(Also see: "Byzantium and the Origins of the Renaissance Medal")
Old coins and their contribution. Considerable disparity exists among historians about the time of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and about the details of his momentous vision. There is also debate as to whether history can be deduced from the study of old coins or numismatics in general. It appears that in all three cases, the ultimate judgment must rest with each student, depending upon the degree of penetration and the quality of study applied. Verifiable facts -- the external evidence -- do not always explain the meaning of historical events or their internal significance. The interpretation of history is often a subjective involvement, as historians tend to provide their own understanding and interpretations.
An exemplary case of historical interpretation based on ancient coinage and existing literature is the following essay by the distinguished Constantinian Knight Commander, Craig Peter Barclay, M.A., M.Litt. The author has served as Keeper of Numismatics at the Yorkshire Museum in York, U.K. and has previously held curatorial positions at the Royal Mint and University of Aberdeen.
Hoc Signo Victor Eris:
Christian Symbolism on the Coinage of Constantine the GreatBy
In a world without newspapers and television, the circulating coinage provided a potent means for ruling authorities to disseminate political and religious propaganda. Few such authorities have been more conscious of the potential value of this medium than the Roman emperors, and it can be argued that none of those made more effective use of it than Constantine the Great.
As the first emperor to embrace the Christian faith, we might expect that Constantine’s religious convictions would figure prominently on the coinage of his reign. The degree to which this was actually the case has provoked great deal of scholarly argument and, in so doing, has provided a number of fascinating insights into the development of religious symbolism in the fledgling Christian Empire.
As Andrew Alfoldi has rightly observed (p. 41), ‘The coin types of the period are, in every case, mere feeble copies of those great works of art that have not come down to us.’ Nevertheless, he would contend, they have also provided us with ‘absolute proof that the Emperor embraced the Christian cause with a suddenness that surprised all but his most intimate colleagues.’ (Alfoldi, pp. 1-2)
(Fig. 1) Constantine the Great; bronze follis; AD 337-40
A more recent scholar, Andrew Burnett, however argues that representations of pagan gods only disappear from Constantine’s coinage after AD 318 and, even then, the designs that replaced them were primarily religiously neutral in content. ‘The only explicitly Christian coin designs were the representations of the emperor in an attitude of prayer, and a very rare design used by the mint of Constantinople in about 327, showing a banner with a chi-rho monogram spearing a serpent, representing his enemy Licinius.’ (Burnett, p. 145)
Clearly the nature and significance of the designs used by Constantine on his coinage are open to more than one interpretation. We must accordingly address the complex question: ‘Can we see the Christian faith of Constantine the Great reflected in his coinage?’
Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born in about AD 285 at Naissus in Serbia, the son of the Tetrarch Constantius I and his wife, the Empress Helena. After spending his early years as an effective hostage at the courts of Diocletian and his successor Galerius, Constantine escaped to the west, joining his father in York shortly before the latter’s death on 25 July AD 306. Proclaimed emperor by the army at York, Constantine spent the next eighteen years disposing of his rivals for control of the empire through an elaborate series of shifting political alliances and military campaigns.
During the early part of his reign representations of first Mars and then, from AD 310, Apollo-Sol dominated Constantine’s coinage. Mars had been intimately associated with the Tetrarchy, and Constantine’s use of this symbolism served to emphasise the legitimacy of his rule. After his breach with his father’s old colleague Maximian in AD 309-10, Constantine began to claim legitimate descent from the third-century emperor Claudius Gothicus. Gothicus had claimed the divine protection of the Apollo-Sol . As Burnett notes (pp. 143-44), in AD 310 Constantine experienced a vision in which Apollo-Sol appeared to him with omens of success. ‘Thereafter his coinage was dominated for several years by "his companion the unconquered Sol", SOLI INVICTO COMITI.’
(Fig. 2) Constantine the Great; bronze follis; AD 316-17
According to Lactantius, just prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, Constantine experienced a dream-vision urging him to trust the fate of his army to the Christian God, and to place the symbol of the monogrammatic cross on the shields of his army. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius’s account of Constantine’s vision differs slightly, claiming that Constantine experienced a vision at the beginning of his military campaign wherein the symbol of the cross appeared on the face of the sun, accompanied by the Greek words, ‘In this sign conquer’. Subsequently, Eusebius tells us, Constantine experienced a second vision, in which he was urged to use the Christian sign to protect himself from his foes. In response to this latter vision, Constantine had a labarum or standard produced, bearing the name of Christ in the form of a monogram of the Greek letters X and P (the Chi-Rho).
