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What I Like About Ancient Coins
Throughout Roman and subsequently Byzantine history, emperors have used their coinage as an effective means of conveying propaganda to their subjects. This propaganda most often took the form of military, social, or religious propaganda, or any combination thereof. The religious propaganda in particular was a valuable way of garnering the support of the people, as they already were very religious, and it only took one more step to get them to understand and believe the message of the coin. As the political and religious climates of the Byzantine Empire changed over time, so did the modes of numismatic religious propaganda. The religious images or lack thereof on the coins of any given time period can be used to indicate the religious and political atmosphere of the time.
For many scholars, the beginning of the transition from the traditional Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire begins with Constantine’s moving of the imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, renamed and extensively rebuilt as Constantinople. Throughout Rome’s history, the official state religion had been the pagan religion of Rome’s gods – Iuppiter, Iuno, and the rest of the pantheon. The old cult had been in decline in the previous years, and Constantine managed to breath new life into the religious backbone of the empire with his acceptance of Christianity. On October 27, 312, the day before Constantine’s battle with Maxentius at Milvian Bridge at the entrance to Rome, Constantine was said to have had a vision that told him to put the Chi-Rho on his shields of his soldiers, and God would make him victorious. In 313, with his co-emperor Licinius at Mediolanum, present day Milan, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized all religions in the Empire, including Christianity, and ended religious persecutions and resituted their confiscated property. War broke out between the two emperors in 314, and was resumed in 324. A few days after his final victory over Licinius (the last of the rival tetrarchs) in 324 near Byzantium, Constantine declared the construction of a new capital city, Constantinople, over the old town of Byzantium. He dedicated this magnificent new city in 330, filling it with many of the major artistic accomplishments of the ancient world, including, among many others, the statue of Zeus from Olympia, made by Phidias, and the Serpent Column of Plataea. Across the Empire, from Jerusalem with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to Constantinople with St. Eirene, to Rome with St. Peter’s, Constantine dedicated numerous building projects to his adopted faith. However, it was only on his deathbed, in 337, that Constantine converted to Christianity, being baptized and forgiven of his sins.1
2. Constantine the Great, early 307 - 22 May 337 A.D.
Silvered follis, RIC 131a, choice aUNC, 3.69g, 21.1mm, 0o, Ticinum mint, 313 A.D.; obverse CONSTANTINVS P F AVG, laureate and cuirassed bust right; reverse SOLI INVICTO COMITI, Sol standing left holding globe in left, and raising right, PT in exergue
The conversion of the Empire to Christianity was a very slow process, begun, but not completed, by Constantine. This is reflected in the coinage of Constantine. Though credited with beginning Rome’s conversion, Constantine was not actually baptized himself until his dying day. This is well reflected in the numismatic record.2 While Constantine’s supposed vision took place in 312 and he built magnificent monuments to Christianity throughout the empire, his coins still reflect the pagan nature of Rome. For example, two extremely common reverse types on the follis of Constantine are IOVI CONSERVATORI and SOLI INVICTO COMITI. The first depicts Jupiter (IOVI) standing naked, holding Victoria, and the second depicts a radiate Sol, holding a globe (figure 2). These issues remain in production for up to 10 years after the vision at Milvian Bridge, but in 323, are replaced by more non-denominational coinage, such as “campgates,” “GLORIA EXERCITVS” and “VICTORIAE,” symbolizing Rome’s military might and ability to protect its citizens, as well as the “Commemorative issues” of Constantinople and Rome. Beginning in the mid 320’s, Christian symbols start to appear. In 324, the reverse of a follis contains a Chi-Rho. In 335, the famous “Gloria Exercitus” issue with two soldiers holding a standard is Christianized, with the Chi-Rho being placed inside the standard. Then, finally, on his deification issue, the first numismatic representation of God appears. On the reverse of a deification-issue coin minted in Antioch and other cities in 337-338, Constantine is depicted driving a quadriga, ascending to heaven, while the hand of God reaches down (figure 3). This is a good example of how slowly the advance of Christianity took place, and the gradual process by which Rome was Christianized.
