Ancient History & Civilisation

The Worship of the Sun

About fifteen years after Diocletian had mobilised all his bronze-currency mints for a uniform proclamation of the Genius of the Roman People (p. 165), Constantine likewise concentrated all the resources of this coinage upon the single theme and figure of the Sun-god, inscribing each piece To the Sun, the Unconquerable Companion: SOLI INVICTO COMITI (c. 309). These uniform, multitudinous issues, like Diocletian’s, represented a huge-scale operation unmistakably intended to implant an idea in the minds of the populations of the empire. Sun-worship, at that moment, was the state-cult of the Roman world, and the god was accepted by millions of its inhabitants. If the solar cult had not succumbed to Christianity a few years later, it could well have become the permanent religion of the Mediterranean area.

Only a few peoples in the hottest regions of the world have regarded the Sun as pestiferous and diabolical.36 Elsewhere men from the remotest periods of antiquity concluded from their divinisation of nature, and confirmed afresh each day, that they should greet its orb as a beneficent deity. The life of our planet has its source in the Sun, of which every force is a product.37 In Egypt, for example, where this worship abounded, the rising Sun appears upon reliefs of Amenhotep IV (Akhnaton) who in the fourteenth century BCinstituted a revolutionary new cult of his Sun-god Aton, including novel emphasis upon its light-giving and life-giving properties, accompanied by a claim to have achieved personal revelation through the embrace of the god’s caressing hands (shown as the termination of his golden disc). In Asia Minor and the near east, all-seeing Marduk, who became supreme in the Babylonian pantheon, had at first been a solar divinity. So had Shamash, who was originally secondary to the Moon-god; but experts on the heavens reversed their roles.

The learned cult of the Sun which these men evolved became, in subsequent stages of Semitic paganism, the solar theory of the ‘Chaldaeans’, Babylonian priests of the Greco-Roman epoch who turned all Baals into Suns or into an aspect of the single Sun. For this was recognised as the heart of the universe and master of its divine energy. Through the influence of astrology, the Sun’s power to attract and repel the stars, whose revolutions determined the course of events, was seen as the arbiter of men’s destiny and the animator of their minds and bodies alike.38 Fire, endowed with Reason, becomes the creator of the particular reasons which direct the human microcosm. This was a central and basic form of the religion, uniting man with the cosmos, which spread throughout the ancient world (p. 163).

In the old Testament, Elijah’s horses and chariot represent the Sun39; the synagogue of Beit Alpha in Israel had a picture of the Sun driving his horses in the sky. But the classic solar theologian of the Jews is Malachi (c. 460 BC), the last in the prophetic section of the Old Testament canon, who foretells how a Messianic Sun of Righteousness will arise for the faithful.40 In Persia, too, the Sun and Moon were very early worshipped as emanations and almost synonyms of Ahuramazda, the god of Light (p. 194); there are still Sun-worshippers in Fars, as well as the Parsees whose principal centre is Bombay. The quality of kingly glory in the Avesta (p. 196) is described as lustre or light, and the Persian Great King was called the One rising together with the Sun.41 There were fire-cults in his palaces, and then at the fire-altars and fire-temples of his Parthian and Sassanian successors.42 The Parthian court of justice at Babylon had heavenly bodies painted on its dome, and the Sassanian ruler was partner of the stars, brother of the Sun and Moon.43When Plotinus takes an interest in Persian philosophy, what he has in mind is its solar theology, which likened the Supreme Being to a luminous source emitting rays that pierce and illuminate the darkness of matter.44 St Augustine, when he broke with the dualist Manichaeans, criticised their habit of worshipping the Sun and Moon.45

The Sun had also played its part in much Greek literature, beginning with the Iliad in which it was appealed to as a witness.46 Aeschylus’ lost play the Bassarae tells how Orpheus was torn to pieces by Dionysus, because he believed the greatest deity to be not Dionysus but the Sun47 –who was also Apollo. The disciples of Pythagoras identified the Sun as the creator of individual reason, author of generation and god of the dead.48 Plato saw the solar deity as author of all light and life in the material world, and described how Socrates offered it a prayer.49

