Celebrating Sol Indiges With the Romans

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The Sun or Sol was one of the oldest of Roman gods. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

The Sun or Sol was one of the oldest of Roman gods. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Sun gods were popular deities in many ancient cultures and the Romans were no exception. While the eastern cult of Sol Invictus– the victorious sun- became popular during the late empire, the Romans also had a much earlier sun god whose festival they marked on the 9th August. That god was Sol Indiges.

Mythology ties Sol Indiges to the very beginnings of the Roman state. But how was Sol important to the Romans- and why?

The Roman Sun God

Not even the Romans were sure of the exact meaning of the “indiges” element of their sun gods name. Some, such as Fowler, have suggested it derived from the name of the Etruscan god of light, Usil. However, it is more likely it relates to the status of Sol as indigenous to the Roman people.

There is no reference to Sol as “indiges” in any of the early Roman calendars, so it could also be assumed that the Romans added this appellation to distinguish the Roman Sol from later foreign imports, such as the god Apollo and the cult of Sol Invictus, which the emperor Elagabalus in the 3rd century AD popularized.

Myths of Sol Indiges and the Romans

Mythology links the hero and ancestor of the Romans, Aeneas to the sun through marriage. Image by Tetraktys

Mythology links the hero and ancestor of the Romans, Aeneas, to the sun through marriage.
Image by Tetraktys.

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Sol Indiges was one of the most ancient Roman gods. Early Roman histories record Sol as one of the many deities introduced by Titus Tatius when the Sabines and Romans allied with each other. Mythology also supports the idea that Sol came to Rome from neighboring Italic cultures.

Virgil in his Aeneid describes how the Trojan hero Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans who fled to Italy after the defeat of Troy, married Lavinia, the daughter of the Latin King, Latinus. Latinus’s mother was the sorceress Circe. Circe herself was the daughter of the sun.

By marrying into the sun’s family, the descendants of Aeneas also became descendants of the sun, emphasizing the special significance of the deity to the Roman state.

Sol Indiges and the Aurelii

One particular Roman clan illustrates how this mythical cultural marriage could have come about in actuality.

The Aurelii were a distinguished Plebian family who rose to prominence when one of their clan, Gaius Aurelius Cotta achieved the consulship in 252 BC. The family particularly favored the cult of Sol Indiges, setting up a shrine to him on the Quirinal Hill, according to Quintilian.

It seems that this close affiliation between the Aurelii and Sol dates back to the family’s earliest beginnings. According to Festus:

It is believed that this family from the nation of the Sabines, was so called from the sun, because the Roman people gave him the expense of the State land, in order to make sacrifices to the Sun.”

This suggests that the family and Sol Indiges came to Rome at the same time, possibly after a Roman evocatio, to persuade the god to make Rome its home base in return for Roman worship. The Sabine Aurelii may well have come along to oversee his cult in Rome.

The Temple of the Sun

But the god’s main temple was not on the Quirinal but in the Circus Maximus, where datable remains go back to at least the 3rd century BC. Tertullian in his On Spectacles describes how the Romans set up the temple in the middle of the circus, with an image of the sun shining “ forth from its temple summit.”

Once again, this location is significant to the sun and his family. Tertullian attributes the choice of location to Circe, who according to Virgil lived near Rome at Monte Circeo. The name Circus derives from the sorceress’s name. Tertullian also describes how Circe dedicated the first spectacle in the area to her father, the sun.

The Significance of Sol Indiges

But what was the purpose of Sol’s festival on the 9th August? It seems that it was quite prosaic, and, as with many of festivals at this time of the year, linked to ensuring a bounteous harvest.

Varro in “De re Rustica” names Sol as one of the “twelve councilor gods,” and the “special patrons of husbandmen.” Sol, along with Luna, was always the second of these gods invoked in all matters agricultural because their “courses are watched in all matters of planting and harvesting” as the Romans perceived them to regulate the season and the months.

So it seems that the Romans celebrated this festival of this ancient Roman god at this time for no other reason than to ensure neither drought nor lack of sun could destroy the prospect of a good harvest.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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