Whatever the detail, Constantine duly placed his trust in the Cross and duly defeated his imperial rival, Maxentius, on the outskirts of Rome itself. Nevertheless, in the wake of this great victory, no immediate change took place in the basic design of the coinage, with issues celebrating Sol Invictus continuing to form the bulk of the circulating medium. Indeed, as Vermeule (p. 180) explains, even in AD 313, on the very eve of the Edict of Toleration, Constantine was still portrayed on huge gold medallions in the company of Sol Invictus and bearing a shield decorated with a representation he sun-god’s chariot.
Nevertheless, after the final defeat of Licinius, the pagan gods disappeared from the coinage of Constantine, their place being taken by religiously neutral images. The question might be asked as to why Constantine did at last begin to make extensive use of specifically Christian images at this time but, as Runciman (p. 17) bluntly reminds us, ‘The earliest Christians took little interest in art.’
Accordingly, during the early 4th century AD, there were few artistic motifs available that could be relied upon to convey a specifically Christian message. Even the Chi-Rho, which is today universally recognised as a Christian sign, could be misinterpreted, Bruun (p. 61) reminding us that, ‘The sign, at the moment of its creation, was ambiguous. In essence it was a monogram composed of the Greek letters X and P, and, while the monogrammatic combination of these two letters was by no means unusual in pre-Constantinian times, the occurrence of X P with a clearly Christian significance is exceedingly rare.’ The potential significance of the sign would initially have been lost on the non Greek-speaking population of the empire, who might more readily have interpreted the sign as being linked to Solar or Mithraic worship.
Such initial ambiguities notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that Constantine saw his victorious sign as being an explicitly Christian symbol nor that, in the wake of the writings of Eusebius and Lactantius, its religious meaning came rapidly to be universally recognised. Constantine made only sparing use of the Chi-Rho on his coins, confining its use to a few scarce issues only. Following his death however, this most powerful symbol came to be used increasingly frequently, both as a means of celebrating the religious convictions of the succeeding emperors, and as a means of affirming the legitimacy of their succession from Constantine.
(Fig. 3) Eudoxia; gold solidus; AD 397-402
Although also adopted by Constantine’s sons, the most prominent early use of the Chi-Rho occurred during the reign of the usurper Magnentius (AD 350-53), who struck large bronze double centenionales decorated with a large Christogram flanked by the Greek letters alpha and omega. Thereafter the symbol appeared time after time on the coinages of both the western and eastern empires, its position as the primary symbol of the new state religion only gradually being superseded by the plain, unadorned Cross.
As the image of the emperor most commonly seen by the public, the portrait of the emperor reproduced on the imperial coinage was considered to be of the utmost importance. Constantine’s coinage portraits break away from the traditions of the previous two centuries, calling upon both earlier Imperial and Greek precedents for inspiration. The Imperial beard, which had been sported by almost all emperors since the beginning of the second century, was abandoned and replaced by a clean shaven image. Likewise, the laurel wreath or solar crown which had dominated the coinages of the second and third centuries were dropped in favour of an eastern diadem, or, less frequently, a military helmet.
(Fig. 4) Constantine the Great; gold solidus; AD 326
One particular version of the new imperial image has attracted particular attention. Eusebius (4.15) was quite explicit in his statement that Constantine was portrayed on his coinage in an attitude of prayer: ‘He directed his likeness to be stamped on a gold coin with his eyes uplifted in the posture of prayer to God … this coin was current through the Roman world and was a sign of the power of divine faith.’ Burnett recognises this passage as important evidence implying ‘that important members of the higher social classes noticed coin designs’, adding that ‘There can hardly be any doubt that Eusebius had seen the coins in question’.
(Fig. 5) Constantine the Great; gold solidus; AD 326-27
Not all authors have accepted these coins as representing the emperor’s devotion to the Christian faith and, as L’Orange has pointed out (1947, p.34), the ‘heaven-gazing’ coin portraits of Constantine have been the subject of numerous interpretations, including an argument that it should be interpreted as a representation of the Sol-emperor Constantine fixing his gaze upon the goddess Luna. L’Orange (1947, p.94) would consequently argue that, ‘Constantine as Christian orant is, therefore, an arbitrary interpretation of his heavenward-looking portrait. This does not however alter the fact that the type became for Christians, perhaps owing to the very weight of Eusebius’ authority, an expression of Constantine’s inspired relation to their own God, a representation of the Christ-emperor.’
