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Sol Invictus:
Encounters Between East & West in the Ancient World

[1]2,563 words

Translation anonymous, edited by Greg Johnson

Franz Altheim’s latest book, recently published [Der unbesiegte Gott: Heidentum und Christentum (The Unconquered God: Heathenism and Christianity) (Hamburg: Rohwolts Deutsche Enzyklopädie, 1957)], should be of special interest to the readers of this review, for it deals with a significant encounter between the ancient civilizations of East and West.

It is a study of the political and religious conditions in the late period of the Roman Empire, a period which has not yet been thoroughly studied. It is usually slurred over as the period of Roman decadence, but it was really one of the most interesting periods of ancient history with its violent contrasts of light and shade; there was something demoniac about it; passions and ideas were driven to extremes, exceeding human limits, with every now and again flashes of religious radiance illuminating the most turbid, tragic, and problematic situations.

In his new book, which is lucid, acute, and brimming with information, Altheim explores this world, following the clue offered by sun worship and its fortunes. The starting point is in the East, but this book deals not with the ancient Egyptian and Iranian forms of the solar cult but those of a later period which had its center in Syria (the Land of the Sun according to an ancient conventional etymology), that is to say, with the cult of Helios of Emesus.


Sol Invictus crowned with a diadem of sun rays

Another of the misused formulas that we find in the historiographers of late classic antiquity would have us believe that Rome had been “Asianized,” had given up her most genuine traditions, and had gone over to foreign cults, customs, and deities, most particularly Asian and Afro-Asian. That a foreign element had penetrated into Rome certainly cannot be denied; the penetration had indeed begun in the 3rd century BC.

But one of the leading theses that Altheim repeatedly asserts in his work on the history of Roman religion, is that we should not seek for the specifically Roman element in the particular and narrow native traditions of the early days, but rather in the specific and original character that Rome stamped on all that she gradually took over, thus conferring on it a higher significance. Often indeed the encounter with an exotic element served Rome as an incentive to vivify her own forms.

This also is noted by Altheim in the case of the solar cult. It was no mere nature cult, as was supposed by a history of religions that has now been to a great extent surpassed, and which we need not discuss. The ancients did not adore the stars as such, i.e., as physical realities, but as symbols of sacred, spiritual powers. Though mingled with spurious elements, the sun god, thus understood, had been the object of widespread worship among the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in the late period of the Empire this cult had gradually penetrated the world of Roman civilization. Septimus Severus had already begun to raise such figures as Serapedes, Heracles, Dionysus (the two latter in their non-classical form) to the rank of gods of the Roman State, identifying them by analogy with traditional Roman deities. After him, Caracalla was the first to style the sun god as invictus. Ten years later this god was to become the chief divinity of the Empire.

The first phase of this penetration was, however, characterized by violent and turbid incidents connected to the Emperor Heliogabalus, whose very name was that of a Syrian solar deity. He tried to introduce the cult into Rome in its more spurious and aberrant oriental forms. He appointed himself as the high priest of the cult and officiated in ways that could not but give rise to violent reactions among Roman traditionalists. And with the downfall of Heliogabalus this first phase came to an end, and it would seem to have been nothing but an extravagant interlude.

But Rome of that age felt more and more keenly the need of strengthening and defending herself, on the spiritual, intellectual, and religious plane, just as she had done on the political and military one. This was also connected with the struggle against the advance of Christianity. Hence the sacrum studium litterarum, of which Macrobius speaks, understood as a return to the classics to assure the spiritual renewal of the Empire. This was the path by which, after the first reaction had died down, the solar god was to reappear and become the center of a new kind of theology of the Empire, the spiritual environment being, moreover, prepared by Neoplatonic speculations and by writings that had spread far and wide, such as the Aithiopica of Heliodaurus of Emesus.


Sol Invictus (upper left) and Mithras slaying a bull, 3rd century, Vatican Museum

Thus we find solar symbols appearing more and more frequently on Roman coins and ensigns. Deus Sol Invictus are the words that always recur. The radial crown of the Emperors is a solar symbol. At last, with the Emperor Aurelian, the cult of the Sun God takes its place in Roman public worship, though purified in a way that reveals the original formative power of Roman civilization, of which we have already spoken.

