Rome, Quirinal hill: access to the temple of Serapis / Sol Invictus?

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in monuments of ancient Rome which were visible, and drawn, during the renaissance, but have since vanished.  Among these was a colossal temple on the Quirinal hill, often thought to be Aurelian’s temple of Sol Invictus, but today mainly thought to be a temple of Serapis.  Much of this is now vanished; but some remains, I believe, are still to be seen.  In particular there are said to be blocks from the temple in the “Colonna gardens”.

Today I came across an interesting page at, here, which described how to visit the Colonna palace in Rome.

The historic Palazzo Colonna near the central piazza Venezia, a noble palace still belonging to one of the most important families in the history of Rome, shields a rare princely collection of invaluable art still in its original location.

Entrance to Galleria Colonna, via della Pilotta 17, Rome. The present entrance to the gallery is located in via della Pilotta passing behind the basilica dei Santi Apostoli, which corresponded to part of the ancient via Biberatica. Via
Entrance to Galleria Colonna, via della Pilotta 17, Rome. The present entrance to the gallery is located in via della Pilotta passing behind the basilica dei Santi Apostoli, which corresponded to part of the ancient via Biberatica. Via

Since the Middle Ages and over the centuries, various buildings belonging to the Colonna family developed in the area on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill, until an ambitious architectural project in the 17th century brought to the building of an imposing palace composed of several structures, designed by renowned architects …

Circle of Maarten van Heemskerck, The Colonna "loggia" at the Quirinal, 1534 - 1536, drawing, Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, Kupferstich- Kabinett. The Colonna residence grew from previous remains, which included the ancient ruins identifiable with a Roman temple dedicated to the Sun or Serapis on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill.
Circle of Maarten van Heemskerck, The Colonna “loggia” at the Quirinal, 1534 – 1536, drawing, Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, Kupferstich- Kabinett. The Colonna residence grew from previous remains, which included the ancient ruins identifiable with a Roman temple dedicated to the Sun or Serapis on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill.

The last time that I was in Rome, on a very hot August day, I walked around the Quirinal Hill, looking for some way into the Colonna Palace, or the gardens.  I was out of luck.  But the page indicates that access is possible to the “Galleria Colonna” by request, or … much better …every Saturday from 9:00-13:15.  There is also a website here.

Whether you can get into the gardens I don’t know, but a tour would surely be worth taking.  There ought to be drawings and paintings of the palace itself, perhaps with pictures of the vanished temple remains?

A painting of the “temple of Serapis” / “Aurelian’s temple of Sol Invictus”

In the 16th century there were a number of ancient monuments in Rome which have since disappeared.  Among these was a massive temple on the Quirinal Hill, which was generally thought to be the Temple of Sol Invictus dedicated by the emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, but today is thought to be the temple of Serapis.

As with many of these older monuments, drawings exist, and I have written a number of posts about them, such as this one.  But today I came across a colour painting of this monument.

It is by Willem van Nieulandt the Younger (1584-1635 ca.), View of the Forum Romanum.  Thankfully a copy is at Wikimedia Commons here.

Temple of Sol Invictus / Temple of Serapis, Rome. Willem van Nieulandt the Younger.
Temple of Sol Invictus / Temple of Serapis, Rome. Willem van Nieulandt the Younger.

The temple is circled:


This drawing by Jan Goree, before 1704, is the same monument from roughly the same angle:

I wonder what other paintings exist of the vanished monuments in Rome.

Is there a distinctive iconography for Sol Invictus?

It’s that time of the year, when the malevolent delight in posting wild claims that Christmas is “really” – in some undefined sense of “real” – the festival of Sol Invictus, recorded only in the Chronography of 354.

Few of us know much about Sol Invictus, the state cult created by Aurelian in 274 AD.  The literary record is very scanty, as I discovered some years ago when I created a page containing all the sources here.[1]

I found myself wondering … what does Sol Invictus, Aurelian’s god, actually look like?  If you do a Google search, what do you get?

The answer is frustrating: you get very little.  In fact most of the common online images attached to the name are NOT Sol Invictus.

Let’s start with something definite and positive.  Sol Invictus does appear, labelled as such by name, on the coins of the tetrarchy, and continues to appear as late as Constantine.  Here are a couple of examples.  (As usual you can click on the images for a larger size picture.)

The first example that I have is a coin of Probus, with Sol Invictus on the reverse, driving a four-horse chariot, with a pointy crown – which Probus also wears[2]

Here’s another example, this time of Constantine, who derived his legitimacy from the tetrarchy and whose coins continue its coin-types until 325 AD.  Does this too have an orb?[3]


Here the pointy crown is more clearly a crown of rays.  Sol Invictus is depicted standing.

