Worship of Sol the Sun

Long before Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, the empire had been moving toward monotheism. There was an indigenous Roman sun god called Sol Indiges, an agricultural divinity that probably represented a widespread ancient belief that the sun was the single ruling principle and divine source of all life, the ruler of all other stars, and the moderating mind of the universe. The idea of a transcendent supreme divinity as an incorporeal and ethereal light or spirit may be traced back even further, to Plato and Aristotle. In the first century C.E., the great colossal statue of Nero was converted by Vespasion to represent Sol. In the second century, Hadrian's Pantheon, a temple dedicated to all the gods (from the Greek pantheion, "of all gods") was crowned with a dome that symbolized the heavens and its central opening was a representation of the solar orb, called Helios, the Greek word for "sun-god." In the third century, Aurelian, a devoted follower of the oriental sun god Ba'al, elevated this god, called Sol Invictus, "Invincible Sun," to the level of an imperial official state cult in gratitude for his military victory over Palmyra. In 274 C.E., he dedicated a temple (Templum Solis) in Rome to Sol Invictus. This was an enormous structure richly fitted with jewel-encrusted metal, silver statues, and porphyry columns. According to some sources, Aurelian even intended to place in it a throne carved of solid ivory from the massive tusks of two elephants. Although Aurelian's reign marked a high point in the monotheistic worship of Sol Invictus in Rome, the third-century Severan dynasty (193235 C.E.), beginning with Septimius Severus and his Syrian wife Julia Domna, had been characterized by a variation of Sol worship, called solar syncretism.

The Severan Heliogabalus or Elagabalus (218-222 C.E.) envisioned a universal religion that fused all beliefs into one system in which the sun (as a black conical stone) was the central object of worship. He wanted the religion of the Jews and Christians and the mysteries of every cult to be transferred to the god Heliogabalus, now enshrined on the Palatine Hill in the temple (Templum Elagaballium) he constructed in 221 C.E. His cousin and successor, Alexander Severus (222-235 C.E.), erected in his private oratory his own pantheon of statues, all of whom he considered manifestations of a single supreme solar deity: Abraham, Apollonius of Tyana, Orpheus, and even the Christian God, Jesus. His mother Julia Mamea also had Christian sympathies and included Jesus among the deities encompassed in her syn-cretistic worship of the sun. Eusebius tells us in his Ecclesiastical History (6.21.3) that when she was passing through Antioch, she sent a bodyguard of soldiers to summon to her court the Christian philosopher and theologian Origen (165-254 C.E.), to discuss the teachings of Jesus.

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