the roman sun: symbolic variation in ancient solar - UvA-DARE

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Gro Harlem Brundtland
Gro Harlem Brundtland

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Edward Said
Edward Said

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Georg Wissowa
Georg Wissowa

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A Thesis Submitted in
Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
in Classics and Ancient History
Table of Contents
I. Introduction ...............................................................................................................2
II. Trends in Scholarship..............................................................................................6
Nineteenth-Century Orientalism.........................................................................6
Cumont’s Shift to the East ................................................................................10
Recent Scholarship ...........................................................................................13
III. Textual Evidence ..................................................................................................18
Helios ................................................................................................................18
Sol .....................................................................................................................23
IV. Iconographic Evidence.........................................................................................31
Overview of LIMC............................................................................................31
Examples in Variation ......................................................................................34
Coinage .............................................................................................................39
a) chronological trends.............................................................................40
b) imperial examples................................................................................43
V. Mithraism and the Cosmos ...................................................................................48
Cumont’s Ideas .................................................................................................49
Beck and Cosmological Space..........................................................................51
Issues in Mithraic Study ...................................................................................55
Regional Variation in Dacian Reliefs ...............................................................59
VI. Sol Invictus in the Late Empire...........................................................................65
Constantine’s Sol: Coinage and Monuments....................................................65
Sol: A Monotheistic Force? ..............................................................................69
VII. Conclusion ...........................................................................................................74
Bibliography ................................................................................................................77
I. Introduction
Aristarchus of Samos must have devised his heliocentric model of the solar system in the
third century BCE, as his pupil Archimedes records his controversial arguments shortly
thereafter. Unlike most other learned men of his day, he proposed that the sun and stars remained
“unmoved,” while the Earth and all the other heavenly bodies revolved around it.1 Greeks like
Aristarchus were some of the first to record their observations and calculations of the sun and
other planetary bodies, or perhaps the first whose astronomical works survived, as it is
understandably a global activity. Aristarchus’s heliocentric views must have been in the
minority, but nevertheless, advancements in Greek cosmology showed a high level of interest in
the sun and its movements in the Greek and Roman world at that point in time. As ancient
astronomy often overlapped with philosophy, and philosophy with religion, and religion with
politics, this conceptualization of the sun was rather multidimensional, as it could also be
considered in a more immaterial, intellectual manner apart from its cosmic form. It could even, at
times, be significant in both aspects simultaneously.
Sun worship, through deities like Helios in Greece and Sol in Rome, can thus provide
another model through which to understand the ancients’ views of the sun. The very fact that
solar observation, study, and characterization was a global phenomenon is what makes solar
divinity interesting; the way it was characterized at any given time can be a window into a
particular society’s needs and methods of symbolic expression. Roman solar worship, in
particular, seems to have taken a variety of different forms throughout the Republic and into the
imperial period, and it is worth exploring what values those forms could reflect in Roman
society. But the Roman Sol, the sun god sometimes equated or confused with Helios due to their
Archimedes, Sand Reckoner
closeness in representation, seems to have taken on many forms and personalities over time—
how, then, are we to make sense of his evolution, and what may this progression tell us about the
nature of solar divinity in Rome? What does it mean in regards to how the Romans approached
their religions and deities?
The history of Roman solar worship has, so far, been overly simplified amongst scholars.
Subject to imaginary divisions and sequences in narrative, Sol is usually deemed responsible for
far-reaching trends like orientalization and solar monotheism that do not make sense in light of
literary and iconographic evidence. Additionally, the frameworks that have been placed around
the study of Sol are largely incorrect and much too neat and straightforward to be an accurate
reflection of his changes over time. For example, the distinction between an earlier Sol/Helios
figure and a later Sol Invictus is unfounded, and denatures the diverse web of religious
symbolism and political propaganda through which solar worship functioned. It has survived into
modern scholarship, however, and it is part of a much larger trend amongst historians that
focuses entirely on origins of religious symbols and their attached meanings—who must have
been responsible for influence, and thus how that affected the character of the deity. This focus,
as we will find with the work of major twentieth-century scholars, then translated to these forced
divisions of Sol’s nature as a divine presence in Rome—conjuring this narrative behind the
evolution of solar worship and solar symbolism that does not exist apart from our own far
removed conceptualizations of it.
In order to set the motion of Roman solar worship on a more fruitful path, past
approaches should first be examined in their effectiveness and overall usefulness to the study of
Sol. As I plan to address a variety of different literary and iconographical forms of Sol
throughout the entirety of Roman history, I shall assess major works in scholarship dealing with
the Republican Sol, Imperial Sol, and also Sol within Mithraism. By analyzing the manner in
which scholars like Franz Cumont, Roger Beck, and Gaston Halsberghe characterized and
compartmentalized Sol, we can then deconstruct those narratives and in turn focus on coming to
terms with variation in expression and meaning. For as we will discover when mapping the
textual evidence for sun worship, origins are never clear, nor are they necessarily relevant to how
the cult functions in any given context.
As an overview of major literary and iconographic forms will show, focusing on
variation—whether by region, style, or context—is a much more informative method of
investigation, and difference serves as a more interesting inquiry than similarity based on ethnic
roots impossible to prove. Solar iconography will be given attention more generally as well as
within the realm of Mithraism, in imperial propaganda, and on coinage, but as it is beyond the
scope of this study to provide an extensive survey of the material, the discussion will be kept
brief. My aim is rather to propose a different approach to studying Roman solar worship and to
provide examples as to how that could be useful, taking into account the diversity of symbolic
meanings and forms of representation across regions, time periods, and changing social and
religious traditions.
Through utilizing the miscalculations and skewed methodologies of past historians, we
can thus formulate a new approach emphasizing Sol’s variety of meanings and representations.
Sol as a cosmic and divine force can then be better understood in his particular contexts within
the Roman pantheon at different moments throughout the Republic and Empire. It will become
apparent that solar worship—and the veneration of the Roman Sol in particular—was not
singular, but rather (in literary sources) highly diversified; Sol’s role and personality could vary
according to region, chronology, or by the function of the text itself. And his representation in
different forms of iconography further demonstrates the difficulties of relating meaning to image
as well as interpreting the Romans’ symbolic language. Sol is at once his own self-contained
divine figure, a cosmic symbol, a personality to be used to promote ideas of imperial victory, and
many other forms all at once. The entire characterization and function of Sol thus depends more
on his surrounding context than his own essence as a sun god, and any understanding of his place
in Roman society, politics, or religion depends on recognizing those symbolic variations and
what function they had in the broader Roman world.
II. Trends in Scholarship
In order to formulate a new approach to understanding the sun as a divinity in Rome, it is
necessary to first review the major work already done on the subject. The history of scholarship
surrounding Sol is as complicated as his own story, for we find that its focus and conclusions are
subject to contemporary political opinion as well as at times based on questionable sources.
However, my intention here is not to interpret or disprove the arguments of each author
presented beyond summary, but rather to examine their focus on origin in a broader sense and
what conclusions they made in regards to how Sol’s roots influenced his nature as a Roman
deity. Here we will begin by exploring the academic environment surrounding solar religion in
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that provided the foundation upon which later
studies grew. Then two more recent studies will be presented, in particular that of Steven E.
Hijmans which, apart from its approach, is followed closely throughout my own analysis. By
sampling these former approaches, we can then come to terms with the assumptions and
categories placed on Sol, which then became self-evident as the conversation progressed. Past
works on solar worship can then serve as a useful backdrop against the textual and iconographic
evidence, which calls into question much of their methodology and overall concerns.
Nineteenth-century Ideas and Orientalism
One of the earliest influential scholars who studied Sol and his role in Roman religion
was Georg Wissowa in the nineteenth century. Although many of his methods and ideas are no
longer accepted by historians today, he is still an important figure to mention, as the study of Sol
was shaped and molded by the questions he asked. For Wissowa and for many other historians of
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were focused on origins—what, if any, parallels
could be drawn between Sol and solar worship outside of Rome, and what this meant as to the
identity and character of Sol himself. First, Wissowa divided Sol into two forms which have
managed to survive into present-day studies: Sol Indiges as the solar deity referred to in
Republican sources, and Sol Invictus as a later, distinct development tied to the East as well as
imperial propaganda. “Indiges” is not an easy term to define, as it is mentioned in connection
with certain deities at certain moments, but lacks any discernable set of rules or explicit identity.
Wissowa postulated that it was added much later for the purpose of differentiating the early
Republican Sol from the later one. Livy tells us that Decius Mus invoked the dii indigetes after
the novensides,2 which led Wissowa to interpret indiges as “traditional” or as referring to the
earlier gods as opposed to those who had been more recently established.
While this line of thinking is no longer followed by historians,3 it was important to
Wissowa in his efforts to distance Rome from solar worship. Sol Indiges, according to Wissowa,
was actually the Greek Helios who had been adopted into the Roman pantheon. This reveals an
ideology at work behind Wissowa’s study; Roman religion had a distinct character to which the
idea of solar worship did not adhere in contemporary thought. Hijmans explains that “in
[Wissowa’s] view, the early Romans had straightforward beliefs, with practical gods whose roles
were clearly defined, and this excluded more abstract religious concepts. Neither the sun, nor the
stars, nor the planets were revered, astrology had no role to play… Therefore Wissowa rejected
the belief that Sol was Roman.”4 Sol was thus subject to Wissowa’s own predilections regarding
Livy, The History of Rome 8, 9, 6.
Francesca Prescendi, "Indiges," Brill’s New Pauly, ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider
(Leiden: Brill Online, 2015).
Steven E. Hijmans, “The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit
Groningen (2009), page 3.
“Romanness” and was presented as a phenomenon with roots elsewhere, dissociated from Rome
Wissowa’s separation between Sol Indiges and Sol Invictus, as well as his postulation
that the early Sol was actually Helios, reflected larger trends occurring within scholarship during
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Hijmans points out, Wissowa’s arguments
were dependent upon (and worked backwards from) a pre-existing ideology regarding the nature
of religion and ethnicity, and this was entrenched within the much larger overall treatment of the
East versus the West. Astral religion and its constituents as a category (including solar worship)
were regarded as inherently eastern, foreign to Rome and thus nonnative to the ideas and values
of the Western society thought to be produced from it. It is crucial to recognize the intrinsic link
between religion and ethnic identity within nineteenth-century scholarship; Hijmans identifies it
as the “ethnocentric approach to religion,”5 in which the manner of one’s religious ideas and
rituals directly reflects the character of the ethnic group that practiced it. But this could function
in a more nationalistic way, turning in on itself to project the desired character of one’s own
group as opposed to another.
The nationalism prevalent in early studies like Wissowa’s should be understood against
the background of orientalism as a larger trend during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Solar religion was downplayed precisely because of the association between it and the East, and
scholars like Wissowa wished to distance themselves from what scholarship held as the inferior
Eastern character. Edward Said’s classic study on orientalism provides a succinct overview of
popular opinion on Western character versus the Eastern character: Said explains that “the
European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural
Ibid, page 8.
logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before
he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of
mechanism.”6 On the contrary, the mind of the Easterner is “wanting in symmetry”7 and faulty in
reason, logic, and explanations. The Oriental is “gullible, devoid of energy and initiative, much
given to fulsome flattery, intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on
either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to under-stand what the clever European
grasps immediately, that roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate
liars, they are lethargic and suspicious, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and
nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race.”8 In this light, then, we can perceive Wissowa’s arguments as
an exercise in cultural strength. The nineteenth century in particular was a time for vast European
expansion, in which the East was already viewed as subservient to the dominant West. It was
against this imperialist atmosphere that Sol, held as an oriental deity in his later forms, had to be
completely disconnected from the West in his infancy as well.
The implications of nineteenth-century nationalistic ideas driving the study of Sol are
clear. Questions were essentially limited—the focus on origin coupled with the ideological
struggle over East and West left little room for possibility in variation. Notions of what the solar
cult should have been led inquiries into what it was, and many of these assumptions (especially
regarding Sol’s Eastern nature) were carried on in later works. The orientalism prevalent during
the period combined with nationalistic attitudes effectively placed Sol into categories that have
not broken down entirely; a separation is still maintained between Indiges and Invictus, for
instance, and the latter’s oriental nature is still assumed in many characterizations. As we will
Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1977), page 38.
Ibid, page 38-39.
begin to see, the more neatly-placed the framework, the less we truly know about individual
forms of Sol and solar worship within Rome.
Cumont’s Shift to the East
As the twentieth century began, scholarship took an interesting turn with the work of
Franz Cumont, the Belgian archaeologist and historian well-known for his work on Mithraism
and the eastern mystery cults. While traditional opinion held Sol to be a foreign entity, Cumont
essentially agreed—but he traced Roman solar worship to Syria in particular, and thus shifted the
argument to the East. According to Hijmans, Cumont “radically changed the tone of the
discussion, but strengthened its basic tenets, providing a general oriental background against
which the development and spread of the cosmic solar cult could be understood.”9 Rather than
simply asserting the solar cult’s oriental beginnings and re-framing them in a Syrian context,
Cumont argued for a fundamental competition between Roman religion and these new cults from
the East. He says that “in order to gain the masses and the cream of Roman society (as they did
for a whole century) the barbarian mysteries had to possess a powerful charm, they had to satisfy
the deep wants of the human soul, and their strength had to be superior to that of the ancient
Greco-Roman religion.”10 Suddenly not only did Sol descend from Eastern religion, but Roman
religion had allowed itself to be infiltrated.
One of Cumont’s basic arguments revolves around a decline in traditional Roman
worship. Citizens were disillusioned after the fall of the Republic and Augustus’s reforms had
failed, according to Cumont, and this created a classic vacuum of religious fervor to which the
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 17.
Franz Cumont, The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (Chicago: Open, 1911), page 28.
oriental religions satisfied.11 In addition, he says there were no great scientific discoveries to
keep Romans imaginative or hopeful; their overall spirit in regards to the worship of their gods
had dwindled. Cumont eloquently puts forth that “the world cursed with sterility, could but
repeat itself; it had the poignant appreciation of its own decay and impotence.”12 As the empire
aged, so did the character of men13 and the general integrity and morale of Romans, and thus he
argues that they were attracted to the emotion and vigor of the oriental cults. Roman religion was
really two-faced, then, according to Cumont; traditional gods were worshipped out of civic duty,
and participation in oriental cults (this could be Isis, Mithras, or the Baals, etc.) was considered
“the expression of a personal belief.”14 In regards to the worship of the sun within these
mysteries, particularly Mithraism on which Cumont focused much of his work, Sol takes on an
inherently personal nature when considered in light of Cumont’s characterization of oriental cults
within the Roman Empire.
