Constantine the Great

Christian Symbolism
            on coins of Constantine the Great
on
bronze coins of Constantine the Great

    Some ancient sources  (Eusebius. The History of the Church 6:34) say that Philip, Roman emperor from A.D. 244-249, was the first Christian emperor. This passage is from the Origo Constantini -- "This Constantine was the first Christian Emperor except for Philip (the Arab) who, or so it seems to me, became Christian simply in order that the thousandth year of Rome might be said to belong to Christ rather than to idols."  .This was probably just a rumor started in an attempt to make Philip look bad before the Roman state accepted Christianity. The first coin with Christian over-tones may have been issued in the name of Salonina (260-268 A.D.), wife of Gallienus. There has been speculation that she was a Christian because a coin issued in her name had a reverse with the inscription AVE IN PACE (RIC V part 1 Mediolanum 58). There is no doubt that Constantine was the first emperor that embraced Christianity, though, and this page investigates the numismatic evidence of Constantine's conversion.

    People who expect to find Christian imagery on bronze coins of Constantine will be disappointed. “Of approximately 1,363 coins of Constantine I in RIC VII, covering the period of 313-337, roughly one percent might be classified as having Christian symbols.”1 The first instance of a chi-rho on a coin of Constantine is on a rare silver medallion issued from Ticinum in 315. This page is about the bronze coinage, though. There is only one bronze reverse that has a symbol associated with Christianity as part of the design- RIC VII Constantinople 19 & 26. There are more coins with symbols used as field marks, though. There is a VLPP from Siscia that has a chi-rho in the crossbar of the helmet, but it only occurs a few times, and then only in officina B. There are also the "eyes to the heavens coins", but this is not a solely Christian image; Greek coins used this upward gaze long before Constantine did.

    The field marks that have Christian significance consist of chi-rho’s and crosses. “Early Christian crosses came in several forms including the equilateral or Greek +, the letter tau T, the letter chi X sometimes called St. Andrew’s cross, the tau-rho monogram and the Latin cross crux immissa.”2 There is a question whether these symbols actually had any Christian relation. The chi-rho appeared for the first time in the third century B.C. on a Greek bronze of Ptolemy. Field marks served an internal function, and the mint supervisor probably picked the control mark. Since Constantine had been portrayed with Christian symbols on the silver medallion issued in 315, "mint supervisors thereafter felt free to use Christian signs as control marks or decorative embellishments on imperial coinage...In doing so, they were reflecting the emperor's veneration of Christian signs and his practice of employing them on his war helmet and military standards."3

    It is not so important what imagery Constantine used; but rather, it is more important what imagery he did not use. By 324, Constantine was the sole ruler of the Roman Empire and: "he did all this without attributing his success in any way to correct religio toward the ancient gods. It was in this pointed absence of piety toward the gods, as the traditional guardians of the empire, that his subjects came to realize that their emperor was a Christian."4

    Constantine also had to remember not to alienate the military. Constantine owed his position to the army, and he surely realized this. Constantine may have been a Christian, but the army at this time was mostly pagan. The word pagan comes from paganus, which means rustic or pertaining to the country, and most soldiers of the fourth century came from the provinces, or the country. Christianity took longer to spread to the countryside, so that is why the word pagan came to be associated with non-Christians.

    On some commemorative coins, Constantinopolis is holding a cross- scepter with a globe, often topped with a smaller globe, which may have had some religious significance. For more on this cross-scepter see the commemorative page.
 
 


London

RIC 119
& 120
A.D. 317
The reverse is SOLI INVICTO COMITI
there is a Greek cross in the left field
 
RIC 168
A.D. 320
IMP CONSTANT-INVS AVG high crested helmet, cuirassed, spear over right shoulder 
VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP [ Joyous (well-earned) victory to the eternal Prince] two Victories stg., facing one another, together holding shield inscribed VOT PR [VOTA POPULI ROMANI (vows of the Roman people)] on altar. type 3d- Wreath with equilateral cross 
In exergue PLN RIC VII London 168 r1 
RIC VII London 168 VICTORIAE
                  LAETAE PRINC PERP


