035Few events in human history have had the impact that the Christianization of the Roman Empire has had on Western civilization.
The person chiefly responsible for bringing about this dramatic change was the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, Constantine the Great, who ruled from 307 to 337A.D.
Our chief source for the facts of Constantine’s life is a biography by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine, wrote his Vita Contantini, “The Life of Constantine,”1 as a eulogy shortly after Constantine’s death. Some additional facts are also provided by Lactantius, who was a contemporary Christian apologist.2
According to these sources, Constantine was converted from a sun worshipper to a Christian at the Battle of Mulvian Bridge3 on October 28, 312. Constantine’s political rival Maxentius had, with an army 036of 100,000, challenged Constantine for control of Rome. Constantine, with an army of 40,000, sought help from the gods.
Both Eusebius and Lactantius explain how Constantine’s prayers were answered, although their accounts differ in details. In either a dream or a vision Constantine saw a Christian symbol—a cross or a Chi-Rho monogram. Appearing with the symbol (or spoken by a voice) were the Latin words Hoc signa victor eris, translated “By this sign you will conquer.” Constantine was reported to have heard a voice telling him to put the symbol on his shield and on the shields of his soldiers. Judging from the frequent appearance of the Chi-Rho monogram on his coins, it is probable that Constantine marked his shields and those of his soldiers with the Greek letters, Chi-Rho. This monogram, called a Christogram, combines the first two letters of Christ in Greek (XP
After Constantine obediently marked his own war helmet and shield, as well as those of his troops, with Christograms he won a remarkable victory. Constantine promptly adopted the Christian God as his “conservator” or patron deity.
In the following year (313), Constantine rescinded the edicts of his predecessor Diocletian aimed at the persecution of Christians. Christianity was thus recognized as a legal religion in the Roman Empire.
We would expect Constantine’s victory at Mulvian Bridge to have had an immediate effect on Roman coinage. Roman coins, like others earlier and later, tell us a great deal about the society that minted them. Almost as soon as coinage was invented by the Lydians in the seventh century B.C., coins were regarded as more than just a medium of exchange. They could be, and were, used as little messengers. Governments recognized the opportunity coins to provided to present an image or to trasmit an idea. References to military campaigns, financial news, governmental changes, religious sentiments and a multitude of other topics appeared on coins.
Before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, Roman coins depicted no fewer than 27 major deities, not counting their Greek counterparts. Add to this at least 34 personifications of godly virtues—allegorical representations like “Justice” and “Victory”—and you get some idea of the importance of religion in Roman coinage. Emperors were deified and they, too, were portrayed on coins as gods.
Religiously speaking, Rome seems to have been a sponge, soaking up the deities and beliefs of many nations, particuarly those of the nations it had conquered. Not infrequently, the result was a blending of religions and religious practices.
Typically, an emperor would authorize the minting of coins depicting one of his favorite gods or goddesses. For example, the Emperor Commodus (who ruled from 177 to 192 A.D.) favored Hercules; the Emperor Domitian (who ruled from 81 to 95 A.D.)038 preferred Minerva. Depicting a god on a coin might have been motivated by a desire to give homage after a perceived blessing. Or it might have been an effort to obtain a blessing. Or it might simply have been an attempt to increase the public interest in and worship of a particular god.
Even before Constantine’s conversion, some emperors were sympathetic to Christianity—for example, Philip I (who ruled from 244 to 249 A.D.) and Constantine’s father, Constantius I (who ruled in 305 and 306 A.D.). In one case, an emperor’s wife was reported to be a Christian; she was Salonina, wife of Gallienus (who ruled from 254 to 268 A.D.). But Roman coins never evidenced any of these Christian “connections.”
Living as a youth in Nicomedia of Asia Minor, a heavily Christian area of the empire and the home of the famous bishop Lucian, Constantine, as well as his family, was no doubt familiar with Christianity. There Constantine probably witnessed Diocletian’s persecutions of Christians, which began in 303. Constantine may even have become sympathetic to Christians, perhaps as a result of their persecution. At any rate, later, in Britain, neither Constantine nor his father would enforce Diocletian’s edicts against Christians beyond the point of closing their churches: Christians suffered no forced worship of pagan deities, no imprisonment, no torture, no executions.