However, Cumont offered more practical reasons for the spread of oriental religions
westward. Communication via newly-established trade routes from the Latin provinces to hardto-reach areas in Syria played a key role in transmitting religious ideas. Newly-acquired
knowledge of exotic religious cultures combined with the disparities and general moral
melancholia within traditional Roman deities and rituals caused an influx of oriental mysteries in
the later Empire. These mysteries appealed to Romans in a variety of ways according to Cumont,
as we have discussed, but he goes so far as to assert that Eastern religions appealed to the
Romans’ intellect through their dealings with Chaldean astrology, seen as highly superior to the
Ibid, page 39.
Ibid, page 34.
Ibid, page 42.
Ibid, page 44.
Romans’ “infantile religion.”15 Cumont explains that “Syria was Rome's teacher and
predecessor,”16 and thus Rome took over the astrological ideas prevalent in the oriental
mysteries; Cumont postulates that those ideas eventually fused with other Semitic and Roman
traditions to culminate in one idea of the divine. “The last formula,” Cumont writes, “reached by
the religion of the pagan Semites and in consequence by that of the Romans, was a divinity
unique, almighty, eternal, universal and ineffable, that revealed itself throughout nature, but
whose most splendid and most energetic manifestation was the sun.”17 The sun is both a part of
astrological mystery promoted by the Eastern cults and a sort of global truth for Cumont, and
thus he neatly ties together the influx of the oriental mysteries and their reverence for the sun
with the increasing presence of Christianity.
Cumont’s work on oriential religions and their spread into the Roman traditions of the
imperial period shifted the argument to the East in terms of influence—not only did they
disseminate into Rome, but Rome was so fundamentally weakened religiously that they were
quickly accepted. As for Sol himself, sun worship was caught up in Cumont’s combination of
astrology and morality that swept into Rome via trade routes from Syria. He assumed that the
textual evidence and iconography for the later imperial Sol must have been directly inspired by
this oriental influx, and most importantly, that Romans themselves were aware of this and readily
accepted it. In this astrology/morality combination, Sol could also take on more symbolic
attributes, especially when working back from what we know to be the ultimate result:
monotheism. For Cumont, Sol is both an oriental and consolidating force that moved into Rome
through a wider acceptance of astral religion and a desire for depth of religious meaning.
Ibid, page 31.
Ibid, page 134.
Recent Scholarship
The conversation surrounding Sol during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was
thus concentrated on eastern influence. It makes sense, then, for more recent historians to focus
their works on reacting to those foundational approaches. Two interesting examples can be found
in G.H. Halsberghe’s Cult of Sol Invictus of 1972 and, more recently, Steven Hijmans’ “Sol: The
Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome” [2009]. Although Halsberghe and Hijmans were
answering essentially the same question—what is the real identity of Sol?—they took different
approaches to their studies and raised important questions in interpreting sources.
Halsberghe’s Sol followed the earlier precedents and was divided into Sol Indiges and
Sol Invictus. However, Halsberghe argued for a distinctly Roman character of Republican Sol,
relying on the Fasti of Philocalus for evidence of an “autochthonous Sol.”18 Halsberghe himself
is ambiguous on the precise meaning of the term “indiges,” but goes against the claim that it
differentiated Sol from his later imperial (and thoroughly Eastern) form, arguing that the Romans
had no need, at the time, to discern between them. But according to Halsberghe, Sol maintained a
continuous presence throughout the period, and especially towards the “switch” to imperial Sol.
The later Sol Invictus was promoted as early as Marc Anthony, who portrayed the sun god as allpowerful on coins, but it was Augustus’s veneration of Apollo that inspired this new personality
of the solar deity. Halsberghe explains that Augustus “was determined first and foremost to give
new luster to the ancient cults of the Roman people and if necessary to rescue them from
oblivion,” and by this promotion he thus “laid the basis for the extension of the theology of the
sun a few centuries later.”19 In Halsberghe’s conception of Sol’s identity, it was double—the
Republican sun god was thoroughly Roman, but in the second century, Syrian solar traditions
Gaston H. Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden: Brill, 1972), page 28.
Ibid, page 29.
infiltrated Rome under the emperor Elagabal. He thus calculates that “this cult knew two distinct
periods of brilliant growth,”20 but it is still treated as one single cult that changed over time.
Another facet of Halsberghe’s argument that should be noted is the importance placed on
the cult of Sol as a whole, especially during the imperial period. The reason given for
Halsberghe’s interest in Sol Invictus is “the great influence its dogma exerted on the religious
life of the Empire for three long centuries,”21 but this dogma was caught up in the political
agendas of the period as well. Promoted especially by Eastern astronomers, sun worship was an
overarching concept that connected divinity with the emperor and vice versa, so that even though
Sol was becoming steadily more popular through “literary and romantic fictions,”22 Halsberghe
explains that “the political ends of the empire were served by these theological concepts.”23
Political policy and aspiration under such emperors as Elagabalus and Aurelian thus furthered
the veneration of Sol and his new role as protector, victor, and all-encompassing god. Halsberghe
notes that “the emperors came to see themselves as the comites of the sun god,” so it was a
gradual process through which the relationship between Sol and the emperors (and as such, the
empire as a whole) evolved over time. Halsberghe bases this argument largely on the Historia
Augusta’s representation of both Elagabalus and Aurelian, marking the introduction of
Elagabalus’s Sol and his oriental nature as the beginning of the switch between Roman Sol and
this new Sol Invictus. Sol’s popularity then remained relatively constant but was further
promoted by Aurelian24 and later emperors. He even justifies the lack of monuments for Sol,
pointing to the damnatio memoriae of Elagabalus as an excuse; it was the hatred toward
Ibid, page 172.
However, Halsberghe offers no examples of such works.
Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, page 37.
Halsberghe presents Aurelian’s mother as a priestess of the sun god (page 130), although his
only source is the Historia Augusta, which is highly controversial.
Elagabalus, not Sol Invictus, that spurred the destruction of his temples and projects, and thus
why we cannot find more evidence for Sol’s importance in the Roman pantheon.25
We receive a much-needed change of pace in Hijmans’ dissertation on the cult of Sol.
While his goal is also to take another look at the hypotheses established by earlier historians,
Hijmans differs from other scholars’ work in his extensive look at solar iconography, and his
conclusions seem to both conform to, and deviate from, past work on the subject. For Hijmans,
Sol is a continuous force similar to that which was argued by Halsberghe, but evidence for Sol’s
importance is treated more critically; he is said to have never been elevated above other
prominent deities in the Roman pantheon, even through his role in the Mithraic mysteries, and
his overall significance in Roman religion is downplayed.26 Furthermore, there is no distinction
between an earlier Roman Sol Indiges and a later oriental Sol Invictus—Hijmans makes the case
that Sol should be regarded as wholly Roman throughout his presence in both the Republic and
Empire. The driving force behind Sol’s changing personality depended on the degree of
flexibility of the Romans as well as the progression of scientific knowledge. For Sol’s primary
role, according to Hijmans, was a symbol of the cosmos (as exemplified in Sol’s combination
with Luna in a large portion of solar iconography), but he could be used to represent certain ideas
when they were appropriate. Sol was a power to invoke—none of his symbolic functions were
necessarily unique to him, but it was in those wider contexts and Sol’s purpose in terms of both
religion and politics that painted a somewhat ambiguous identity.
But it is Hijmans’ look at solar iconography that acts as the backbone of the study, and he
organizes this vast amount of information into three general types: Sol depicted in a youthful
Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, page 127.
Steven Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit
Groningen (2009), page 621.
bust, Sol standing with a whip or glove, and Sol as a charioteer driving the quadriga.27 However,
Hijmans recognizes that although these are straightforward categories as they appear to us, they
depend on widely varying context as well as regional modifications—they are meant as the
stylistic choices of representing Sol, not necessarily the only ways in which it has been done.
One of the most important contributions Hijmans makes to the study of solar worship within
Rome is his explanation of the relationship between visual representation and symbolic meaning.
Sol’s appearance on coins, reliefs, mosaics, and other monuments is not interpreted as reflecting
an “intrinsic meaning,” but rather simply the conventional symbolism of the time, or whatever
meaning the Romans built via symbolic forms (whip, globe, chariot, etc.) within the
expression.28 For example, Sol and Luna are quite often portrayed together in what appears to be
cosmic symbolism—sun and moon, or the heavens as a whole—but the meaning or desired
function of individual representations depends on outer context, such as what scene they are
framing and their exact location within this scene. In this way Hijmans’ study is helpful indeed,
as the overall fluidity of Sol’s representations can be seen and understood in the light of the
complexity that is symbolic language within Roman religious and political iconography.
Halsberghe and Hijmans thus offer two very distinct, yet connected studies of the
worship of Sol. They disagree on ethnic identity—while Halsberghe follows closely the evidence
given by the Historia Augusta and takes the oriental character of Sol Invictus as a given fact,
Hijmans advocates the notion that the ethnic identity of Sol never changed. He breaks down the
former mindset of Indiges versus Invictus and instead offers a more critical view of the sources
that led scholars to that point. But despite this fundamental difference, both Halsberghe and
Hijmans still treat the veneration of Sol as one continuous phenomenon despite fluctuations, and
Ibid, page 71.
as such, Sol is then one single force. The Republican Sol mentioned in the Fastii, for example, is
the same Sol reinvigorated by Augustus, Elagabal, Aurelian, Constantine, and others, even
though the inspiration, symbolism, and characteristics might have varied according to the
agendas of each.
So while Wissowa and Cumont stretched the argument between two poles—that is, the
idea that solar religion was not a part of “real” Rome, and the counter-point that Rome willingly
and deliberately took on the oriental solar cult, Halsberghe set the precedent for more nuanced
studies that allowed for some variation. For the first time, Sol could be considered in both a
Roman and Eastern context at once. Hijmans took Halsberghe’s foundation and questioned its
merits, concluding on the basis of both textual and iconographical evidence that there is no sound
argument for an oriental identity at all. However, Sol’s treatment as one homogenous deity (even
despite major differences over time) as well as scholars’ focus on origins only leaves us with
more questions about the nature of Sol.
III. Textual Evidence
As others’ interpretations have been focused on up to this point, it would be beneficial to
present the main sources upon which they relied, both textual and iconographic. Our catalogue of
solar iconography groups representations of Sol and the Greek Helios together, as they are held
to be so close in nature and form that they are largely indistinguishable. In light of this grouping,
I shall include major literary evidence for both forms of the sun god so that its function and role
within different contexts can be best evaluated. I aim to provide a general overview and
interpretation of Helios/Sol’s characterizations in the textual evidence, whether in the way he is
utilized by the writer, his abilities and general personality, or his place in a wider network of
gods. With a sense of the diverse ways in which Helios/Sol can be depicted verbally, we can then
have a solid base upon which to understand him visually.
The earliest characterization of Helios is of course that which is found in Homer’s Iliad
and Odyssey. Because of the nature of oral tradition, we can assume that Homer (either as a
single entity or the later-chosen representative of a group of writers who exemplified their period
in Greek history) expressed the nature of the gods as they were to early Greeks. But it is also
equally plausible that Homer’s Helios acted as an early foundation upon which the god’s
function and personality could then be altered as time progressed and as Homer’s attributed
works took their prominent place in Greek culture. Helios is a minor figure in both the Iliad and
Odyssey, but in both works he seems to take on an almost omniscient quality. In the Iliad, Zeus
mentions Helios when he conjures a thick cloud within which to hide himself and Hera from
view of men and other gods: the cloud is so opaque that Zeus says “might not even Helios
discern us twain, albeit his sight is the keenest of all for beholding.”29 The sun deity is thus
connected with acute vision, which makes sense in terms of the sun as a light source, but in the
Odyssey this is taken a further step forward. The flocks of Helios Hyperion are mentioned
several times, and come to the forefront of the story when Odysseus’s men go against his orders
and choose to sacrifice them. In his warning to Odysseus regarding the flocks, the Theban
Teiresias characterizes Helios as he “who oversees and overhears all things,”30 but later, when
Odysseus recalls Teiresias’s advice, Helios is he “who gives joy to mortals.”31 So the solar deity
is at once close to man, in that he gives him joy, while also acting as an all-seeing judicial force.
But we also see some early trends in symbolism in the Homeric Hymn to Helios, which
combined all of these qualities with a more physical conception of the sun and its activity. Like
the Iliad and Odyssey, the Hymn to Helios portrays him as having keen sight through mentioning
his “piercing gaze” and “far-seen face,” and it also appears that Helios and joy are still closely
connected as the author exclaims in his conclusion of the hymn, “Hail to you, lord! Freely
bestow on me substance that cheers the heart.”32 But throughout the body of the hymn, Helios is
represented through his chosen symbols: attention is drawn to his golden helmet, bright rays and
locks, rich fine-spun garment, stallions, and his golden-yoked chariot. Here his movement and
activity as part of the cosmos appears to take on its own importance, as once his chariot has
ascended into the sky, “he rests there upon the highest point of heaven, until he marvelously
drives them down again through heaven to Ocean.”33 This characterization secures Helios’s
place as one of the “deathless gods” as he is not only all-seeing but also consistent in his
Homer, Iliad 14. 344-345.
Homer, Odyssey 11.109.
Ibid, 12. 269.
Homeric Hymns XXXI.
movement across the sky; the sun is thus its own deity with a distinct personality while also a
cosmological force that expresses itself in “classic” solar symbols.
Moving into the Classical period, we find that Helios has a wide range of potential
qualities depending on what literary genre is being focused upon. For example, for major
philosophers of the period, the sun seems to have held quite an important position among gods.
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates stands in place for the duration of an entire night, only
abandoning his post once the sun had risen and he had offered prayers to it.34 And in his
Apology, we get the sense that worship of the sun was fairly widespread; Socrates, whilst
defending himself against the charge of disbelief in the gods of the state, exclaims out of
frustration “Do I not even believe that the sun or yet the moon are gods, as the rest of mankind
do?”35 His point depends upon Plato’s audience’s knowledge of the sun as a common divine
form, and thus his question is “Do you take me to be so different from you?” Helios is clearly
well established amongst the Greek gods by Plato’s time, but a closer glimpse can be seen
through Xenophon’s Memorabilia in which the sun takes a more demonstrative role. Helios
himself is not mentioned here, but Xenophon explains other gods’ natures through the figure of
the physical sun: “even the sun, who seems to reveal himself to all, permits not man to behold
him closely, but if any attempts to gaze recklessly upon him, blinds their eyes. And the gods'
ministers too you will find to be invisible.”36 The sun, even in its purely physical role, is still
held to possess properties and qualities that exemplify the divine character. It is comparable, for
Xenophon, to “the gods’ ministers” and thus demonstrates the larger conceptualization of the sun
as an omniscient moral judge.
