The Cult of Sol in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman Period

The Cult of Sol in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman Period
Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. core article


Abstract:  The article analyses the evidence for the cult of the sun god Sol in the Lower Danubian provinces during the Late Roman period. Two dedications are known from the province of Scythia Minor. The earlier of these is from the provincial capital Tomis and dates from the period 285–293. The second monument is associated with the military camp of Salsovia, located on the banks of the Danube in northern Dobrudja. It was erected in the last years of Licinius' reign and bears witness to an imperial order stipulating the annual worship of the god Sol on 18 November.

Keywords: Sol, Lower Danube, Paganism


The cult of the sun god has been known in Rome since ancient times. It is attested in the earliest calendars under the name of Sol Indiges and is closely related to the supreme Roman god Jupiter. His image appears on Roman coins for the first time in a denarius of 132 BC, where Sol is represented in a chariot drawn by four horses[1]. Despite the antiquity of the Sun God cult, it did not enjoy much popularity until the 3rd century AD. Emperor Elagabalus’s attempt to introduce and impose in Rome Sol Invictus[2], the chief deity of his hometown Emesa in Syria, had no lasting effects. The cult disappeared from the official Roman religion after the imposed damnatio memoriae in AD 222, and the symbol of the Sun God– a black meteorite stone– has been returned to its sanctuary at Emesa[3].

A turning point in the history of the cult of the Sun God is the reign of Emperor Aurelian. In the early years of his reign, the emperor sought to legitimize his power by propagating the idea of divine investiture originating directly from the supreme Roman god Jupiter. It is for the first time in Roman coinage that the motif of Jupiter presenting to the emperor a globe as a symbol of supreme power is used so extensively. The theme was not new in imperial politics, but it became a leading motif only under Aurelian, while it was also adopted and widely used by subsequent rulers[4]. Nevertheless, during the summer of 273 in the last two years of his reign, there has been a significant change in religious propaganda. Sol is highlighted in three coins of the same type presenting a globe to Aurelian.[5] The highlighting of the God Sol is not just a motif in coins. A large new temple dedicated to Sol Invictus was built in the capital city of Rome. Special games– agon Soliswere periodically organized in his honor, and a new college of priests (pontifices dei Solis) was also formed to maintain the cult[6].

An explanation of this close relation of Aurelian to the sun-god has been already sought by his contemporaries. The Historia Augusta states that Aurelian’s mother was a priestess of the god Sol in her native village in Pannonia (HA, Vita Aureliani 4.2). This piece of information, however, is very uncertain and debatable, but according to G.H. Halsberghe it is possible to assume its veracity[7]. In the same source is indicated that the decisive battle between the troops of Aurelian and the queen of Palmyra Zenobia took place near Emesa in Syria, while the emperor attributed his victory to the patronage of the chief god of the city– namely Sol Invictus Elagabalus (HA, Vita Aureliani 25.4-6). Aurelian’s cult of Sol Invictus, however, does not represent a revival of the Emesian cult of Elagabalus. The hypothesis that this cult is influenced by the Sun god of Palmyra is also not sufficiently well argued. Perhaps the most logical hypothesis is that this cult is Roman in character and that is why has retained an important place in the official pantheon during the following decades, while at the same time its inclusion in the high priest college was particularly prestigious in the 4th century.[8]

Moreover, the cult of Sol Invictus retained its popularity under the rulers who succeeded Aurelian. Jupiter is brought again to the forefront of religious politics under Diocletian, but the Sun god also remained among the official patrons of the empire, albeit superseded not only by the supreme Roman god but also by Hercules and Mars. This is evidenced by the relatively small number of coins with his image[9]. By order of Diocletian and Maximinus, however, a temple of Sol was built at Comum (Como, Italy)[10]. Scholars have argued that Caesar Constantius Chlorus was placed under the protection of the Invincible Sun, and that he even professed a kind of solar monotheism, but the arguments for this theory are not sufficient[11].