Before to his conversion in 312, Constantine’s coinage generally depicted military themes, such as battle scenes, soldiers and forts (coin A). Certainly Constantine’s victory at the Battle at Mulvian Bridge, aided as he was by the Christian God in the heavens, should have been commemorated by giving the Christian God his due, especially since Constantine’s earlier pattern had been to depict military themes. But Constantine never commemorated his victory at Mulvian Bridge on a coin.
Indeed, no abrupt change in Roman coinage followed Constantine’s conversion. Constantine’s coins continued to depict various military themes.
A gradual change did occur however: Little by little the number of coins with pagan themes diminished. Mars, the god of war, soon disappeared from coins; Jupiter, previously honored by Constantine only for political reasons (Jupiter had been Diocletian’s favorite), was also dropped.
In this way, pagan themes began to experience a slow “death”—that is, all pagan themes except one.
Prior to his conversion, Constantine’s favorite god, as reflected by his coins, was Sol, the sun god. Constantine continued to depict Sol on coins as late as 324 A.D. The most common variety of coin showing Sol was a bronze follis, with Sol standing and a dedicatory inscription Soli Invicto comiti—“To the Invincible Sun, companion.” Constantine probably minted hundreds of thousands of coins for Sol after his “conversion” to Christianity (coins B and C). In the decade after the Mulvian Bridge victory, even gold coins, in which emperors usually took the most interest, still depicted Sol.
Thus, if these coins reflect the emperor’s personal religious views at all, it would seem Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was a gradual one. The conversion of the Roman Empire was also a gradual process, marked by frequent struggles with paganism and superstition.
But another possibility should be considered: Did Constantine or the Roman populace confuse Sol with Jesus? Were the two somehow combined in the early days of Roman Christianity? Was the same syncretism at work by which the Roman pantheon had absorbed the Greek pantheon, assigning Latin names to the Greek gods? Even earlier, gods—Egyptian, Canaanite, Ugaritic and others—passed from one culture to another, sometimes keeping the same name, sometimes receiving a different one. Characteristics of the gods were combined and reassigned and separated again. Did a similar process occur when the Romans became Christians?
The influence of Sol on early Roman Christianity is reflected not only in coins: In the mid-1950s, excavations under St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican uncovered a mosaic floor of an early chapel dating to no later than 240 A.D.. The mosaic depicts Christ as Sol, riding across the sky in a chariot (see photo of mosaic). Sun worship also influenced the choice of date for the celebration of Christ’s birth. December 25 was the feast of dies natalis Solis lnvicti— “the birthday of the Invincible Sun.”4 Thus even the church worked within the atmosphere of Roman religious syncretism.
Three years after Constantine’s Mulvian Bridge victory, in 315, the Roman Senate dedicated a triumphal arch for this victory to the ambiguous “god” instinctu divinitatis— “divine inspiration.” At least one Constantinian biographer, Ramsey MacMullen, feels this title refers to Sol.5 The language certainly would offend neither sun worshippers nor Christians.
An exceedingly rare variant of the Soli lnvicto coin, minted in Ticinum (modern Pavia), in northern Italy, may indicate that the worship of Sol sometimes blended with the worship of Jesus. This coin has a cross in the field next to Sol. It was minted in 316; it is the first coin ever to bear a Christian symbol (coin C)
The cross on this coin is in the place where usually an “officina mark” would be. An officina was a workshop within a mint. If an inferior coin was minted, its source could be traced by its officina 039mark. At the Ticinum mint in 316 there was obviously an officina staffed by at least one zealous Christian. By placing this cross in the field next to Sol, perhaps he was making a then-brave statement that Jesus was greater than Sol. More likely, he was confusing the Christian God with Sol.
