The "Sign" that Changed the World

By Ross Nightingale

Constantine dreamed he saw a Christogram in the sky and heard the words IN HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS, meaning in Latin "In this sign you will be the victor."  He ordered the sign of Christ on his legions standards and shields.  He won a great victory and later became the first Christian Roman Emperor

Dreaming is a natural part of being human. Almost everyone dreams at some stage during their life, and for most people, life in the ‘post dream’ world continues on as usual. For some people however, a dream can profoundly change the way they think and act. One such dream of notable significance has left its mark on history for almost 1700 years. It was a dream, accompanied by a vision. A vision of a sign. This sign, a simple overlaying of the Greek letters Chi (C) and Rho (R) was an integral part of what we now know as the Labarum[1] of Constantine.

Chi Rho Symbol seen at centre on Constantine’s victory Arch

It appeared to Constantine on the eve of his memorable battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on October  28th AD 312.[2] According to two contemporary sources, Constantine was afraid of Maxentius’ apparent supernatural power, and so in response prayed to the ‘Almighty God’ for victory over his foe. It was shortly after this that he experienced the vision, or dream that would change his life, and further, would change the future direction of the world itself. According to one of the sources, Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine had a vision in which the superimposed letters appeared to him accompanied by the words ‘in this you shall conquer’. A second contemporary source Lactantius, states that Constantine was also instructed to place the symbol on the shields of all his soldiers prior to the battle. History records that this is what he in fact did, and that the result of the ensuing battle was a decisive victory to Constantine and his troops.




Sol Invicto

The reverse of three bronze coins minted during Constantine’s early years

The sign itself is believed to be a form of Christian monogram (Christogram), the letters Chi (C) and Rho (R) being the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ (CRISTOS). Up till the time of his vision, Constantine like many of his predecessors had worshipped the Greek and Roman gods, particularly Apollo, Mars and Victory. This fact is evident in the portrayal of these gods on the earliest of Constantine’s coins. Yet surprisingly, even after his dream experience, and subsequent victory over Maxentius, it is recorded that he continued to worship these gods. Although the images of Apollo, Mars and Victory quickly disappeared from his coinage, later coins minted under Constantine shows that he likely continued to worship the sol invicta or ‘Unconquered Sun’ for 10 years or more after his dream experience. Yet, over a period of years, the experience of the sign, and the victory at the Milvian bridge, eventually led Constantine to favour and later to convert to the Christian faith.[3] As sole ruler of the empire, Constantine’s favour toward the Christian God and his Christ soon led to the support of the Christian God being the preferred deity of the empire. Subsequent successors to Constantine generally continued this trend, and as a result the Greek and Roman gods all but disappeared from Roman life.

Radiate – Sol
On Reverse of Constantine Bronze

This was the first time in history that Christianity had been favoured as the state religion. Until this time, Christians had been seen as a threat to the stability of Rome, since they refused to recant their faith and worship the more popular gods of Rome. This threat was further exacerbated by the fact that many emperors saw themselves as the incarnation of the gods they worshipped and therefore as deities themselves. A refusal to worship the emperor was seen as a form of active rebellion against Rome. During these earlier periods, persecution of Christians was therefore common, particularly during the first century and then during the reigns of Decius, Diocletian and Galerius.

The coins issued during the 400 years following the birth of Christ testify to this movement from worshipping the gods of Rome to embracing the Christian faith. Earlier coins such as those of Nero and Decius often depict the Roman understanding that the Emperor was an incarnate god. The radiate coins of the third century also testify to this fact that the Emperors saw themselves as the embodiment of the god they worshipped. The radiate crown worn by the emperors, as depicted on the obverse of many of these coins, is symbolic of their close association with Sol, the sun god. By the time of Constantine, the various gods worshipped throughout the empire became a regular feature on Roman coinage. As stated already, these gods also featured regularly on the earliest coins minted under Constantine. There is a notable change however after about 10 years into Constantine’s reign. Many of the Roman gods are missing from the coins minted at around this time. Even the representations of Sol become somewhat less common at this point, and are replaced instead by neutral images of Constantine’s conquests, and soldiers bearing the traditional imperial standard.

Magnentius’ Bronze Maiorina

Interestingly though, the Chi Rho symbol which played such an important role in establishing Constantine as sole heir of the empire did not feature as a dominant motif on his coins. In fact only a few, somewhat rare bronze coins minted in Constantinople in about 327 AD feature this mark.[4] It was only following Constantine’s death and the subsequent reign of his successors that the symbol became popular on coins minted by the empire. Constantine’s son Constantius II (AD 337-361) had several issues minted with the reverse showing a soldier carrying Constantine’s labarum. Similarly emperors such as Valentinian I (AD 364-375) and Valens (AD 364-378) also chose this motif for their coins. One of the clearest uses of the Chi Rho symbol however is found on the bronze ‘Maiorina’ coinage of Magnentius (AD 350-353). This supposed ‘usurper’ emphasized his Christian standpoint in order to gain publicity by placing the Chi Rho symbol as the sole motif on the reverse of his coins. Over a period of years however, the Labarum of Constantine slowly gave way to the crucifix as the preferred symbol of Christianity on Roman coins. Later emperors such as Majorian (457-461) and Zeno (474-491) made good use of this. As Roman history entered the Byzantine era, the Chi Rho Labarum finally faded from history.