Jupiter represents the main divine pillar of the Tetrarchy system, which was established by Diocletian. This is why Maxentius and Constantine, both opposed the established order, while deliberately distancing themselves from the supreme Roman god. On the coins of Maxentius it is the god Mars who presents the globe to the ruler[12], whereas in the case of Constantine, Sol plays the same role[13]. The depictions of Sol on Constantine’s coins are accompanied by a great variety of legends highlighting the close relationship between the god and the ruler. These are, for example, Comiti Augustorum and Soli Comiti Augustorum, Soli Invicto Comiti Domini Nostri, Soli Invicto Aeterno Augusto et al[14]. Since 317, however, images of the Sun god have become increasingly rare[15]. Following the victory over Licinius and the establishment of the one sole authority over the whole empire, images of Sol disappeared once and for all from coinage– the last issue was minted in late 324 or early 325 by the mint of Antioch[16].

The cult of Sol Invictus was also known in the lands of Lower Danube during the imperial era. His images are often found in the secondary panels of Mithras’s reliefs, where scenes of investiture, a ritual banquet, ascension to heaven in a chariot drawn by four horses, etc., are often depicted. In the 3rd century, Mithras is increasing inferred from the inscriptions as Sol Invictus Mithra[17].

More dedications are known from Nove in Lower Moesia, where a temple of the god may have been erected during the reign of Elagabalus[18]. South-west of the military camp a sanctuary has been investigated, which according to its explorer V. Naydenova is characterized by two different construction periods. During the first period Mithras was worshipped there, and after its restoration and reconstruction during the second half of the 3rd century the sanctuary has been dedicated to Sol Augustus. The second construction period is associated with the reign of Aurelian. The sanctuary probably lasted until the imposition of Christianity as the sole official religion[19]. The evidence for the sanctuary in question has recently been critically reviewed by A. Tomas and M. Lemke. According to their interpretation, the altar with the dedication to Sol Augustus should be dated to the first third of the 3rd century and is not related to Aurelian’s religious policy and the propagation of the Sun God’s cult. Apart from this, the evidence for the operation of the worship complex at that time is very uncertain and it would be difficult to uphold its existence in the 4th century, and also its subsequent dissolution because of Christianity’s imposition[20]. Sol Invictus was also represented on a fragmentary relief from Novae where an image of Luna is preserved too[21]. A monument to the Invincible Sun, dedicated by a centurion of the First Italian Legion encamped in Novae, has been discovered in Tropaeum Traiani[22].

Two dedications to the god Sol date from the Late Roman era. The first of these is related to the rebuilding of the city walls of Tomis[23], the capital of the Scythia Minor province, established as a result of Diocletian’s reforms and covering the eastern part of the former Lower Moesia province. The dedication to the sun god is inscribed on a limestone block measuring 0,75 х 0,72 х 0,49 m[24]. The text is quite fragmented and not all of its points are clear. At the beginning a dedication is made to the god Sol for the prosperity (pro salute) of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian. M. Zahariade suggests that the god is designated by the adjective Invictus, common in that period. It is then pointed out that by order of the rulers the gate (or gates) of the city have been rebuilt, and this has been done under the patronage of Gaius Aurelius, whose cognomen is partially preserved by its first letter. In earlier readings of the text the name is restored as Gaius Aurelius Firminianus,[25] while this person is identified with a dux of Scythia Minor known from a dedication to the Mother of the Gods for the welfare of the rulers of the First Tetrarchy (293–305)[26]. In the last proposed reconstruction of the inscription that of M. Zahariade, it is argued that the cognomen could be read as Domitius or Domitianus, rather than Firminianus, while it is argued that this person is the dux, something that has also been assumed in earlier editions on the basis of the erroneous completion of the name. The monument is dated approximately between 285, when Maximian received tribune office for the first time and 1 March 293, when the two Caesars Constantius Chlorus and Galerius rose to power.