Here’s yet another follis of Constantine, via a nice collection of Sol Invictus coins at Coin Talk here, and very clear:


This from 317 AD, from Trier.[4]

Yet another Constantine is this beautifully clear one, with a gorgeous picture of Constantine (from Cointalk):[5]


Better yet, again from Cointalk (I reproduce the details in case that site disappears) we have this from the reign of Aurelian himself, also holding a globe:[6]


But the coins do not help us as much as we might think.

Here’s our first example – a coin of Elagabalus, who also worshipped a “Sol Invictus”, who was actually Baal of Emesa.  The right hand is upraised, but the left hand holds a whip.[7]


And here’s a denarius of Alexander Severus:[8]

S Alexander 11_sol

This one of Florianus includes Sol, with orb.  He briefly followed Aurelian, so perhaps this is Sol Invictus.  But if so, he is not distinguishable from Severus, is he?[9]

Florianus a

Florianus b

This does not really help us to identify a distinctive iconography for Sol Invictus, it seems.

But the situation is worse when we look at stuff that is often labelled as Sol Invictus online.

First, let’s look at this image.  This is a Greek silver Kylix, 3rd century BC, from Panticapaeum in the Crimea, and depicts Helios.


This lovely object bears much the same image as we see on the coin of Probus, almost 6 centuries later; yet this is not Sol Invictus, but just boring old Helios, the personification of the sun.

At the Metropolitan Museum in New York we find the following fragment of a relief (also this one from Roger Ulrich on Flickr):[10]


The museum dates this to 1st-2nd c. AD, presumably by the lack of use of the drill.  But this is not Sol Invictus either: this is Helios, the sun: the man to the left is a Scythian slave about to flay Marsyas.  The relief is probably from a temple of Apollo.

The next item is from the British Museum website, inv. 1899,1201.2 (this particular photo here):


This is a disk of silver leaf, from Pessinus in Asia Minor, 3rd century.  But … again, why is this not just Sol, or Helios?

Now some Google results.  This one appears often enough, and the words “Sol Invictus” appear in the inscription.[11].


But … at the bottom of the inscription is a clear reference to “Iovis Dolichenus”, Jupiter Dolichenus, the Syrian deity beloved of the Severans.  The sacking of Doliche in the mid-3rd century put an end to this cult, and the last monument is supposedly from 268 AD, before Sol Invictus was invented.  And we can see in the relief, not just Sol, but also Luna, wearing her crescent, and some other chap, at least as important as Sol.  So this is certainly NOT Sol Invictus, but merely Sol, and “Sol Invictus” in the inscription merely is Latin for “the unconquered sun”.

Here’s another favourite, complete with inscription “Soli Sanctissimo Sacrum…”:


But … there is another inscription on the object, although I can find no photograph of it – in Palmyrene.  And this, rather than talking about Sol, bluntly states that the god is Malakbel!  This is a mid-3rd century item, although closer to Aurelian.[12]  So again, this is not Sol Invictus.

On to the next one:


But this is CIMRM546, and Mithras, not Sol Invictus at all.  Again “sol invictus” merely is Latin for “the unconquered sun”, rather than the title of the state cult.

There ought to be a paper somewhere on this subject.  But the impression that I get from this, far from scientific, survey of material is that there is no distinctive iconography of Sol Invictus, who is depicted using standard images used for Sol, or even for Helios.

