|CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
Roman Emperor, Christian Saint, A Turning Point in History
“This remarkable event (the Edict of Milan) was regarded by Christians of that time, and by Constantine himself, as the fulfillment of the very prophecy before us. (Revelation 20:2)”
Constantine…the Preterist! | Eusebius Pamphilius: Oration in Praise of Constantine “I am filled with wonder at the intellectual greatness of the emperor, who as if by divine inspiration thus expressed what the prophets had foretold concerning this monster”
“Tell me the history of Christianity and I can tell you your theology.” This is especially true with a controversial figure like Constantine. Where Roman Catholics present him as laying the foundation for the Papacy, Protestants see him as the one responsible for leading the early Church away from the simplicity of the pure gospel and turning it into an institutional Church. However, blaming Constantine for the fall of the Church is a double-edged sword that cuts in both directions. If Protestants accuse Constantine of tampering with the Church, how do they know that Constantine did not tamper with the Bible? The problem with the “fall of the Church” argument is that it opens the possibility of a radical discontinuity between present-day Christianity and the early Church.
This danger can be seen in one of today’s most popular bestsellers, The DaVinci Code. In the middle of the book (Chapter 55) Sir Leigh Teabing gives Sophie Neveu a brief synopsis of the “history” of Christianity. In it he makes the following points about Constantine:
Constantine was a lifelong pagan who was baptized against his will on his deathbed.
Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion solely for political gain.
Christianity is a hybrid religion, the result of Constantine’s fusing the pagan cult of Sol Invictus with Christianity.
This blending can be seen in Constantine’s changing the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
Under Constantine’s influence, the Council of Nicea, by a small majority, turned a mortal prophet into the divine Son of God.
Constantine ordered the making of the Bible that would reinforce the Council’s decision to make Jesus the divine Son of God, and at the same time ordered the destruction of opposing documents.
Personally, I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, but as church history it was laughable. This is not a criticism of the author, as his bestseller is a work of fiction. The problem comes when people confuse fiction and nonfiction.
It is imperative that Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, have a firm grasp of their faith and of church history. Faith and history go together. We cannot separate church history from what we believe. The Orthodox understanding of truth is grounded in the Incarnation, the Son of God taking on human nature. Because the Son of God entered into human history, truth consists of more than a set of logically consistent concepts. Our faith is grounded in the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, who asserted: I am the Truth. When Orthodoxy claims that the Christian Faith is the true faith, it is asserting that it is a real faith, based on historical events that actually happened. Because Christianity is grounded in reality, our salvation in Christ is a real salvation that has an impact on both the spiritual and physical realities.
Constantine the Great
Constantine was born at Naissus on February 27, 272 or 273, to Flavius Constantius and his wife Helena. Flavius Constantius was an army officer, and in 289 he divorced Constantine’s mother to marry Theodora, the daughter of his commanding officer. Constantine embarked on his own military career, which took him all over the Roman Empire, from Palestine and Asia Minor to Britain, Spain, and Gaul. While crossing the Alps with his army, Constantine had a vision (or dream) of a cross of light shining in front of the sun and the words: In this sign conquer. Shortly after that vision, Constantine defeated his rival, Maxentius, captured Rome, and was acclaimed the next emperor.
History often turns upon certain pivotal events or individuals. Early Christianity faced two significant perils: one external—violent persecution by the Roman government, and one internal—the Arian heresy, which denied Christ’s divinity. In a providential twist of events, God raised up an emperor who would play a key role in confronting each of these perils, becoming one of Christianity’s greatest defenders. Constantine’s rule precipitated an avalanche of events that radically altered the course of the history of Christianity.
Prior to Constantine’s becoming emperor, the early Church was going through one of the fiercest and bloodiest of the persecutions by the Roman government, the Diocletian persecution. During this wave of persecution thousands of Christians lost their lives, churches were destroyed, and scriptures were burned. Then in 313, the situation reversed itself. Constantine (with his co-emperor Licinus) issued the famous Edict of Milan, declaring Christianity to be a legal religion. Christianity was not yet the official religion of the Empire—this would not happen until 380 under Emperor Theodosius. And Constantine’s edict of toleration was not the first—Galerius had issued a similar edict in 311. But it marked a major turning point for the Roman government. With the Edict of Milan, the three-centuries-long era of persecution came to an end.
Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not rescue Christianity from extinction. Even if he had not adopted the Christian cause, the majority of the Roman population was well on its way to becoming Christian. What Constantine did do was hasten the process of evangelizing the Roman Empire. Constantine’s conversion marked the climax of a centuries-long process of evangelization that began in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. For the first time, the entire structure of Roman civilization, from the emperor down to the lowliest slave, shared the Christian faith.