Plato, Symposium 200d.
Plato, Apology 26d.
Xenophon, Memorabilia 4,3,14.
The sun also appears in the works of Greek tragedians, and his role is adjusted
accordingly. In Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, the sun is the “bird of Zeus”37 and is called upon
specifically to save the Danaids from their impending marriage to their cousins. Similarly, in
Sophocles’s Elektra, the sun is a force that can intervene on behalf of those it wishes to defend.
Here the chorus, upon hearing Elektra’s desire for her own death after the death of her brother
Orestes, asks “Where are the thunderbolts of Zeus, or where the shining Sun, if they look upon
these things and quietly cover them over?”38 So the sun is again closely related to Zeus, or at
least the sun’s qualities are close enough for it to be mentioned in the same breath—but most
importantly, it is once again a force to be invoked in the effort to right a certain wrong, or bring
relief to an otherwise helpless situation.
Helios clearly had a literary presence as old as Greece itself, but we can also study his
place geographically and politically through Pausanias’s Description of Greece. Written much
later in the second century CE, Pausanias’s guide was intended to be a general one and thus does
not explore intricacies of Helios’s nature as a deity. However, his books on Corinth and Laconia
are valuable in determining who worshipped Helios in later Greek history as well as his
relationship to the cities and regions themselves. In Corinth, Pausanias tells us that Helios was
part of the founding myth (originally from Athens) and was given “the height above the city”39 in
a land dispute with Poseidon, but the latter was rewarded the isthmus and thus remained
Corinth’s dominant god. Sites sacred to Helios included the Acrocorinthus40 and the former city
of the Hermionians,41 but he is again only one deity out of many who share Pausanias’s attention.
Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 213.
Sophocles, Elektra 824.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.1.6.
Ibid, 2.4.6.
Ibid, 2.34.10.
His description of Laconia provides interesting examples of Helios’s worship, for at one site the
sacrifice of horses seems to be central,42 and at another he is worshipped alongside Pasiphae,
who Pausanias equates with a non-local moon goddess.43 From Pausanias, then, we can gather
that Helios was certainly well known and established amongst the gods, but he was still
relatively minor. Regional variation in myth and ritual are also at play, for Pausanias felt the
need to point to the horse sacrifice and association with Pasiphae as unusual characteristics of
that particular group or region’s temple practices.
The literary evidence for the worship of Helios in Greece thus does not define him in
absolute terms—his nature varies with the aim of the work. What we do know about the Greek
sun god is that he was at once divinely personified and considered a cosmic force. As seen in
Homer as well as the works of later philosophers and tragedians, there is certainly a trend toward
Helios as having extraordinary sight, perhaps simply through sunlight as itself illuminative but
also personified in the god’s vision, and this then extends to Helios having astute and objective
moral judgment. The thought that these characteristics might have transferred or bled into the
Romans’ conceptualizations of the sun is not necessarily unfounded, especially as in the Hymn to
Helios we find an early mention of many of the classic solar symbols that remained in use well
into Roman Greece and beyond. But Pausanias’s notes on specific sites of temples to Helios
demonstrates that again, regional variations in ritual, character, and associations matter—the
major literary evidence is thus made up of snapshots of sun worship that show long-term trends
in overall personality, yet differences in level of importance as well as ritual.
Ibid, 3.20.4.
Ibid, 3.26.1.
As discussed already in the second chapter, the sun god considered to be the Roman
mirror image of Helios was usually divided into two categories: the native Sol Indiges and a later
oriental-inspired Sol Invictus. In terms of textual evidence, however, these associations become
less evident as our sources are rather scant and sometimes debatable in reliability. We would do
better, therefore, to take a close look at the major literary sources for the Roman Sol
chronologically and sans traditional classifications, and instead direct attention towards how it
was characterized at that particular moment in time—in particular, the context in which Sol was
brought up in discussion, his physical presence as a deity in Rome, and varying stories regarding
origin and inspiration. In this way, the diversity of his potential applications and significance can
instead be mapped and, in a sense, de-generalized.
The earliest sources for Sol place him in quite a traditional role. Varro mentions Sol in an
agrarian context in De Re Rustica, explaining that Sol and Luna should be invoked together, as
their “courses are watched in all matters of planting and harvesting.”44 Alfred Wolf’s study on
Roman agriculture in literature as it related to human values placed Sol, as well as the other
deities called upon to bring good fortune to the farm, in part of an “ancient rural guise”45 in
which simple farmers were revered as the most virtuous of men. The first book of De Re Rustica,
then, was in a sense romanticizing Roman agriculture and presenting Sol in the context of the old
Roman deities. The sustainment of farming and agriculture was seen as the sustainment of Rome
itself,46 and Sol as a deity was thus rooted in its earliest years and strongest tenants. But Sol also
appears to have a more obvious Roman personality; in the second book of Roman Antiquities, the
Varro, De Re Rustica I.1.5.
Alfred Wolf, “Saving the Small Farm: Agriculture in Roman Literature,” Agriculture and
Human Values (1987): page 68.
first-century BCE Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus gives an overview of the activities
of Romulus and Tatius and their expansion of the city in its infancy. According to Dionysius,
“they built temples also and consecrated altars to those gods to whom they had addressed their
vows during their battles… Tatius to the Sun and Moon”47 among others. This presumably
coincides with Varro’s depiction of the sun as one of the earliest deities, but in this case, Sol was
part of the very foundations of the city and thus had a distinctly political function.
Sources that mention locations for the worship of Sol are rather scarce, but we can get a
sense of its prominence from those that identify monuments and shrines. In the first century CE,
Quintilian spoke of a “shrine of the Sun, close to the temple of Quirinus”48 in his orthographic
teachings in Institutio Oratoria, perhaps suggesting that the temple and altar mentioned by
Dionysius was still in use. Similarly, Tertullian, who wrote later in the second or third century
CE, identified a temple within the Circus Maximus: “the circus is chiefly consecrated to the Sun,
whose temple stands in the middle of it, and whose image shines forth from its temple
summit.”49 And further evidence for the veneration of Sol can be found under the rule of
Vespasian in the first century. According to Suetonius, Vespasian rewarded the restorer of the
Colossus,50 presumably meaning he had some say in its new façade and dedication. We know
that the Colossus was restored to venerate the sun based on Pliny’s Natural History, which reads,
“in consequence… of the public detestation of Nero's crimes, this statue was consecrated to the
Sun.”51 By the early empire, then, Sol was not just the agrarian deity referenced by Varro,
although it is notable that he would include the sun as an integral part of Roman values such as
Dionysius, Roman Antiquities II.50.3.
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria I.7.12.
Tertullian, De Spectaculis VIII.1.
Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars VIII.18.1.
Pliny, Natural History XXXIV.18.
farming. These examples of monuments to Sol thus tell us he held a modest place in the Roman
pantheon—prominent shrines to Sol existed and he seems to have held an important position at
certain moments, but amongst a wealth of other deities.
When analyzing origins for Roman solar worship, one of the texts most relied upon by
past scholars was the Historia Augusta, which was thought to be written sometime in the fourth
century. The text is of course highly problematic, as not only the author and date are called into
question, but also the overall aim and viewpoint of the work. It would be most beneficial to
approach the Historia Augusta critically, considering whose views it truly represents and what
this meant for Sol. His varying treatment can be seen in the chapters detailing the reigns of
Elagabalus and Aurelian. The author’s attitude toward Elagabalus is clearly quite negative,
focusing on his outrageous behaviors and foreign nature, and this is mirrored in other texts such
as Herodian’s History of the Roman Empire. Herodian is sure to mention the “eastern” dress and
activity of the emperor,52 and he describes the introduction of Elagabalus’s sun god as something
strange—new—to the Romans, always referring to it as “his god” rather than the prior-known,
Roman god.53 He is sure to detail Elagabalus’s fall from grace just like Cassius Dio, who records
in his Roman History that he and his mother’s bodies were dragged through the streets in a clear
act of celebrating their death.54 What becomes abundantly clear from these characterizations is
that Elagabalus was not a popular figure amongst the Roman elite who were composing such
histories. The lower classes’ reactions to this sun god are not represented here, but those in
higher positions clearly wanted to fashion Elagabalus as foreign, his cult incompatible with
traditional Roman religion. In his study on the opinion of Elagabalus, Michael Sommer suggests
Herodian, History of the Roman Empire 5.5.10.
Ibid, 5.6.6-7.
Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXX 21.2.
that the Roman elite might have shunned his new solar deity on account of the threat it posed to
the state pantheon by promoting a monotheistic system of worship, which then had theocratic
influences in governmental policies. The conical stone of Emesa itself, venerated by Elagabalus
as the physical embodiment of his god, might have represented a sharp denial of the
contemporary Roman conception of divinity, according to Sommer.55 Whatever the source of
such contempt against the new solar cult, this Sol appears to be placed outside of Rome’s
accepted religious boundaries and thus was considered foreign—therefore we can gather that
there were both acceptable and unacceptable ways to venerate the sun in the Roman Empire.
The Historia Augusta’s chapter devoted to Aurelian is quite different in tone from that of
Elagabalus and presents his reign in a much more favorable light. It has been used by Halsberghe
and others, however, to argue that Elagabalus’s eastern solar deity still had ties to later emperors,
but this lacks evidence upon further analysis. The author of the Historia Augusta claims that
Aurelian and his soldiers, exhausted from battle, were inspired and invigorated by a certain
“supernatural agency”56 that then became known whilst visiting the Temple of Elagabal at
Emesa, where Aurelian is said to have “not only established temples there, dedicating gifts of
great value, but… also built a temple to the Sun at Rome, which he consecrated with still greater
pomp.”57 Palmyra was also mentioned in an alleged copy of one of Aurelian’s letters to one
Cerronius Bassus, if the author of the Historia Augusta is to be believed. Having been destroyed
in the pillage of the city, Aurelian specifically ordered the Temple of the Sun there “restored to
the condition in which it formerly was” as well as further embellished.58 On the surface, it
Michael Sommer, “The Challenge of Aniconism: Elagabalus and Roman Historiography,”
Mediterraneo Antico vol. 11 no. 1-2 (2008), page 588.
SHA IV.25.3.
SHA IV.25.6.
SHA IV.31.7.
appears as though Aurelian took the Syrian sun god as his own and must have then supplanted it
directly back in Rome. However, it should be noted that Elagabal is only named when
designating which temple Aurelian visited, and not mentioned again; when the author refers to
the supernatural agency and the temples built and restored, it is always in more generic terms and
lacks any mention of a foreign air, as we would expect after Elagabalus’s chapter. As no further
information was offered on this new temple venerating the sun in Rome, it is impossible to say
what its influences were; what is clear is that it was accepted as a Roman form of sun worship.
The Historia Augusta thus presents to us two characterizations of two solar cults, demonstrating
not only that Sol had a changing and evolving persona, but that he could be used by different
emperors with different effect.
One interesting textual source we have for Sol calls attention to the connections typically
made between the sun and Apollo, and may provide a different characterization based on those
relationships to other deities. The Carmen Saeculare was thought to be commissioned by
Augustus to honor Apollo as his chosen patron deity, but in fact the pair of Sol and Luna mirror
the pair of Apollo and Diana in the poem. Interpretations of what these connections represent are
highly varied; early scholarship, wishing to distance Sol from Rome and the emperor, argued that
Apollo’s association with the sun was wholly incorrect and they were rather two completely
separate deities in all aspects.59 Later studies emphasized the political agenda of Augustus that
surrounded the commission of the piece, as in G. Karl Galinsky’s analysis, which suggests that
the “Carmen Saeculare” was meant to advertise the Augustan secular games. Galinsky draws
upon the “indigenous” interpretation of Sol Indiges to connect it to the Latins, and thus the
inclusion of the paternal Sol in the poem meant that it was “a celebration to secure the subjection
See Joseph Fontenrose, “Apollo and Sol in the Latin Poets of the First Century BC,”
Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association vol. 70 (1939).
of the rebellious Latins and to make them over into loyal Roman subjects.”60 Alternately, Apollo
and Diana were figures that would appeal to the Greeks and Philhellenic Roman elite, so
according to Galinsky’s analysis the work as a whole represented the Roman tendency to accept
the gods of the conquered as their own as a political strategy. But Hijmans offers yet another
interpretation; relying upon the nature of the combinations of Apollo/Sol and Diana/Luna that
anchor the poem, Hijmans argues that they are presented in a manner that would have evoked the
concept of Aeternitas to Roman readers. They balance each other, in a sense, as Hijmans further
explains: “The sun and the moon are not unchanging—they appear and disappear, wax and wane,
and can even be eclipsed—and yet are infinitely reliable because their changes are themselves
unchanging and follow fixed patterns,” and it is in this way that they “refer to the inherently
fluctuating nature of eternal stability.”61 The “Carmen Saeculare” is obviously a controversial
work, but even if we are unable to pinpoint its precise meaning and context, it raises important
questions regarding the manner in which deities like Sol and Apollo were defined in the Roman
pantheon—namely, if they were clearly defined at all and in what ways their identity could have
been altered in their invocation with other major deities.
The major textual evidence available for Sol thus demonstrates the issues with which we
are faced when attempting to map his character and associations chronologically. The earlier Sol
referred to by Varro and Dionysius, among others, is traditional and intrinsically tied to Rome as
a political entity, but as we have seen in the Historia Augusta, solar worship was not necessarily
always considered Roman—While the historical reliability of the work can be debated, it is
nevertheless clear that under Elagabalus, elite Romans chose to place Sol outside the limits of
respectability, focusing on the foreign nature of his outlandish cult. Aurelian’s Sol was then as
G. Karl Galinsky, “Sol and the ‘Carmen Saeculare,’” Latomus (1967), page 628.
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 563.
ambiguous as Elagabalus’s was offensive, demonstrating that the circumstances surrounding
Sol’s promotion at certain moments has more to reveal in regards to his character than Sol
himself—another words, Sol was less a self-contained personality than an evolving presence that
could be called upon in various circumstances. The “Carmen Saeculare” further expounds upon
this idea, calling to attention the relationships between gods as well as how certain combinations
could invoke larger concepts not necessarily related to the gods on a singular level. Sol is thus
malleable, appearing to have at times been considered in his physical role as the sun,
representing agriculture, but also extending to traditional Roman values. At times, and often
simultaneously, he is also considered in his more mythical form, but as his components change,
Sol himself changes.
----These varied depictions of the Greek and Roman forms of solar worship do not serve to
form any all-encompassing definitions or patterns—on the contrary, what the textual evidence
disproves is the notion that any such characterization would be of use. We know that there was
probably some type of connection between the way Helios was perceived and how Sol was
fashioned just due to the general relationship between the Greek and Roman pantheon, but the
evidence is too scarce and vague to argue for a direct, measurable influence at any point in
history. Nevertheless, Helios and Sol were both considered in their cosmological roles as well as
their roles as deities. The sun was at once a physical presence (thus cyclical, dependable, and
connected to agriculture) and a personified god with its own qualities. However, when these
sources are analyzed as a whole, what becomes apparent is that the attributes of Helios/Sol vary
not just according to geography (as we saw in Pausanias’ descriptions of Corinth and Laconia),
but also according to point in time (as in Elagabalus’s Syrian Sol) as well as the overall aim of
the work he is mentioned within. Based on textual sources alone, details surrounding solar
worship are vague—it is only in combination with iconography that his functions can be better
IV. Iconographic Evidence
In addition to interpreting our scarce literary evidence for the worship of the sun in
Rome, the extensive range of iconographic material—reliefs, sculpture, etc.—should also be
addressed. As I intend to draw attention to Sol’s diversity of symbolic representation and
meaning among such depictions, a general overview of the evidence compiled in the Lexicon
Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae and its commentary provided by Cesare Letta will be
helpful. Additionally, several more specific examples should also be used to show the spectrum
of Sol’s different roles and contexts. His appearance on Roman coins will be briefly discussed in
a similar manner, first understanding the evolution of Sol’s image on coins before looking more
closely at three examples from the imperial period. It is important, however, to place
iconographic types in their own contexts and perspectives; it is necessary for one to organize
them in some way in order to properly scrutinize and compare them, but it is also understood that
the symbolic language of certain types of representations—funerary monuments, for instance—
differs greatly from that of, say, imperial coinage. Keeping this in mind, Sol’s character,
properties, and style of rendering then seem to depend almost fully upon his environment and
social, religious, and political contexts.
Overview of Sol/Helios in LIMC
The Helios/Sol entry in the LIMC can be adequately summarized by compiling major
iconographic patterns into three different categories as it concerns the present study.62 First,
according to Letta’s commentary Sol almost always appears in combination with Luna, and this
is predictably the largest section in his compilation. But Sol and Luna can appear together in
For a different focus, see Hijmans (1996) page 138. Here I am more concerned about Sol’s
broader function within the scene and variations in projection.
numerous contexts; for example, they can be depicted alone with little to no further information,
as in their simple representation on a lamp in LIMC 314. They can also appear as “attributes or
symbols” as in LIMC 325, in which they are shown in two reliefs around a four-sided base. Here
Sol and Luna are clearly visible on their own sides—Sol appears radiate, and Luna’s crescent is
in place around her head—but it also contains images of a lion, a serpent in a tree, and two
cypresses in separate reliefs on the same base. So although “attributes or symbols” sounds rather
vague, the meaning behind these various combinations of symbols is not always apparent, and
thus we classify them according to how they appear to affect Sol and Luna’s symbolic meaning.
Another important function of Sol and Luna in iconography is cosmic framing. As we
shall see in representations of the tauroctony, Sol and Luna can at times be seen in the periphery
of the scene in the upper corners, and according to the general theory as Hijmans explains it, they
“stress the cosmological character of a given representation, or symbolize its eternity and allencompassing nature…they are guarantors of cosmic harmony and the universality of cosmic
order.”63 At times Sol and Luna may be flanking the scene similarly to the tauroctony, but they
can also appear as moving across the periphery of the scene64 or on the respective ends of a
relief. For example, the sarcophagus from Santa Chiara in Naples features Sol and Luna standing
at either end, aloof and yet intentionally placed on either side of the action in the middle.65
Pushing the cosmic interpretation further, then, some evidence shows Sol and Luna with figures
of the zodiac, as in a gem that places four planets (including sun and moon) around a circle with
Hijmans, “The Sun which did not rise in the East; the Cult of Sol Invictus in the Light of NonLiterary Evidence,” BaBesch vol. 71 (1996), page 143.
An interesting example of this is LIMC 347, in which Sol and Luna appear to be riding in
opposite directions. This led Hijmans (1996) to conclude it was a symbol of cosmic chaos, and
thus other “normal” flanking representations must refer to order.
LIMC Sol/Helios 342.
four zodiac signs.66 Sol and Luna thus have highly diverse representations, ranging from simple
renderings by themselves, to interacting with other symbols and figures, to signifying cosmic
order by flanking a variety of scenes, to even participating in some sort of zodiacal episode.
One of the larger categories in the LIMC recognizes Sol’s placement in the context of the
emperor and imperial Rome. Of course, this too is widely varied, but two examples can serve to
give us a sense of what Sol’s job might have been in different scenarios. First, the Colossus of
Nero67 is listed despite no renderings being available; however Letta deduces that Nero and Sol
were indeed tied together in this statue.68 Nero is represented with solar attributes such as the
radiate crown—his personage takes on divine solar characteristics; the emperor is the sun
personified, and the sun guides him in his rule. Secondly, on a gem is depicted the emperor
Licinius in a front-facing quadriga, with Sol and Luna in the upper left and right corners guiding
him.69 Sol is holding a globe and Luna a torch, which then correspond to the globe and torch
Licinius carries. Here Sol and Luna are supporting actors, at once maintaining their own
divine/cosmic identity (whatever that may have been to the Romans of the early fourth century)
as evidenced by their privileged position, and also lending that nature to the emperor in an act of
endorsement. Sol’s function in representations with the emperors is just as nuanced as the other
categories we place him in; as with these examples, he is used in a different manner to achieve a
different result from a different audience.
Perhaps the most complicated classification is that of simply Sol represented alone (or
alone as far as we can tell). An obvious problem is the complete lack of context for many of
these entries, as many must have been part of a larger structure or artistic installation of some
LIMC 295.
LIMC 446.
Letta places much importance on the symbol of the radiate crown in his commentary.
LIMC 409.
kind; we are left with a huge variety of depictions that are not necessarily helpful in determining
any sort of collective character. But the variety can again be noted, for although we have a
general solar image “type”—perhaps standing with his right hand raised, holding any number of
objects typical of Sol such as a whip or globe—his design can also be subject to slight
differences in artistic symbolism as well as stylistic trends. In a shrine from Rome, which Letta
dates to the middle of the third century,70 Sol is depicted in his usual fashion, but he is missing
his radiate crown. A full discussion of the scholarly controversy behind the symbolic meaning of
the radiate crown is beyond the scope of this study,71 but it is important to recognize that
differences abound in the study of the iconography of Sol—even what are considered his most
basic attributes. Styles and trends are similarly important to understanding the character of
representations of the sun god; some, such as a Mithraic relief also from the third century,72 show
Sol in a frontward-facing quadriga rather than in profile. While our interpretations of its meaning
are only conjecture, it stands as an example of stylistic differences. Only with a much wider
context of its use regionally and religiously would we be able to piece its significance together,
but these slight alterations can tell us much more about the fluidity of Sol’s nature over time.
Variations in Solar Iconography
As we discussed in the chapter regarding past scholarship on the cult of Sol, the aspect of
his worship or invocation that everyone focused upon had to do with origins—Who does solar
religion belong to? What aspects of the Roman sun cult can we trace to outside sources? Is Sol
an eastern, oriental deity or is he Roman through-and-through? However, in our reading of the
LIMC 93.
Hijmans suggests that rays must have been painted on and are thus now conveniently lost.
LIMC 128.
major textual sources and overview of the iconographic evidence in the LIMC, it has proven
apparent that variance in portrayals and literary references is of more use than focusing on
drawing connections in character and symbolism between wide regions and over expansive time
periods. While, as we have already seen in the LIMC, these differences can be observed in many
different forms in Roman solar iconography, we can find two interesting examples in the figures
and symbols that accompany Sol as well as epigraphic variation according to region. Hopefully
rather than attempting to build one large identity, the characters of Sol can then be revealed in
their own unique contexts.
One of the most important indicators of Roman solar iconography is the object(s) Sol (or
Luna) is holding. These can of course vary, but some examples may serve to illustrate the main
types. We have seen that in the shrine from Rome depicting a non-radiate Sol, he is wearing a
cloak and carrying a whip in his left hand. According to Hijmans’ interpretation of Sol’s
common objects, the cloak or chlamys is just attributed to the image of the Greek charioteer73
although he can, at times, appear nude. Hijmans also connects the whip with the Greek
charioteer, but here his explanation is less convincing, as the whip is also a common symbol in
busts of Sol and many scenes without the quadriga or horses. It is seen as a solar symbol
regardless as only Sol and Luna are given the whip, however the intrinsic meaning behind it is
clearly ambiguous. The globe is also a major device related to Sol and Luna as well as emperors.
Hijmans explains that the globe represented the cosmos in Greek teaching lessons, and therefore
whoever is depicted holding the globe was meant to be the “prime mover” of the cosmos.
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 74.
Various emperors, in whose context it probably means “supreme power”, in turn used this
These sorts of objects and attributes appear consistently enough in solar iconography to
be used as indicators of Sol’s identity. For example, Hijmans draws attention to fragments of a
statue found on the Esquiline Hill in Rome whose identity is commonly assumed to be Sol, but
also raises some concerns.75 In the statue, Sol is depicted in somewhat typical fashion: nude but
for a cloak, and with a stone radiate nimbus—however, only one horse accompanies him, thus
casting doubt on his identity.76 The importance of Sol’s usual objects is demonstrated by their
omission here in this statue, for had they not been missing, they could have made his
identification (or non-identification) undeniable by modern scholarly opinion. Meaning is thus
dependent not only on Sol himself, but what is placed with him; the symbolic message is perhaps
more complex than we perceive it to be.
But to complicate matters still, the sun can also be tied into other iconographical types
altogether, and although they may not be referring to Sol himself as a specific sun god, they are
important to mention as they pertain to solar iconography as a whole. We can assume that many
of these alternate symbols probably exist, and the sun is (or is said to be) referred to via another
solar symbol that appears to be separate from the deity. The eagle and the serpent, for example,
are used in interesting ways supposedly related to solar representation. In his study on
eagle/serpent symbolism, Rudolf Wittkower claims that certain eagle statues in Syria represent
Helios, with evidence of a Hittite influence.77 The Hittites were supposedly linked to the Syrians
Ibid, page 75.
Ibid, page 113. See also LIMC 461.
Rudolf Wittkower, “Eagle and Serpent: A Study in the Migration of Symbols,” Journal of the
Warburg Institute vol. 2 no. 4 (1939), page 297.
through the Assyrians and Persians who then influenced their conceptions of solar divinity
through the popular ideas and symbolism of Zoroastrianism, in which the eagle/serpent theme
was common. Therefore, according to Wittkower, we can see representations of Helios
(Shamash) between figures of eagles with serpents in their beaks, as in the sun temple in Hatra.78
Furthermore, eagles can be found on second-century Hatrean coins as evidenced by John
Walker’s analysis. The sun god was clearly depicted on the obverse with his usual cloak and
rays, while on the reverse an eagle with outstretched wings rose within a laurel wreath.79 While
these scholars take the eagle as some sort of vague solar symbol and the eagle/serpent
combination particularly as evidence for Iranian influence, some are more hesitant. Shinji Fukai,
for example, in his analysis of Hatrean artifacts, defined the eagles present in the reliefs of the
sun temple in Hatra as guardian gods.80 He drew on the same Hatrean coins as proof; for while
Walker equated the eagle with the sun god on the obverse, Fukai assumed that this combination
must mean the eagle is a sort of protector of the city. Interpretations are thus varied here, but
clearly the sun was known to be related to other symbols beyond his representation as a physical
god or cosmic logo, and these can vary according to region and cultural influence.
Regional variation is particularly complex with Sol, as in all solar worship as a global
phenomenon. Here all of Sol’s regional identities cannot be fully examined, but we can focus on
one example to illustrate the slight alterations in character made between cultures within Rome.
An interesting altar found in Rome exhibits two inscriptions (one in Latin, and one in Palmyrene)
to solar gods Sol and Malakbel, among sculptural reliefs on four sides. George Houston’s 1990
John Walker, “The Coins of Hatra,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal
Numismatic Society vol. 18 (1958), page 168.
Shinji Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” East and West vol. 11 no. 2 (1960),
page 161.
study on the monument favored an early dating of sometime within the first century, but also
highlighted the controversy surrounding this line of thinking. Houston’s examination of the
altar’s inscriptions is nonetheless useful, as several key differences can be seen in the manner in
which Sol and Malakbel are treated.81 The Latin text is fairly straightforward, listing the names
of the benefactors “in fulfillment of a vow to (the Sun) who has earned it.”82 The “Calbienses” in
line six is here interpreted as the dwelling within which the family lived, but other possibilities
exist; regardless, this is in stark contrast to the Palmyrene text. As far as names of those
dedicating the altar, the Palmyrene inscription lists only one, followed by “…and the
Palmyrenes.”83 It omits entirely any reference to where they lived or worked, as was the
suggested meaning behind “Calbienses.” They also list Malakbel as well as “the gods of
Palmyra” separately—in the Latin inscription, only the Sun was mentioned. The end of the
Palmyrene text is also quite unusual; there is no equivalent to “To their gods. Peace!” in the
Latin inscription. These solar divinities—whether Sol, Malakbel, or “Palmyrene gods”—were
thus approached in different manner in each of these inscriptions, and they can be used to
identify regional characteristics of the sun god.
I tend to follow Houston’s main conclusions regarding the comparisons and contrasts
between the Latin and Palmyrene inscriptions of the altar; as he explains, “although these two
texts are obviously related, they are not translations of one another, but rather two different and
independent texts. This is an important point, for it means that there is no guarantee that the
Claudii who paid for this altar thought of ‘Malakbel and the gods of Palmyra’ as completely
For text and translations of the inscriptions, see George Houston, “The Altar from Rome with
Inscriptions to Sol and Malakbel,” Syria (1990), page 190 and 192.
Ibid, page 190.
