Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

December 25 2006

Professor Baynes’ conjecture that Constantine transcended the worship of Sol Invictus by identifying Sol with Christ would appear to be supported by the well-established fact that in the calendar of the Christian Church the celebration of Christmas was deliberately assigned – at some moment in the reign of Constantine’s son and immediate successor Constantius II – to the 25th December; for this date had long since been consecrated to the celebration of the Natalis Invicti, and its identification with Christmas Day was an act of ecclesiastical policy which directly contradicted and reversed the Church’s previous rule of avoiding the celebration of Christmas on any date that was already associated with the worship of a pagan divinity.

Christmas has also taken elements from the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule.

The reference is to “Baynes, N. H.: Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (London 1929, Milford)”. Baynes is the “modern historian” I referred to here.

Wikipedia: “The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’. The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-274); and Mithras, a soldiers’ god of Persian origin. Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday.

“December 25 was also considered to be the date of the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma. It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be ‘unconquered’ despite the shortening of daylight hours. (When Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar in 45 BC, December 25 was approximately the date of the solstice. In modern times, the solstice falls on December 21 or 22.) The Sol Invictus festival has a ‘strong claim on the responsibility’ for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus. ‘O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born … Christ should be born,’ Cyprian wrote.”

We are reminded there that the Imperial cult of Sol was first introduced, not by Aurelian, but half a century earlier, by Elagabalus. The wildly unconventional Elagabalus, a variant of whose name is Heliogabalus, was Syrian. His Sol Invictus was really the Syrian Elah-Gabal. Aurelian was Illyrian, not Syrian, but his Sol Invictus became again the head of the Roman pantheon. The cult was suspended with the conversion of Constantine, but revived under Constantine’s pagan nephew (ruled 361-363). Julian’s orations to the Sun are here in translation.

Milton was aptly quoted, though he was not referring to the cult of Sol, in a post about Julian’s failure. The quotation was the last two lines of this extract from On the Morning of Christs Nativity.

“The Sun himself with-held his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferiour flame,
The new enlightn’d world no more should need;
He saw a greater Sun appear
Then his bright Throne, or burning Axletree could bear.”

Heliogabalus Imperator


The bust below is at the Musei Capitolini in Rome. Is it the same as the one above? If not, where is the first one? Is one a copy?


A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

8 Responses to “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti”

  1. […] Dies Natalis Solis Invicti […]

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Adrian Murdoch at Bread and Circuses writes:

    David Derrick at Toynbee Convector has a couple of posts (here and here) on imperial portraits, specifically some stunning pictures of Elagabalus. Especially interesting because it seems to show an imperial statue sporting a soup-strainer. If my eyesight is not failing me, then that is significant – certainly there is no Latin word for moustache. See my previous post on the subject here.

  3. Very interesting and it confirms something I *thought* I saw on some coins of Elagabalus as well … he seems to have mutton chop sideburns and a moustache, but no beard in many, e.g.:


    which seems different than this one which does sport a beard:


    (sear 48 and 49 respectively)

    Then again, there are a pile of coins of Caracalla which seem to have a similar mutton chop look, e.g.:


    Perhaps with the sideburns it was considered a ‘beard’?

  4. […] is December 25, but in the old Julian calendar (official in the west between 45 BC and AD 1582), which (until AD […]

  5. […] more to say on the Elagabalian moustache and beard. (See my earlier, far from authoritative, posts here, here, here and […]

  6. […] ~~~ December 21, 2007 Resumes on Die Natalis Solis Invicti. […]

  7. […] Dies Natalis Solis Invicti Roman portraits Eccentricities of the Emperor Elagabalus Elagabalus again Naked Gauls Effeminate natives of Asia Homo hirsutus […]

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