This argument has in part been fuelled by the undoubted fact that the so-called Constantinus orans portrait type is ultimately derived from pagan prototypes first seen during the reign of the Hellenic monarch Alexander the Great (Toynbee, p. 148). Bruun (p. 33), who does not accept that the coin type bears any specific Christian significance, nevertheless concedes that the heavenward-gazing portraits of Constantine recall ‘portraits of the Hellenistic ruler, whose heavenward look expresses the inner contact between the emperor and the heavenly powers.’
Most however have been more than content to recognise the Christian spirituality of these most beautiful images. The heavenward-gazing portrait is not peculiar to the coinage and Alfoldi (p. 34) recalls that ‘Apart from the monogram of salvation, the statues, paintings, and coin-types displayed, throughout the Empire, the gaze of the "most religious Majesty", directed heavenward’. The same point has been effectively argued by L’Orange (1965, pp. 123-24), who noted in writing of a colossal head of Constantine from the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome that ‘The eyes, being supernaturally large and wide-open and framed by the accentuated concentric curves of the deepcut lids and brows, express more clearly than ever the transcendence of the ruler’s personality. In this gaze he travels far beyond his physical surroundings and attains his goal in a higher sphere, in contact and identity with the governing powers. Providence in person, the irresistible controller of fate, fatorum arbiter, rises before us, with all the future on his knees.’
Yet another distinguished scholar likewise observes that, ‘Long before his formal conversion to Christianity Constantine had associated himself with purely Christian policy, and his finer portrait show the upward-tilted head of the man with his mind on the heavens, or the facing head, dazzling within its halo, of the world’s half-Christian master.’ (Sutherland, p. 103). Irrespective of the pagan origins of the orant portrait it had, through its adoption by Constantine, come to express a wholly new significance. ‘The outward forms of expression remain very much as before … But the inner meaning has completely changed. The pagan Emperor was never clearly distinguished in nature from the deity whose vice-regent he was: hence the divine attributes and all his pomp and state. The maiestas of the Christian Emperor, the "vicarius Dei", is wholly derivative: between him and his God there is a fixed and impassable gulf, that between the creature and his Creator, which God-given Grace alone can bridge.’ (Toynbee, p. 149)
It is significant that the orant portrait was used not only on coins of Constantine himself, but also on coins struck during his reign in the names of is appointed successors (L’Orange 1947, p. 91). After his death in AD 337 however, Constantine’s sons made only very limited use of the highly distinctive portrait, perhaps regarding it as being a reflection of their father’s personal relationship with his God.
If the orant portrait did not long survive the death of Constantine, other stylistic elements of his coin portraits did. From this point onwards the imperial image reproduced on the coinage ceased to attempt accurately to reproduce the actual features of the living monarch. Instead the portraits became mere ciphers, representing a stylised rather than personal image of imperial majesty. All of these images nevertheless borrowed heavily from Constantinian prototypes adopting, for example, the eastern diadem and clean-shaven features of the first Christian emperor. Indeed, the clean shaven portrait came so closely to be associated with the new faith that when the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 360-63) briefly gained the throne, he swiftly adopted a bearded portrait in order to disassociate himself from his Christian predecessors. With Julian’s death, shaven portraits once again became the norm, remaining so until long after the fall of Rome.
Alfoldi (p. 27), in arguing that Constantine’s religious policy was not based on ‘conscious ambiguity’, states that the appearance of the Chi-Rho on Constantine’s helmet ‘on issues of coins from all quarters, soon after the defeat of Maxentius, loudly and unmistakably claimed where Constantine stood.’ He further asserts that, ‘We can prove beyond a doubt, by the evidence of coin types appearing soon after, that Constantine caused the monogram of Christ to be inscribed on his helmet before the decisive battle with Maxentius’. (Alfoldi, p. 17)
Alfoldi (pp. 39-40) further states, in defence of the significance of the Chi-Rho that, ‘Eusebius knows that Constantine not only bore the Christian symbol on his helmet in the fight against Maxentius, but continued to wear it in his golden, bejewelled helmet of state. When … the representation of this helmet, that was new in its pattern, soon appears on the coins, we cannot possibly regard it as a mere sign of zeal on the part of Christian subordinates. The tiniest detail of the imperial dress was the subject of a symbolism that defined rank, that was hallowed by tradition and regulated by precise rules. Anyone who irresponsibly tampered with it would have incurred the severest penalties. Especially would this have been the case if anyone, without imperial authority, had provided the head-gear of the Emperor with a sign of such serious political importance as that attached to the monogram of Christ’.