In the early fourth century, a theological controversy broke out that threatened to derail the Christian faith. Arius taught that the Son of God had a beginning and was a created being. The controversy threatened deeply to divide the Christian Church, and in so doing to imperil the unity of the Roman Empire. Concerned for the unity of the empire, Constantine wrote letters to Bishop Alexander and to Arius, urging them to make up their differences and forgive each other. When that failed, he convened an ecumenical council of the entire Church. Previously there had been regional and local synods, but this was the first worldwide gathering of bishops. Constantine aided this historic gathering by covering the travel expenses of bishops coming from the far-flung corners of the empire.
In order to repudiate the Arian heresy, the bishops inserted the word homoousios (“of the same essence”) into the baptismal creed. By asserting that Christ was of the same essence as God the Father, the Council decisively affirmed the divinity of Christ. This was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Council (only three persons—including Arius—out of three hundred disagreed). Although Constantine may have suggested that homoousios be inserted into the creed, the word was not invented by him. Even Arius made use of it, albeit in his arguments against the divinity of Christ.
Although he presided over the council, it is an exaggeration to claim that Constantine controlled the direction of the Council of Nicea, as many Protestants argue. Many of the bishops present at the council were survivors of the Diocletian persecution and would have been more than willing to put their lives on the line for the gospel of Christ once more. Another weakness of the Protestant stereotype of Constantine is that it gives short shrift to the theological genius of Athanasius. Anyone who reads Athanasius’ theological classic Against the Arians will see that it was Athanasius, not Constantine, who turned the tide against the Arian heresy. Also, the limitations of Constantine’s ability to coerce the Church into doing his will can be seen in his earlier failure to resolve the Donatist controversy in 320. As W. H. C. Frend notes in The Rise of Christianity, “The lesson, however, had been learned. Never again did he seek to beat into submission a movement within the church.”
Revelation 21:24: “The nations . . . shall walk in its [New Jerusalem] light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it.” The Church is the New Jerusalem—replacing the Jerusalem of the Old Testament—which brings spiritual enlightenment to the pagan nations throughout the Roman Empire. However, a balanced assessment of the historical evidence shows that, as much as Constantine may have contributed to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, he did not originate Holy Tradition as many Protestants believe.
Constantine’s legacy can be seen in Christianity’s transformation from a private sect into a public church that encompassed the whole of society. He put it on an institutional footing, which enabled the Church to be the leading cultural force in the ancient world. The Christianization of Roman society can be seen as a partial fulfillment of
Sunday as the day of worship. Although Sunday was made a public holiday, there is no evidence that it was Constantine who changed the Christians’ day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Two first-century documents—Didache 14.1 and Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians 9.1—document the fact that Christians worshiped on a different day from the Jewish Sabbath. As emperor, Constantine transformed what was once the private practice of an illegal sect into a public holiday for all Romans.
Constantinople—the New Rome. With his decision to turn the sleepy village of Byzantinum into the Roman Empire’s new capital city, Constantine laid the groundwork of what would become a major spiritual center, the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As the New Rome, Constantinople was intended to signal the Roman Empire’s break with its pagan past and its embracing of Christianity. Under Constantine’s orders, no pagan ceremonies were allowed in this city. While the original Rome and the Latin West entered into the Dark Ages, Constantinople thrived as a spiritual and political capital through the time of Columbus’ voyage to America. Constantinople was also the springboard from which the missionary outreach to Russia would take place.
The Council of Nicea and the biblical canon. While Constantine played an important role at the First Ecumenical Council, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with deciding which books would go into the Bible. The Muratorian Canon (from the year 200) provides a list of New Testament documents that closely resembles the list found in today’s Bible. Similar lists can be found in the writings of Origen (250) and Eusebius of Caesarea (300). It is true that Constantine ordered the burning of books by Arius, the anti-Christian philosopher Porphyry, the Novatians, the Marcionites, and others. But the fact remains that by the time Constantine became emperor, much of today’s biblical canon was already in place.
Constantine a Saint?
Constantine died in 337. Shortly before his death, he was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Following his baptism, Constantine refused to wear the imperial purple and died wearing the white baptismal robe. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles just days after he had dedicated it. The day of his death—May 21—is commemorated in the Orthodox Church as a major feast day.
