25th December: the Roman festival of sun god Sol Invictus

Today (25th December) is the day in the later Roman empire when people celebrated the winter solstice and the birthday of the sun god Sol Invictus: the day was called ‘dies natalis Invicti’. Sol Invictus (the ‘unconquered sun’ or ‘unconquerable sun’) drove a racing-chariot (quadriga) drawn by four horses. The Romans interpreted the sun as Sol racing his quadriga across the sky from sunrise to sunset… Sol was associated with Luna, the goddess of the moon, who drove a chariot (biga) drawn by two horses. Chariot-races for both quadrigae and bigae were presented in Roman circuses. The Circus Maximus in Rome included a temple of Sol (dedicated to Sol Invictus) and a temple of Luna: the temple of Sol included a statue of Sol driving his quadriga and four horses. Roman circuses around the Roman empire featured statues of Sol and Luna in their central barriers. The central barrier (spina) of the Circus Maximus also featured an Egyptian obelisk which represented a shaft of sunlight and was dedicated to Sol.

The festival of Sol Invictus on the 25th December in the later Roman empire combined the festivals of both the old sun god (Sol Indiges) and the new official sun god (Deus Sol Invictus). The Circus Maximus had been dedicated to Sol Indiges since ancient times, and then was dedicated to Sol Invictus. The Roman emperor Aurelian created the cult of Sol Invictus during his reign in AD 270-275 (in the 3rd century) and, on his coins, Sol was described as ‘Dominus Imperii Romani’, the official deity of the Roman empire. The cult of Sol Invictus was centred in Rome but it was followed across the Roman empire. Sol Invictus, the god of the sun, was one of the most important gods and he symbolised victory, as he defeated darkness and rose every morning. Sol Invictus was the patron of Roman soldiers. (See The Cult of Sol Invictus by G H Halsberghe (1972) and Roman circuses: arenas for chariot-racing by John Humphrey (1986).)

Only important cults were celebrated with games (Ludi circenses) in the Roman circus. Sol Invictus was not only the sun god but he also presided over chariot-races in Roman circuses and was the special protector of quadrigae (Luna was the protector of bigae). So an ‘unusually large number’ of chariot-races were held in Rome on the 25th December for the ludi Solis – apparently, 36 chariot-races were held on that day instead of the usual twelve (On Roman time: the Codex-Calendar of 354 and the rhythms of urban life in Late Antiquity, by M R Salzman 1991).

Colchester’s Roman circus was built in the early 2nd century AD and seems to have been in use for about 150 years, until towards the end of the 3rd century AD. If chariot-races were ever held here in honour of Sol Invictus on the 25th December, then the parade or pompa from the Temple of Claudius within the walled town would probably have included a sacred figure of the sun god which would then have been placed in the circus to preside over the chariot-races…

We have a replica quadriga on display here in the Roman circus centre, drawn by four silhouette horses, and our Roman circus super-model includes an obelisk in its central barrier. For more information on the circus centre and details of opening days and times, please go to www.romancircus.co.uk/ .

The images show Sol Invictus in a Roman mosaic and the face of a sun god Sol on part of a ceramic Roman lamp.
In the mosaic, Sol Invictus is shown with two of his horses and part of the chariot. The mosaic is in Tomb M, in the necropolis underneath St Peter’s basilica in Rome. This image is also interpreted by some authors as being a representation of Jesus (image published online at http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49946 as part of ‘Art in the Christian Tradition’, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in the US: image copyright Vanderbilt Divinity Library).
The Roman lamp fragment shows a representation of a sun god Sol from Colchester (illustrated in our popular book City of Victory – the story of Colchester, Britain’s first Roman town).

 

Sol Invictus Vanderbilt

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Saturnalia was the festival celebrated in the Roman empire from the 17th December to the 23rd December, dedicated to the god Saturn: read about Roman festivals and Saturnalia on this web-site at www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=2700 .

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