Over the next century, Christianity gradually took hold, but not without a counter-reaction by paganism.3 This can be clearly seen through the progression of the reverse types of the Roman coinage. Magnentius (usurper of the Western throne from 350-353) has a large Chi-Rho on the reverse of his coins, while the legend of a Vetranio (350 CE) coin is “HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS” (“With this sign you will conquer”), the words God supposedly spoke to Constantine in his vision before the battle at Milvian Bridge (figure 4). Paganism made its last stand from 361-363 with the emperor Julian II, called “the Philosopher” by contemporary pagans and “the Apostate” by later Christians. He had converted to paganism from Christianity, and was a strong advocate against the Church. He ended the promotion of Christianity, and instituted freedom of religion. He also forced the Church to return all the land and property it had taken up until that point, and allowed pagan temples to be rebuilt, something that had been forbidden since the time of Constantine. This is reflected in the coins with the last issue of pagan themes in Rome’s history. The Apis Bull,4 a sacred bull worshiped in Memphis, Egypt, that was supposedly the offspring of Isis and was consulted as an oracle by many Roman emperors, figured prominently on Julian’s coinage. This last pagan reverse type illustrates the last-ditch attempt by pagans to restore the traditional Roman religion. After Julian’s death in 363, all Roman emperors, and therefore all Roman coinage, supported the rise of Christianity. Under Theodosius I, the religious change was made permanent, and in 390, he made Christianity the official religion, banning all other religions and instituting the first state-sanctioned destruction of a pagan temple, the famous Serapeum of Alexandria.
From this point on, Roman coins continued to display signs of Christianity, most prominently the Chi-Rho (figure 5). The cross first appears on reverse types under the reign of Valentinian I, and quickly became the sign of Christianity, alongside the Chi-Rho, which remain in use for several hundred years longer.
Christian imagery remained constant through the collapse of order that characterized the final days of the Western Empire and the crisis in the East. Paradoxically, as the authority and security of the empire failed, images of the glory of the Roman army (VICTORIA, GLORIA EXERCITVS, PROVIDENTIAE, FEL TEMP REPARATIO5) increased as an attempt to keep the populace at ease. With the increase in military scenes on reverse types, Christian themes also increased. More and more, the Chi-Rho or Cross appeared on coins. At first, it was merely an addition to other reverse types, as with the Chi-Rho on the standards or shields, denoting the Christian character of the Empire, but by the time of Theodosius II, the Cross became a reverse type unto itself. A common type under Theodosius and his successors was the cross, surrounded by a wreath (figure 6). This was minted in all metals, in an attempt to reach the propaganda to all levels of society. This theme of the Cross lasted until the death of the empire in the fifteenth century.
After the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the death of the last Eastern Emperor to have reigned while the Western Empire existed, the Byzantine Empire can be said to truly come into being in its own right, rather than as the Eastern portion of a larger empire. Zeno’s wife, Ariadne, was given the responsibility of choosing the next Emperor in 491, and chose Anastasius, a relatively obscure court official. Befitting his role as first emperor of the purely Byzantine Empire, Anastasius reorganized the Empire’s economic policy, including completely reforming the monetary system, which had not been adapted since Constantine’s time. Under this new system, the main use of the reverse was to identify the coin’s denomination, and the cross and Chi-Rho were returned to their previous position, occupying the spaces on the side, above or below the main theme.6 By this time, Christianity had been thoroughly entrenched as the unquestioned religion of the Empire, and the emperor may have not felt it necessary to overemphasize the Christian element. His main focus as emperor was the revitalization of the monetary system, and, therefore, the theme of money was first and foremost on the reverse types. However, all types included at least a Cross or Chi-Rho, serving as a constant reminder of the Christianization that had taken place in the past 200 years (figure 7). The monetary reform of Anastasius resulted in an estimated 320,000 pounds of gold added to the treasury during his reign, allowing later emperors, such as Justinian, to conduct their impressive, and expensive, wars of expansion.
Under the reigns of the following emperors, the imagery on the coinage changed little. One notable religious change, however, was the addition by Justinian of the Globus Cruciger (figure 8). This was an older Roman idea, and was originally just a globe, often held by Sol. Later, a miniature victory was added to the top, signifying Rome’s dominance over the world. In its final form, the victory was replaced with a cross, symbolizing Christianity’s dominance over the world, and, by extension, Rome’s, as the Christian Empire.