A very similar position has been adopted by Voght (p. 90), who explains that, ‘we have other witnesses to the piety of the new ruler of Rome and from these we learn that Constantine gave public expression to his gratitude to his divine patron. The magnificent silver medallion, whose obverse and reverse depict the conquest and liberation of the city, was probably struck at the mint of Ticinum (near modern Milan) as early as 313: and on the obverse the monogram appears, on the crested plume of Constantine’s helmet. In a prestige issue of this type, the incorporation of the Christ-monogram into the portrait of the emperor could only have been done on the highest authority.’
Burnett (p. 146) similarly draws attention to the same silver medallion (actually struck at Rome or Aquileia in AD 315) and a series of small bronze coins struck at Siscia in c. AD 320. On all of these, the emperor is clearly portrayed with the Chi-Rho symbol prominently displayed on his helmet. ‘It is indeed hard to disassociate them from Eusebius’s explicit statement that Constantine placed the Chi-Rho on his helmet, but the very occasional nature of its appearance on coins should make us cautious about making too much of this. On coins issued in about 322 at Trier, for instance, the chi-rho appears as the decoration on the shield held by Constantine’s son Crispus; but it happened on only one die and must represent the personal choice of a die engraver, as the other shields for the same group of coins have different sorts of decoration on the shields.’
Even Bruun (p. 63), who is dismissive of the appearance of the Christogram on some Victoriae laetae princ perp coins of Siscia (describing them as ‘engraver’s slips’), accepts the symbolic significance of the use of the same symbol on the silver medallions of AD 315, writing that, ‘The silver multiples with their facing portraits represent an altogether different case. The Chi-Rho is here set in a badge just below the root of the crest. The official character of the badge has recently been demonstrated in a convincing manner. No doubt, therefore, persists about the meaning of the new emblem: the emperor has adopted his own victorious sign as a symbol of power.’
The mint of Constantinople was in operation by AD 327, some three years before the formal dedication of the city. A series of bronze coins of that year celebrate the defeat of Licinius. The reverse of this issue bears the legend Spes Publica, and portrays a serpent being pierced by a Chi-Rho topped labarum.
For Alfoldi (p. 39), ‘The spectacle of the Christian monogram on works of art and coin-types, the blaze of the initials of Christ on the labarum, the new imperial banner, were all propaganda in the modern sense’. Even Bruun (p. 64), whilst generally dismissive of the existence of Christian symbols on the coinage of Constantine, is forced to concede that ‘The problem of the labarum piercing the dragon on the Constantinopolitan Spes publica bronzes remains.’
Whilst rarely used during Constantine’s reign, the Christian labarum becomes a frequent and recurrent feature of the coinage following his death, normally being closely associated with a representation of a victorious emperor. One particular issue, struck at Siscia in AD 350, makes specific reference to Constantine’s vision, bearing the labarum accompanied by the legend Hoc Signo Victor Eris - ‘In this sign shalt thou conquer’.
(Fig. 6) Constantius II; bronze coin of Siscia; AD 350
During the Roman period coins were struck at a large number of mints situated throughout the empire. As a quality-control mechanism, the coins struck by each of these mints were required to bear distinctive mintmarks, identifying their place of manufacture. The decision to use the Chi-Rho or other apparently Christian symbols as mintmarks on some of Constantine’s coins is dismissed by Bruun (p. 62) as being the responsibility of procurators or, in one case, the rationalis summarum. Approval to use these symbols was given ‘very far from the emperor and court and comes sacrarum largitionum.’
Burnett (pp. 145-46) likewise acknowledges that the Chi-Rho appears on a number of issues of coins ‘as one of the stock symbols used for mint-marks’, but - like Bruun - argues that its use is more likely to reflect the rise of Christian administrators to positions of authority in Constantine’s regime rather than an official policy decision. Even if not centrally authorised, the first use of Christian mintmarks can accordingly be seen to be of the greatest significance, illustrating as it does the shift in the status of Christians within the machinery of the Roman state. Not surprisingly, in the years that followed, the choice of both the Chi-Rho and the plain Cross came increasingly to form a key element of the privy marks adopted by the empire’s numerous mints.
On 17 May AD 330 Constantine dedicated his new eastern capital of Constantinople. Alfoldi (p. 110) draws attention to ‘the small bronze coins and medallions, issued in mass, on which the sceptre of the "Tyche", the goddess who personifies the city, is shown the globe of Christ - which means to say that the new capital is the ideal centre of the Christian world-empire.’ As Alfoldi (p. 116) explains, ‘On the shoulder of the personification of the New Rome is shown the globe of the world, set on the cross of Christ, symbolising the new capital of Christendom.’
