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XXI

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Propaganda on the Coinage of Constantine the Great

By Bill Dalzell

The coinage of Constantine the Great, commonly known as the first Christian emperor, is a favorite of collectors and professional numismatists both for its abundance and for its beauty. However, the coins issued by Constantine were not simply made for their monetary or aesthetic value; they also carried a message. This message often attested to Constantine’s legitimacy or might. To examine the propaganda and the messages on the Coinage of Constantine, one must first understand the history of the time period and the methods of coin examination.

With the death of the Augustus Constantius in 306 AD, the troops in Britain proclaimed his son Constantine Augustus. The Empire at the time was ruled by a tetrarchy of two Augusti, a senior and junior, and two Caesars. Constantius was co-Augustus with Galerius; the two Caesars were Severus II and Maximinus. With the proclamation of Constantine as Augustus, civil war erupted across the Empire. Eventually, the various factions solidified with Constantine as Augustus of the West and Maxentius as Augustus of the East. At the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge, Maxentius was defeated and Constantine consolidated his power. [1]

In addition to the smoldering civil wars, superstition was another important feature of this time period. Historian Jacob Burckhardt states that, “religious superstition…pervaded and controlled all…”[2]. This is seen in the superstition surrounding Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  Prior to the battle, Constantine saw a dream or a vision of a cross covering the sun and was told to “Conquer in this sign.” The Emperor then ordered all of the shields of his troops to be painted with a Christogram or chi-rho, which was later seen on some of his coinage. The superstition of the era is also reflected on the coinage of the various Augusti, who often appear in the guise of a god or other mythological figure.

The manufacturing of coins under Emperor Constantine was a government-controlled industry. By this time, the local and provincial coinages of the early Empire had been abolished by Diocletian’s monetary reforms of 296 AD. Coins now depicted standardized designs; with mint marks to illustrate which mint the coin came from. However, while the basic designs were handed down by the government, individual moneyers or mint masters often had great control of the process of engraving the individual dies.[3] Evidence of the freedom of moneyers is seen in the numerous minor variations in design that are common on coins of this time. With the general governmental control of the coinage, all designs obviously represent the perspective of the government.

There are two general ways in which to examine coins: the first is to consider individual pieces, often with the goal of uncovering historical information. In this method, special attention is paid to inscriptions and designs depicting such things as architecture and transportation. The second method of the examination of coins is to consider not only individual coins, but also other designs produced over a particular period. This method is particularly useful when studying the propaganda of a coinage. Andrew Burnett, an archaeologist and numismatist, notes that, “[this method] can be very revealing about the aspirations and claims of any regime” [4].

The main purpose of any numismatic propaganda is legitimization of the ruler and his government. This is particularly true for the coinage of Constantine: with the recent power struggle between Constantine and his rivals, legitimization was extremely important. However, the process of legitimizing was likely different whether it was for the lower or the upper classes. Sutherland states that “gold… bore types suitable for conservative upper class consumption and that those of the silver were frankly military in tenor” [5]. He later goes on to examine the coinage of the follis, the common bronze coin of the time, which was obviously slanted towards the lower classes.


Figure 1.  Bronze AE 3, RIC 58,  Alexandria mint, 3.51g, 17.3mm, 0o, 333 - 335 A.D.; obverse CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG, rosette-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; reverse GLORIA EXERCITVS, two soldiers flanking two standards, SMALB in exergue

The folles of Constantine often depicted the common theme of two soldiers facing each other with standards and spears on the reverse, in addition to the omnipresent Imperial portrait on the obverse. (Figure 1) The legends on these types read, CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG and GLORIA EXERCITVS, meaning “Constantine Augustus” and “the glory of the army.” This type could possibly be interpreted as an attempt by Constantine to legitimize his rule by a show of force. However, the soldiers are shown in a relaxed attitude, leaning on their spears. This is the position of a guard and thereby symbolizes the protective powers of the Emperor. Protection from both interior and exterior threats was important to the people of the time, particularly the lower classes, whom bronze coinage was intended for. On some rare examples of this coinage from the mint at Arelate and Aquilia, the chi-rho is seen on the standard.[6] Numismatist Patrick Bruun explains that, as this image does not occur empire-wide, it serves only as a mint part of the mint mark.[7] Therefore, the Christograms seen on this type are the work of individual moneyers and not a piece of Imperial propaganda.