Ibid, page 192.
identical with Sol Sanctissimus, although of course they may have done so.”84 It is important to
note that the Palmyrene text does clearly separate Malakbel from “the Palmyrene gods,” so there
is the possibility of a closer connection between Sol and his Syrian form, with the Palmyrene
gods left as mysterious add-ons. But despite whether these were indeed two individual texts or
otherwise, the differences can tell us much about Sol in his varying regional contexts. For
example, the odd “sign-off” at the end of the Palmyrene text may have been a typical
characteristic of the Syrian cults or to Malakbel. The different form of the vow could also be
related to the cult’s individual etiquette—the Latin inscription clearly places much more
emphasis on expressing veneration for the god, as it begins with “Soli sanctissimo sacrum” and
includes the comment about the sun meriting the dedication. Perhaps this could point to
differences in custom—variations in the manner in which the sun god was valued, such as
emphasis on verbal devotion versus an emphasis on ritualistic devotion. It is of course
impossible to know for sure, but variations within solar iconography deserve as much attention
as perceived connections.
Roman coins are a field of study in themselves of course, and by no means is this
intended to be an extensive analysis of the evidence. The most thorough compilation of coins
relevant to this study is that found in the volumes of Roman Imperial Coinage, which will
provide most of our examples here. Hijmans also offers a much neater view of Sol on Roman
coinage in his image catalog that serves as an adequate summary. By first looking at
chronological trends in issuances under both Republican and Imperial Rome, we can get a sense
Ibid, page 193.
of how the sun god was used politically over time. This will provide a foundation for then
examining Sol’s function on coins more closely under three individual emperors: Augustus,
Elagabalus, and Aurelian.85 Through viewing solar imagery on coinage first more generally and
establishing its trends, we can then focus on variations in representation under these three rulers.
Sol’s use on coinage had a distinctly political purpose, but his representation depended upon
what (or whose) message he was being used to convey.
a) Overview of chronological trends
When discussing numismatic evidence, and especially in the interpretation of various
symbols or depictions subject to stylistic trends, several issues arise. Context is always important
in any type of iconography, but here particularly so, as Hijmans reminds us that symbolic
meaning on coins was dependent upon the series as well as the intended audience.86 A coin
studied in isolation may have been part of a larger issue of coins with complementary figures, or
it may have been minted as part of a campaign including the commemoration or dedication of
other monuments. Thus our interpretation of numismatic symbolism is limited largely to the
patterns we are able to trace across time periods and reigns. Further issues come with the
symbols themselves, as Hijmans points out that coins are “not a direct reflection of Roman
society and its religious views.”87 In the same spirit of today’s currency, he characterizes
symbols on Roman coins as “the result of a complex interaction between Roman numismatic
tradition, standard imperial propaganda-themes and to some extent the specific religious or
Coins depicting Sol issued under Constantine will be dealt with separately in a later chapter.
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 458.
Hijmans, “The Sun which did not rise in the East,” page 137.
ideological messages communicated by the reigning monarch.”88 So we cannot, for instance,
take increased solar symbolism on coinage as evidence of an increased fervor in the cult of Sol—
it is, however, perhaps indicative of stylistic patterns of that particular emperor and their agenda
in regards to how they wanted to portray themselves and their reign as a whole.
We can form a general outline of the chronology of solar symbolism on Roman coins
using the RRC and RIC as well as the material compiled by Hijmans and other scholars. Sol can
be found on some Republican coins beginning in the third century BCE and appearing
consistently enough to be notable until the time of Antonius. At times Sol’s classic attributes are
seen, such as the radiate crown89 and combination with Luna. He is often in a quadriga, or
illustrated to have wavy hair. However, some differences can be noted, as in two coins from the
late second century BCE. The obverse of both coins features a bust of Roma, and the reverse a
chariot scene—however, while RRC 309 shows Sol radiate in his quadriga as usual, RRC 318
depicts Jupiter driving the chariot as evidenced by the thunderbolt in hand. Sol’s radiate head
floats above, facing Jupiter along with the lunar symbol of the crescent. These coins, while
appearing similar at first glance, place Sol in two very different contexts. While we can only
speculate as to the significance of the symbolism shown, it is apparent that Sol could at once be a
divine force in his own right (as when he is driving the quadriga) as well as a supporting member
in another scene with another deity. His placement facing Jupiter with the crescent is unusual,
but it is of course implied that his presence in this manner is either a symbol of guiding cosmic
power or solar/lunar framing of some sort. Regardless, it is clear that even in the Roman
The earliest coin known to depict Sol is a prime example of the radiate crown, as Sol is given
sixteen rays. See Michael H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1974), 150 no. 39.4, pl. VII.
Republic, Sol could appear in a variety of styles and functions that depended upon political and
cultural trends.
We find that solar symbolism seems to mostly disappear from the end of the Republican
period to the late second century of the current era. When it returns in the Roman Empire under
the Severans, however, Sol’s “type” appears to take shape; we begin to see Sol in his most
standard forms, such as standing with his right hand raised, and holding one of his usual objects
(whip, globe, etc.). Aeternitas also begins to make an appearance, typically holding the heads of
Sol and Luna as in Vespasian’s example.90 With Elagabaglus’s coin issues, we begin to notice
deliberate promotion of the sun god, especially in new images such as the black stone of
Emesa.91 After his brief reign, however, we do not see such numerous uses of Sol on coins until
the time of Aurelian. But here Sol’s imperial function seems to become more clear: on
Aurelian’s coins, not only is solar symbolism more frequent, but he also makes use of the image
of captives being trampled as well as interaction between the emperor and Sol. These types then
remain relatively constant on issuances of coins into the later empire, with another major
increase leading up to the reign of Constantine. Constantine’s coins exhibit similar themes with
slight variations, like Sol being paired with Victory more often and also the curious appearance
of the Roman military camp in the background of several late imperial coins. Fluidity of
symbolism aside, however, it is clear that Sol’s presence on Roman coinage steadily increased
with time, and as such the symbolic language of his representations must have been flexible.
The characterization of republican and imperial coinage through isolated examples is
almost impossible, but patterns in representations of Sol can still be useful in the sketch of his
C.H.V. Sutherland and R.A.G. Carson, ed., Roman Imperial Coinage vol. I (London: Spink
and Son, 1968), II. 28 no. 121.
Elagabalus’s coins will be discussed more in detail in the following section.
symbolic variations. An obvious characteristic of imperial coins as opposed to Republican
coinage is their featuring of the emperor’s head on the obverse. But while this is to be expected,
it also lends a new context to Sol and solar symbolism on the reverse; now, rather than being
paired with figures like Roma as we saw in some Republican coins, Sol is now directly related to
the emperor—he is not just a representative of Roman values and custom, but also a force to be
invoked in the name of the imperial state. Sol thus becomes a cog in the machine of imperial
propaganda, but this is not to say that “Republican” and “imperial” refer to two distinct and
easily traceable personalities, for on the contrary, Sol’s symbolic language is still dependent on
how he is used—what/who he is paired with, their symbolic meaning in various situations, the
context of the coin itself such as the series to which it belongs or the public campaign it was part
of (and we rarely have this information). What is important, however, is that Sol in
iconography—particularly in his images on coins—could be used to call forth a plethora of
different meanings, some of which may have evolved over the course of his popularity as a
divine figure.
b) Imperial examples
In the efforts to discern Sol’s evolving presence on Roman coins, a brief examination of
three major examples from the volumes of Roman Imperial Coinage may be of use. It is of
course impossible to provide here a full history of Sol as he relates to Roman numismatic
tradition, but by focusing on the manner in which Sol was used by emperors in varying periods,
we can form a clearer picture of the relationship between the sun and Roman politics. According
to Harold Mattingly, the artwork on Roman coins was dependent upon Greek inspiration,
however this is not to say that figures and symbols on the coins are thus Greek; on the contrary,
“indigenous” elements are expressed via these early artistic foundations.92 Furthermore, Roman
coins were exceptional in their portrayals of current events, especially in the early years of the
empire, and it is in this sense that Sol’s representations on coins are valuable to us as they are
snapshots of Sol’s role in relation to the state and emperor at any given moment.
Beginning with the reign of Augustus, then, it appears that Sol initially had a limited
presence on imperial coinage. He is only found on a few coins from the mint of Rome—never
the provinces—and these were issued by L. Aquillius Florus, one of three moneyers of the year
18 BCE. The obverse, upon which is the bust of Sol radiate, is considered a carryover from
Republican numismatic trends, and the fact that Florus chose Sol for his design is treated more as
a personal preference, as Mattingly argues that these Republican types mostly expressed “the
history of the moneyers”93 rather than the history of Rome as put forth by Augustus himself. For
Augustus aligns himself mostly with Apollo, as evidenced by their pairing on later issuances as
well as his use of the laurel. Florus does place some common symbols on the reverse meant to
refer to Augustus’s rule: While radiate Sol adorns the obverse, on the reverse we find wreaths, a
quadriga with ears of corn referring to Augustus’s corn distributions in the same year, Augustus
in a biga of elephants which honored his return from Eastern triumphs, and representations of
Armenians/Parthians, celebrating the military victories in the east. So while it is apparent that Sol
(at this point) was not a major figure associated with imperial victory, he was still important
enough for his bust to be considered appropriate for the obverse of quite early imperial coinage.
Sol had a continuous numismatic presence from the Republic to the Empire, but it is not
until the reign of Elagabalus that we see a clear influx of solar imagery. And not only did the use
Roman Imperial Coinage, page 20.
Harold Mattingly, Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum vol. I (London: British
Museum Publication, 1976), page cii.
of these symbols become suddenly more commonplace, but the nature of the solar deity seems to
have been redefined. This was indeed a new Sol, for it is clear that Elagabalus intended to
promote an eastern sun god rather than the classic Roman conceptualizations of Sol that we have
already seen on coins. For example, the black stone of Emesa is featured on some examples,
assigning a distinctly foreign nature to his cult. In another example, “Sacerd. dei Solis Elagabal”
introduces the god by name, thus demonstrating that this particular solar deity was previously
unknown. We do see the use of some common symbolic pairings, such as Sol holding the whip
or globe, but he is also depicted at times with a thunderbolt thought to have connections to
Jupiter. Mattingly argues that all of these symbols must have been given “fresh significance”
under Elagabalus, particularly in the case of the thunderbolt as it would have meant that “the
functions of Jupiter are now performed by the ‘unconquered sun’”94 and therefore Elagabalus
would have been interjecting his Syrian solar god into the Roman pantheon. Furthermore, the
legends featured on his coinage sometimes referred to Elagabalus himself in priestly terms as in
“Summus sacerdos,” which Mattingly tells us was chosen at the expense of “pontifex maximus”
and “marks the Emperor as supreme above all minor priests.”95 Elagabalus’s coinage thus depicts
a brief religious importation, as details like the black stone and introduction by name indicate
that this sun god was clearly Syrian, and previously unknown to the Roman people. Elagabalus
himself must have been the salesman of his deity, for he renamed himself in his epithets to
express his priestly position, but once this position was made vacant with his assassination, Sol
Invictus Elagabal disappeared from Roman coins.
The more classic forms of Sol continued in a limited number of coins after Elagabalus,
usually featuring him simply standing and holding a typical object like a whip or globe on the
RIC page 24-25.
Ibid, page ccxxxviii.
reverse. But a further example of reinvention can be found in the coins issued during the reign of
Aurelian. The sheer number of coins depicting Sol increased, but as Hijmans is quick to remind
us, this is not to be taken as increased veneration of Sol in the sense that other deities were made
less important, for of course what we call Roman religion lacked that sort of competitive
element. But it seems as though Aurelian used Sol in the same way that Augustus used Apollo—
almost a kind of patron deity, although this should not imply exclusivity. Rather, the patron deity
is deployed to convey strength in certain chosen abilities and accomplishments. Aurelian’s
choice in solar symbolism is not necessarily anything new, however it appears more strategic in
the sense of Sol’s function. For example, we see Sol interacting with captives much more often
on Aurelian’s coins, and the legend of “soli invicto” reinforced the image of Sol as his own
triumphal force which, on coinage, was then meant to exemplify Aurelian’s reign. His coins thus
point to a revamped Sol, retaining no visible eastern elements from the days of Elagabalus but
instead expressing itself more often in traditional forms.
These brief examples show that Sol’s representation on coins was, in the imperial period
at least, dependent upon the emperor’s desired image—whether corresponding to himself, his
reign, or Rome as a whole. Sol did not always have a strong presence, as we saw with the
relatively few issuances under Augustus, although he is often credited for beginning the special
veneration of the sun that culminated in the acceptance of Christian monotheism. And as
Elagabalus demonstrates, Sol could also be fashioned in a way that clashes with surrounding
customs; it is even possible to see a completely different solar personality, especially in his
representation on coins. And Aurelian’s Sol is seemingly void of this “foreignness,” accepted by
the Roman elite—he is more directly invocative of the concepts of victory, triumph over enemies
in battle, and he is closer to the emperor in terms of his legacy. Sol was thus depicted according
to the emperor’s wider political agenda; his varying image on imperial coinage shows that this
distinct facet of the solar “personality” could be further molded into whatever imperial message
was deemed appropriate at the time.
----In his discussion of iconography related to Sol, Hijmans treats the evidence as rather
straightforward—deviations from the norm may have occurred occasionally, but the larger focus
was on the overarching trends. His goal was to understand solar iconography in the long term. It
has been my aim, however, to present Sol’s images not as mostly falling into line with this or
that pattern, but rather to stress the fluidity of symbolic language related to the sun. While this
does not negate the existence of trends, it reminds us that symbols could vary in style and
meaning from one time period, emperor, or region to the next. Image functions quite differently
than text, after all, and most of the meanings we attach to these forms are no more than
conjecture. In Sol’s depiction in general iconographic forms, it became apparent that his meaning
could depend on his components such as the objects he holds—the globe, whip, etc.—as well as
other figures like the eagle, thought to have some sort of solar significance. And as the
Sol/Malakbel altar from Rome attests, regional variations in veneration of the sun as a deity
could exist side-by-side. In a somewhat separate view of Sol on Roman coinage, his image and
meaning could fluctuate according to political agenda. The most beneficial approach, then, takes
into account the malleability of solar nature.
V. Mithraism and the Cosmos
Romans’ worship of the sun seems to extend into many different arenas, be it political,
personal, or astrological (or a combination), and the cult of Mithraism is another context through
which we can examine his representation. Here I will treat the issue of Sol within the Mithraic
mysteries separately, as this role does not necessarily characterize Sol as a whole, but rather
offers a glimpse into the identities he could take on. Mithraism deserves its own discussion
precisely because of its individuality—we cannot assume that the Sol present on Mithraic reliefs
has the same attributes and symbolic meanings as those of imperial propaganda, for example, but
this does not make it irrelevant. On the contrary, the role of Sol within Mithraism as well as the
manner in which it has been dealt with in scholarship is immensely important to our
understanding of symbolic variation. The cosmos tend to take on different functions according to
which scholar one follows, and it is essential to (once again) observe what connections they
made between symbol, meaning, and identity in order to examine whether their methodology is
useful for the study of Sol. Here we will return to Cumont to discuss further speculation on the
oriental nature of the cult and its diversified doctrine relating to Sol. This can be contrasted with
the more recent work of Roger Beck, who provides us with a completely different take on
identity through a study of the cosmos within Mithraism. Through these examples, I can then
draw attention to issues surrounding methodology, and in turn provide my own argument
regarding approach. Sol is one of many different deities and symbols within this mystery cult,
but in this manner, Mithraism can be a sort of case study within the overwhelming
conceptualization of solar worship.