Skepticism about the sincerity of Constantine’s Christianity stems from a number of factors. Constantine did not openly repudiate the pagan gods, but tolerated pagan belief even as he began favoring the Christians. Another source lies in his execution of his son, Crispus, and his wife, Fausta, in 326, a year after the Council of Nicea. A third factor was Constantine’s delaying of his baptism until just a few days before his death.
On closer examination, however, the basis for this skeptical attitude becomes problematic. Constantine’s participation in the pagan rites most likely stemmed from his obligations as military and political leader. Regarding his execution of his son and wife, it is not clear what the reasons were. Unless the reasons for this drastic action are known, it is not fair to condemn Constantine. Also, modern evangelicalism may frown on deathbed conversions, but in the early Church such delaying of one’s baptism was not uncommon.
Constantine’s conversion follows more closely the Orthodox understanding of salvation than the Protestant understanding. Where Protestants, especially evangelicals, tend to see salvation in terms of a one-time conversion experience, Orthodoxy sees salvation as a mystery and as a process that unfolds over time. While Constantine’s personal faith may be a matter of debate, his historical contributions to the Church under his reign are undeniable. Frend writes, “The ‘Age of the Fathers’ would have been impossible without Constantine’s conversion. The church’s councils under the emperor’s guidance became assemblies where the new, binding relationship with the Christian God, on which the safety of the empire depended, was established.”
The Orthodox Church sees Constantine as the emperor who assisted the early Church in evangelizing the Roman Empire. For this reason it honors him as Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles.
Constantine and the Church
For Orthodoxy, Constantine represents an important link to the past. The persecuted underground Church and the official state Church are the same Church. Constantine played a key role in the historic transition from the former to the latter. For Orthodox Christianity, there is no “fall of the Church.” The Orthodox Church believes that it stands in unbroken continuity with the Church of the first century.
There is a popular belief among evangelicals that the true Church was the underground Church, which refused to compromise with the worldly state Church, and that this true Church remained in hiding over the following centuries, leaving few records of its existence until it was rediscovered by the Protestants in the sixteenth century. The main problem with this belief is not only the absence of supporting evidence, but the presence of contrary evidence. Eusebius, in Books IV and V of his History of the Church, provides a chronological listing of bishops that goes back to the original apostles. Present-day Orthodox bishops and patriarchs are able to trace their spiritual and historical lineage back to the original apostles, something that Protestants cannot do.
Symphonia—The Harmony of Faith and Politics
Constantine’s support for the early Church laid the foundation for the doctrine of symphonia—the ideal of political and religious leaders working in harmony to realize God’s will here on earth. This ideal is rooted in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Symphonia avoids two extremes: the separation of Church from State on the one hand, and the fusion of Church and State on the other. Despite his active participation in the Ecumenical Council, Constantine did not view himself as one of the bishops, but rather as “bishop of those outside.” This ideal found concrete expression in the Byzantine Empire, which lasted for a thousand years. Under Constantine’s rule began the transformation of Roman culture. Execution by crucifixion ceased, gladiatorial battles as punishment ended.
Symphonia has a number of important implications for Orthodox Christians. One is that the Church is called to pray for those in power, even if they are not Christians. For Orthodoxy, symphonia is the ideal situation, but not the only one. Christianity is not tied to any one particular political structure. Another implication is that there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual (belief in dualism is an early heresy). Orthodoxy is both a personal and a public faith. The Orthodox Church encourages good citizenship, public service along with philanthropy. Its preference for lay involvement in politics helps avoid the dangers of theocratic rule. It is expected that Orthodox Christians will bring the values of the Church into the political and social realms.
Venerating a Great Saint Today
The Orthodox Church today honors the memory of Constantine in several ways. Many Orthodox parishes are named after him. I attend Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific. On Sunday mornings, soon after I enter the church, I see the icon of Christ sitting on the throne. I also see the icon of Constantine and his mother, Helen. Inside the church up in front I see Constantine and Helen on the icon screen. They are now part of the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on to finish the spiritual race (Hebrews 12). During the Sunday Liturgy, just before the scripture readings, the following troparion (hymn) is sung:
Beheld the figure of the Cross in the heavens,
And like Paul, not having received his call from men,
But as an apostle among rulers set by Your hand over the royal city,
He preserved lasting peace through the prayers of the Theotokos.
Your servant Constantine, O Lord and only Lover of Man,
The troparion celebrates God’s sovereignty in human history: how God selected a pagan Roman soldier, converted him through a miraculous vision of the Cross, and made him emperor and one of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity.
