CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: The Christianization of Roman Coinage

christianroman

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek ....
 

We speak sometimes of the Roman religion as though it possessed a firm basis, but in fact it was constantly changing, the gods melting away and being replaced by others (Hale, 73).

Decline of Paganism

BY THE BEGINNING OF THE FOURTH CENTURY CE, the religious life of the Romans was in flux. Inevitably, this was reflected in coinage, where designs often depicted deities. Although the 12 Olympian gods[1] were still venerated in state-funded temples, the common people increasingly practiced a variety of “Eastern” or “mystery” religions. These included worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis; Mithras, a divinity of Persian origin who was especially popular with soldiers; and Serapis, a syncretic “Graeco-Egyptian” god invented by the Ptolemaic dynasty in the third century BCE.

And at a certain risk to themselves, a small minority turned to Christianity.

For even though pagan polytheism generally accepted imported gods, the growing population of Christians was persecuted or tolerated depending on the whim of the current ruler[2]. Christians (along with the Jewish minority) insisted that there was only one God, all others being either demons or false idols. Participation in official rituals showed allegiance to the state; refusal was a kind of treason.

Under the “Tetrarchy”, a system of two emperors and two co-emperors established by Diocletian (ruled 284 – 306 CE), a common deity on Roman coinage was “GPR” (Genius Populi Romani). In Latin, genius originally meant a protective spirit, like a guardian angel in Christian theology. He was depicted on coins as a muscular nude holding a patera (a shallow bowl used to pour offerings of wine) and a cornucopia (“horn of plenty.”) Pagans throughout the empire could identify "GPR" as one of their own gods or as a mythic hero like Hercules or Melqart.

Another popular “Eastern” divinity of the era was Sol Invictus, “the Unconquered Sun.” Emperor Aurelian (ruled 270-275) adopted Sol as his patron, and the god became popular with the legions, appearing on coins until the time of Constantine I (c. 325). Sol Invictus was depicted as a powerful youthful figure wearing the spiked “radiate" crown[3]. On some coins he drives the solar chariot across the sky; on others he stands beside the emperor, surrounded by the inscription Sol Invicto Comiti (“to the companion of the Unconquered Sun”).

Constantine the Great

Constantine was born about 272 at Naissus (Niš, Serbia). His father, Constantius Chlorus (“Constantius the Pale”, lived c. 250 - 306), was an army officer who rose to be a provincial governor and eventually co-emperor in the West (305-306). Constantine’s mother Helena (lived c.250-330) was a Christian, described as a “bar-maid” or innkeeper[4].

constantiusiWhen Constantius died at Eboracum (York, England) in 306, his troops proclaimed Constantine emperor.

In 312, Constantine invaded Italy to fight the rival army of Maxentius. Just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome (28 October 312), Constantine had a vision:

Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round at the top ... being the cipher of CHRIST... (Lactantius, 203)

In another version reported years later, Constantine was said to have seen the symbol in the sky, with the words, “By This, Conquer” - ἐν τούτῳ νίκα in Greek, or in hoc signo vinces in Latin (most educated Romans understood Greek, the language of the Christian scriptures). The Chi-Rho symbol, or Christogram, combines the first two Greek letters of the word "Christ"[5].

In gratitude for victory, Constantine adopted the Christian God as his patron, but as a politician and commander, he continued to observe the traditions of his predominantly pagan subjects and soldiers. The Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity throughout the empire, though persecution of Christians had largely ended with the death of Galerius in 311. The first appearance of the Christogram on coinage, datable to 315, is a rare silver miliarensis[6]. The tiny symbol appears on the crest of Constantine’s elaborate jeweled helmet.

The detail of the helmet indicates that Constantine’s commitment to Christ was already beginning to replace his devotion to Sol, just as that had replaced his devotion to Mars (Kent, 331).

The sacred imperial standard (labarum) carried before the army was a pole with a gilded Christogram at the top, and a crossbar bearing a purple banner emblazoned with silver medallions of the emperor and his sons. On a very rare bronze issue from Constantine’s new capital (which he modestly named after himself--Constantinople) this labarum appears piercing a serpent, a Christian symbol of evil[7].