Trier

RIC 548
A.D. 332-3 
18mm      2.1gm 
Obv. CONSTAN-TINOPOLIS laureate, helmeted, wearing imperial mantle, holding scepter.
Rev. Victory stg. on prow, holding long scepter in r. hand, and resting l. hand on shield. in ex.  TRP star     RIC VII Trier 548 c3
"eyes to the heavens" bust
Trier 548
                    CONSTANTINOPOLIS


Arles

RIC 381
A.D. 334
CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG rosette-diadem, draped, cuirassed
GLOR-IA EXERC-ITVS [The glory of the army] Two soldiers helmeted, stg. facing one another, reversed spear in outer hands, inner hands on shields resting on the ground; between them two standards, Chi-Rho between the standards.
in exergue PCONST  RIC VII Arles 381 r4
RIC VII Arles 381 GLORIA EXERCITVS
RIC 385
A.D. 334
Obv. VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. 
Rev. She-wolf left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars. Chi-Rho between the stars.
PCONST
RIC VII Arles 385
RIC VII Arles 385 VRBS-ROMA
RIC 386
A.D. 334
Obv. CONSTAN-TINOPOLIS laureate, helmeted, wearing imperial mantle, holding scepter
Rev. Victory stg. on prow, holding long scepter in r. hand, and resting l. hand on shield. 
Chi-Rho in left field, in ex. PCONST 
RIC VII Arles 386
RIC VII Arles 386
                    CONSTANTINOPOLIS
RIC 402
A.D. 336-37 
CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG rosette-diadem, dr., cuir. bust 
GLOR-IA EXERC-ITVS [The glory of the army] dot Two soldiers helmeted, stg. facing one another, reversed spear in outer hands, inner hands on shields resting on the ground; between them one standard inscribed with letter chi (X) sometimes called St. Andrew’s cross 
 
RIC 407
A.D. 336-7
Obv. VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak. 
Rev. She-wolf left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars.  letter chi (X) sometimes called St. Andrew’s cross  between the stars.
in ex. PCONST
 
RIC 408

 

A.D. 336-7
Obv. CONSTAN-TINOPOLIS laureate, helmeted, wearing imperial mantle, holding scepter.
Rev. Victory stg. on prow, holding long scepter in r. hand, and resting l. hand on shield. 
 letter chi (X) sometimes called St. Andrew’s cross in left field.
in ex. PCONST 
 

The Chi-rho was used again in 336 for the one standard GLORIA EXERCITVS (RIC 394) VRBS ROMA (RIC 400) CONSTANTINOPOLIS  (RIC 401)


Ticinum

RIC 43
A.D. 317
IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG laureate, draped, cuirassed 
SOLI INVI-C-TO COMITI [In honor of the unconquered Sun (god), the companion of the Emperor] Sol rad., stg. L., raising r. hand, globe in l., chlamys across l. shoulder. 
there is an equilateral cross in the left field and star in right
SOLI INVICTO COMITI line drawing from Madden's
                    book
RIC 86
A.D. 318-19 
IMP CONSTAN-TINVS MAX AVG, helmeted, laureate, cuirassed 
VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP [ Joyous (well-earned) victory to the eternal Prince] two Victories stg., facing one another, together holding shield inscribed VOT PR [VOTA POPULI ROMANI (vows of the Roman people)]on altar inscribed with equilateral cross..
RIC VII Ticinum 86 
RIC VII Ticinum 86 VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP


Aquileia

RIC 58
A.D. 320 
CONSTA-NTINVS AVG Helmeted, cuirassed 
VIRTVS-EXERCIT [Valor of the army] Standard inscribed VOT/XX with captive seated on ground on either side.
in left field there is what may be a stylized Chi-Rho.
RIC VII Ticinum 43 VIRTVS-EXERCIT
RIC 124
A.D. 334-5 
CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG rosette-diadem, draped, cuirassed 
GLOR-IA EXERC-ITVS [The glory of the army] Two soldiers helmeted, stg. facing one another, reversed spear in outer hands, inner hands on shields resting on the ground; between them two standards, cross between the standards.
RIC VII Ticinum 124 GLORIA EXERCITVS