  1. [1]I find that a Google search will not discover this page, which raises the question of what Google search is doing these days.
  2. [2]Details from Cointalk: PROBUS Antoninianus;  OBVERSE: IMP PROBVS AVG, radiate mantled bust left holding eagle-tipped sceptre;  REVERSE: SOLI INVICTO, Sol in galloping quadriga left, R-thunderbolt-B in ex.;  Struck at Rome, 275-6 AD;  4.2g, 24mm;  Roman Imperial Coinage 202
  3. [3]Another example here at Cointalk. Constantine AE Follis – Sol Invictus – Rome Mint;  Obverse: Laureate cuirassed bust;  IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG;  Reverse: Sol standing left with orb and raising right hand, captive to left of Sol;  SOLI INVICTO COMITI – Exergue: RP (Rome Mint); Catalog: RIC Rome 2 – Struck around AD 326 – Size: 19mm
  4. [4]AE follis – 20mm, 3.13g.  Trier, 317 AD.  laureate, cuirassed bust r.  CONSTANTINVS PF AVG.   Sol standing facing, head left, nude but for chlamys across left shoulder, r. hand raised, globe divided into hemispheres in l. hand.  SOL INVIC-TO COMITI  T | F, .ATR in ex. Roman Imperial Coinage vol. 7, Trier 135
  5. [5]CONSTANTINE I AE3;  OBVERSE: CONSTANTINVS P F AVG, laureate and cuirassed bust right;  REVERSE: SOL INVICTO COMITI, Sol, radiate, standing left, raising right hand, globe in left, chlamys across shoulder;  Struck at Trier 313-15 AD;  3.78 g, 18-19 mm; RIC VII Trier 42
  6. [6]Aurelian Antoninianus – Sol Invictus with Captive; Obverse: Radiate and cuirassed bust right;  IMP AVRELIANVS AVG;  Reverse: Sol standing left, right hand raised, holding globe, captive at foot;  ORIENS AVG – Exergue: S (Serdica mint);  Catalog: RIC Serdica 276
  7. [7]Elagabalus Denarius – Sol;  Obverse: Laureate and draped bust right;  IMP ANTONINVS PIVS AVG;  Reverse: Sol advancing left with raised hand and whip;  PM TRP II II COS III PP;  Catalog: RIC 40
  8. [8]SEVERUS ALEXANDER AR Denarius;  OBVERSE: IMP ALEXANDER PIVS AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right;  REVERSE: P M TR P X COS III P P, Sol, radiate. standing left with raised hand and globe;  Struck at Rome, 231 AD;  3.4g, 20mm;  RIC 109
  9. [9]Also via Cointalk, no details.
  10. [10]Inv. L. 1993.85.  Ulrich gives these details: Roman-period marble fragment carved to represent a kithara (a stringed musical instrument), perhaps belonging to a statue of the god Apollo. In the center, facing frontally, is depicted Helios, the sun god, driving his four-horse chariot (quadriga; note the challenge faced by the artist in depicting the four horses). Also partially depicted: the punishment of Marsyas (only his toes are visitble on the upper right), who is about to be flayed by a Scythian slave (shown sharpening his knife on the left). In the bottom left corner of the relief there is a worn image of a herm. The themes are all suugestive of Apollo: Helios is often associated with Apollo, as is the story of Marsyas, who unsuccessfully challenged Apollo to a musical contest and was hideously punished for his act of hubris. Dated by the Met in NYC to 1st-2nd cent. A.D. Loan by Ross H. Auerbach; inv. L. 1993.85
  11. [11]This stele is recorded as CIL VI.31181 on Wikipedia.
  12. [12]Altar is in the Capitoline museum in Rome. See J. Teixidor, The Pantheon of Palmyra, p.47: “This is the altar (which) Tiberius Claudius Felix and the Palmyrenes offered to Malakbel and the gods of Palmyra.  To their gods. Peace.”  Inscription is CISem II, 3903. “Malakbel” = “The angel/messenger of Bel”.

More images of the temple of the sun in Rome

This collection of old photos includes this 1850 image of some large slabs of masonry from the temple in the Giardini Colonna:

Temple of the Sun, Rome. G. Caneva, 1850

On this site I find another drawing: “Il Tempio del Sole e il Palazzo del Quirinale, 1616.” by Aloisio Giovannoli:

Sadly the image is too small for me to even read the writing at the bottom. The view is looking towards the brand new Palazzo di Quirinale, completed in 1616.

A bunch of images of fragments from the temple, taken in 1910, are here.  None are especially interesting.

Another image of the ruins of the Temple of Sol Invictus

I was surfing around, trying to locate the “Colonna gardens” or “Giardino Colonna” when I stumbled across this site, and quickly found myself looking at yet another old engraving of the ruins of the temple.  But this page is actually dedicated to the monument, and includes photos of ancient brickwork from the area.

The towers on the front of the wall are medieval, part of the Colonna family fortress.

The image comes from Giuseppe Vasi, Delle Magnificenze di Roma Antica e Moderna, book 10, plate 193, ii (1761), reprinting an image from 1565 by Bernardo Gamucci.  Apparently the Vasi book does contain another view of the ruins.

The Rome Art Lover site is itself well worth exploring — a feast of materials and photographs, and not just from Rome.

More on Aurelian’s temple of the sun

A commenter added some very useful links to my last post on this.  The following is another drawing (from here) of the ruins of the temple of Sol Invictus, as they were before 1704, in a drawing by Jan Goeree.  The top bit is uninteresting, but the portrait at the bottom is another matter.