However, the legacy of Constantine’s vision, and his subsequent conversion live on in various forms even now, in the twenty first century. It was these events during Constantine’s reign that propelled what we know as western civilization into action. Much of our western culture owes its existence to Constantine’s amalgamation of Christianity and the State. Our laws, arts, science, marriage, family structures and many of our cultural values all in some way reflect back to this period in history. Throughout the Roman, Byzantine, renaissance and post reformation eras, the effect of this relationship between Christianity and the State has continued to shape our way of life. Such is the result of one man’s dream.

Some examples of labarum reverse types minted by the Constantine dynasty are shown below.

Constans, A.D. 337-350

A1076a. Bronze AE3/4, RIC 87, gem about uncirculated, bold, sharp, outstanding, 1.70g, 17.4mm, 180°, Siscia mint, 337-340 A.D.; obverse CONSTANS P F AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse GLORIA EXERCITVS, two soldiers flanking labarum (chi-rho standard), GSIS ex; scarce

Constantius II, A.D. 337-361

2197. RIC 241, S 4001, VM 85, VF, 2.0g, 17.9mm, Siscia mint, 337-340 A.D.; obverse D N CONSTANTIVS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse FEL TEMP REPARATIO (happy days are here again) Constantius standing left in a galley, holding labarum (chi rho Christogram standard) and Phoenix on globe, Phoenix holds a wreath, Victory seated in stern steering ship, ESIS and symbol in ex

Vetranio, 1 March - 25 January, 350 A.D. 

A1174. Bronze Centenionalis, RIC 290, EF, fine near black patina, 3.84g, 22.8mm, 0°, Siscia mint, 350 A.D.; obverse D N VETRANIO P F AVG, laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right, A left, * right; reverse CONCORDIA MILITVM, Vetranio standing left, star above head, holding a labarum (chi-rho standard) in each hand, A left, ·ASIS* in ex;

Jovian, A.D. 363-364

A1216. Bronze AE1, RIC 238 variety, choice VF, nice near black patina, 8.31g, 27.5mm, 180, Thessalonica mint, 363-364 A.D.;
obverse D N IOVIANVS P F AVG, pearl- diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse VICTORIA ROMANORVM, Jovian standing right, head left, holding Victory on globe in left and labarum (chi-rho standard) in right, ·TESG· in ex; RIC 238 is rare, this variety is unrecorded for the third officina (G), research indicates this coin is unique

Gratian, A.D. 367-383

A1255. Bronze AE3, RIC 15 variety, gVF, 2.46g, 17.7mm, 180°, Arelate mint, 367-375 A.D.; obverse  D N GRATIANVS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse GLORIA NOVI SAECVLI, Gratian standing right, head left, holding labarum (chi-rho Christogram standard) in right and resting left hand on shield on the ground, OF - III across fields, CON in ex; third officina is not recorded in RIC for this issue, rare

A1260. Bronze AE3, RIC 14(c), gVF, superb green patina, 2.00g, 18.4mm, 0°, Siscia mint, 367-375 A.D.; obverse  D N GRATIANVS P F AVG, pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse GLORIA ROMANORVM, Valens advancing left holding labarum (chi-rho Christogram standard) in left and dragging captive, F left, R / S, right, ASISCE in ex

  Cameron, Averil. The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430. London: Fontana, 1993.
  Fletcher, Richard. The Conversion of Europe. London: Harper Collins, 1997.
  Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Vol 1. San Francisco: Harper, 1984.

  Maier, Paul L. Eusebius: The Church History. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999.
  Price, Martin J (ed). Coins- An Illustrated Survey 650 BC  to the Present Day. New York: Methuen, 1980.
  Roberts, J. M. The Triumph of the West. London: BBC, 1985.

[1] The Labarum, up till the time of Constantine, referred to the Roman standards, which often accompanied the emperor into battle. This military standard took on a radically different appearance under Constantine.

[2] Constantine, the son of Constantius Chlorus, was proclaimed Augustus over the territories of Britain and Gaul in the early years of the 4th century. Meanwhile Maxentius, the son of Maximian who had abdicated as Augustus in AD 305, had taken over Rome itself, effectively making both himself and Constantine controllers of the empire’s west.  Because of the history leading to his controlling Rome, Maxentius was believed by the remaining three rulers of the empire, to be a usurper.  

[3] It is believed that Constantine formally declared himself a Christian in AD 324, although it was some years later on his deathbed that he was baptised

[4] These coins depicted the defeat of Licinius by displaying the Labarum piercing a serpent which is believed to represent Licinius himself, who in later life rigorously opposed the Christian reforms of Constantine.