Siscia

RIC 52
A.D. 318-19 
IMP CONSTAN-TINVS MAX AVG helmeted, laureate, cuirassed 
VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP [Joyous (well-earned) victory to the eternal Prince] two Victories stg., facing one another, together holding shield inscribed VOT PR [VOTA POPULI ROMANI (vows of the Roman people)] on altar (type w).    deltaSIS   RIC VII Siscia 52 

This coin is significant because the deliberately broken legend (versus breaks because there is not room) on the obverse, which occurs above the head of Constantine, has been suggested to mirror an oriental concept that nothing should come between the king and heaven, or in this case, nothing should come between Constantine and heaven.

RIC VII Siscia 52 VICTORIAE
                    LAETAE PRINC PERP
RIC 61
A.D. 319 
IMP CONSTANT-INVS AVG high crested helmet, cuir., spear across r. shoulder, shield on left arm 
VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP [ Joyous (well-earned) victory to the eternal Prince] two Victories stg., facing one another, together holding shield inscribed VOT PR [VOTA POPULI ROMANI (vows of the Roman people)] on altar. 
BSIS dot    RIC VII Siscia 61
the Chi-Rho on the crossbar is only found on officina B 
RIC VII Siscia 61 VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP


Heraclea

RIC 92
A.D. 327-9 
CONSTAN-TINVS AVG head with plain diadem, looking up to heavens 
DN CONSTANTINI MAX AVG VOT XXX [30 year vows of our Lord, Constantine, the greatest emperor] 
dot SMHA 
RIC VII Heraclea 92 scarce 
RIC VII Heraclea 92 DN
                    CONSTANTINI MAX AVG VOT XXX


Constantinople

RIC 19
&
RIC 26
A.D. 327 
 CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG, laureate head right 
SPES PVBLIC, chi-rho atop standard of 3 medallions impaling snake 
A to left, CONSA in ex. 
Constantinople RIC 19 r4 
This is the only bronze with anything associated with Christianity as part of the actual design.
Constantinople RIC 19 SPES PVBLIC
RIC 32
late 327 A.D. 
Obv. CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG head with rosette diademed, looking up to heavens 
Rev. CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE [Constantinian Dafne] Victory seated l. on cippus, palm branch in each hand, looking r.; trophy at front, at the foot is a kneeling captive with head turned being spurned by Victory
gamma in left, in ex. CONS      RIC VII Constantinople 32 r2 
a series of these was issued including a rare anepigraphic type.
RIC VII Constantinople 32
                    CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE


Cyzicus

RIC  57
A.D. 328-9 
CONSTAN TINVS AVG head with plain diadem, looking up to Heavens 
PROVIDEN TIAE AVGG [In honor of the foresight of the Emperors] campgate with two turrets and star above. 
In exergue SMKB dot 
RIC VII Cyzicus 57  r5 
RIC VII Cyzicus 57 PROVIDEN
                    TIAE AVGG



 
 
 
SPES PVBLIC issued by Constantine I image from
                    CoinArchives.com
barbaric imitation of SPES PVBLIC image from
                    CoinArchives.com
SPES PVBLIC
Barbaric imitation

    So the SPES PVBLIC reverse "is the first coin type where the design explicitly proclaims Constantine's new faith."5 Some people may wonder why Constantine took so long before using Christian symbolism in an overt fashion on his coins. Constantine had to exercise some caution and not upset too many people, especially the army. "He was careful, and that was why his Christianization of the empire was only gradual...reflected in the slow and for a long time minimal infiltration of the coinage by Christianity."6

    Constantine, and Eusebius, compared serpents/dragons to evil on many occasions. In one instance, when he referred to Arius, Constantine talked about the serpent and the Devil as if they were one.

"Take heed, everyone take heed, how sad he sounds, when pierced by the serpent's sting [that is the Devil's]."7
 

Constantine also used the dragon/serpent symbolism to specifically describe Licinius.