Under this influence the solar divinity loses those spurious and equivocal Syrian features and is invested with a Roman and Olympian form, that of the deity most characteristic of the pure Roman tradition, Capitoline Jove, Jupiter optimus maximus. Unlike his Asian antecedent, this divinity is no longer surrounded by goddesses, no longer copulates, has no offspring, has fewer relations with the physical symbol of the sun as an entity that rises and sets.

The symbol is above all a luminous spiritual abstract one of power at the center of the universal Empire of Rome, whose leaders it consecrates and invests. The priests of this cult are no longer strangers brought over from Syria (as Heliogabalus attempted) with their unseemly, even orgiastic ceremonies; they are Roman Senators who form its college placed on the same footing as the austere one of the Pontifices. Finally, the symbolic birth of the God at the winter solstice, characteristic of all the oriental solar divinities, becomes the official Roman festival of 25th of December (the Natalis Solis Invicti, the Roman precursor of what was to become the Christian Christmas); and it was decided that every four years, on that day, a great and brilliant gathering was to be held in honor of the Invincible God, the god both of the Empire and of the Imperial Armies.

While Altheim has duly followed all these developments, there are perhaps two points to which special attention should be called.

The first is the connection that existed between the solar theology of the Empire and the Mysteries of Mithra. The epithet Invictus was also applied to the symbolic figure of Mithra, whose cult spread widely in the Roman Legions. This reference is important as it enables us to to penetrate into the deeper, inner meaning of that attribute. Invictus is the sun understood as the light which each morning triumphs over darkness, and in the realm of the mysteries this symbol was transferred directly on the spiritual plane to the initiatic ceremonies through which the initiates participate in the nature of Mithra as expressed by this symbol. Thus the outer cult of the Emperor, and the solar attributes ascribed to him, acquired, in principle, an inner counterpart which in its higher sense was spiritual, related as it was to the world of the Mysteries and to the experiences proper to that world.

The second point has a more general bearing. In his previous works on the history of the Roman religion Altheim has called attention to the error committed by those who would oversimplify talking of the “Hellenization” of the Roman religion after its Italic origins. He has shown that the “Hellenization” in its more important aspects, more particularly those connected with the reception of the great Olympic divinities, was more in the nature of the revival or reintegration of a very ancient common inheritance which, among the Italic peoples had often been obscured and debased by the influence of the cults prevailing in the pre-Indo-European Mediterranean world.

In the case of Rome, instead of referring to Hellenization as a mere passive estrangement, one should rather speak of a return to original sources through Greece, following a line of continuity, and in many cases of a passage from potential to actual, from germinal and uncertain to fully developed forms. Rome received and took to herself Greek divinities because she found in them more perfect expressions of religious intuitions that already formed part of her inheritance, although in more confused and incomplete, we might almost say mute, forms. These are Altenheim’s original views of Hellenization, which seem to us to a large extent correct.


Christ represented as Sol Invictus, detail of a vault mosaic in the Mausoleum of the Julii, Rome, Italy, mid-late third century

Now, it seems to us that something similar may be noted in the case of the solar cult of late Roman antiquity. We find, moreover, valuable material in support of this assumption already in Altheim’s book. The special references to the Sun god of Emesus should not make us forget that, on the one hand, the Syrian cult was only one particular expression — a particular Erscheinungsform — of a spiritual orientation that took many other shapes, all of which lead us back — some in metahistorical and morphological, others however in historical terms — to one primordial tradition, from which they originate. This is why, as has been noted and is well known, the ritual date of the winter solstice, as being that
of the birth of light, or of the new light, belongs to a vast and widely ramified cultural cycle, carrying us back even to Hyperborean prehistory.