Perhaps the most important point about this coin, however is its rarity, especially compared to the exceedingly common Sol coins. The best-known coin catalogue states that only two or three Soli Invicto coins with a cross are known. In fact, there are probably a few more than this.6 Thus, despite Constantine’s conversion in 312, as late as 316 the Roman Empire had failed to establish a Christian coinage.
A second example of a pagan design with an added cross—also very rare (the same catalogue states four to six are known)7—was minted at Ticinum in 318–319 (coins D and E). The reverse shows two Victories flanking an altar. The inscription reads victoriae laetae princ. perp— “To the fortunate victory of the perpetual princeps.” Princeps is a title referring to Constantine. Thus this coin celebrates one of Constantine’s military victories. The coin itself is common; what makes it rare the cross added to the front of the altar. Several variations of this coin are extant, including some with a cross or with a Christogram on Constantine’s helmet.
Two other rare varieties of coins depict Christian symbols added to otherwise common pagan-style coins minted by Constantine. One (coin G, above), which was later widely copied, shows the emperor (on the reverse) holding a military standard, called a 040labarum, with a Christogram added to it. This coin was minted in about 336 in Arelate (modern Arles, France) and honored the army. This same coin was minted simultaneously for Constantine’s three sons—Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans—and for his nephew Delmatius.
A second coin commemorates the founding of Rome. It shows Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome) being suckled by a wolf. On certain rare examples (coin H), a Christogram replaces one of the stars. Could this be a statement that Christ was involved with Rome’s founding (or rebirth)?8 All known examples of Constantinian coins with Christian symbols on them, however, wouldn’t fill an average pocket, despite the prodigious number of coins struck by this emperor. Some scholars have estimated that Constantine minted tens of millions of coins. Moreover, in nearly every case9 where a Constantinian coin contains a Christian symbol, the symbol is incidental to the main design; its appearance can probably be attributed to a zealous Christian minter, not to Constantine!
Why didn’t Constantine produce more Christian coinage? Perhaps his conversion was gradual, as I have suggested, or perhaps he was simply being prudent—displaying the sagacity of a veteran politician. Or perhaps a combination of reasons might be the best answer.
A small commemorative coin (J) widely issued at Constantine’s death in 337 shows the emperor in a chariot reaching up to the hand of a god in the sky. Is he reaching toward the Christian God, or to Sol? Or perhaps to a combination of both? Eusebius comments on this coin: “On one side appeared the figure of our blessed prince, with the head closely veiled (coin I); the reverse exhibited him sitting as a charioteer, drawn by four horses, with a hand stretched downward from above to receive him up to heaven.”10 Eusebius fails to mention that the obverse inscription begins “DV Constantinus”—“Divine Constantine.” Thus Constantine is portrayed deified. If we can take Eusebius’s comments as representative of the church in general, then it would seem that Christians were grateful to Constantine for ending their persecutions. They were reluctant to say anything that might bring back those persecutions.
Interestingly enough, the first coin minted with an incontestable Christian theme was not minted by Rome. This honor goes to the kingdom of Axum, modern Ethiopia. The Axumite king Ezanas converted to Christianity in the early fourth century. In about 330, he began minting coins with a cross in the center of the reverse. One of these coins (F), a remarkable tiny silver coin, had a gold inlay in the cross’s center! These Axumite coins are rare, but unlike the early Roman coins with Christian symbols, the Axumite coins reflect no religious 042ambiguity and the display their Christian symbol as the central theme of the coin.
Constantine’s sons minted the first Roman coins with Christian symbols that were meant to be a part of the original design, although only a small part. The most common designs were military (still), showing the emperor in victory holding a standard with a Christogram on it (coin K). Sometimes the Christogram was not properly drawn, coming out instead of (coin L). Some scholars have suggested that this form was a combination of a Christogram and a cross, called a “crossogram.” Later engravers deliberately combined these two signs to form this symbol. I believe, however, that the engravers who worked in the 340s simply were unfamiliar with this symbol of the new Roman religion. The inscription, reads fel. temp. reparatio— “Return of the happy times.” This design thus suggests the hope (prayer?) that Christianity might restore the empire to the glory it had known in previous centuries.