Angels were also added to the coinage (Figure 8), but these were little more than Roman Victories (but male) in Christian trappings. This is highly indicative of the Byzantine Empire at this point. They still considered themselves Romans, and later, when the Holy Roman Empire was established, they refused to recognize it, as Byzantium was the true Roman Empire in their own eyes. The Byzantine Empire in Late Antiquity was the bridge between the Classical Roman world and the Medieval world, as is displayed by its use of Roman images for its own purposes, later to be developed into a purely ‘Byzantine’ style.
This style remained unchanged until the reign of Tiberius II (578-582), when a new reverse type was added to the repertoire of the Byzantine engravers. This new type was a cross, seated on four steps leading up to it (Figure 9). This was meant to symbolize the Cross atop Mount Calvary (Golgotha), where Jesus was crucified. This is the first representation of an historical event or real place on any purely Byzantine coin.
The religious imagery of the coins remained constant for over a century, until the first reign of Justinian II (685-695). In order to display his personal piety, Justinian put a bust of Jesus on the obverse of his coins. This was the first time that a Byzantine coin had ever depicted any person other than the Emperor and his immediate family, and it was a huge step in religious art to portray Jesus on the coinage. He is shown with long hair and a beard, with a cross behind his head. He is richly dressed with a beaded or jeweled robe, much like the Emperor’s clothing, and holds a book of the Gospels. The emperor was moved to the reverse of the coin, and is surrounded by the words, “Servant of Christ.” This emphasizes Jesus’ role as king over the world, with the emperor as a secondary figure in comparison to God. However, it also associates the ruler with Jesus, as he is his direct servant, and therefore, the emperor’s will is by nature God’s will. This coin type, though seemingly an act of submission to a higher power, in fact serves as propaganda in support of the emperor. This type and similar types lasted until the end of Justinian’s second reign, in 711 (figure 10).
Perhaps the most interesting turn in religious iconography occurred very soon after, in 717 with the ascension of Leo III (717-741). Leo was an able military commander, and managed to fend off a second Muslim assault on the capital city, but his religious policies were disastrous for the empire over the next century. He initiated the Iconoclast Controversy, believing that the Bible banned all adoration of religious icons, and that the only way to prevent people from worshiping them was by destroying them. With the support of his fellow iconoclasts, he began destroying all religious icons of saints, Mary and Jesus. Iconodules, supporters of icons, were persecuted, and a great rift opened inn Byzantine society. The cultural battle raged over the next 125 years, with each successive emperor either destroying or restoring religious icons.
This is reflected in the coinage with the disappearance of Jesus from all currency. After Justinian II, the bust of Jesus, meant to associate the Emperor with God and Christianity, vanished. The actively iconoclastic emperors would never depict Jesus on their coins, as they considered it blasphemous, and the iconodulic emperors refrained from reinstating the bust, as that was an extreme step that could trigger a revolt amongst the Iconoclasts. During this period, as religious themes were suspended, the monetary art refocused itself on the Emperor. Traditionally, the Emperor took up one face of the coin, or none at all. Under the Iconoclasts, the Emperor took on greater importance on the coins, with some coins depicting the same emperor on both sides of the coin, or the Emperor and mother or wife on one side, and previous emperors on the other.
After more than a century of culture wars, with rebellion, assassination and destruction, the Iconoclast Controversy finally ended. Towards the end of the period, the Iconoclastic emperors found increasingly diminishing support for their endeavors, until the reign of Theophilus in 829, when the only Iconoclasts left were the Emperor himself and his immediate courtiers. Upon his death in 842, the Iconoclast movement had been thoroughly defeated. The next emperor, Michael III, immediately reinstated the Christ bust of over a century ago, again relegating the emperor to the secondary position on the coinage. With the coming of the Christ bust on Michael’s solidi, the long controversy was irrefutably over.
Under the next emperors, Christian imagery began to blossom, finally freed from Iconoclasm. Basil I’s (867-886) coins depicted Jesus, head to toe, seated on a throne, while the Emperor and important family members remain secondary, on the reverse (figure 11). With the theme of Jesus on the obverse thoroughly entrenched into the coinage, Leo VI (886-912) expanded the religious representations for the first time to the saints, starting with the Virgin Mary. Her first depiction on the coinage is from the waist up, with a fringed robe wrapped around her body. She has long hair, and is identified by name. This is strongly representative of the religious background, where religious imagery is stronger than ever, with the Mary, and subsequently other saints as well, adorning coins alongside Jesus and the emperor. Again, this serves the dual purpose of both paying homage to the religious icons, as well as raising the emperor to that level.
