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”.

5 thoughts on “Is there a distinctive iconography for Sol Invictus?

  1. So do you think that the coins portray a specific statue of Sol Invictus in one of the important temples? Or is it just a generalized picture of the iconography?

  2. Now that’s an interesting idea, which had not occurred to me. But I think, if we look at the pre-Aurelian coins, that the image must be a generic image of Sol?

  3. Absolutely fascinating depictions. Iconography can be so much fun. Thanks very much for posting all those splendid images.

  4. In my opinion you are making the same mistake of Steven Hijmans… Jupiter has no just one iconography and neither Mars or Hercules. You can find in some mosaics (the mosaic of the synagoge of Hammat for example) or in couple of statues (Montdidier’s Sol Invictus for example) the same representation of Sol Invictus; chlamys draped over left shoulder and flying out, holding globe and raising right hand. Sol, Jupiter, Mars, and Hercules are the main gods since Aurelian, at least, and they dodn’t appear with just one iconografy on coins. They have many.

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