Sol (mythology)

This article is about the Roman sun god. For the Norse sun goddess, see Sól (sun).

Sol was the solar deity in Ancient Roman religion. It was long thought that Rome actually had two different, consecutive sun gods. The first, Sol Indiges, was thought to have been unimportant, disappearing altogether at an early period. Only in the late Roman Empire, scholars argued, did solar cult re-appear with the arrival in Rome of the Syrian Sol Invictus, perhaps under the influence of the Mithraic mysteries.[1] Recent publications have challenged the notion of two different sun gods in Rome, pointing to the abundant evidence for the continuity of the cult of Sol, and the lack of any clear differentiation - either in name or depiction - between the "early" and "late" Roman sun god.[2][3][4][5]


The Latin sol for "Sun" is the continuation of the PIE heteroclitic *Seh2ul- / *Sh2-en-, cognate to Germanic Sol, Sanskrit Surya, Greek Helios, Lithuanian Saulė.[6] Also compare Latin sol to Etruscan usil. Today, sol (or variations of it, such as Italian sole or French soleil) is still the main word for "sun" in Romance languages. Sol is used in contemporary English by astronomers and many science fiction authors as the proper name of the Sun to distinguish it from other stars which may be suns for their own planetary systems.

Sol in the Roman Republic

According to Roman sources, the worship of Sol was introduced by Titus Tatius shortly after the foundation of Rome[7][8] In Virgil he is the grandfather of Latinus, the son of Sol's daughter Circe who lived not far from Rome at Monte Circeo.[9] A shrine to Sol stood on the banks of the Numicius, near many important shrines of early Latin religion.[10] In Rome Sol had an "old" temple in the Circus Maximus according to Tacitus (AD 56 – 117),[11] and this temple remained important in the first three centuries AD.[12] There was also an old shrine for Sol on the Quirinal, where an annual sacrifice was offered to Sol Indiges on August 9 to commemorate Caesar's victory at Pharsala (48 BC).[13] The Roman ritual calendars or fasti also mention a feast for Sol Indiges on December 11, and a sacrifice for Sol and Luna on August 28. Traditionally, scholars have considered Sol Indiges ("the native sun" or "the invoked sun" — the etymology and meaning of the word "indiges" is disputed) to represent an earlier, more agrarian form in which the Roman god Sol was worshipped, and considered him to be very different from the late Roman Sol Invictus, whom they believed was a predominantly Syrian deity. Neither the epithet "indiges" (which fell into disuse sometime after Caesar) nor the epithet "invictus" are used with any consistency however, making it impossible to differentiate between the two (see Sol Invictus, see also Di indigetes).

Sol Invictus

Main article: Sol Invictus

Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") was long thought to have been a foreign state-supported sun god introduced from either Emesa or Palmyra in Syria by the emperor Aurelian in 274 and overshadowing other Eastern cults in importance,[14] until the abolition of Classical Roman religion under Theodosius I. However the evidence for this is meager at best,[15] and the notion that Aurelian introduced a new cult of the sun ignores the abundant evidence on coins, in images, in inscriptions, and in other sources for a strong presence of the sun god in Rome throughout the imperial period.[16] Tertullian (died AD 220) writes that the Circus Maximus was dedicated primarily to Sol.[17] During the reign of Aurelian, a new college of pontiffs for Sol was established.

There is some debate over the significance of the date December 21 for the cult of Sol. According to a single, late source, the Romans held a festival on December 21 of Dies Natalis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered one." Most scholars assume Sol Invictus was meant, although our source for this festival does not state so explicitly.[18] December 25 was commonly indicated as the date of the winter solstice,[19] with the first detectable lengthening of daylight hours. There were also festivals on other days in December, including the 11th (mentioned above), as well as August. Gordon points out that none of these other festivals are linked to astronomical events.[20] When the festival on December 25 was instituted is not clear, which makes it hard to assess what impact (if any) it had on the establishment of Christmas.