"Like some wild beast, or a twisting snake coiling up on itself."8

"But now, with liberty restored and that dragon driven out of the public administration through the providence of the supreme God and by our service."9
 

    "The references to "liberty...restored" and the perishing dragon-serpents in the palace sermon and the episcopal letter must be the literary twins of the LIBERTAS PVBLICA and the pierced dragon coins issued about the same time." 10
 
 

Eusebius also described a painting that Constantine placed above the door to his palace.
 

    This he displayed on a very high panel set before the entrance to the palace for the eyes of all to see, showing in the picture the Saviour's sign placed above his own head, and the hostile and inimical beast, which had laid siege to the Church of God through the tyranny of the godless, he made in the form of a dragon borne down to the deep. For the oracles proclaimed him a 'dragon' and a 'crooked serpent' in the books of the prophets of God (Isaiah 27:1); therefore the emperor also showed to all, through the medium of the encaustic painting, the dragon under his own feet and those of his sons, pierced through the body with a javelin, and thrust down into the depths of the sea.11


    The coin shows three medallions on the standard. The medallions were portraits of Constantine I and two of his sons. The sons were probably Constantine II and Constantius II, as Eusebius said that Constantine personally showed him the standard. Eusebius did not meet Constantine until 325, and Crispus was dead by 326, so the other two sons are the most likely candidates to have been represented on the standard.
 

    The symbol of the Saviour's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner.12



 
Eyes to Heaven

   The ‘eyes to the heavens’ bust type was officially issued in bronze in three reverse types. It was used for VOT XXX, PROVIDENTIAE AVGG and DAFNE types. Sometimes this bust type turns up on CONSTANTINOPOLIS and VRBS ROMA, but this was probably more of the engravers decision than an official design from the mint. It may even turn up on other coins, like this votive from Siscia. it may be a complete accident that it has a slight tilt to the head or an example of artistic license on the part of the engraver.
    It was used more in eastern mints, maybe because Constantine was shifting his capitol to Constantinople. Why did Constantine use this bust type? This type was probably copied from an earlier Greek design, but what, if anything, prompted the use of this type?  This type was being issued circa 325-6. During this time, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicea in 325 and celebrated his vicennalia (15 year anniversary). Eusebius tells us this type was issued because of the religious conviction of Constantine.  Constantine was also in the process of moving the capitol to Constantinople at this time.  It seems likely that Constantine was sending a message to the world with the 'eyes to the heavens' coinage. A message of his increasing beliefs and convictions.

"How deeply his soul was impressed by the power of divine faith may be understood from the circumstance that he directed his likeness to be stamped on the golden coin of the empire with eyes uplifted as in the posture of prayer to God: and this money became current throughout the Roman world." Eusebius (IV.15)
 
 
A.D. 327-9
CONSTAN-TINVS AVG head with plain diadem, looking up to heavens
DN CONSTANTINI MAX AVG VOT XXX [30 year vows of our Lord, Constantine, the greatest emperor]
dot SMHA
RIC VII Heraclea 92 scarce
RIC VII Heraclea 92 DN
                    CONSTANTINI MAX AVG VOT XXX
A.D. 328-9
CONSTAN TINVS AVG head with plain diadem, looking up to Heavens
PROVIDEN TIAE AVGG [In honor of the foresight of the Emperors]
campgate with two turrets and star above.
In exergue SMKB dot
RIC VII Cyzicus 57   r5
RIC VII Cyzicus 57 PROVIDEN
                    TIAE AVGG
A.D. 328
Obv. CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG head with rosette diademed, looking up to heavens
Rev. CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE [Constantinian Dafne] Victory seated l. on cippus, palm branch in each hand, looking r.; trophy at front, at the foot is a kneeling captive with head turned being spurned by Victory
gamma in left, in ex. CONS      RIC VII Constantinople 32 r2
RIC VII Constantinople 32
                    CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE
circa 327 A.D.
Obv. Anepigraphic: head with rosette diademed, looking up to heavens
Rev. CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE [Constantinian Dafne] Victory seated l. on cippus, palm branch in each hand, looking r.; trophy at front, at the foot is a kneeling captive with head turned being spurned by Victory
epsilon in left, in ex. CONS   unlisted bust type
Constantine the Great
                    Anepigraphic CONSTANTINIANA DAFNE ‘eyes to the
                    heavens’
A.D. 332-3
Obv. CONSTAN-TINOPOLIS laureate, helmeted, wearing imperial mantle, holding reversed spear
Rev. Victory stg. on prow, holding long scepter in r. hand, and resting l. hand on shield.
in ex.  TRP star    RIC VII Trier 548 c3
Trier 548
                    CONSTANTINOPOLIS
A.D. 335-337
Obv. VRBS-ROMA [City of Rome] Roma, helmeted, wearing imperial cloak.
Rev. She-wolf left with twins (Romulus and Remus); above, two stars.
SMAN theta   RIC VII Antioch 113
Constantine the Great VRBS ROMA Commemorative
                    ‘eyes to the heavens’