Bruun (p. 63) is dismissive of Alfoldi’s interpretation of the supposed ‘cross-sceptre’ carried by the personification of Constantinopolis. On the basis of an examination of related issues, he argues convincingly that the ‘globe’ is no more than the globular end of a reversed spear, and that the cross-bar seen on many coins is in fact merely a two-dimensional representation of what was, in reality, a three-dimensional disc. Bruun accordingly contends that these issues convey no intended Christian significance.
(Fig. 7) Valentinian III; gold solidus; AD 455
Nevertheless, the supposed cross-sceptre was subsequently perceived by many to have possessed a Christian significance and, its original neutral status notwithstanding, it came to serve as a symbol of the Church in its own right. On the coinage, this survival is well demonstrated by an issue of large bronzes struck in the name of Valentinian II at Rome in AD 378-83. On these rare coins the emperor is portrayed bearing a cross sceptre tipped with a globular Chi-Rho, whilst on other later issues, the cross-sceptre is shown in a greatly simplified form.
After his death in AD 337, Constantine was deified by the Senate, his sons issuing commemorative coins in his name in the traditional style. Eusebius (4.37) records that, "A coin … (had) on one side a figure of our blessed prince, with head closely veiled; the reverse showed him sitting as a charioteer drawn by four horses, with a hand stretched downward from above to receive him up to heaven".
(Fig. 8) Constantine the Great; posthumous bronze coin; AD 337-40
Burnett (p. 146) observes that the iconography of his metamorphosis, as represented on the coins struck to commemorate it, was Christianised: ‘Previous emperors had ridden up to heaven in a chariot; Constantine was received by the manus dei. The "hand of God" was, with the Chi-Rho monogram, one of the most important Christian symbols to appear on the coinage of the late empire.’ By way of illustration, a very similar image to that appearing on the coins of the deified Constantine may be observed on one of the panels of the early 5th century door of the Church of S. Sabina in Rome. There the Ascension of Elijah is portrayed, the prophet being conveyed heavenwards in a chariot with the divine assistance of an angel. The manus dei also appears on many coins, frequently crowning the emperor or his consort with a diadem or laurel wreath.
(Fig. 9) Galla Palacidia; gold solidus; AD 426-30
Whilst there can be little dispute that the Coinage of Constantine the Great did indeed express his religious convictions, it is equally true that it was not exceptionally rich in Christian symbolism. As Bruun (p. 64) reminds us however, ‘There was no independently Christian artistic tradition. The Christian ideas now about to conquer the State had to employ old means to express new conceptions.’
(Fig. 10) Honorius; gold solidus; AD 422
Constantine was nevertheless recognised by his contemporaries and near-contemporaries as the first Christian emperor, and through the writings of Eusebius, certain elements of his coinage came inextricably to be associated with the triumphant faith. As Bruun correctly records, ‘The victor is the official interpreter of history, and Christianity was the true victor of the Milvian Bridge and Chrysopolis. Thus Constantine’s victorious sign, his helmet, his seeming cross-sceptre and the aura around his head were adopted by posterity as Christian symbols, Christian signs of power.’ The Cross truly had triumphed.
(Fig. 11) Valentinian III; gold tremissis; AD 425-55
Alfoldi, A. (1948) The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bowder, D. (ed.) (1980) Who Was Who in the Roman World, Oxford: Phaidon.
Bruun, P. (1966) The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. VII: Constantine and Licinius AD 313-337, London: Spink
Burnett, A. (1987) Coinage in the Roman World, London: Seaby.
Carson, R.A.G. (1981) Principal Coins of the Romans Vol. III: The Dominate, AD 294-498, London: British Museum Press.
L’Orange, H.P. (1947) Apotheosis in Ancient Portraiture, Oslo: Aschehoug.
L’Orange, H.P. (1965) Art Forms and Public Life in the late Roman Empire, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Parker, H.M.D. & Warmington, B.H. (1958) A History of the Roman World AD 138 to 337 (2nd ed.), London: Methuen.
Runciman, S. (1975) Byzantium: Style and Civilisation, London: Penguin.
Sutherland, C.H.V. (1955) Art in Coinage: The Aesthetics of Money from Greece to the Present Day, London: Batsford.
Toynbee, J.M.C. (1947) ‘Ruler Apotheosis in Ancient Rome’, Numismatic Chronicle.
Vermeule, C. (1978) ‘The Imperial Shield as a Mirror of Roman Art on Medallions and Coins’ in Carson, C. & Kraay, C.M. (eds.) Scripta Nummaria Romana: Essays Presented to Humphrey Sutherland, London: Spink.
Voght, J. (1965) The Decline of Rome: The Metamorphosis of Ancient Civilisation, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
[Ed. The significance and contribution of old coins cannot be underestimated. ]
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