The second dedication to Sol is inscribed on a marble block[27], discovered in 1865 in the vicinity of Mahmoudia, northern Dobrudja, in the ruins of a fortification. The text represents a secondary inscription on the back of an earlier tombstone from the 2nd–3rd century. It reports that a statue of the god Sol was consecrated on the 14th day before the December Calends, i.e. 18 November. The sun god bears the epithets Deus (god) and Sanctus (sacred), but no Invictus (invincible). By order of Emperor Licinius and his son Caesar Licinius, the statue had to be venerated annually on this date by the commanders and soldiers of the Salsovia garrison. The specific actions that had to be carried out annually– burning incense, lighting candles and making libations– had also been stipulated. The order of the two rulers was addressed to Valerius Romulus, dux of Scythia Minor, who in turn ordered that it must be implemented and duly be inscribed on stone. The fact that the order has been issued only in the name of the Eastern Emperor Licinius and his son Licinius II, without mentioning Constantine and his sons, helps us to define the dating. Taking into account that this monument is dated to the years 322–323, when there has been already a breakup between the two Emperors. it seems that the date of the statue’s dedication in 18 December, is probably not chosen by chance, while it coincides with the beginning of the New year on the Syriac calendar[28].

The military camp of Salsovia is located about 2 km west of Mahmoudia, Roumania, on the coast of the southernmost arm of the Danube Delta (St. George Arm). We do not have information on the garrison of the fortress during the years 322–323, while the military unit milites quiti Constantiani camped there later[29]. It is unlikely that the order of Emperor Licinius and his son was addressed specifically to the military contingent of Salsovia and probably had at least a general provincial scope. The attempt to strengthen Licinius’s position during the final years and months before another direct confrontation with Constantine also involved active religious propaganda aimed also at appropriating Constantine’s personal divine patron to the side of the Eastern Emperor. Following the victory over Licinius, however, Constantine finally renounced the protection of the Invincible Sun on behalf of Christ.


[1] Halsberghe 1972, 27. On the coin see: Crawford 1974, 280, no. 250/1.

[2] The adjective Invictus means invincible – i.e. the invincible sun. I have chosen to transliterate the Latin name of the god instead of translating it into English. 

[3] Halsberghe 1972, 138.

[4] Fears 1977, 281–283; Watson 1999, 186–187.

[5] Watson 1999, 189; RIC V, I, nos 282, 312, 353, 367.

[6] Halsberghe 1972, 142–148; Watson 1999, 191–192.

[7] Halsberghe 1972, 130.

[8] Halsberghe 1972, 155–158.  

[9] Halsberghe 1972, 166.

[10] АЕ 1914, 249.

[11] For more details see the article Pagan religion in the Lower Danube provinces in the Late Roman era.

[12] RIC VI, 402, no. 12.

[13] RIC VII, 375, no. 108, 397, no. 35, 468, no. 8, 500, no. 8.

[14] Halsberghe 1972, 168.

[15] In Bulgarian historiography the issue is discussed in more detail in Lozanova-Stancheva 2020, 119–121, with abundant literature cited there.

[16] RIC VII, 685, no. 49.

[17] Александров 2010, 145–146 with literature and examples cited therein.

[18] Bunsch, Kolendo et al. 2004, 44–50, no. 1, fig. 1.

[19]Najdenova 2000, 311–312, nos 1–3, 317–318.

[20] Tomas, Lemke 2015, 238–242.

[21] IGLN 44.

[22] ISM IV, 33.

[23]On the walls of Tomi and their chronology: Торбатов 2002, 188–193.

[24] CIL III 14450 = Popescu 1976, no. 3 = ISM II, 155 = Zahariade 2017, 433–449. The reading adopted here is in accordance with the corrections and additions of M. Zahariade.

[25] CIL III 14450, Popescu 1976, no. 3.

[26] Popescu 1976, no. 2.