Then the Sun figured largely in the astronomical speculations which grew in Plato’s circle, and soon after the death of Alexander the Great a certain Alexarchus declared himself to be its incarnation.50 Monarchs of the successor-states began to wear its crown of rays,51 and solar hymns were written; one was perhaps Alexandrian,52 and a later example, from Susa in Persia, identifies the Sun with Dionysus and greets him as the universal lord. Indeed, almost every writer now agreed that the Sun, Moon and stars were gods, with the Sun as their leader. Or, if they were not divinities, they were at least visible signs of the divinity and channels by which man could attain it53 – that is to say intermediaries (demiurges) between god and brute matter (p. 141).

Although few people were prepared to join Aristarchus of Samos in asserting that the earth revolved round the Sun,54 the next two hundred years witnessed the spread of the Sun-cult throughout the Mediterranean world. As Semitic, Iranian and Greek theology, astrology and philosophy intermingled, there was an ever-growing tendency to explain the traditional gods in solar terms. Mixtures and blendings of deities were now universal55; the gods are of many names, but one nature, and their common factor is the Sun. Funeral art shows its heavenly shield,56 the image of the Revolving All, and upon a gold diadem found in Syria the god is the central figure among thirteen deities. Posidonius of Syrian Apamea (d. c. 50 BC), who summed up the state of the world’s knowledge in his day, saw the Sun as the burning heart of the world and its intelligent light.57


61 A weird winged figure of Rain saves Aurelius’ army by a miracle: his arch mirrors an age of increased belief in supernatural wonders


62 As cremation is replaced by the more reverential rite of burial, this sarcophagus imitates a niched facade of Asia Minor, C. 170


63 Sages, like poets and Muses, often appear on third-century sarcophagi, standing for heavenly harmonious wisdom or for immortality won through things of the mind


64 These battle scenes on sarcophagi symbolise the victory of good over evil: an imperial prince in the thick of one of the terrible battles that destroyed the empire (?c. 251)


65 The tombs of the early Christians stress not Christ’s Passion but Old Testament tales of Deliverance: such as the story of Jonah, seen here with the Sea-Monster


66 Textile-like design of the Good Shepherd, shown thrice over, among the wine-harvesters. For ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’


67 A taste for frontal representations came from Syria and adjoining lands not only westward to Rome but eastward to the Buddhist-Iranian Afghan-Pakistani borderlands (?c. AD 200)


68 On the Arch of Constantine the public sculptural relief is back, but now human beings (as in the state) are dwarfed and reduced to symmetrical rows



69 The only certainly identifiable imperial portrait-painting: Septimius, his wife Domna, and his elder son Caracalla (Geta, whom Caracalla murdered, has been obliterated)


70 A mummy-portrait of the later third century from Antinoe in Egypt, painted on a linen shroud. The emblems are religious but not Christian


71 The astonishing series of Egyptian mummy-portraits continues with this large-eyed, mask-like, geometric, third-century portrait – ‘with a nose worthy of Picasso’


72 Another Greco-Egyptian woman (early fourth century), gazing out at her family (who kept its mummies in the house) and at the Unseen


73 Although fourth-century imperial portraiture had turned grandiose, glass medallions painted on gold leaf still depicted private individuals with sympathetic care



74 This example of Rome’s major decorative art, the floor-mosaic, shows one of the great cargo-ships which kept the parasitic capital supplied with corn


75 Christ as the Sun-god, driving in a chariot of four horses, symbols of the Gospels and the Resurrection. From a vault in the Vatican necropolis under St Peter’s. C. 250–75


76 Surrealist design of horses from north Africa, which is particularly rich in figured mosaic pavements


77 Panelled floor-mosaics of ‘rug’ type were increasingly superseded by over-all ‘carpet’ designs, among which hunting scenes were very popular


78 As other provinces flagged, Britain prospered, and its villas abounded in fourth-century mosaics, of which this is an example recently discovered at Sparsholt near Winchester

British love of dogs


79 This small bronze figure, with its realistic back-turned head, boldly rendered coat, and partially Celtic style, was found at Lydney in Gloucestershire