Cumont’s Ideas on Mithraism and Sol
Cumont’s approach in Mysteries of Mithras is typical to what we saw in his Oriental
Religions in Roman Paganism in the sense that he was essentially worried about where elements
of Mithraic doctrine and icons came from. He first supposes that Mithraism as a whole was both
Persian and Semitic; the “basal layer” was derived from ancient Iran.96 He places above this
“Mazdean substratum” influences in doctrine from Semitic sources in Babylon, then more in
Asia Minor as time progressed and the cult spread and finally adopted certain Hellenic
attributes.97 This movement of Mithraism was not a direct one, according to Cumont—The
principal agent was, of course, the Roman army, which “gladly admitted to their rites those of
their companions in arms, of whatever origin, whose aspirations the official religion of the army
failed to satisfy, and who hoped to obtain from the foreign god more efficacious succor in their
combats or, in case of death, a happier lot in the life to come.”98 But the spread of Mithraism also
depended upon the movement of Semitic peoples in Syria and elsewhere in the Near East via
trade routes connecting the Roman East to the center of power in the west. Rising from the lower
classes gradually into the Roman elite, participants in the Mithraic mysteries proved a powerful
force, according to Cumont’s narrative.99 He therefore attempts to answer the classic question of
origin, which leaves us with a hodgepodge of different influences and infiltrations.
Cumont further emphasizes this complexity when he explains Mithraism’s diversified
doctrine as a mixture of Mazdean and Chaldean components. Sol is characterized as having
Mazdean properties in that he is the supreme deity among a pantheon of gods which, mirroring
the Iranian tradition, then translate to planets and astronomical bodies in Mithraic
Franz Cumont, Mysteries of Mithras (Chicago: Open Court, 1903), page 30.
Ibid, page 31.
Ibid, page 43.
Ibid, page 61 and 81 (about the spread of Mithraism into the army elite).
representations. It is thus a mixture between theogony and cosmology, as exemplified in what
Cumont interprets as the struggle between opposing elements present in Mithraic doctrine These
“hymns of fantastic symbolism” presented themselves most clearly in the form of the four steeds
traversing the fixed circle. In Cumont’s analysis, the chariot is being driven by “the Supreme
God”100 around the circumference of the circle, propelled by four horses. The outermost (and
faster) horse symbolizes the planets and cosmos, and while Cumont is less specific about the
inner horses, he explains that the essence of each horse is transferred to the one “conquering”
steed, which is then merged with the charioteer himself. The crux of this complicated scene is
Cumont’s interpretation of the struggle between elements; the steeds are said to represent ether,
air, water, and earth, and through their battle, the defeat of the innermost horse (that which
represents Earth) symbolizes “the conflagrations and inundations which have desolated and will
in the future desolate our world,” while the victorious outer horse is the “symbolic image of the
final conflict that shall destroy the existing order of all things.”101 Here we can get a sense of
how Cumont uses Mithraic imagery to reconstruct symbolic meaning, and in the case of the sun,
it is characterized both as the highest deity (in the charioteer) and cosmological force (in its act
of driving the chariot).
But more should be said on Cumont’s conceptualization of Sol, especially in the
connections made between Sol and Mithras. Cumont himself does not seem to have been entirely
certain of the sun’s role, as its function tends to fluctuate in his work depending on which context
it is being analyzed against. For example, Cumont argues for the idea of a “double Mithras”
stemming from a combination of both Iranian and Semitic solar deities within the Mithraic
Ibid, page 116. Here we can assume that Cumont means a combination of the sun and
Mithras. Mithras’s double identity will be discussed following this example.
Ibid, page 118.
mysteries.102 Here, the sun is both identical to and distinct from Mithras—at once a cosmic body,
and also deified. However, Mithras could also act as a mediator due to his reputation for good
deeds in Zoroastrian religion, as the god of light according to the Magi, and as an occupant of the
“middle space of the planetary choir”103 in Chaldean doctrine. Cumont tells us that he could
therefore at times represent this “middle zone” between heaven and hell, a metaphorical as well
as cosmological space in which Mithras is the buffer between divine and earthly beings. Yet
Mithras takes on still more identities when considered in combination with other components of
Mithraic symbolism such as the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, whom Cumont suggests
were “naught else than the double incarnation of [Mithras’s] person.”104 The torchbearers, who
will be discussed further in light of Beck’s conclusions, are presented as complementary solar
symbols; their raised and lowered torches correspond to a plethora of different binaries in
Mithraic scholarship. Cumont uses them to construct what he calls a triple Mithras: they could at
once represent the “day star” appearing at dawn and rising into the sky only to fall toward the
horizon in the evening, as well as the sun’s movement into Taurus (signaling the beginning of
spring) and Scorpio (signaling the beginning of winter).105 Mithras is thus inseparable from the
sun in Cumont’s interpretation of Mithraic imagery, invoking a wide variety of different
meanings attributed to diverse influence in both doctrine and cosmic symbolism.
Beck and Cosmological Space
But the role of Sol within the Mithraic mysteries can be further observed in the much
more recent work of Roger Beck in his Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire.
Ibid, page 121.
Ibid, page 128.
Ibid, page 129.
Compared to Cumont, Beck’s work depends heavily on astrology and astronomy as tools to
understand Mithraic symbolism, and through this approach we can see how the sun operates in a
much more temporal interpretation. First, Beck draws attention to the mithraeum itself. He sees
the space in which the rituals and initiations were performed as crucial to the doctrine that guided
them—he calls it the Mithraic cave, the “blueprint”106 which is supposedly mirrored in every
mithraeum throughout the empire. According to Beck, the cave represented to the Romans “an
inside without an outside,”107 and he uses a certain mithraeum at Marino to demonstrate this. The
Marino mithraeum is an actual cave, and Beck sees it as a vehicle for more cave symbolism; the
tauroctony is depicted as taking place within its own cave, for example, within which is Mithras’
cloak which depicts still more cosmic images. Beck thus argues that the space of the cave
represents the universe, and within this space are more systems and universes so that “the inside
is ampler than the outside; the contained contains the container”108 in a sort of nesting doll of
cosmic symbolism.
This space is immensely important in Beck’s study, because within it he finds a complex
map of sorts. And although it cannot be fully recreated here, the main points of this spatial
interpretation are important to mention, as they reveal the methodology behind Beck’s reading of
Mithraic symbolism, especially in terms of the sun’s role. The cave can be read in several
different ways, according to Beck. He argues that Mithras “commands the celestial equator”109 at
the spring equinox in the cult niche, surrounded by the ecliptic/zodiac along the benches and the
autumn equinox opposite him. The zodiacal signs Beck associates with the benches would thus
Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford,
2006), page 112.
Ibid, page 106.
Ibid, page 107.
fall in line as the northern signs to Mithras’ right and the southern signs to Mithras’ left. But the
mithraeum is also a “hemispherical volume of space,”110 representing everything above the
equator (side-benches) although a southern hemisphere can only be imagined extending down
underneath the floor in this scenario.111 Nevertheless, Beck paints the cave as an image of the
movement of the sun, moon, and stars around the Earth outside, so that visitors to the mithraeum
could mimic in their physical movements around the room the movements of celestial bodies. It
is also important to mention that the cardinal directions function heavily in Beck’s translation of
the mithraic “blueprint.” The side-benches, for example, as shown in the mithraeum beneath the
Basilica San Clemente in Figure 1, can represent north and south with their corresponding
zodiacal signs. But in Beck’s figuration of the northern and southern hemispheres, the
intersection of the longitudinal and latitudinal lines represents Earth’s position, and as such an
“east” and a “west” appear to those standing in this spot, further mirroring the movement of the
celestial bodies westward across the sky (from Earth’s point of view). Clearly Beck’s view of the
mithraeum as an image of the universe is a multifaceted one with overlapping references, but the
positions of these bodies are what prove important to the meanings he assigns to them.
In order to understand the role of these bodies, we must also understand Beck’s
placement of the planets within the mithraeum. He uses the Sette Sfere mithraeum as evidence
for their position, as here six are neatly illustrated along the front of each bench. But noticeably
absent is the sun, which Beck places at the cult niche with Mithras, representing his place in the
equinoxes but also evoking his “privileged” place in the mysteries. The cult niche, for Beck,
illustrates “[the sun’s] place in the Platonic higher world, the world of invariance which is and
Ibid, page 110.
The side-benches are indeed interpreted as representing both celestial equator and zodiac. See
sections 11.3 and 11.4 on page 109 for Beck’s explanation of the apparent contradiction.
Fig. 1: Mithraeum at San Clemente. Photograph is my own.
does not become, the world of Eternity.”112 But something else is happening in the cave—
namely the tauroctony, which for Beck has its own astral meaning. As we have already seen, the
image of Mithras is tied up in the image of Sol, and as such they are at times equated with one
another. Beck goes even further to propose that the bull’s identity is inseparable from the moon,
or Luna.113 As he explains, “astral symbols in the tauroctony can and do function as language
signs with agreed meanings”114 and therefore the artistic depiction can be interpreted as “startalking about the interaction of Sun and Moon.”115 With this equation, then, the slaying of the
bull becomes the sun’s triumph over the moon, symbolizing the phenomenon of the new moon.
This scene can then carry over into more abstract principles like the ascent and descent of the
soul, which Beck asserts as part of Mithraic doctrine, as well as the cycle of solar victory and
Ibid, page 115.
See section B3 on page 197 for Beck’s full explanation of how he linked Luna and bull.
Ibid, page 196.
Ibid, page 206.
solar defeat. Sol/Mithras is thus the supreme cosmic body and he is the actor in Beck’s cave
universe—the symbolism follows the known paths of the sun, moon, and stars and reveals itself
in the structural layout of the cave itself.
All of this fits Beck’s description of Mithraism’s “ultimate sacred postulates.”116 Its
power is indeed a god—Mithras—who is also the unconquered sun as evident by the title Deus
Sol Invictus Mithras. There is this “harmony of tension in opposition”117 occurring both spatially
in the cave as well as symbolically, as through the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates. And,
importantly, all these ideas express themselves in motifs within the mithraeum; the meaning is
found in the images’ placement as well as their content. These conclusions are not necessarily
unlike Cumont’s; it is this approach, however—the dependency on astronomical patterns within
the blueprint of the cave—that sets Beck’s study apart. Cumont has given us a characterization of
Mithraism (and specifically Sol’s role within the mysteries) on the basis of an intricate network
of religious influences from Persia and the Semitic Near East, and solar worship is present at
many levels. Beck’s Sol is more bound to his cosmic role, but still exhibits the same multiplicity
of symbolic meaning that we were left with before.
Issues within Mithraic Study and the Case for a New Approach
Having considered both Cumont and Beck’s analysis of Mithraic imagery, we can now
turn to matters of inconsistency in their methodologies as well as some general issues that their
studies raise in the search for Sol’s individual character and symbolic effect. Here I will mostly
focus on problems in Beck’s more recent interpretation, as Cumont’s specific drawbacks have by
now been thoroughly discussed amongst modern scholars, but Cumont’s overall approach and
Ibid, page 5-6.
the subsequent theories and connections created from them can still be useful in the search for a
more meaningful question. However, Beck’s most important sources for his cosmological
interpretation of Mithraic doctrine present their own problems, and this carries over into his
multivalent conception of solar symbolism. By focusing on these issues, we can raise doubts
regarding connections spanning time and culture as well as the personality Beck attributes to Sol,
and in turn focus on the variations of character that can be of more use to the present study.
Through Beck’s desire to “withdraw that wedge between symbol and reality,”118 he relies
heavily on the information given by Porphyry of Tyre. Of course, we lack adequate source
material (beyond iconography) for the doctrine and initiations of Mithraism, so for Beck to
bridge the gap between image and meaning, he had to rely solely on Porphyry’s interpretation,
which raises some obvious issues. Porphyry, although a contemporary source, cannot provide a
full account of a cult’s rituals and symbolic meanings; we are subject to the writer’s own
perspective (regional and cultural), as with any subject within history, and thus cannot construct
a valid model based on the testimony of a single figure. To make matters worse, there is no
evidence to suggest that Porphyry was actually involved in the Mithraic mysteries—as a highly
educated philosopher who studied under Plotinus in Rome, we can imagine that Porphyry’s
knowledge of Mithraic ritual was probably more cerebral and abstract compared to the eyewitness testimony of an initiate, which we lack.
As a student of Plotinus, Porphyry is held as one of the major proponents of NeoPlatonism in the later Roman Empire, and as such we should expect that philosophy to come
through in his reading of Mithraic imagery. Particularly of interest is the Neo-Platonic “journey
of the soul,” which immediately calls into question many of Beck’s conclusions on symbolic
Ibid, page 113.
meaning. In her thesis on The Cave of the Nymphs, Nancy Hoffman summarizes this NeoPlatonic journey as “a hierarchical series of studies and contemplations” through which “an
individual could eventually achieve assimilation to the divine One, which was ineffable and
immanent, and which interacted with mortals through a process of immaterial emanation.”119
Beck clearly saw this hierarchy reflected in a number of different systems within the Mithraic
mysteries, and thus his fashioning of the cave to emphasize cosmological groups and patterns in
movement allows Porphyry’s doctrinal interpretations to be true. Hoffman further explains that
“this process consisted of divine descent simultaneous with mortal ascent resulting in an
intermingling of human and divine entities.”120 As a result, the concepts of ascent and descent
are everywhere in Beck’s mithraeum. In his cosmological view, the cave is a physical model of
the sun’s ascent and descent (whether it be the cycle of a day, a year, or seasonal), and when
combined with the seemingly overlapping figures of Mithras and Sol, this must translate to
divine ascent/descent of the soul. Beck thus worked backwards, constructing the Mithraic cave to
fit Porphyry’s Neo-Platonic ideas.