Now, it is really just this last point which has been touched by Altheim when dealing with the Illyrian Emperors, and above all with Aurelian. Referring to the imperial solar cult, he shows that this Emperor selected many symbols formerly pertaining to all the most ancient Nordic tradition: symbols found also in pre-Roman Italy (those found in the Val Camonica are of special importance) and which Altheim in other works of his has been able to connect with the migratory waves of those who were to be the distant progenitors of the Latins, that is to say of the future founders of Rome.

Following this line of thought, i.e., following the threads of these virtual and real convergences, we are led to a truly significant hypothesis. May it not be that the imperial solar cult, instead of being an imported Asianized form, represents the revival of a primordial tradition? And just as it affirmed itself in Rome at that period as a State cult, this worship possessed an Olympic purity and dignity of its own, no longer to be found in the residual local cults scattered over the Near East and elsewhere. No one will fail to grasp the importance that such an interpretation would have for the universal significance of ancient Rome. It is one, moreover, which we have had occasion to suggest, as part of a wider context, in a book of ours.

Another point that Altheim takes into direct consideration is no less interesting. It is the relation of the Romanized solar cult with the earliest forms of Christianity, to which the subtitle of his book refers.


Roman medallion depicting Sol Invictus (left) and the Emperor Constantine

It is a fact that the image of a divine solar sovereign had a decisive influence on Constantine himself, the Christian Emperor. On this matter Altheim has brought together documentation that is little known. Constantine preserved in a large measure the symbols of the previous solar cult. Until 317 the Sol Invictus appears on the imperial coins of Constantine, even though we see on them also the image of the Sovereign bearing the labarum with the Cross. The Sol Invictus and Victoria are represented on the labari carved on the Arch of Constantine itself in Rome, and so forth. It is as if the last of the great pagan conceptions were carried on into Christianity says Altheim.

For our part we would recall that, apart from Constantine, images of the Roman period exist in which the Crucifix itself is surmounted by solar symbols. Altheim notes, however, that a change in outlook was now taking place. Now the solar symbol occupies only a subordinate position. The Sun God is no longer the Supreme, the sovereign God of the Universe, whose reflection is the imperial universality of Rome. He has become subject and servant to a loftier divinity, the God of the Christians. Altheim thinks however that he can point to a pagan antecedent of this new presentation, for in the speculations of the Neoplatonists, and most especially of Porphyry, the sun no longer represented the supreme principle. The sun is indeed a dominator and a celestial hypostasis, but subordinate to the One; it is the mediator between the One and the manifest world.

To us, however, it does not seem that we are justified in speaking of a real antecedent of the concept adopted by the Christian Emperor, nor of decisive influences exercised by Neoplatonism (Porphyry and Plotinus were among the declared and conscious adversaries of Christianity). A clear distinction should, indeed, be drawn between the point of view of ritual symbolism and that of metaphysical speculation. Only from the first of these points of view could the sun take its place in worship as the supreme principle, for it was considered only as a symbol, and the real reference was to the sovereign and abstract principle of pure light. Very different is the situation in the case of speculations that develop into a cosmology, as did Neoplatonism, in which the matter at issue is a system of the world, and the sun takes its place in a cosmic hierarchy under symbolic aspects differing from those relating to its cult as bearing a closer analogy to the real celestial Being.


Statue of Liberty wearing the diadem of Sol Invictus

Thus if relics, one might say echoes, of the “solar” spirituality existed in primitive Christianity (just as the first Patristic writings, more especially the Greek, preserved many notions proper to pagan mysteriosophy) one cannot speak of continuity. Rather a contrast was to grow between two worlds, two visions of life and of religion As the final manifestation of that power Rome had of stamping a shape of her own on what was foreign to her — the power of which Altheim speaks — one may, at most, point to the phenomenon of the Romanization of early Christianity in several aspects of Catholicism. It was thus that Dante was able to speak of the Rome for which “Christ is a Roman.” But even so the antithesis, more or less latent, still existed. It was to make itself clearly manifest in the Middle Ages of the Ghibellines, in which, among other things, it is interesting to note the reappearance, here and there, of “solar” symbols in the attributes and emblems of the Imperial Party.

Source: East and West, vol. 8, no. 3 (1957): 303–306