80 The potters at Durobrivae (Castor on the Nene) loved to depict these long-eared hunting hounds. Irish wolf-hounds, bull-dogs and spaniels are also recorded

Metaphors of its emanations and rays were constantly used to describe the relations between the deity and mankind. But this was only one of many ways in which solar literature continued to proliferate at every level. The poet Statius ended the first book of hisThebaid with a hymn to Apollo, who is also the Sun and Titan and Osiris and Mithras (p. 183). Hadrian’s Cretan freedman Mesomedes wrote a metaphysical hymn to the Sun-god, and there is a Latin litany hailing it as the cosmic orderer and master of the four elements and seasons (p. 189), bringing heat, fecundity, joy and science in its train.58 Light-symbolism was at home in many eastern cultures, and one of its most vivid exponents is Philo the Hellenized Jew of Alexandria (p. 153). During the third century, this way of thinking reached its height in the simultaneously evolved systems of Mani and Plotinus.

Sun-worship appealed to the learned, with their taste for the abstract, but less erudite invocations to local manifestations of the god shows that these intellectuals had no monopoly.59 There are also magic papyri, offering a personal introduction. One such document, recommending an almost mystical self-hypnotism, indicates the magic which will at last enable its exponent to see the opening of the solar disc and the golden beams of the everlasting light (p. 148).

Upon the mainland of Greece, Helios had not normally possessed local cults of his own. But it was different in Italy, and early bronze coins from the south of the peninsula show the deity’s radiate facing head (c. 200 BC). At Rome, devotees of the Sun went back, it was said, to the legendary days of King Numa.60 Apparently native to Rome, Sol had its festival on 9 August, and was linked in inscriptions with the fire-goddess Vesta (Hestia), who was analogous to the power worshipped at Persian fire-altars (p. 168). An antique Roman shrine of the Sun still existed in Nero’s reign. The god’s radiate-crowned personification appears on Republican and early imperial coins.61 Upon the summit of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, which stood for the regime of Augustus, there was a magnificent sculptural group showing Sol the Charioteer, whose old identification with Apollo the Augustans repeated and stressed. Caligula and Nero were hailed as the New Sun; Nero set a precedent for centuries by giving his coin-portraits the radiate crown of Greek monarchs (p. 174), and a colossal statue at Rome apparently represented him in solar guise.62

During the Civil Wars of AD 69, the Third Legion saluted the Rising Sun, since ‘that is the way in Syria’.63 Literary and official symbolism, particularly in relation to emperors, now concentrated on this ascent of the Sun, which had received religious attention from the earliest times (p. 173). Dawn (Aurora) accompanied Sol on the breast-plate of Augustus’ statue from Prima Porta, and Statius obsequiously tells how Domitian ‘rises with the new sun – himself shining more brightly’. Before long, an important publicity slogan of the Roman state is ORIENS and then in the third centuryORIENS AVGVSTI, the Rising of the Emperor, a daily event of salvation for Rome like the Sun’s resurrection from the night in which his glory had been hidden. Hadrian’s radiate ORIENS is the ever-renewed god of Sunrise, with an implied imperial analogy appropriate to the personal relation with the god which that emperor claimed.64

A medallion of Antoninus Pius strikes the same note of victory over the powers of darkness. A later figure of Sol has the features of Commodus, whose father Marcus Aurelius, on his deathbed, had declared him to be the Rising Sun. A relief from Ephesus shows the deified Marcus ascending to the sky in the god’s chariot which returns dead souls to their heavenly element65; and it was the family of the Aurelii that had traditionally been charged with the Roman cult. The Sun is called Discoverer of Light, and its characteristic title ‘Unconquerable’ (INVICTVS) now finds increasing expression and is applied directly to emperors.66

