Constantine: The Road to Greatness

Sometimes Rome was ruled by an Emperor who defaulted to the position without opposition. Other Emperors, however, arrived at greatness only after a calculated and prolonged struggle that eliminated all those who would oppose their rise. Such was the case with Flavius Valerius Constantinus: the man later known to history as Constantine the Great.

The early fourth century AD was a time of turmoil throughout the Roman world. The Tetrarchy, a structure of government founded by Diocletian in 286 AD, provided the possibility of stability across the huge empire but it also created power struggles between the Tetrarchs and others who thought they deserved a slice of the Imperial pie. While the forceful Augustus Diocletian himself was in power, the system worked well. Troubles began when questions of succession arose.

Constantine had the inside track on his road to prominence. Son of Constantius I Chlorus Augustus, Constantine was raised to be a powerful military leader. On the death of his father in 306 AD, Constantine was proclaimed Augustus by the troops in the West. Negotiations with the Eastern Augustus Galerius resulted in Constantine being recognized as Caesar but not as Augustus. During the next few years Constantine would be elevated and demoted again with his rank varying in different regions of the Empire. This confusion resulted in coins being struck in Constantine's name with both titles; not all Caesar coins predate all Augustus issues.

Constantine I Caesar (by Maxentius) - Bronze follis (26mm, 5.5g) - Rome mint - Autumn 307 AD
Roma seated in hexastyle temple (with shield, plain pediment) RIC 196 (Vol. VI p.376)

This week's Featured Coin shows Constantine as Caesar as recognized by Maxentius who controlled the mint of Rome at the time. Maxentius was the son of the retired Augustus Maximianus and brother of Constantine's new, politically expedient, wife Fausta. The coin was made possible by a short lived political alliance which would soon degenerate into open warfare. In fact, Maxentius was the opponent at the battle of the Milvian Bridge where Constantine first marched under the symbols of Christianity. Issues of Maxentius often used architectural reverse types. This example shows a temple with seated figure of Roma. This is one of the more common coins showing Constantine as Caesar. A complete collection would include many very scarce mementos of the short period during which Constantine was relegated to the junior rank.

Our next follis (26mm, 6.4g) is an example of the scarce issues for Constantine in the rank of Filius Augustorum. This situation was mentioned in a previous Feature on Maximinus II. Constantine never accepted this compromise position so any coin showing it must have been issued from an Eastern mint controlled by Galerius. The coin shown was from Nicomedia following the Council of Carnuntum that proposed the compromise but before Constantine was recognized as full Augustus across the Empire (December 308 to May 310). The reverse is the common Genius type (accompanied by the lesser title Caesar!) and shows a monogram CMH (5 o'clock reverse) with meaning unknown to me.

Coins showing Constantine as Augustus are among the most common of all ancients. This particular coin, however, has some added interest since it dates to a period (313-314 AD) of relative peace between Constantine and Licinius and was issued from the mint at Licinius' capital Antioch. Note that it is the same basic type as the coin I previously featured as a very common coin. Mintmarks and field devices (here a wreath on the reverse) mean everything to specialists in the series. By the time of this coin, inflation had reduced the follis to a much smaller size. This example is 18mm diameter and 2.9g. Mints issued coins for all recognized rulers but quantities found suggest mintages were often higher for the man who controlled that region of the Empire. By the time this coin was struck, there were only two men remaining in the struggle for Roman power. The civil war between the two would eventually result in Licinius' defeat and death leaving Constantine in total control. Only then would he be free to embark on his programs of building and reform that would cause him to go down in history as 'the Great'.

This short discussion certainly did no justice to the historical details of this complex subject. I hope you will feel compelled to do more reading on a most interesting period of Roman history.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith