The Coins of Constantine the Great

by Andrew McIntyre

Christianity would never have attained its status as the dominant religion of western civilization had it not been for the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337 AD). He was truly one of the most extraordinary figures of history. Constantine made bold decisions that set the course of history and catastrophic decisions that imperiled his own family. He gave birth to a new Roman Empire of the East by founding Constantinople. Here he sowed the seeds of the Byzantine Empire. He essentially adopted Christianity as the state religion after Rome has persecuted Christians for 300 years.

In the period of the 300's AD, the Roman Empire was run under the system known as the Tetrarchy. The Empire was divided into east and west for administration purposes. Therefore, there were two Emperors, each with their own heir apparent with the title of Caesar. However, one Emperor was senior to all others. Diocletian (284-305 AD) was the senior Emperor until 305 AD. He inflicted a savage persecution against the Christians as he viewed them as disloyal to Rome for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. Diocletian was succeeded by Galerius (305-311 AD), the real instigator of the Christian persecutions under Diocletian.

In 305 AD, Constantine's father, Constantinius, was promoted from Caesar of the West to Emperor of the West (title - Augustus). Constantinius became ill and died in 306 AD. Constantine then accepted the title of Caesar of the West (306-309 AD) after his father's death. Constantine controlled Britain, Gaul and Spain. By 312 AD, he was compelled to take arms against his new rival in the west, Maxentinus. According to the ancient religious historians, Eusebius and Lactantius, Constantine had a religious vision before the decisive battle at the Milvian bridge. Constantine was told to have his soldiers paint the Greek letters Chi and Rho on their shields. These letters represented "Chr" of the Greek word "Christos" for Jesus Christ. Constantine was victorious. In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which announced religious toleration throughout the Empire. This freed Christians from persecution. Constantine became deeply involved in the administration of the early Christian Church even on disputed theological subjects. Tragically, in 326 AD, Constantine had his eldest and esteemed son, Crispus executed. This was shortly followed by the killing of his second wife Faustina (step-mother of Crispus). The factual reason for these murders is unknown, but it speculated that Constantine found out that Faustina had made false accusations against Crispus causing his execution. Constantine was to later lament the killing of Crispus. Constantine died in 337 AD, but mistakenly he thought his three remaining sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans, would share power. As Shakespeare's King Lear would discover, this division of power was a recipe for later disaster.

The coins of Constantine were minted in roughly 19 different locations throughout the Roman Empire. As Constantine had a position of power for nearly 30 years, his coinage was large, varied, and covered a multitude of denominations. Many of the coins that survive today are bronze coins, although some technically were silver coins. The silver coinage of Rome had been debased from almost 90 % at the time of Augustus (27 BC -14 AD) to between 1 and 5 % by the era of Constantine. The outside of the bronze coins were sealed with a silver coating. Once the coating rubbed off, only the bronze remained.

The coin to the left (Fig.1) still has some surface traces of silver coating remaining but one can mostly see that it is made of bronze. It is about 19mm wide and weighs around 3 grams. The obverse has a portrait of Constantine with the inscription CONSTAN - STINVUS [Constantine] AVG [Augustus = title of the Emperor]. The reverse has a fort = campgate. The reverse inscription is PROVIDENTIAE AVGG [In honor of the divine guidance of the Emperors]. Under the image of the campgate was usually an abbreviation for the city where the coin was minted.

Of course, gold coins of Constantine are highly prized today. The gold coin (Fig.2) issued in 335 AD was a solidus. It weighed about 4.4 grams and was about 21mm wide. This particular type of portrait of Constantine, eyes uplifted, was issued late in his reign. Some Christian writers like Eusebius saw this as praying to God. However this type of portrait did exist on Greek coins six hundred years earlier. The reverse of the coin has the inscription, VICTORIA CONSTANTINI AVG [Victory of Emperor Constantine]. The letters SMNM are an abbreviation the city of Nicomedia (northern Turkey today) where the coin was minted. The figure with wings is Victory sitting on a cuirass holding an inscribed shield, VOT XXX, (30 reign) with the small figure of Genius.

Sources :
Coinage and History of the Roman Empire - D. Vagi
Photos: Bronze coin - John Lavendar, Solidus Coin - CNG