Under Septimius Severus and his family solar worship almost took charge of the entire pantheon. His building the Septizodium displayed him as Sun-god with seven planets around him, the seven spheres of which the deity was Lord. In this Septizodium, the emperor acted as judge, just as his Parthian contemporaries dispensed justice in another star-studded hall (pp. 100, 174). Septimius’ politically powerful wife Julia Domna and her sister Julia Maesa were daughters of the high priest at the Syrian Sun-temple of Emesa (Horns), and Domna was patron of Philostratus who gave a pronouncedly solar emphasis to his fictitious life of the sorcerer Apollonius of Tyana (p. 182). In this atmosphere, designs on imperial coinage show advances upon their customary conservatism.67 In particular the boy Geta, son of the Unconquerable and Pious Septimius, not only appears as Sol himself, portrayed in a novel half-length representation with radiate crown, but his right hand is raised in the Sun’s magic gesture of benediction (c. AD 200). This gesture, which warded off evil influences as well as conferring blessing, was very ancient, and had reappeared in statues of Roman orators.68 Court-poets wrote of the holy or divine hand of their emperor, and Sol’s arm is similarly lifted on Alexandrian coins of Trajan. This symbol, still the sign of episcopal blessing today, was to become frequent on sarcophagus reliefs and in the catacombs of Christians, where Jesus outstretches his hand in the most popular of all Christian themes, the Raising of Lazarus from the dead (p. 214).

When Geta’s brother Caracalla became ruler, the emphasis on Sun-worship became even stronger. He claimed, not entirely in jest, that he used the god’s method of chariot-driving.69 A lion on his coinage indicates the derivation of his regime from Sol, and a little bronze portrait in the form of a shield endows him with its rays.70

And then Elagabalus, though he adopted the names of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus which Caracalla had used before him, swept aside any caution or tradition in his haste to incorporate Sun-worship into the Roman imperial theology (218–22). For this Roi Soleil imported his native, eastern local solar cult, unmodified, into the centre and headship of the religion of Rome. His god of Emesa was a black, phallic meteorite, also praised at this period by another who was attached to its cult by ancestry and temperament, the novelist Heliodorus (p. 130).

A huge temple was now built for this Sun-god at Rome, and the deity’s Semitic name ELAGAB(alus) or Baal, identified with Sol, strikes an outlandish note amid the conservative traditions of the official coinage. In keeping, however, with an age which was beginning to call its rulers the comrades of divinities rather than actual divinities themselves, the emperor does not himself claim identification with the god, preferring to recall his hereditary position as priest of the cult.71

He placed the Sun-god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs. A six-horse chariot bore the Sun-god, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments. No one held the reins, and no one rode in the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the Sun-god himself were the charioteer. Elagabalus ran backwards in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins. He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god. Since he was unable to see where he was going, his route was paved with gold dust to keep him from stumbling and falling, and bodyguards supported him on each side to protect him from injury. The people ran parallel to him, carrying torches and tossing wreaths and flowers. The statues of all the gods, the costly or sacred offerings in the temples, the imperial ornaments, and valuable heirlooms were carried by the cavalry and the entire Praetorian Guard in honour of the Sun-god.72

Elagabalus was too rash, and was murdered. And yet in spite of this setback, the worship of the Sun did not cease to flourish and increase. The new emperor Severus Alexander, cousin to Elagabalus, repeatedly shows Sol on his coinage, but portrays him in classic form without Emesan accretions. For Rome required methods of integration and assimilation more subtle than Elagabalus’ misguided attempt to outdo and subordinate every element in the traditional fabric of religion.

Nevertheless, forty years later, matters had advanced so far that Gallienus proposed to dominate the city, from the highest point of the Esquiline Hill, with a chariot-group including a colossal statue of himself as the Sun.73 His successor Claudius II Gothicus (268–70) was devoted to the same deity, and then the logical, conclusive move was taken soon afterwards by the next emperor Aurelian. For he established, as the central and focal point of Roman religion, a massive and strongly subsidised cult of Sol Invictus (274), endowing him with a resplendent Roman temple, and instituting on the model of the ancient priestly colleges, and as their equal in rank, a new college of Priests of the Sun.74 The birthday of the god was to be on 25 December, and this, transformed into Christmas Day, was one of the heritages which Christianity owed to the solar cult.