The official status of the cult of Sol after Aurelian was significant, but there is no evidence that it was the supreme cult of the state. Hoey exaggerates the importance of an inscription from Salsovia that supposedy indicates an official empire-wide cult-prescription for Sol on December 19.[21] It actually simply states that at the command of the emperor Licinius the commanding officer of the detachment at Salsovia was to burn incense annually for a newly erected statue of Sol on November 18 (Hoey misread the date).[22] This simply means that Licinius accepted the erection of the statue in his honour.

Throughout the fourth century the cult of Sol continued to be maintained by high-ranking pontiffs, including the renowned Vettius Agorius Praetextatus.[23]

Identification with other Deities

The Greek assimilation of Apollo and Helios was already established in Rome by the end of the republic.[24] Various Roman philosophers speculated on the nature of the sun, without arriving at any consensus. A typical example is Nigidius, a scholar of the first century BC. His works have not survived, but writing five centuries later, Macrobius reports that Nigidius argued that Sol was to be identified with Janus and that he had a counterpart, Jana, who was Moon. As such, they were to be regarded as the highest of the gods, receiving their sacrifices before all the others.[25] Such views appear to have been restricted to an erudite elite — no ancient source aside from Macrobius mentions the equation of Sol with Janus — and had no impact on the well-attested cult of Sol as independent deity.

See also


  1. Halsberghe, Gaston (1972). The Cult of Sol Invictus (EPRO 223). Leiden: Brill.
  2. Hijmans, Steven (1996). "The Sun which didnot rise in the East. The Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of Non-Literary Evidence". Bulletin Antieke Beschaving (BABesch). doi:10.2143/BAB.71.0.2002277.
  3. Berrens, Stefan (2004). Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193-337 n. Chr.). Stuttgart: Historia Einzelschriften 185. ISBN 3-515-08575-0.
  4. Matern, Petra (2001). Helios und Sol : Kulte und Ikonographie des griechischen und römischen Sonnengottes. Istanbul: Ege. ISBN 978-975-8070-53-4.
  5. Hijmans, Steven (2009). Sol: the Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome. ISBN 9789036739313.
  6. see e.g. EIEC, p. 556.
  7. Varro, De Lingua 5.68.
  8. August. de Civ. Dei, iv. 23
  9. Virgil, Aeneid 12, 161–4.
  10. Pliny Nat. Hist. III 56.
  11. Annals 15, 74.
  12. Tertullian, de Spect. 8.
  13. Quintilian Inst. 1,7,12; Fasti Amiternini (“a.d. V Idus Augustas: Soli Indigeti in colle Quirinali Feriae quod eo die Gaius Caesar Gai filius Pharsali devicit” - "August 9: Festival for Sol Indiges on the Quirinal Hill because on that day Gaius Caesar, son of Gaius, was victorious at Pharsala"). Cf. Fasti Vallensis (a.d. V Idus Augustas: Solis Indigetis in colle Quirinali Sacrificium Publicum), Fasti Maffeiani and Fasti Allifani.
  14. A typical example of this line of thought can be found in: 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.
  15. Gordon, Richard L.; Wallraff, Martin (Bonn). "Sol." Brill's New Pauly. Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and ; Helmuth Schneider . Brill, 2010. Brill Online.
  16. Gordon (prev. note) cites S. 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 71, 1996, 115–150.
  17. De Spect. 8
  18. The Natalis Invicti is mentioned only in the Calendar of Philocalus which dates t AD 354
  19. 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.
  20. Gordon, Richard L.; Wallraff, Martin (Bonn). "Sol." Brill's New Pauly. Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and ; Helmuth Schneider . Brill, 2010. Brill Online.
  21. "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" (Hoey 1939:480 and note 128).
  22. Inscription nr. 5 in Inscriptiones Scythiae Minoris Graecae et Latinae 2, Bucharest 1980. The prescription is for "die XIV Kal(endis) Decemb(ribus)" i.e. the 14th day before the kalends of December which is November 18th.
  23. CIL VI,1778, and 1779.
  24. Hijmans, Steven (2004). "Sol and Luna in the Carmen Saeculare: an Iconographic Perspective". Metamorphic Reflections: Essays Presented to Ben Hijmans at his 75th Birthday.
  25. Macrobius Saturnalia i. 9; an echo of Nigidius views i perhaps to be found in Cicero De Natura Deorum ii. 27
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