Figure 2. Silvered follis, RIC 893, Trier mint, 5.37g, 23.4mm, 0o, 310 - 313 A.D.; obverse CONSTANTINVS P F AVG, laureate and cuirassed bust right; reverse SOLI INVICTO COMITI, Sol radiate, draped and cuirassed bust right seen from behind, no mark

Another common design of the folles that of the sun god, Sol. Coins depicting Sol are usually accompanied by the phrase SOL INVICTO COMITI, loosely translated to “our friend the invincible sun”[8].  Many of these coins depict the sun god Sol wearing a radiate crown and standing bearing a whip and a globe.  The whip is a symbol of power and control over the Empire, as is the globe. These coins come from the time following the consolidation of Constantine’s power, as such the reason for the propaganda is straightforward. Another, rarer piece also depicts Sol on it. This coin shows the bust of Sol, wearing a radiate crown, which strongly resembles the portrait of Constantine seen on the obverse. (Figure 2) The portraits attempt to equate Constantine to a God, which would have played a significant propaganda role amongst the superstitious people of the time.


Figure 3.  Gold Solidus, RIC VII, Ticinum 31, Ticium mint, 4.48g, 19mm, autumn 315 A.D.; obverse CONSTANTI - NVS PF AVG, laureate bust right; reverse RESTITVTORI LIBERTATIS, emperor in military dress, standing left., short sceptre on left arm, receiving globe from Roma, seated. r. on throne, holding sceptre, SMT in exergue

The common gold denomination of the Empire during the reign of Constantine was the solidus, minted mostly at Trier and a handful of other mints. One example of this is the solidus minted at Ticinum, Italy during the autumn of 315. (Figure 3) The obverse depicts the laureate head of Constantine along with his name. The reverse shows Roma, seated and armored, presenting a scepter and a globe to the Emperor. This piece also dates to the time of Constantine’s consolidation of power. As such, the propaganda can be interpreted, once again, as a way of legitimizing power. However, as this is a gold issue and intended for the upper class, the military aspect of power takes second place to the political aspect of it: Roma is presenting the world to Constantine, thereby relinquishing the claim to it of all others to the Emperor.

An examination of a few types of coinage issued under Constantine reveals that propaganda was common to all of them, with the main purpose of legitimizing the Emperor’s claim. This is usually done through a depiction of military strength or of divinity, particularly in the case of the bronze coinage. For the gold issues, a more peaceful approach is seen. Furthermore, the coins reveal that the nature of propaganda shifted as one progressed up the ranks of society; the lower class bronze show the strength of the protective power of the Emperor, while the upper class gold issues depict a transfer of power from the previous institutions to Constantine.

The scope of this study is rather small. Examination of more designs is necessary to truly examine this issue in detail. In particular, the gold and silver coinages require a more in-depth assessment. An interesting comparative study between the coinage of Constantine and that of his rivals is also another possible avenue of research.

Notes

Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. Talbert. 2006. A Brief History of the Romans. New York: Oxford University.
Bruckhardt, Jacob. 1949. The Age of Constantine the Great. New York: Pantheon Books.  p 48
[3] Mattingly, Harold. 1927. Roman Coins. London: Methuen.
[4] Burnett, Andrew. 1991. Interpreting the Past: Coins. Los Angeles: University of California.
[5] Sutherland, CHV. 1963. Some Political Notions in Coin Types Between 294 and 313. The Journal of Roman Studies 53: 14
[6] Jacob, Kenneth A. 1959. Coins and Christianity. London: Seaby’s.
[7] Bruun, Patrick. 1991. Studies in Constantinian Numismatics. Rome: Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae.
[8] Vagi, David L. 1999. Coinage and the History of the Roman Empire, Volume 2: Coinage. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Bibliography

 

Boatwright, Mary T., Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. Talbert. 2006. A Brief History of the Romans. New York: Oxford University.

Bruckhardt, Jacob. 1949. The Age of Constantine the Great. New York: Pantheon Books. 

Bruun, Patrick. 1991. Studies in Constantinian Numismatics. Rome: Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae.

Burnett, Andrew. 1991. Interpreting the Past: Coins. Los Angeles: University of California.

Jacob, Kenneth A. 1959. Coins and Christianity. London: Seaby’s.Mattingly, Harold. 1927. Roman Coins. London: Methuen.

Sutherland, CHV. 1963. Some Political Notions in Coin Types Between 294 and 313. The Journal of Roman Studies 53: 14

Vagi, David L. 1999. Coinage and the History of the Roman Empire, Volume 2: Coinage. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

 

Images provided courtesy of Forum Ancient Coins (Figures 1 and 2) and the Jochen Collection (Figure 3).