In such developments several threads are apparent. First, official religion had long been moving in this direction. Secondly, Aurelian came from the Illyrian land of Pannonia, where Sun-worship is attested in the astral symbolism of many tomb-reliefs (p. 190); and his own mother was said to have been its priestess in their village.75 And then again his own name fortuitously, but felicitously, suggested a link with the family of the Aurelii which had traditionally been in charge of the ancient Sun-worship of Rome (p. 176). Furthermore Aurelian was deeply influenced by the Syrian veneration of the Sun which the relatives of Septimius, coming from that land, had done so much to extend. The outstanding event of Aurelian’s reign was his defeat of Zenobia and recovery of the eastern provinces of the empire (p. 20). During these campaigns Aurelian had visited both Emesa and Zenobia’s capital Palmyra, which was another centre of solar theology, as its temple of the Sun-god Malachbel (Baal) still shows today; Zenobia’s husband Odenathus had been called the city’s Sun-sent priest.76 Aurelian now restored this temple at Palmyra, and, interpreting its deity as a form of Sol Invictus, adorned his own Roman temple of the Sun with statues not only of Helios-Sol but also of Belos or Baal.77

Like Elagabalus, Aurelian was importing into Roman cult the vigorous beliefs of partially Hellenized Syria, which were now so pervasively active in contemporary speculation. But his tactics were more states-manlike than those of the earlier emperor. In this determined effort to revivify and concentrate paganism, Aurelian was not overturning the Roman cults; he was adding to them, and thereby changing their emphasis and balance of power, so that Sol now stood at the head of the pantheon.78 This was not only an integration, it was a creative, novel deed of religious statecraft, like the act of the Ptolemies of Egypt when they had imported a minor god Serapis and made him into a new divinity of state. But Aurelian’s decision was even more comprehensive, because it sought to weave the main religious strands of east and west into a united, cosmopolitan universal faith.

The strongest part of Aurelian’s army came, like himself, from Sun-worshipping Pannonia (p. 16). The religion of this Danubian army is revealed by hundreds of little votive tablets or amulets found in the area; they show that the men venerated the Sun as chief of the gods. In Syria, too, homeland of the soldiers who came next in importance to those of the Illyrian region, the cult had long possessed a military character. It was the Syrian way for troops to worship the rising Sun (p. 175). His statues in eastern frontier areas are clothed in armour, with shoulder clasps ornamented by the eagles which stood not only for Rome’s emperor and army but also for the solar religion.79 In the same spirit, a new coin-type of Aurelian shows a personification of Loyalty (Fides) holding two standards and facing a figure of Sol, who with globe of world domination in hand commends the emperor to the fidelity of the legions. The cult was now officially prescribed for the army, and its symbols were added to military insignia.

In pursuance of a concept that had been developing for over a century, the Sun was the emperor’s special comrade and companion (p. 171). The Illyrian Probus (276–82) displays his own portrait on a bronze medallion, and together with it is a radiate head of the Sun-god, described as his comrade. Something of what people now felt for the Sun’s ever-renewed Light is indicated by the Neoplatonist Iamblichus (p. 156), who gave it the place of honour among 360 deities. Moreover, when Constantius I Chlorus took London from the usurper Allectus (296) and brought England back into the empire, a medallion hailed him as Restorer of Eternal Light (REDDITOR LVCIS AETERNAE). This language, although replete with pagan traditions, is on the way to the terminology of Christian hymns. It is also solar language, for Constantius was a monotheist who revered the Sun,80like his forebears before him in their Sun-worshipping Balkan homeland.

Then in c. 309 Constantius’ son Constantine the Great began his vast, homogeneous series of coinages inscribed SOLI INVICTO COMITI (p. 173).81 Thereafter, for a decade, he continued to concentrate upon this design and theme. Indeed Constantine, before finally turning to Christianity, stressed the worship of the Sun more frequently and emphatically than any of his predecessors. Formerly, he had been officially attached to the cult of Hercules sponsored by Diocletian’s colleague Maximian ‘Herculius’ (p. 172). But when Maximian continually sought to return to the throne from which he had abdicated, Constantine broke with him (308) and, adhering to an ancient custom of claiming physical or spiritual descent from deified past rulers, attached himself to the memory of a hero-emperor who had come from his own Illyrian home country, Claudius II Gothicus (d. 270).82 Claudius 11 had been a solar devotee (p. 178), and in 310 – the year of Maximian’s final political collapse and death – Constantine’s birthday at Augusta Trevirorum referred to the young monarch having been vouchsafed a vision of his ‘comrade and ally’ Apollo at that god’s sanctuary in the Vosges. The speaker greets the rising emperor as personification of Apollo, who is bringer of salvation and the universal Sun.83Constantine felt a strong need for a divine companion and sponsor, and for a time the Sun, whose worship had been ancestral in his family, was his choice.