Constantine appears on the obverse of some late gold solidi with no inscription, his eyes raised upward. In one of the few written references to an ancient coin design, Constantine’s biographer Bishop Eusebius (c. 260 – 340) wrote:

The great strength of the divinely inspired faith fixed in his soul might be deduced by considering also the fact that he had his own portrait so depicted on the gold coinage that he appeared to look upwards in the manner of one reaching out to God in prayer. Impressions of this type were circulated throughout the entire Roman world[8]. (Cameron, 158)

Constantius II

Constantine had four sons. Crispus was executed in 326, accused of an illicit relationship with his stepmother Fausta (also executed). When Constantine died in 337, having been baptized on his deathbed so he could go to Heaven free of sin, his remaining three sons battled each other and a series of rebels for control of the empire. Constantine II was killed by his brother Constans in 340. Constans, in turn, was murdered by his troops in 350, leaving Constantius II as sole emperor until his death in 361.

Perhaps 50% of the empire’s population was Christianized by then.

On his extensive and complex coinage Constantius II often depicts himself carrying the labarum, accompanied by the winged figure of Victoria (Roman version of the Greek goddess Nike.) Some types bear the inscription Hoc Signo Victor Eris (“By this sign, you will be the victor”) – a reference to the vision of Constantine. Ironically, Constantius II ordered the Altar of Victory[9] removed from the Roman Senate house in 357.

Magnentius and Vetranio

magnentiusMagnentius commanded the imperial guard in Gaul. When his troops revolted against the cruelty and misrule of Constans in 350, they proclaimed Magnentius emperor. Although he was a pagan, Magnentius tried to gain support from his Christian population by placing the Christogram prominently on the reverse of his coinage. The Greek letters alpha and omega appear between the arms of the X, a scriptural reference (Revelation 1:8 and 21:6-7). Defeated in battle by Constantius II, Magnentius, killed himself (11 August 353).

Vetranio commanded the legions on the Danube frontier when Constans was killed. Constantina, sister of Constantius (who was away fighting the Persians in the East), asked Vetranio to proclaim himself co-emperor to protect the dynasty. For 10 months he loyally performed this duty, abdicating when Constantius returned in December 350.

On his coinage Vetranio depicts himself holding a labarum in each hand.

Julian: Back to Paganism?

Born about 331, Julian was a cousin of Constantine I. Most of his relatives were killed in a savage purge, when the sons of Constantine attempted to eliminate every potential rival claimant to the throne. Julian was spared because he was a child.

Brought up as a Christian, he came to reject that faith, embracing Greek philosophy and pagan traditions.

When Constantius II died without an heir, Julian was the only surviving male relative of sufficient status to be emperor. Julian attempted to revive paganism without persecuting Christianity. On his coinage Julian appears with a beard, as a token of paganism (Constantine and his sons were all clean-shaven). The reverse of Julian’s common bronze coinage bears the image of a bull and two stars. Scholars have debated the meaning of this symbol; perhaps Julian was born under the sign of Taurus (April 19 – May 20). Unfortunately, his birthdate is unknown.

julianaugustus

Was the bull an endorsement of Mithraism, which sacrificed bulls as a cult ritual? Woods (2000) argues that the symbol is a “solar bull” connected to the worship of Sol Invictus.

Julian died in battle against the Persians in 363. His successors reversed his attempt to restore paganism. The novel Julian by Gore Vidal (1964) has boosted the popularity of his coins among collectors with an interest in Roman history.

Theodosius the Great

The dynasty of Theodosius (379 – 457) completed the eradication of paganism in the empire.

Theodosius I (“The Great”) decreed that Christianity would be the only legal religion in the Empire (Jews were grudgingly tolerated, with sporadic episodes of official persecution). Remaining pagan temples were closed, and the imperial treasury confiscated their wealth. The eternal fire tended by the Vestal Virgins in Rome was extinguished. The Olympic Games were banned in 393 because athletes competing naked offended Christian sensibilities.