Finally, under the reign of John I Tzimisces (969-976), the real intention of these religious depictions is revealed. On the obverse of a gold coin is the typical nimbate Jesus bust, holding the gospels. On the reverse, however, is John, standing to the left, with Mary reaching up and placing a crown on his head (Figure 12). The hand of God reaches down from heaven, pointing at John, signifying that John is God’s chosen leader. This last image is very reminiscent of the deification issue of Constantine of 650 years earlier. All of these messages are a blatant, unabashed attempt at claiming divine right of kingship by John. This is indicative of the wider concept of the Divine Right of kings to rule that was becoming prevalent throughout Europe. It became the unchallenged belief up through the French Revolution in Europe that rulers were chosen by God, and that an act of rebellion against these rulers was an act of rebellion against God. This type, which was a favorite of Emperors for centuries to come, indicates the adoption of the common acceptance of this notion in Europe.
John initiated a new standard for bronze coinage, as well. Up until this point, nearly all bronze coinage contained an image of the emperor. John ended this tradition on the folles by introducing the “anonymous folles,” a series in which Jesus is portrayed in the traditional bust form on the obverse, with the reverse containing only the words, “Jesus Christ, King of Kings” (figure 13). Later emperors expanded this issue by adding a cross to the reverse, while retaining the words, in slight variations, around the cross. The anonymous folles continued for another century without any depiction of the emperor on bronze coinage. Even silver and gold issues, which saw far less circulation, either relegated the emperor to the reverse, or eliminated him completely from the coinage. Clearly an attempt at religious propaganda, this may serve to indoctrinate the people with the mentality that, as the Christian Empire, Byzantium is in the right in a perpetual war against the Islamic invaders. With every aspect of the coinage relating to Christianity and Jesus, one cannot help but feel that the empire is inherently the “Christian Empire.” John conducted major wars against the Muslim Turks and Arabs, and this renewed offensive may have played an important role in the intensifying of the Christian propaganda.
The religious themes on the coinage remained relatively unchanged for the next 200 years. In 1204, the armies of the Fourth Crusade, encouraged by the Empire’s former ally Venice, sacked Constantinople and set up their own “Latin Kingdom.” The rest of the Empire splintered into three refugee states, two of which eventually merged to drive out the Crusaders 57 years later.
Throughout Byzantine history, from its foundation in the Eastern Roman Empire until its demise a millennium later, Christian themes consistently reflected the cultural and political climate of the Empire. From Christianity’s ascendance under Constantine, to Iconoclasm and through to the blossoming of Medieval Byzantine society, Christian iconography on Byzantine coins changed and adapted to the times, leaving a record of the growth and change in Byzantine culture and history.
“Coinage of the Byzantine Empire” Byzantine Studies, Dumbarton Oaks September 6, 2006, Trustees of Harvard University. November 11, 2006. http://www.doaks.org/CoinExhibition/Introduction/Frame_Introduction.html
Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Danielou, Jean & Henri Marrou. The Christian Centuries, Volume I, The First Six Hundred Years. London: Darton, Longman & Todd LTD., 1964
Kitzinger, Ernst. Byzantine Art in the Making. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.
“Romaion Coinage, Chronological Index of Byzantine Rulers” Wildwinds: Online Reference, Attribution & Valuation Site for Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Coins November 10, 2006. www.wildwinds.com/coins/byz/i.html.
“Roman Imperial Coinage – Alphabetical Index of Rulers” Wildwinds; Online Reference, Attribution & Valuation Site for Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine Coins. November 12, 2006. www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/i.html
Sear, David R. Byzantine Coins and their Values Second Edition, London: Spink & Son Ltd. 1987
Stevenson, Seth William. Dictionary of Roman Coins. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
2. “Roman Imperial Coins of Constantine” http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/constantine/i.html.
3. Jean Danielou, Henri Marrou. The Christian Centuries, Volume I, The First Six Hundred Years. London: Darton, Longman & Todd LTD., 1964. 192-238.
5. Victoria – a personification of Victory, meant to symbolize the supposed Roman army’s victory over the barbarian invaders. Gloria exercitus – two soldiers, holding standard between them. Symbolizes strength of the military. Providentiae – campgate, symbolizing the security of the Empire. Fel. Temp. Reparatio – soldier running a spear through a barbarian, “Return of Good Times” symbolizing strength of the military).