Invictus festival.
The title first gained prominence under the emperor Elagabalus, who abortively attempted to impose the worship of El Gabal, the sun-god of his native city Emesa in Syria. With the emperor's death in 222, however, this religion ceased, though emperors continued to be portrayed on coinage with the radiant sun-crown for close to a century.
In the second instance, the title invictus was applied to Mithras in private inscriptions by devotees. It also appears applied to Mars.
The type of Sol Invictus, though not the name, appears on imperial coinage from the time of Septimius Severus onwards.
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; (7) but no earlier reference to it exists. The cult of Sol Invictius 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. (8)
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 paganism was abolished by decree of Theodosius I on February 27, 390.
Alleged representation of Christ as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus
riding in his chariot. Third century mosaic of the Vatican grottoes
under St. Peter's Basilica, on the ceiling of the tomb of the Julii.
Sol Invictus and Christianity
Christian iconography adopted some of the artistic language of paganism. The depiction of Christ with a halo relates to late antiquity usage, but the radiated crown also appears.
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, article on i>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" (9). 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, p155)
The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia: Christmas states: "The well-known solar feast, however, of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date."
However 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. (10)
(1) "Mithraism", The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.
(2) "Sol." Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago (2006).
(3) "Christmas, Encyclopædia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006.
(4) Malachi 4:2
(5) Tighe, William J. Calculating Christmas, 2003
(6) Schmidt, Alvin J.(2001), "Under the Influence", HarperCollins, p377-9
(7) 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.
(8) Allan S. Hoey, "Official Policy towards Oriental Cults in the Roman Army" Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 70 (1939, pp. 456-481) pp 456, 479ff.
(9) New Catholic Encyclopedia, "Christmas"
(10) Text at (1) Parts 6 and 12 respectively.
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