Robert Arakaki has an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He recently earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
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Constantine’s rise, A.D. 306-24. Map. Shows the Roman frontier, the areas of Constantine’s realm color coded according to when they were added, and Constantine’s campaigns against Maxentius (212 A.D.) and Licinius (316 A.D. and 324 A.D.). Also indicates battle sites.
Painting of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place in 312 AD, by Raphael. Detail: the vision of Constantine. 1509-1510 AD.
Victory of Constantine. Painting by Piero della Francesca (AD 1416-1492) depicts the famous battle of Constantine and Maxentius at Milvian Bridge. c. 1458.
Arch of Constantine, Rome. Plan showing the historical development of the decorations.
First Christian ruler of the Roman Empire
“imitate without delay the example of (your) sovereign, and embrace the divine truth of Christianity”
Constantine I came to the throne when his father, Constantius, died in 306. After defeating his rivals, Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 324, and is credited with social and economic reforms that significantly influenced medieval society. In 313 his Edict of Milan legally ended pagan persecution of Christians, and in 325 he used imperial power to bring unity to the church at the Council of Nicea. He also moved the capital of his empire to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople in 330. Constantine’s embrace of Christianity eventually led him to be baptized in 337.
“Chapter III.–Of his Picture surmounted by a Cross and having beneath it a Dragon.
And besides this, he caused to be painted on a lofty tablet, and set up in the front of the portico of his palace, so as to be visible to all, a representation of the salutary sign placed above his head, and below it that hateful and savage adversary of mankind, who by means of the tyranny of the ungodly had wasted the Church of God, falling headlong, under the form of a dragon, to the abyss of destruction. For the sacred oracles in the books of God’s prophets have described him as a dragon and a crooked serpent; [Especially the book of Revelation, and Isaiah] and for this reason the emperor thus publicly displayed a painted resemblance of the dragon beneath his own and his children’s feet, stricken through with a dart, and cast headlong into the depths of the sea.
In this manner he intended to represent the secret adversary of the human race, and to indicate that he was consigned to the gulf of perdition by virtue of the salutary trophy placed above his head. This allegory, then, was thus conveyed by means of the colors of a picture: and I am filled with wonder at the intellectual greatness of the emperor, who as if by divine inspiration thus expressed what the prophets had foretold concerning this monster, saying that “God would bring his great and strong and terrible sword against the dragon, the flying serpent; and would destroy the dragon that was in the sea.” [Isa. xxvii.] This it was of which the emperor gave a true and faithful representation in the picture above described.” (Oration in Praise of Constantine)
“In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. 7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, 8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. 11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. 12 Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. 13 And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. 14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. 15 And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. 16 And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
2 And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. 4 And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?
And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
“This revolution was the greatest revolution and change in the face of things that ever came to pass in the world since the flood. Satan, the prince of darkness, that king and god of the heathen world, was cast out. The roaring lion was conquered by the Lamb of God in the strongest dominion that ever he had, even the Roman Empire.” (Work of Redemption, Period 3, Section 2)
Numismatic Chronicle – Constantine (1877 PDF)
“The type of these pieces and the inscription indicate how the “public hope” was centered in the triumph of the Christian religion over the adversary of mankind — “the great dragon, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan” (Rev. xii. 9 ; xx. 2), and Eusebius tells us how Constantine I had a picture painted of the dragon — the flying serpent — beneath his own and his children’s feet, pierced through the middle with a dart, and cast into the depths of the sea.”
conversion to Christianity and about the details of his momentous vision. There is also debate as to whether history can be deduced from the study of old coins or numismatics in general. It appears that in all three cases, the ultimate judgment must rest with each student, depending upon the degree of penetration and the quality of study applied. Verifiable facts — the external evidence — do not always explain the meaning of historical events or their internal significance. The interpretation of history is often a subjective involvement, as historians tend to provide their own understanding and interpretations.
Old coins and their contribution. Considerable disparity exists among historians about the time of Constantine’s
Constantinian Knight Commander, Craig Peter Barclay, M.A., M.Litt. The author has served as Keeper of Numismatics at the Yorkshire Museum in York, U.K. and has previously held curatorial positions at the Royal Mint and University of Aberdeen.
An exemplary case of historical interpretation based on ancient coinage and existing literature is the following essay by the distinguished
Hoc Signo Victor Eris:
Christian Symbolism on the Coinage of Constantine the Great
In a world without newspapers and television, the circulating coinage provided a potent means for ruling authorities to disseminate political and religious propaganda. Few such authorities have been more conscious of the potential value of this medium than the Roman emperors, and it can be argued that none of those made more effective use of it than Constantine the Great.
