Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
With the holidays upon us there’s been lots to do. Between work, family, shopping and celebrations we’re a bit worn out.
Romans believed in several deities, incorporated gods from conquered peoples throughout the empire, and held celebrations accordingly. All of this was to hold the Empire together through a conglomeration of religions and celebrations of all included gods.
One of said celebrations just happened to be held on December 25th. The god honored on this day was Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
The festival held was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Sol Invictus was the sun god of the Roman Empire and patron of soldiers.
The Roman cult to Sol Invictus begins with the early history of the city and continues through the institution of Christianity as the exclusive state religion. Inscribed on a Roman phalera was the following: Inventori Lucis Soli Invicto Augusto (To the Contriver of Light, Sol Invictus Augustus).
After victories in the East, the Emperor Aurelian made changes the Roman cult of Sol Invictus, from top to bottom. Thusly, it elevated the sun-god to one of the premier divinities of the Empire.
From this point forward, the Roman gens Aurelian is typically associated with the sun-god. This made priests previously associated with Sol Invictus raise up from the lower ranks of Roman status to the highly regarded priesthoods of the senatorial elite.
Sol Invictus was indeed a championed god for prior to his conversion to Christianity, Constantine was a follower of the sun-god.
The Emperor, as Emperors tended to do, portrayed himself as Sol Invictus on coins he issued. Constantine even went so far as to put SOLI INVICTO COMITI, which claimed the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the Emperor.
On 7 March 321 AD, Constantine decreed dies Solis, day of the sun or “Sunday”, as the Roman day of rest:
“On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.”
Other Emperors, such as Septimius Severus, followed suit with the usage of the pagan Sol Invictus however. This was done on coins as being a primary Roman god beginning around 325 AD.
A very general observance required that on the 25th of December the birth of the “new Sun” should be celebrated, when after the winter solstice the days began to lengthen and the “invincible” star triumphed again over darkness. This was all based on the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC.
The Julian calendar was a reform of the Roman calendar, and a Julian year was 365.25 days. Depending on what calendar was being used at the time would determine when festivals were celebrated. So until the 4th Century AD dates were constantly being changed.
There is no historical evidence that our Lord’s birthday was celebrated during the apostolic or early post apostolic times. Christianity did not begin celebrating the Birth of Jesus on December 25th, beginning first in Rome, until between 354 and 360 AD.
The point of this article is not to say Christianity simply took over a pagan celebration. It may be true, it may have been intentional, or it may have been coincidence.
The point is to provide insight that other gods and celebrations were held in the Empire. The celebration of Sol Invictus just happens to coincide with modern-day Christmas.
No matter what your opinion is on the celebration of a pagan god orJesus Christ’s birth is not to be debated. That can be done some other time, on some other website.
Thanks for joining us on this revisited journey. Be safe in all of your celebrations throughout the new year.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Cumont, Franz. Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans. Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.
Guarducci, M. “Sol invictus augustus”. Rendiconti della Pont. Accademia Romana di archeologia, 3rd series. 1957/1959.
Richard, J. C. “Le culte de Sol et les Aurelii. A propos de Paul Fest.” Mélanges offerts à Jacques Heurgon. L’Italie préromaine et la Rome républicaine, Rome, 1976.