The Cross, which horrified pagan Romans as an instrument of execution for criminals, gradually began to appear as a major design element on coins. For example, the reverse of a solidus of Honorius, son of Theodosius, shows an angel (re-imagined from the pagan Victoria) beside a tall jeweled cross. Coins struck in the names of several Theodosian empresses show the cross, surrounded by a wreath on the reverse.

jusinianiiFor many early Christians the Biblical prohibition of idolatry (Exodus, 20:4) discouraged the representation of Jesus in art. The earliest appearance of Jesus on a coin is the reverse of a unique gold solidus (now in a museum in Glasgow) struck to commemorate the marriage of Marcian and Pulcheria in 457. The reverse shows the wedding scene. Since the bride and groom had no living fathers to preside over the traditional Roman joining of hands, the engraver boldly depicted the standing figure of Christ conducting the ceremony.

A generation later, for another dynastic marriage of a middle-aged couple (Anastasius and Aelia Ariadne in 491), the image was repeated on a coin[10].

The Image of Jesus

The first appearance of the image of Jesus on a regular circulating coin (rather than a ceremonial issue) came two centuries later, as a defiant gesture of religious propaganda.

The Muslim Umayyad Caliphate had removed all pictorial imagery from its coinage, issuing purely calligraphic designs asserting the oneness of God. Emperor Justinian II ordered his mint to place the bearded image of Christ on the obverse of his gold solidus with the inscription “Jesus Christ, King of Kings.” He places his own standing figure on the reverse, holding a cross, with the inscription “Justinian, Servant of Christ.”

In recent auctions, high-grade examples of this popular type have sold for US$4,000 – 6000.

* * *

Notes

[1] Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Ceres, Minerva, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Vulcan, Mercury and Bacchus.

[2] Population estimates for the ancient world are guesses, but the consensus of historians is that the empire had about 60 million people in 300 CE, and about 10% were Christian.

[3] Familiar to Americans as the headgear of the Statue of Liberty.

[4] “It is unknown when or how she became a Christian” (Hill, 186). Constantine made her an empress; after her death the Church made her a saint.

[5] Coincidentally, for Latin speakers the symbol was a monogram of the word PAX (meaning “peace”).

[6] The coin is in a museum in Munich.

[7] In pagan imagery the serpent is more commonly a symbol of healing.

[8] Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine 4:15

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altar_of_Victory. This controversial Pagan object was restored by Julian in 361, removed by Gratian in 382, briefly restored by Eugenius in 392 and subsequently lost.

[10] Now in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. There is no good online image of this unique piece.

References

Alföldi, Andreas. “The Helmet of Constantine with the Christian Monogram”, Journal of Roman Studies 22 (1932)

Bruun, Patrick. “The Victorious Sign of Constantine: A Reappraisal”, Numismatic Chronicle 157 (1997)

Breckinridge, James D. The Numismatic Iconography of Justinian II. American Numismatic Society. New York (1959)

Eusebius. Life of Constantine. Transl. Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall. Oxford (1999)

Failmezger, Victor. Roman Bronze Coins: From Paganism to Christianity 294-364 AD. Washington, DC (2002)

Hale, William (editor). The Horizon Book of Ancient Rome. New York (1966)

Hill, Jonathan. Christianity: How a tiny sect from a despised religion came to dominate the Roman Empire. Minneapolis (2011)

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. VIII: The Family of Constantine. London (2003)

Lactantius. Works, Vol. II. Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Edinburgh (1871)

Mathews, Thomas F. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton (1993)

MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100 – 400. Yale (1984)

O’Donnell, James. Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity.
New York. (2015)

Shotter, David. “Gods, Emperors and Coins”, Greece and Rome 26 (1979)

Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. Sidney, Ohio (1999)

Vidal, Gore. Julian. New York (1964)

Woods, David. “Julian, Gallienus and the Solar Bull”, American Journal of Numismatics 12 (2000)
 

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