 
 
 



Suggested reading

Frederick W. Madden, Christian Emblems on the Coins of Constantine I. The Great, His Family, and His Successors. New York: Elibron Classics, 2003, original edition 1878.

Andreas Alföldi, The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome. Translated by Harold Mattingly. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, original edition 1948.

________.  “The Helmet of Constantine with the Christian Monogram.” The Journal of Roman Studies 22 (1932) : 9-23.

Guido Bruck, “Die Verwendung christlicher Symbole auf Münzen von Constantin I. bis Magnentius.” Numismatische Zeitschrift 76 (1955) : 26- 32.

Patrick Bruun,  “The Christian Signs on the Coins of Constantine.” Arctos 3 (1962) : 5- 35.

________.  “The Victorious Signs of Constantine: A Reappraisal.” The Numismatic Chronicle 157 (1997) : 41-59.

Charles Odahl,   “Christian Symbols on Constantine's Siscia Helmet Coins.” Society for Ancient Numismatics 8, no. 4 (Fall 1977) : 56-58.

________.  “The Use of Apocalyptic Imagery in Constantine's Christian Propaganda.” Centerpoint 4, no. 3 (1981) : 9-19.

________.  “God and Constantine: Divine Sanction for Imperial Rule in the First Christian Emperor’s Early Letters and Art.” The Catholic Historical Review 81 (July 1995) : 327-352.

Thomas Schweich,   “Constantinian Coinage and the Emergence of Christian Civilization.” The Numismatist (June 1984) : 1138-1152.

David Vagi,  “Religious Fusion Seen on Constantinian Bronze.” The Celator 9 (January 1995) : 14.

Rachelle Longtin,  “Constantine and Christianity: The Numismatic Evidence.” The Journal of the Classical & Medieval Numismatic Society 1 (September 2000) : 5-27.

Philip Kiernan,  “A Study on the Religious Propaganda of Ancient Coin Reverse Types, A.D. 313-337.” The Journal of the Classical & Medieval Numismatic Society 2 (June 2001) : 92-96.

Mark Dunning,  “First Christian Symbols on Roman Imperial Coins.” The Celator 17 (December 2003) : 6-26.
 


1 From an excellent article written by Mark Dunning, "First Christian Symbols on Roman Imperial Coins" and appeared in the December, 2003 issue of The Celator.

2 Ibid.

3Odahl, Charles. Constantine and the Christian Empire. p. 168-9.

4Peter Brown The Rise of Western Christendom  p 61.

5ElizabethHartley, ed. Constantine the Great  York's Roman Emperor. p 145.

6Michael Grant Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times. p. 155.

7Ibid. 175.

8Eusebius Vita Constantini Book 2,Chapter 1.2.

9Eusebius Vita Constantini Book 2,Chapter 46.2.

10 Charles Odahl. “The Use of Apocalyptic Imagery in Constantine's Christian Propaganda.” Centerpoint 4, no. 3 (1981) : 17.

11 Eusebius Vita Constantini Book 3,Chapter 3.

12 Eusebius Vita Constantini Book 1,Chapter 31.
 
 

Many of these pictures were originally taken by Doug Smith and are from Victor Failmezger's book Roman Bronze Coins-From Paganism to Christianity 294-364 A.D.
 
 

last modified on 25 Apr 2008

Constantine the Great