It makes sense that Porphyry’s philosophical leanings transposed themselves onto the
works and mythologies he was writing about; indeed, this was the whole purpose. Porphyry’s
analysis of Mithraic doctrine within The Cave of the Nymphs fits into a wider philosophical trend
notorious for rendering established myths in its authors’ own interpretations. Andrew Smith, one
of the leading scholars on the work on Porphyry and Plotinus, explains this tradition as a “tour de
force which probably responds to the challenge of previous interpretations of the Platonic and
Nancy Hoffman, “Mysticism and Allegory in Porphyry’s De antro nympharum,” MA thesis,
University of Texas (2014), page 3-4.
Ibid, page 4.
other versions of the myth which would have been familiar to his audience.”121 The Cave of the
Nymphs, in particular, was its own brand of Neo-platonic promotion as a Homeric hymn, as
answering “Homeric questions” was a common undertaking for ancient writers and philosophers.
Hoffman argues that by the time of Porphyry, “Homeric interpretation was a very wellestablished genre of easily-recognized conventions.”122 And the purpose of this exercise, beyond
adding credence to the author’s own philosophic school, was to bring these Homeric passages
“into coherence with a given writer’s philosophical worldview,”123 thereby making sense out of
the insensible. We cannot take Porphyry’s interpretation of Mithraic doctrine at face value, then,
and this is precisely what Beck fails to realize in his haste to utilize rare textual evidence for the
cult’s doctrine. For example, when analyzing the main cult niche that depicts the tauroctony,
Beck sees Mithras/Sol’s image there as “his place in the Platonic higher world,”124 although this
does not necessarily have anything to do with Mithraism. Porphyry was inclined to see NeoPlatonic elements in Mithraic images, and depending on his interpretation thus weakens Beck’s
whole cosmic theory on the cave’s layout, including the importance he places on Sol as the
highest divine form.
In addition to doubt regarding his sources, there is also the issue of the mixture of
symbolism in both Cumont and Beck’s attempts to make sense out of Mithraism. Cautes and
Cautopates, for example, are prominent in the mithraeums discussed by Beck, and can
sometimes represent or directly affect the sun depending on their context. But their symbolic
meaning is highly varied; Cautes and Cautopates, with their raised and lowered torches, are at
Andrew Smith, “Porphyry: Scope for a Reassessment,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical
Studies vol. 50 (2014), page 11. Here Smith is referring to another of Porphyry’s texts, but the
general trend is in line with that of Cave of the Nymphs.
Hoffman, “Mysticism and Allegory,” page 3.
Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire, page 115.
times said to indicate the sun or the moon, the vegetative cycle, or the sun’s broad movement
across the heavens. And Beck provides us with even more interpretations through his spatial
study of the cave, arguing that Cautopates’ lowered torch represents the northern bench with the
summer solstice, while Cautes’ raised torch represents the southern bench with the winter
solstice.125 He bases this on the images seen at the Sette Sfere mithraeum again, which are used
to give him a sort of orientation within the cave, but Beck also ascribes diverse symbolic
meaning to the pair. Cautes and Cautopates could “flank and define” a scene as in the tauroctony,
representing Taurus and Scorpius.126 But Beck also connects them to Gemini in the sense that
they are alternate and complementary, and in this way could denote the visible and invisible
hemispheres.127 So if Cautes and Cautopates—thought to be connected somehow to solar
symbolism—can have such a variety of different meanings, what does that then indicate for Sol’s
role? Working with such limited sources and stretching those sources to explain all Mithraeums
forced Beck to extract any and all meaning from mute iconography with the vaguely related
commentary of Porphyry. We are left with such a loose definition of Mithraism’s symbolic parts
that its doctrine (and thus the role of the sun) evades us.
Regional Variation in Dacian Reliefs
Still more issues can be found in Beck’s method by analyzing the “blueprint” of the
Mithraic cave against several examples in regional and stylistic differences. First, his use of Sette
Sfere as a universal model comes with its own impediments. The mithraeum at Ostia is certainly
valuable to the study of Mithraic doctrine, for the cosmic element expresses itself in the most
Ibid, page 112.
Ibid, page 196.
Ibid, page 202. For more meanings attributed to the torchbearers, see page 211.
obvious manner here—planets line each of the benches (thus “seven spheres”), mapping for
Beck the connections between Porphyry’s doctrine and astronomical symbolism. In fact he even
considers it the “ideal” mithraeum; Beck clarifies that he does “not mean the mithraeum that all
mithraea should have been but, with the exception of Sette Sfere, failed to be.” The “star-talk” of
Sette Sfere thus becomes the language of all mithraea; all are generalized based on what one
mithraeum appears to have represented.
Even Beck’s broader assumptions regarding the mithraeum as a cave exhibit this same
tendency towards the universality of Mithraic symbolism. As some mithraea are indeed
fashioned in caves, and Porphyry (in typical Platonic fashion) emphasizes the cave trope, Beck
argues that all mithraea must be intended as caves, even when they are freestanding structures.
The initiates, according to Beck, simply did not always have natural caves available to them; in a
sense he characterizes them as the receivers of Rome’s hand-me-downs, having to fit their cult
into whatever space they had—this then justifies the fact that they were always rectangular, as
opposed to a more cosmologically-accurate domed space. But here we run into a problem with
Beck’s interpretation, as he leaves no room for regional or stylistic differences. For example, we
know that the mithraeum at Dura Europos was not only a free-standing structure above ground
level, but according to Marie-Henriette Gates’ study, also “always intended as a religious
structure.”128 Builders of this mithraeum clearly displayed a certain choice in construction that
does not completely fit Beck’s explanation—it began essentially as a blank canvass, yet was not
fashioned out of a natural cave, was not sunken in order to represent a cave, and still exhibited
the rectangular shape that Beck thought odd enough (in terms of representing the cosmos) to
need to justify. There are stylistic differences as well, as in the paintings on the side walls which
Marie-Henriette Gates, “Dura-Europos: A Fortress of Syrio-Mesopotamian Art,” The Biblical
Archaeologist (1984), page 176.
depict seated men in Persian dress as well as hunting scenes that display a more Iranian
Mithras.129 While these scenes as well as the overall construction of the mithraeum do not
immediately point to a difference in Sol’s nature in Durene Mithraism, they demonstrate that
Beck’s blueprint is perhaps more limited than he himself believes. If doubt can be cast on his
illustration of the cave as universe in all mithraea, the meanings he assigns to cosmic bodies can
also be questioned. It is certainly not a stretch of the imagination to think that Mithraic solar
imagery and the doctrine that surrounded it could display regional variations; perhaps by
focusing on the differences, we can formulate the role of the sun in more specific terms.
One particularly interesting example of regional variation in Mithraism can be found
within Beck’s own study of four reliefs depicting the tauroctony from the region of Dacia.130 He
presents these reliefs in two stylistic pairs: CIMRM 1974 and 2000, both from the Apulum area,
and CIMRM 2001 (also from Apulum) and the Sarmizegetusa relief. Both of these pairs share
iconographical details and general layouts, but both also exhibit particularities in style that may
lead to questions regarding the sun’s role. For example, the positioning of Sol and Luna in the
second pair is worth noting, for unlike typical tauroctony reliefs in which they are placed in the
upper left and right corners framing the scene, CIMRM 2001 and the Sarmizegetusa relief
brought the busts of Sol and Luna inward. In Sarmizegetusa, Luna was moved to just above the
head of Mithras, while a depiction of the rock birth takes her typical place in the upper righthand corner. 2001 shows Sol in the raven’s usual position beside the head of Mithras, while the
raven takes Sol’s position in the upper left corner. Beck attributes these slight changes to style,
arguing that room had to be made for the rock birth, and this created its own new trend in Dacian
Anastasios Orlandos, “The New Mithraeum at Dura,” American Journal of Archaeology
(1935), page 4.
Roger Beck, “Four Dacian Tauroctonies: Affinities Within a Group of Mithraic Reliefs,”
Apulum (1985).
reliefs.131 But variations in symbolic meaning must also be considered, especially with Sol’s
movement inward. As the raven is normally considered a messenger figure,132 this switch has
symbolic consequences—Is Sol now communicating to Mithras on his own accord? Does Sol
then lose his supporting role in the framing of the cosmos with Luna? What is the significance of
the raven in the sun’s normal position? None of these questions can necessarily be answered with
certainty, but what is clear is a departure from the norms, which Beck argues should be
considered a deliberate choice by the artists of the reliefs.133
But other issues relating to solar symbolism present themselves in the two pairs of Dacian
reliefs, namely with other “complementary” solar figures. Returning to the torchbearers Cautes
and Cautopates, we can identify a major peculiarity in CIMRM 2001 and Sarmizegetusa. Rather
than depicting Cautopates with his usual lowered torch, both reliefs show two raised torches,
immediately complicating the whole conceptualization of the torchbearers as
opposite/complementary to one another. Such a broad diversity of meaning has been attributed to
the torchbearers, especially by Beck himself, but most of these are wholly incompatible with the
image of two raised torches—they cannot represent “opposing” forces like the sun/moon and
thus balance the scene, nor can they refer to the sun’s movement across the heavens as there is
no downward descent, nor can they be seen as the Gemini symbolizing two hemispheres (among
many other definitions). Beck takes the opportunity to define this different image of Cautes and
Cautopates against the same symbolic meaning he attributed to the “normal” image: he says that
in the image of two raised torches, “somehow there can be ascent without descent, waxing
Ibid, page 50.
Beck expresses doubt in this reading as it is based solely on interpretation (and I would
agree), but for our purposes here it can still serve as an example of shifting symbolic meaning.
Ibid, page 51.
without waning, life without death.”134 These are still rather vague conclusions, but it is apparent
that the sun’s role (both spatial and temporal) may have been affected by the alteration, and it
appears to have been a regional phenomenon.
This second pair of reliefs offers yet another interesting alteration in the symbol of the
lion, which Beck understands as a clear solar symbol. While the lion’s normal position in the
scene varies, it is most common in reliefs from the Rhine and Dacian areas.135 But the lions in
CIMRM 2001 and the Sarmizegetusa relief are quite strange in that they run leftwards out of the
scene while their heads turn back to look. Beck takes the lion as its own self-contained solar
symbol: “more precisely,” he says, “a symbol of the solar nature of the central power, the Deus
Sol Invictus Mithras who performs the action at the heart of the icon.” According to Beck’s
interpretation, the lion “would serve as a reminder that the power of Mithras is the power of the
Sun and that the two deities are at some level—and despite appearances—not two but one.”136 So
when the lion runs outwards away from the scene, it has a direct symbolic consequence, albeit
elusive to modern historians. For a plethora of interpretations could be applied here, none of
which could be confirmed, but if the lion is indeed so closely related to the sun, then we can
presume that Dacian Mithraism either deviated from the norm in Sol’s role and treatment in
some way or differed in their methods of expressing solar activity.
All of this points to regional differences in both iconographical representation and symbolic
meaning, and while Beck argues that it was a decision made on the part of the designer of the
reliefs, it would be unwise to attribute these changes to one individual’s personal agenda. It is
equally possible and quite likely that the artist was informed by the customs and traditions
Ibid, page 53.
Ibid, page 54.
Ibid, page 60.
around them, and simply expressed what the cult had already formulated and engrained into its
own rituals and culture. More emphasis should be placed on the choice of the group as a whole
to present the sun in these peculiar ways rather than passing over these abnormalities for the sake
of a simpler generalization.
----Beck’s study of the Dacian reliefs thus reveals that one reading of Mithraic iconography,
and specifically solar imagery within it, does not correspond to all Mithraic cults. Sol’s character
is complex, as he is clearly a major deity and force within the cult, yet his placement and context
seem to be highly varied. We must also remember the Romans’ relationship to the images
themselves; Hijmans reminds us that “the ‘message’ was itself visual and experiential without
there necessarily being a detailed verbal counterpart. Recipients of such messages visualized and
experienced rather than verbalized them.”137 So although the precise meaning is still hidden from
us, Sol and his related figures like the torchbearers and lion acted in different ways according to
regional custom. We can thus find in these variations of Mithraic solar representation a glimpse
into the problem of characterizing sun worship in Rome; any study of the sort must give more
precedence to geographical and cultural disparities as well as changes over time.
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 179.
VI. Sol Invictus in the Late Empire
The emperor Constantine and his supposedly special veneration for the sun deserves
separate attention not necessarily because he used Sol in some entirely new way, but because his
relationship with the Roman sun god is commonly held as the precursor to the acceptance of
Christian monotheistic ideas. By looking at Constantine’s characterization and use of Sol in a
political sense through his buildings and monuments as well as coins, it will be possible to assess
Sol’s role in imperial propaganda. Turning then to major literary works of the later imperial
period, we can begin to see more clearly how the argument connecting Sol to Christianity took
hold in scholarship and popular opinion, and details such as the equation of Christmas to a solar
celebration can then be dealt with. Sun worship is, again, more nuanced than former studies have
suggested; Constantine’s Sol is prominent and strong in his victorious imperial image, but this
does not necessarily translate to monotheistic tendencies we know came afterward, and thus are
inclined toward when considering the issue. Rather than drawing sweeping conclusions on
ideological influence, we should instead focus on the solar role as it appeared in its own right.
Constantine’s Sol: Coinage and Monuments
While coinage should not be relied upon fully to illustrate any particular emperor’s
attitude toward the gods, Constantine’s coins are still worth noting due to their reflection of
certain trends in imperial propaganda. For the number of coins depicting Sol began to increase
even before Constantine, and he seems to have grown into a more specific role in terms of
imperial symbolism. Erika Manders, in her study on imperial coinage, suggests that this sudden
influx of solar imagery was due to an increase in internal and external threats and a general
weakness of the empire in the later third century.138 She also draws upon the Codex
Theodosianus to pinpoint how the emperor’s image was received, as it includes a passage
explaining that the size of the emperor’s image does not affect the coin’s value.139 The fact that
such a correction needed to be made suggests that the emperor’s representation on coins was
rather powerful—if a common Roman could have mistaken a large image to mean high value,
that image must have been perceived as intrinsically related to the emperor’s greatness in
Constantine’s time.140 The figures chosen for the reverse, then, had important things to say
regarding the emperor’s reign and legacy.
It appears that Constantine was continuing a trend of featuring solar iconography on
coins. When taken as a group, many of Sol’s representations followed already existing patterns;
for example, Sol was often paired with Victory, and captives made their appearance on a number
of different issuances in typical imperial fashion.141 However, we also see more interaction
between Constantine and Sol, as in their busts facing one another in (EXAMPLE NEEDED) and
the crowning of Constantine by Sol in (EXAMPLE NEEDED). So Constantine’s coinage does
place significant importance on the figure of Sol, but it is necessary to remember that this does
not mean Sol was promoted above any other deities. Hijmans attributes the notion of emperors
elevating certain gods to “Christianizing assumptions,”142 pointing out that all emperors tended
to associate themselves with certain divine personalities—Augustus with Apollo, for example.
