March 7, 2011

Empire of the sun

‘On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.’

Sol Invictus at Constantines's side. Photo by jankow.

Thus, thanks to Constantine the First, we have Sunday, the day of rest.  Constantine was not thinking of a biblical Sabbath when he issued his decree on March 7 in 321 CE – known primarily as the first Christian emperor, builder of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he nevertheless respected the traditional cult of the sun.

It had become an important religious tradition when Marcus Aurelius Antoninus became emperor early in the third century – Antoninus was a priest of the cult of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus. Both the emperor and his god are called Heliogabalus.

The sun cult flourished under Heliogabalus, who held a festival each year on the summer solstice, passing out food to the populace. It featured the personification of the god – a black basalt stone – being driven around Rome in a decorated chariot. Sol Invictus’s birth was celebrated on December 25.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Wayne McLean

The cult of Sol Invictus flourished under some emperors and waned under others, but never quite disappeared.  By Constantine’s time it was on the rise again and Constantine seems to  have hedged his bets by depicting the sun god on his coinage and later wearing an Apollonian diadem when he dedicated his new city of Constantinople.

And the black basalt stone, btw, was a meteorite.  Meteorites were frequently the object of veneration in ancient religious practices – Herodotus says of Heliogabalus’s stone that ‘This stone is worshipped as though it were sent from heaven.’

Constantinople, early 20th C, LoC, PPD.



  1. All these magical facts of history are written down somewhere, and you choose them,and then it comes to me in my living room. Amazing! The Story of Sunday!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — March 7, 2011 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  2. Ha! In the country they “may continue working.” I read “tote that barge and lift that bale.”


    Comment by Carol — March 7, 2011 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  3. Fab story great reporting


    Comment by avery — March 7, 2011 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

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