The Roman Pontifex Maximus

The Roman Pontifex Maximus

V. Head of National Sun Worship

By R. L. ODOM, Editor, The Watchman Magazine

One of the prerogatives of the Roman pon­tiffs was that they could "make laws for the observance of any religious rites, not established by written law or custom, which may seem to them worthy of receiving the sanction of law and custom.

It was in the days of the emperor-pontiffs that sun worship became the national religion of the Roman people.' Since the days of the Caesars the Oriental cult of Mithraism was spreading throughout the Roman world, so that in the middle of the second century, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, the worship of Mithra, a solar deity, was well known. At the same time we find that the practice of calling the days of the week by their planetary names was then in vogue. Commodus, the emperor-pontiff from 18o to' 192 A. D., was initiated into the mysteries of IVIithraism and is said to have had a human sacrifice offered therewith, a thing which Hadrian (117-138 A. D.) had for­bidden.

Later, Varius Avitus, who at the age of five had begun to be educated as a priest of Baal, the sun-god of Phoenicia and Syria, was made high priest of the sun while still a youth. In 218 A. D. he was made emperor and Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Empire. He immediately made sun worship the official cult of the nation. He built a temple to the sun on the Palatine hill and de­spoiled the temples of the other gods of the city to embellish that of the sun-god. The emperor himself assumed the title of Heliogabalus, or Elagabalus, the name by which the solar diety was known in the East.' "He wore his pontifical vest as high priest of the sun, with a rich tiara on his head."'

Because of his excessive cruelty and unre­strained vice, the reign of Heliogabalus was short, ending in 222 A. D. But ere this the day of the sun [Sunday] had already been received into the pagan religious calendar.

Writing not long after the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr addressed an apology to the emperor and people of the Roman Empire in defense of his religious views. In doing this, he used the pagan nomenclature for the days of the week, a thing he did not do in his writings to those who believed in the Holy Scriptures. To the heathen he said:

"On that called the day of the sun an assembly is had of all those dwelling in the cities and rural districts. . . . And the day of the sun we make an assembling of all together, because it is the first day, on which God, having changed the darkness and matter, made the world ; and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For on the [day] before that of Saturn they crucified Him; and on that, after the [day] of Saturn, which is the day of the sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught these things just as we have submitted to you for consideration."6

Tertullian, the Roman lawyer and ecclesi­astical apologist, wrote about 200 A. D. to the pagans:

"Others, certainly more cultured, think the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is known that we pray toward the east and make a festivity on the day of the sun. Do you do less? Do not most of you, in affectation of worshiping the heavenly bodies, at times move ,your lips toward the sun-rising? You certainly are the ones who also re­ceived the sun into the register of the seven days, and from among the days preferred it, on which day you leave off the bath, or you may defer it until the evening, or you may devote it [the day] to idle­ness and eating."6

Aurelian, the emperor-pontiff from 270 to 275 A. D., made the worship of Mithra, as the Invincible Sun, the official religion of the Ro­man Empire. "He set the priesthoods in order, he constructed the Temple of the Sun, and he founded its college of pontiffs ; and he also al­lotted funds for making repairs and paying at­tendants." On the coins of Aurelian, the sun-god is called Sol Dominus Imperil Romani, "The Sun, the Lord of the Roman Empire."

From that time forward the Roman emperors were the official high priests of the cult of the Invincible Sun. As such, Constantine I, shortly before the battle with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312 A. D., was praying toward the setting sun, according to his own report, when he saw a fiery cross appear above the solar disk, and an inscription which said : "In this (sign) conquer." s

While there may be a diversity of opinions about th,e circumstances and motives which in­duced Constantine to look with favor upon the Christian religion, his act of adopting the cross as his standard did, in fact, mark a turning point in the course of Roman history and con­stituted the beginning of a new era in that of the Christian church. In him we find for the first time the strange fact of the Pontifex Maxi­mus of Roman paganism using his office in be­half of the interests of an ecclesiastical party that would one day rise in power to the extent that one of its prelates, the bishop of the church in the Seven-hilled City, would assume for himself the heathen title and prerogatives of Supreme Pontiff in the religion of the state.


I. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, "Roman Antiqui­ties," bk. 2. ch. 73. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1937.)

2. See articles entitled "Pagan Week, Day of the Sun, and Calendar," which appeared in THE MIN­ISTRY, December, 1935; February and March, I036; also "Mithraism and the Pagan Week," the Ministry, January, 1939.

3. Biographical sketches of this emperor are given by Aelius Lampridius and Herodian in Scriptores Historiae Augustae, and some data may be found in Dio Cassius' "Roman History," bk. 78, ch. 30.

4. Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, p. 576, art. "Elagabalus."

5. Justin Martyr, "First Apology," ch. 67, a literal translation based on the Greek text found in Migne's "Patrologia Graeca," Vol. VI, cols. 427-431, 493-578.

6. Tertullian's Apology Ad Nationes (To the Na­tions), ch. 13, a literal translation. The Latin text says : "Vos certe estis, qui etiam in laterculum rep-tern dierum Salem recipistis, et ex diebus ipsum praelegistis, quo die lavacrum subtrahatis, ant in vesperam, differatis, ant otium et prandium curetis." See also Note 2, above.

7. Flavius Vopiscus, "The Deified Aurelian," ch. 35 (in Scriptores Historiae Augustae), (Putnams, New York, 1922).

8. For the story of Constantine and his Sunday laws, see articles entitled "The First Civil Sunday Law," the Ministry. October and November, 1935.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

By R. L. ODOM, Editor, The Watchman Magazine

May 1943

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Our Conduct and Pulpit Manners

Presentation at Northern Union Evangelistic Council, Minneapolis.

National Leadership in China

A Survey of Mission Problems, Methods, and Relationships.

Conference Bible Correspondence School

A presentation at the Northern Union Evangelistic Council, Minneapolis.

Bible Instructor's Personal Appearance

Observing a tasteful simplicity in our whole attire.

Bible Instructor's Place in an Effort

Presentation at Northern Union Evangelistic Council, Minneapolis, January, 1943.

Editorial Keynotes

Full Facts Furnish Wholesome Challenge.

Preparing Converts for Baptism

Advice shared at the Northern Union Conference, Minneapolis, December 29, 1942, to January 5, 1943.

The Evangelistic Sermon

In the preaching of the everlasting gospel, the evangelistic sermon is for the sole purpose of making Seventh-day Adventist Christians, thus preparing a people for the coming of Christ and His kingdom.

Advertising an Effort

How can we effectively arrest men's attention and induce them to listen to the word of truth?

Using Astronomy in the Pulpit

Encouragements and cautions on preaching the wonders of the heavens

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - RevivalandReformation 300x250

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)