Nor did Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312), which the emperor and his eulogists later attributed to a Christian vision, terminate his allegiance to the cult. It was athwart the Sun that he claimed to have seen the Cross (p. 236), and on the sculptures of the Arch of Constantine at Rome (c. 315) the old gods have gone but the Sun still remains: the emperor is represented between the rising Sun and Moon, and the victory-giving figure is the Sun-god, whose statuettes are also carried by the army’s standard-bearers. An inscription describes Constantine himself as the Sun who sees all.

It was not until 318–19, when the Christianisation of the empire had gathered force, that the Sun disappeared from the coinage. With him went the radiate crown and the title invictus, now replaced by the less characteristically pagan victor. The coins, conservative as ever, had not been very quick to turn Christian. They were intended for the whole empire, which was still predominantly pagan; and so, no doubt, was the administration of the imperial mints. Even as late as 321, when official Christianity was forming deep roots, Constantine forbade legal proceedings on the day of the week ‘celebrated by the veneration of the Sun’. Since the second century the choice of the seventh day for Christian meetings had been justified by its interpretation as the day both of the Creation and Resurrection,84 but Constantine, apparently, believed that Christians observed the day because it was already sacred to Sol. Moreover, in the east, his fellow-emperor Licinius was still seeking the loyalty of his Danubian troops by a solemn profession to ‘the Highest Holy God’.85 But the future did not belong to Licinius, who soon afterwards succumbed to his colleague. Constantine was now sole ruler of the Roman world and arbiter of its religion, upon which he had already begun to impose such revolutionary changes. Yet his panegyrist still sees him ‘with a circumambient halo resembling rays of light’; and when his great statue was erected at the central point of the new capital at Constantinople (328–30), it portrayed him as Apollo-Helios, wearing the Sun’s radiate Crown. This crown, however, was also fashioned from the nails of the True Cross, for he now saw himself as the Vicegerent of Christ. In his own mysterious way, Constantine seems to have worshipped Sun and Christ at the same time, or regarded them as interchangeable, assimilating the Chritian faith into an inherited solar tradition as Aurelian had assimilated the Sun into the traditions of Rome.

Indeed, there was nothing novel about such an association between Sun-worship and Christianity. The solar theology contributed to the Old Testament by the prophet Malachi had been Christianised, and so had the Ascent of Elijah which was also the Ascent of the Sun (pp. 173, 169). In the time of Marcus Aurelius, Jesus’ baptism had been described as the Bath of Helios.86 Christians in east and west, in their public and private prayers, turned to Oriens, the rising Sun, in order to glorify its resurrection from the prison of the dark, which they identified with the Resurrection of Christ. Origen (d. 254/5) linked Christ with the rising of the Sun87 – and in the same period a mosaic beneath St Peter’s showed a composite Christ-Helios (p. 218). Some people confused the two deities: fourth-century Christian writers criticised coreligionists for their veneration of Sol, pointing out the superiority of the Christian Sun of Justice to the pagan Sun.88 Owing to such links and analogies, the solar cult acted as a bridge by which many people were converted to Christianity.