Another coin (M) of this era demonstrates the lingering conflicts between Christianity and paganism. The reverse shows the emperor standing in the “ship of state,” with Victory at the helm. In one hand, the emperor holds a Christian standard, but in 043the other hand perches the Phoenix, a mythological bird that dies every 500 years, only to rise from ashes to a new life. The Phoenix myth is obviously the pagan equivalent of the resurrection, but its mythological ties (the story is Egyptian) may have ruffled local Christian feelings. At any rate, another more common variety of this coin depicts a tiny Victory instead of the Phoenix. The resulting redundancy of the Victory in the design suggests that second Victory might be a later replacement of troubling Phoenix.
As we have already seen, after his Mulvian Bridge victory, Constantine failed to mint the coin we would have expected: a coin showing himself with its standard containing the Christogram. A military coin minted by one of his sons, however, did this. In 350 Constantius II minted a bronze coin (N) have Siscia (modern Sisak, Yugoslavia) of a common another military type showing the Emperor Constantine with a standard. Here the standard contains Christogram.
Gradually coins with Christian symbols became the more common. In 350 the two brothers Magnentius and Decentius, who for a brief time were rivals of Constantius II (they had killed Constans), minted we bronze coins with a huge 044entire reverse (O). On either side of the Christogram were the Greek letters alpha and omega, respectively the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. This is an obvious, reference to Christ from the Book of Revelation: “I am the Alpha symbol and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13, see also Revelation 1:8 and 21:6). Unfortunately, the coins of Magnentius and Decentius were often poorly struck, with obscure legends on the outer rim of the coin. No doubt they were manufactured hastily as part of a public relations effort in a political contest with Constantius II. The inscription—when it can be read—reads salus dd nn Aug et Caes, short for salus domini nostri Augustus et Caesar, “The salvation of our lords Augustus and Caesar.” This prayer for the safety or salvation of the brothers did not avail, however. They were quickly and soundly defeated by Constantius II, who, interestingly enough, produced similar coins.
These two types of coins, by the brothers Magnentius and Decentius and by Constantius II, both minted about 350 are the first fully Christian, coins struck by Rome.
During the second half of the fourth century, Roman mints portrayed the Christogram and the cross with increasing frequency. In the earlier years of this period, the Christogram was more popular. By the end of the fourth century, however, the cross had won the popularity contest. It continued to be used on later coins.
After the fall of Rome and the western empire, the eastern or Byzantine, empire continued to refine Christian numismatic art for several centuries.
Under Justin I (who ruled from 518 to 527 A.D.) a male angel replaces the female Victory personification as a more appropriate symbol for Christian coinage (coins P and Q).
In the reign of Justinian II (685–695), engravers for the first time depicted Jesus on a coin (R). This development was probably delayed until this late date because of the iconoclastic struggles, in which some elements in the church opposed images on the basis of the prohibition of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
At the end of the tenth century Christian symbolism reached its apex. Bronze coinage no longer contained any reference to the emperor, only to Christ. Typically, this anonymous coinage (S and T) would depict Christ on the obverse, holding a book of the Gospels and raising his right hand in authority; the reverse typically contained an inscription in Greek, “Jesus Christ, King of Kings.”
Thus, Christian symbolism had come full circle, from a beginning under Constantine where we are hard pressed to detect much of the emperor’s personal religious sentiment, to the later Byzantine emperors, who omitted any mention of themselves in deference to the God of the Christians.
All photographs not otherwise identified are courtesy of the author
35Few events in human history have had the impact that the Christianization of the Roman Empire has had on Western civilization. The person chiefly responsible for bringing about this dramatic change was the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, Constantine the Great, who ruled from 307 to 337A.D. Our chief source for the facts of Constantine’s life is a biography by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine, wrote his Vita Contantini, “The Life of Constantine,”1 as a eulogy shortly after Constantine’s death. Some additional facts are also provided by Lactantius, who was a contemporary Christian […]