Therefore what appears to be Constantine’s special veneration for Sol was in fact more related to
Erika Manders, Coining Images of Power: Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors
on Imperial Coinage (Leiden: Brill, 2012), page 21.
Codex Theodosianus 9.22.1.
Manders, Coining Images of Power, page 34.
Based on chronology of RIC as well as Hijmans’s catalog of images in his “Sol: The Sun in
the Art and Religions of Rome.”
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 611.
his own image; as Hijmans explains, “The deployment of image types [sol] on coins was not
about Sol and his cult, but about the emperor and his reign. The message was not that the
emperor wanted the viewer to personally forge closer bonds with Sol, but that the viewer should
respect the emperor as one with close ties to the divine sun.”143 Coins that depict Sol thus do not
reflect his inherent character as a god, but rather his essence and attributes are mingled with the
emperor’s legacy.
Another angle from which to view Constantine’s treatment of solar iconography is
through his building projects. Constantine was known to have been repairing sections of the
stands at the Circus Maximus, constructing a major basilica and a bathhouse on the Quirinal, and
a number of statues were devoted to him.144 However, the Arch of Constantine serves as a
particularly telling example of Constantine’s use of Sol to convey certain themes in imperial
propaganda. We can begin to understand this complex monument through its overall
symbolism—the arch was, in fact, a “patchwork” of sorts—combining past victories with the
present and weaving the power of former emperors into Constantine’s own reputation. Dedicated
to Constantine by the Senate and people of Rome as attested in the attic inscription, the arch
placed together remnants from past monuments (or spolia) built in honor of Trajan, Hadrian, and
Marcus Aurelius.145 In many of the reliefs, including the roundels originally dedicated to
Hadrian, Constantine has quite literally been placed into the scene, as his head has been fastened
onto the former emperor’s body; in the context of battle scenes and associations with Victory,
Ibid, page 612.
For a more in-depth description of the arch and its components’ origins, see Mark Wilson
Jones, “Genesis and Mimesis: The Design of the Arch of Constantine in Rome,” Journal of the
Society of Architectural Historians vol. 59 no. 1 (2000).
Constantine is thus celebrated for his military triumphs.146 Sol and Luna are represented in tondi
on the east and west sides of the monument, and Sol is also present in battle scenes with
Constantine. Figure 2 shows the roundel in which Sol rises in his chariot, mirrored on the
opposite side of the monument by Luna in another roundel. The placement of Sol is thus related
to Constantine’s promotion of imperial victory propaganda, both framing the piece with Luna
and supporting the emperor’s victory in battle.
Fig. 2: Sol rises in his chariot on the eastern façade of the Arch of Constatine.
Photograph is my own.
The wealth of symbolism in the artwork of the arch itself is not the only perspective
through which Sol is utilized in connection with the emperor, for by the time of Constantine the
Colossus had been reverted back into a representation of Sol. And it was not just his form, but
also his placement spatially in relation to the arch that tells us how Sol is to be read. According
to Elizabeth Marlowe’s study, the Colossus would have stood just north of the arch between the
Specifically the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which the attic inscription seems to refer to.
Temple of Venus and Roma and the Flavian Amphitheater.147 So as spectators approached from
the south along the Via Triumphalis, the Solar Colossus would have risen perfectly from beneath
the arches, further reflecting the already obvious exaltation of Sol on the arch itself and the
nearby temple dedicated to him. The Arch of Constantine and the juxtaposition of the Colossus
thus nicely demonstrate the complexity of iconographic forms of Sol and their ability to be
morphed into the desired symbolism. Constantine was focused on impression, both in his
monuments and in his coins—tying his personality to Sol, while not raising him above other
gods in value, allowed him to use the solar symbol as one for imperial victory.
Sol: A Monotheistic Force?
It has become quite a popular trend within scholarship to argue that this later solar
personality—Sol Invictus—played a direct role in introducing the idea of monotheism into the
minds of Romans, so that Christianity then had a platform upon which to grow. Halsberghe, for
example, goes so far as to say that at the time of Constantine, “Deus Sol Invictus formed the
centre of all religious life”148 and thus he was elevated above all others. And indeed, many of our
textual sources from the fourth and fifth centuries seem to portray the sun as an all-encompassing
force; Macrobius’s Saturnalia, for instance, placed the sun at the very top of the divine
hierarchy. He argues that it must be “divine reason” that caused the sun to be the epitome of all
the gods, as it alone orchestrated the movements of stars and planets and thus “we have to admit
that the sun, as directing the powers that direct our affairs, is the author of all that goes on around
Elizabeth Marlowe, “Framing the Sun: The Arch of Constantine and the Roman Cityscape,”
Art Bulletin (2006), page 225.
Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, page 167.
us.”149 So Macrobius’s Sol had more of a cosmic function that then led to his divinity. Similarly,
Julian’s “Hymn to Helios” seems to put forth an image of the sun as a kind of mediator between
the divine Sol and the physical sun.150
However, it is important to place these texts in their rightful chronological context, as by
the time writers like Macrobius and Julian were considering these ideas, Christianity was well
established, and the popularity of Neo-Platonic ideas at this point no doubt spurred the tendency
to group gods together and see one as representative of many (as seen in Julian). To rely on them
as objective accounts of the nature of later imperial sun worship would be undoubtedly foolish,
for we would be imposing our prior knowledge of the religious patterns and ultimate “winners”
onto our own conceptualization of Sol. Being so far removed from the values of what we call
“traditional Roman religion,” we must be careful not to approach the monotheistic question from
an already Christianized frame of mind; writers like Macrobius and Julian may give us some
valuable information as far as the sun’s relation to other deities in its latest form in Rome, but
they do not characterize solar worship as a whole. Additionally, Hijmans points out that these
texts themselves were outliers, “exceptions to the rule of regular, ephemeral religious
expression” and thus rather than illustrating for us broad characterizations, the text is rather an
“individual, one-time actor on the long-term stage that is set (for us at least) by the tradition,
range, and arrangement of our visual sources.”151 Macrobius’s Sol is thus limited to a certain
period as well as certain ideologies, reflecting a pagan view heavily influenced by contemporary
Christian ideas.
Macrobius, Saturnalia I.17.2.
Julian, “Oration Upon the Sovereign Sun. Addressed to Sallust,” trans. Emily Wilmer Cave
Wright, The Works of the Emperor Julian vol. I (1913), page 138-140.
Hijmans, “Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome,” page 618.
A common line of argument in the debate on the origins of monotheism in Rome ties Sol
Invictus to December 25th, the traditional date of the winter solstice, and the Christian
celebration of the birth of Christ. An immediate problem arises, however, in the complete lack of
evidence prior to Christianity for any celebration of Sol on December 25th. The imperial fasti
make no mention of it, and the feast days for Sol that they do record in August, October, and
early December are unrelated to the sun’s cosmic events.152 Julian is in fact the only one who
refers to any solar celebration on the solstice,153 but as his whole agenda is to convince readers of
the ancient and embedded customs of his pagan cult, it is perhaps more tempting to ask why
Julian needed to try so hard to convince them. It is, however, still possible that some sort of
celebration did occur just on account of the significance of the solstice itself. Hijmans notes that
there seems to be evidence for increased interest in the sun’s cosmic activity and movements
through Roman calendars’ use of planetary weeks as well as zodiacal representations; it is
therefore possible that the sun at certain points could have been treated purely as an astronomical
entity rather than its divine counterpart.
Other evidence for solar influence on the date of Christmas comes from Christian sources
such as the De Pascha Computus, whose anonymous author referred to the birth of Jesus as the
same day as the creation of the sun.154 Eventually the Nativity was connected with Jesus’s
baptism, resulting in varying traditions with the Theophany/Epiphany, but we see a lateDecember date chosen by the end of the fourth century in the orations of Gregory of
Nazianzus.155 Clearly there is no map here to follow regarding which tradition was in place first
or who influenced who—Christian writers did, however, make much use of the solar trope when
Ibid, page 588.
Julian, “Oration Upon the Sovereign Sun. Addressed to Sallust.”
De Pascha Computus, XIX.
See Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XXXVIII, which was given on December 25th.
referencing Jesus,156 and we know that the sun was revered amongst some Christians as late as
the fifth century, when Leo I felt the need to preach against those who worshipped the rising sun
in St. Peter’s.157 We have no way of knowing if this was a continuation of the cult of Sol
Invictus, a general recognition of the sun in its purely cosmic form, or perhaps an entirely new
formulation of the sun closely tied to monotheism that was both derived from and influenced by
emerging Christian ideas.
----We are left with the sense that Roman solar worship in the late imperial period underwent
significant changes in expression, although sometimes it is unclear whether Sol is the actor or the
acted-upon in terms of influence. We saw that Sol was already gaining popularity as a figure
used on coins before the reign of Constantine, but through his subsequent coinage and
monuments, seemed to solidify the solar identity as purveyor of imperial victory and triumph
over foes of Rome. The cult of Sol in a religious sense thus had little to do with Constantine’s
invocation of the sun personified; the iconography places Sol in relation to the emperor’s image,
and thus he is used to define and project Constantine’s legacy. Alternatively, this elevation in
solar visibility is used to argue for connections between Sol Invictus and the monotheistic ideas
that soon after found their place in Roman religious tradition. But Sol was simply never
fashioned in a manner that would suggest he was to be elevated above all others—Constantine
may have emphasized a solar connection, but this did not displace other divine personalities.
Furthermore, we must not read Christianized sources like Macrobius and Julian as objective
portrayals of the solar form in the late empire, as the foundation had already been laid for them
For example, in Mark 16:2, the women go before the tomb “when the sun had risen” to find
that the son had also risen.
Leo I, Sermon XXVII: On the Feast of the Nativity.
to see many gods in one and vice versa. Sol’s role in the later imperial period is thus as
ambiguous as the rest of his history; we can gather that at the time Constantine came to power,
Sol could be used in iconography as a component of propaganda, mingling with Victory and the
emperor. We can also tell in its combination with Luna that the sun still held a cosmic,
astronomical significance (either separate from his divine personality or fused together, or
perhaps both at different times). To present the cult of Sol as a precursor to Christianity is to
ignore the symbolic language of his representations in favor of a “neat” explanation for what we
know came next.
VII. Conclusion
Former approaches taken to the study of Sol have led us nowhere in truly understanding
him as a deity and what forms he took in iconography. We began with the most obviously
skewed nineteenth-century dialogue facilitated by Wissowa and others which clung to
contemporary ideology over objective analysis and thus always placed the sun god outside of
Rome—either directly transposed from the Greek Helios or, in the imperial period, an oriental
construct. But that initial focus on precisely where Roman sun worship originated, as
problematic as it was, continued on in a pattern throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first
centuries. Cumont’s reversal of the discussion to center upon an eastern source certainly
provided us with valuable material, but we are left empty-handed when his arguments are
compared to the source material. Halsberghe attempted a thorough sketch of the imperial Sol
Invictus (still separated from the Republican Sol Indiges), but similarly falls short in his reliance
on unreliable material as well as his haste to draw connections between solar religion and
monotheism. And even Hijmans’s extensive and meticulous study that refutes all of those claims,
which I have made use of quite frequently, still follows in their footsteps in the sense that he
aims his research toward determining to whom Sol belongs.
Even after over a century worth of analysis, we are still left with what we perhaps already
suspected—that the figure and character of Sol could actually be seen as multiple Sols when
considered in different regions, artistic and political contexts, and points in time. Based on the
evidence we have for the earliest form of Sol, supposedly taken from Helios, he was considered
thoroughly Roman and thus was; but Sol Invictus Elagabal, for instance, was portrayed on
coinage as well as in the biographies as having uniquely eastern attributes—not to mention that
the Roman elite chose to outline him in this way, and must therefore be considered a direct
influence as nothing suggests otherwise. But there is no basis for the concept of a neatly divided
Sol Indiges and Sol Invictus nor the latter’s eastern character, especially as nothing suggests that
any emperor outside of Elagabalus had anything to do with his Syrian solar god in Rome. We
must therefore reject the popular yet flawed conceptualization of Roman sun worship as one
homogenous entity that underwent sweeping, uniform changes in favor of one that takes into
account the complexities of solar expression and strives toward no narrative.
This is of course not to say that trends in Sol’s representation do not exist, as I have
shown throughout my examination of solar imagery and literary themes. My aim has not just
been to explain why past approaches were inadequate, but also to illustrate the variety of
symbolic forms Sol could take throughout his history in iconographic representation. Sol,
especially in his combination with Luna in the flanks of a scene, could often be construed as a
cosmic force rather than as his own self-contained divinity. Even in texts such as that of Varro,
Sol’s cosmic function is important within the subject of agriculture. But we know Sol was a deity
in his own right, as plenty of temples and shrines were dedicated to him in Rome and thus he
must have had a moderate place amongst gods. Mithraic iconography appears to draw upon both
roles—Sol was represented as his own divine being, yet also one with Mithras and a cosmic
force. And in the later imperial period, Sol was used by the emperor to construct his own
victorious identity, both in coins as well as in building projects and games. So the image of Sol
certainly did not have a single intrinsic meaning, nor did his characterization by each of the
ancient authors exclude his other roles elsewhere. Understanding Sol’s role in any particular
scene depends on one’s ability to read the Romans’ symbolic language—Sol is not necessarily
himself but often rather his chosen essence in relation to every other symbol involved and their
wider context.
Scholarship has thus sought to simplify a phenomenon far too intricate in social and
cultural meaning to be distilled down to one narrative. Questions regarding origin of ideas are
tricky if not impossible, and in the case of the study of Roman sun worship, they are useless in
determining Sol’s importance and role in the broader conception of divinities. We would do
much more informative work by focusing on variations within solar religion, whether that be in
regional, contextual, or symbolic evolution over time. Just in this brief discussion of Sol within
the literary and iconographic evidence of Republican and Imperial Rome as well as solar
symbolism within Mithraism, we have seen the multidimensionality of the sun as a personality
and symbol as well as fluctuations in his role and significance in Roman society and politics. It
would therefore benefit us to explore the peculiarities and variations of Sol and leave the
questions surrounding ethnic origin unanswered. As a global phenomenon, solar worship cannot
be reduced to any one characterization, and influences do not determine identity. In the case of
Sol, better questions can be formed based on regional, cultural, and political context in order to
de-generalize sun worship’s narrative in Roman history.
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