That is partly why devotees of the Sun, in spite of all these connections, were among the fiercest enemies of the Christians. When Julian the Apostate (361–3) temporarily brought the official religion of the empire back to paganism, he was moved by a prophecy to choose the worship of the Sun, the religion of his Illyrian ancestors, and censured his relative Constantine for deserting it. Julian himself proclaimed this faith in his Hymn to Helios. The Sun-god, common father of all mankind and object of our longing, seemed to him, in the fashion of contemporary philosophical thought, intermediary between the One and the material world from which it is so remote (p. 141); for our own eyes can see the solar power changing and swaying the cosmos.89 As late as AD 400, when the empire had become Christian again, Macrobius observed that almost all gods are the Sun, for he is the Mind of the Universe.90

St Leo the Great (d. 461) complained that Christians still worshipped the Sun. Acclamations of Byzantine emperors continued to compare them to the rising Sun-god, and solar and lunar images were long retained in the rituals of Christmas and Epiphany, the Feast of Lights.91

Why then did Sun-worship fail to remain the religion of the empire? Its most attractive features were simplicity and obviousness and ready justification: the Sun was there for all to see, and everyone could appreciate its indispensable, beneficial, creative activities. Moreover, although its abstract and learned side proved convenient to rulers as a theology on which to base their own domination, the cult was not limited to intellectuals and the governing classes; for there were no more passionate Sun-worshippers than the ordinary unintellectual soldiers of the Roman army. And yet the creed was deficient in profundity, emotional intimacy and heartening humanity. It did not grapple with the root problem of evil like the Manichaeans. It was weak in the appeals which endeared the mystery religions to millions. It also lacked two allurements which were the strength of Christianity: the explicit promises of immortality which cheered poor people in desperate times, and the excitement of a Messiah who was believed to have been an actual historical figure.

Some of the advocates of Sun-worship were aware of these disadvantages and attempted to remedy them. For example, a historical Saviour was provided. Septimius’ Syrian women-folk who gave official prominence to their family’s worship of the Sun (p. 176) also took the initiative in adding this further attraction of a solar Messiah. For the cosmopolitan-minded writers and scholars (mainly Greeks or Hellenised orientals) who gathered round Julia Domna included Philostratus,92 who at her prompting wrote a descriptive eulogy (c.AD 217–18) of Apollonius of Tyana in eastern Asia Minor. That man, who had lived in the first century AD, acquired the reputation of being a wizard, and may have possessed mediumistic powers. But Philostratus transforms Apollonius into a holy man who practises and preaches a religion of the cosmos based upon the Sun. Apollonius declares, in tones suggestive of mysticism, that the air is his chariot, and that those who would sing his praise must rise from the earth and soar aloft with the god (p. 154).93 The writer is also careful to inject Sun-worship with the human interest which was its most serious deficiency. For every kind of spicy out-of-the-way anecdote is utilised to represent the solar devotee Apollonius as a virtuous, saintly, ascetic, miracle-working paragon leading a dramatic life in which he loved and helped his fellow-men, following Pythagoras (whose life he wrote) in his detestation of blood sacrifices. This career, echoing the Gospels and parodying Christian martyrologies, could be set against Jesus’ life in rivalry – or even with a claim to superiority, since Apollonius’ alleged defiance of the tyrant Domitian seemed more comprehensible than the humiliation of Jesus (p. 213).

The faith ostensibly propounded by Apollonius, and subsequently associated with his name, was a philosophical Sun-worshipping paganism possessing its own historical Messiah and approximating to a religious system. Eastern influences were also freely admitted. Indeed, in accordance with Julia Domna’s tastes and a current fashion for oriental travel-romances (p. 123), Philostratus deliberately stressed the debt of Apollonius to Indian thinkers who had anticipated even the Egyptians in the wisdom with which they practised mysticism and avoided the sacrifice of animals.94 In recognition, moreover, of strong Babylonian elements in contemporary thought, Philostratus suggested that information about Apollonius had come to light from a memoir by Damis, a native of that country.

Caracalla built an important temple of Apollonius, and along with Christ, Abraham and Orpheus he was said to be represented in Severus Alexander’s private shrine.95 Apollonius was also reported to have appeared to Aurelian in a vision; and anti-Christians pointed to the sage of Tyana as their model.96 Christians retaliated by charging him with irresponsible and immoral fatalism, demonology and black magic.97 But his religion succumbed to theirs, in spite of imperial patronage, because it fell between the two stools of philosophy and religion, and achieved little more than a fashionable donnish artificiality.

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