[27] Dimensions 0,63 х 0,50 х 0,075 м.

[28] Popescu 1976, no. 271 = ISM V, 290.

[29] Торбатов 2002, 157–158.



AE = L’Année épigraphique. Revue des publications epigraphiques relatives a l’antiquité romaine (Paris), 1888-.

CIL = Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (Berolini), 1863-.

IGLN = Kolendo, J. & Božilova, V. (1997) Inscriptions grecques et latines de Novae (Mésie inférieure) (Bordeaux).

ISM II = Stoian, I. (1987) Inscriptiones Scythiae Minoris graecae et latinae. Vol. II. Tomis et territorium (Bucureşti).    

ISM IV = Popescu, E. (2015) Inscriptions de Scythie Mineure. Vol. IV. Tropaeum – Durostorum – Axiopolis (Paris).

ISM V = Doruţiu-Boilă, E. (1980) Inscriptiones Scythiae Minoris graecae et latinae. Vol. V. Capidava, Troesmis, Noviodunum (Bucureşti).   

RIC V, I = Webb, P. H. (1968) The Roman Imperial Coinage. Vol. V, part 1: Valerian I to Florian (London). 

RIC VI = Sutherland, C. H. V. (1967) The Roman Imperial Coinage. Vol. VI. From Diocletian’s reform (A.D. 294) to the death of Maximinus (A.D. 313) (London).

RIC VII = Brunn, P. M. (1966) The Roman Imperial Coinage. Vol. VII. Constantine and Licinius, A.D. 313–337 (London).


Александров, О. (2010) Религията в римската армия в провинция Долна Мизия (I–IV в.) (Велико Търново)/ (Aleksandrov, O. (2010). Religiata v rimskata armia v provincia Dolna Mizia (IIV v.) (Veliko Tarnovo).

Торбатов, С. (2002) Укрепителната система на провинция Скития (края на IIIVII в.) (Велико Търново)/ (Torbatov, S. (2012) Ukrepitelnata sistema na provincia Skitia (kraya na III-VII v.) (Veliko Tarnovo).

Bunsch, E., Kolendo, J. et al. (2004) Bunsch, E., Kolendo, J., Zelazowski, J. “Inscriptions découvertes entre 1998 et 2002 dans les ruines du valetudinarium a Novae,” Archeologia LIV [2003], 43–64.

Crawford, M. H. (1974) Roman Republican Coins. Vol. I (Cambridge).

Fears, J. R. (1977) Princeps a diis electus: The Divine election of the Emperor as a political concept at Rome (Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome 26) (Rome).

Halsberghe, G. H. (1972) The Cult of Sol Invictus (EPRO 23) (Leiden).

Lozanova-Stancheva, V. (2020) “Emperor Constantine I the Great between Byzantion and Constantinople,” Papers of BAS, Humanities and Social Sciences 7.2, 117–129.

Najdenova, V. (2000) “Nouvelles observations sur le culte de Sol Augustus a Novae (Mésie Inférieure),” Fol, A., Gočeva, Z., Jordanov, K., Porozhanov, K. (eds) Studia in memoriam Velizari Velkov. Thracia 13 (Serdicae), 311–318.

Popescu, E. (1976) Inscripţiile greceşti şi latine din secolele IV-XIII descoperite în România (Bucureşti).

Tomas, A. & Lemke, M. (2015) “The Mithraeum in Novae Revisited,” Tomas, A. (ed.) Ad fines imperii Romani. Studia Thaddaeo Sarnowski septuagenario ab amicis, collegis discipulisque dedicate (Warszawa), 227–247.

Watson, A. (2003) [first published 1999] Aurelian and the Third Century (London and New York).

Zahariade, M. (2017) “CIL III 14450 = IGLR 3 = ISM II 155. A revision and reassessment,” Pontica 50, 433–449.


This page is part of the project LABedia: Еncyclopedia of Late Antique Balkans, 4th-5th c.,
financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018