Constantine and Sol Invictus

In contrast to Diocletian, Constantine was a tolerant monotheist. He seems to have inherited from his father a membership in the sun-god cult of Helios and his first recorded religious act was to consult the oracle at the temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, at Autun in 308 C.E. On his coins he was depicted as Pontifex Maximus with representations of the sun god. He consulted haruspices and pagan priests, yet, after conquering Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E., he also legalized Christian worship.

Constantine's devotion to a monotheistic sun god was evident as early as 309 C.E. His bronze coinage of that year, for example, was exclusively dedicated to Sol Invictus. On these coins, the sun god was accompanied by the inscription Soli Invicto Comiti, which means "To the Sun, Invincible Companion." In 310 C.E., Constantine was celebrated in a panegyric that recounted his vision of a solar apparition and anticipated his famous "Christian" vision just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E. (see Primary Document 3.4). By the time of the panegyric,

Constantine controlled all the territory his father had controlled, he had forced his father-in-law and rival, Maximian, the popular Augustus of the west for twenty years, to commit suicide, he had been admitted at last into the imperial college, and he had been elevated to the status of Augustus. (Maxentius, however, who had proclaimed himself emperor just after Constantine and who in the mean time had become Constantine's brother-in-law, was still considered a usurper by the tetrarch Galerius.) The panegyric defended Constantine's claim to the title of Augustus in two important ways: it put forth a new genealogy—that Constantine was descended from the much loved emperor who had rescued the empire from the Gothic invasion, Claudius Gothicus (268-270 C.E.); and it described an epiphany of the sun god Apollo, who delivered personally his divine legitimatization to Constantine's still precarious reign.

According to the anonymous panegyrist, Constantine saw in a vision the god Apollo-Helios-Sol with the goddess Victory who was offering him laurel wreaths that were marked with numerals that indicated a sixty-year reign over the whole world. Constantine recognized himself in the god Apollo—a youthful, joyful, and handsome savior, a god manifest on earth. But in identifying Constantine with Apollo, the panegyrist also tacitly compared him with the first Roman emperor Augustus, who had favored Apollo. In the vision, the apparition of Apollo foretold that Constantine would soon rule alone (apart from the other tetrarchs) over the entire world. Hereafter, Claudius Gothicus appeared in other panegyrics to Constantine, and Sol Invictus appeared on so many coins between 310 and 313 C.E. that it seemed clear that Constantine had identified him as the "Highest Divinity." According to the panegyric, dynastic succession and an epiphany of the sun god Apollo separated Constantine from the other members of the tetrarchy. Moreover, just as Apollo was the representation of a universal monotheism centered around Sol, so was Constantine, through Apollo's divine patronage, the representative of universal monarchy.

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