The same commenter pointed out that Bill Thayer has an article online with much useful content about this edifice.  The article adds that it might, indeed, not be Aurelian’s temple at all, but rather a temple of Serapis.  Here is what it says about the ruins (over-paragraphed by me):

In the gardens of the Palazzo Colonna considerable remains of a great temple were standing in the sixteenth century, consisting principally of part of the cella wall of peperino and the north (right) corner of the façade and pediment. This was known as the Torre Mesa, Torre di Mecenate, and Frontispizio di Nerone; LR, fig. 166 from Du Pérac,º Vestigi, pl. 31 (1575).

Part of these ruins were removed at the end of the fifteenth century, and more between 1549 and 1555, but the final destruction of the Torre itself was not effected until about 1630 (LS III.203‑205, and earlier references there given).

Numerous drawings and plans of these ruins are extant, made by the architects and artists of the period, from Sangallo [2] (Barb. 63v., 65, 65v., 68v.) in the fifteenth century to Giovannoli (Ill. 47) and Donati in the early seventeenth century (for list see HJ 422, n79; LS loc. cit.; DuP 141);[3] the plans, however, by their differences in detail show that they have been arbitrarily filled in.

The building stood on the edge of the hill, on the west side of the present Via della Consulta, and extended due east and west, with a great flight of steps leading from the platform at the rear of the cella to the plain some 20 metres below.

This flight was curiously built, being divided into double narrow rows of steps on each side with a central space. The temple area was surrounded with a wall containing niches but not with the usual porticus. The cella was built of peperino lined with marble, and was surrounded by marble columns in front and on the sides. The shafts of these columns were 17.66, the capitals 2.47, and the entablature 4.83 metres in height.

The corner of the pediment now lying in the Colonna gardens is the largest architectural fragment in Rome, its dimensions being 3.70 by 2.80 by 3.90 metres, and its weight 100 tons.

[2] His plan is the only one that is trustworthy.
[3] Add Meded. Nederl. Hist. Inst. VII.1927, 89‑92.

Interesting to learn that a 100-ton corner of the pediment still exists.  Does anyone have a photograph?

The article above includes a great number of abbreviations, which makes it rather hard to look any of the items up.  What I’d like to see is some of the pictures and plans.

Du Perac is Etienne du Perac, Vestigi Dell’Antichita Di Roma, Rome, 1575, that much I can find.  It seems to be online at Gallica here, although the quality is very poor indeed.  But even from this I can see that Du Perac’s book must be stunning, if one could get a decent copy.  Here’s his picture:

(Du Perac also includes an image of the Septizonium!)

I found that Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman geography, vol. 2, p.830, also has an article on the Aurelian monument:

By those who assume it to have been on the Quirinal it is identified with the remains of a very large building, on the declivity of the hill, in the Colonna gardens, on which spot a large Mithraic stone was discovered with the inscription “Soli Invicto.” (Vignoli, de Columna Antoniniana, p 174). This position may be very well reconciled with all the accounts respecting the temple. Becker that it is mentioned in the Notitia in the 7th Region (Via Lata). But this Region adjoined the western side of the Quirinal and the temple of the Sun may have been recorded in it just as buildings on the declivity of the Aventine are enumerated in the 11th Region or Circus Maximus. In the Catalogus Imperatorum Vienn. (ii p 246 Ronc.) it is said of Aurelian, “Templum Solis Castra in Campo Agrippae dedicavit” and it will appear in the next section that the Campus Agrippae must have been situated under this part of the Quirinal. …

Vignoli is online here, and the item proves to be a tauroctony, 4 “palmos” high and 8 broad, found in the Colonna temple.

Does this really have anything to do with the temple?

But I’d still like to see a collection of all the images and floor plans of this monument!

A 1629 picture of the ruins of Aurelian’s temple of the sun

Judith Weingarten has written a post on Whose Christmas is it anyway? at her blog, which is solid stuff, and kindly mentions me.  But I got very excited when I read it!  Because of this: a picture of the ruins of the temple of Sol Invictus in Rome, from 1629:

The image is from the The Amica Libary website.

In truth I’m not sure what we’re looking at, or where from.  The temple was on the Quirinal, I know; and steps from the temple survived as they were reused for some other monument in modern times.

The book from which this image is drawn is Giovanni Batista Mercati, Alcune vedute et prospettive di luoghi dishabitati di Roma, (=Some Views and Perspectives of the Uninhabited Places of Rome), Rome, 1629, in which it is plate 27.  The volume was in quarto, comprising some 52 sheets in all.  An Italian reprint exists: I’m almost tempted to stump up the 100 euros to buy it! (But not quite)

O, if only this were online!