As the first emperor to embrace the Christian faith, we might expect that Constantine’s religious convictions would figure prominently on the coinage of his reign. The degree to which this was actually the case has provoked great deal of scholarly argument and, in so doing, has provided a number of fascinating insights into the development of religious symbolism in the fledgling Christian Empire.
As Andrew Alfoldi has rightly observed (p. 41), ‘The coin types of the period are, in every case, mere feeble copies of those great works of art that have not come down to us.’ Nevertheless, he would contend, they have also provided us with ‘absolute proof that the Emperor embraced the Christian cause with a suddenness that surprised all but his most intimate colleagues.’ (Alfoldi, pp. 1-2)
Constantine the Great; bronze follis; AD 337-40
A more recent scholar, Andrew Burnett, however argues that representations of pagan gods only disappear from Constantine’s coinage after AD 318 and, even then, the designs that replaced them were primarily religiously neutral in content. ‘The only explicitly Christian coin designs were the representations of the emperor in an attitude of prayer, and a very rare design used by the mint of Constantinople in about 327, showing a banner with a chi-rho monogram spearing a serpent, representing his enemy Licinius.’ (Burnett, p. 145)
Clearly the nature and significance of the designs used by Constantine on his coinage are open to more than one interpretation. We must accordingly address the complex question: ‘Can we see the Christian faith of Constantine the Great reflected in his coinage?’
Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born in about AD 285 at Naissus in Serbia, the son of the Tetrarch Constantius I and his wife, the Empress Helena. After spending his early years as an effective hostage at the courts of Diocletian and his successor Galerius, Constantine escaped to the west, joining his father in York shortly before the latter’s death on 25 July AD 306. Proclaimed emperor by the army at York, Constantine spent the next eighteen years disposing of his rivals for control of the empire through an elaborate series of shifting political alliances and military campaigns.
During the early part of his reign representations of first Mars and then, from AD 310, Apollo-Sol dominated Constantine’s coinage. Mars had been intimately associated with the Tetrarchy, and Constantine’s use of this symbolism served to emphasise the legitimacy of his rule. After his breach with his father’s old colleague Maximian in AD 309-10, Constantine began to claim legitimate descent from the third-century emperor Claudius Gothicus. Gothicus had claimed the divine protection of the Apollo-Sol . As Burnett notes (pp. 143-44), in AD 310 Constantine experienced a vision in which Apollo-Sol appeared to him with omens of success. ‘Thereafter his coinage was dominated for several years by “his companion the unconquered Sol”, SOLI INVICTO COMITI.’
Constantine the Great; bronze follis; AD 316-17
According to Lactantius, just prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, Constantine experienced a dream-vision urging him to trust the fate of his army to the Christian God, and to place the symbol of the monogrammatic cross on the shields of his army. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius’s account of Constantine’s vision differs slightly, claiming that Constantine experienced a vision at the beginning of his military campaign wherein the symbol of the cross appeared on the face of the sun, accompanied by the Greek words, ‘In this sign conquer’. Subsequently, Eusebius tells us, Constantine experienced a second vision, in which he was urged to use the Christian sign to protect himself from his foes. In response to this latter vision, Constantine had a labarum or standard produced, bearing the name of Christ in the form of a monogram of the Greek letters X and P (the Chi-Rho).
Whatever the detail, Constantine duly placed his trust in the Cross and duly defeated his imperial rival, Maxentius, on the outskirts of Rome itself. Nevertheless, in the wake of this great victory, no immediate change took place in the basic design of the coinage, with issues celebrating Sol Invictus continuing to form the bulk of the circulating medium. Indeed, as Vermeule (p. 180) explains, even in AD 313, on the very eve of the Edict of Toleration, Constantine was still portrayed on huge gold medallions in the company of Sol Invictus and bearing a shield decorated with a representation he sun-god’s chariot.
Nevertheless, after the final defeat of Licinius, the pagan gods disappeared from the coinage of Constantine, their place being taken by religiously neutral images. The question might be asked as to why Constantine did at last begin to make extensive use of specifically Christian images at this time but, as Runciman (p. 17) bluntly reminds us, ‘The earliest Christians took little interest in art.’
Accordingly, during the early 4th century AD, there were few artistic motifs available that could be relied upon to convey a specifically Christian message. Even the Chi-Rho, which is today universally recognised as a Christian sign, could be misinterpreted, Bruun (p. 61) reminding us that, ‘The sign, at the moment of its creation, was ambiguous. In essence it was a monogram composed of the Greek letters X and P, and, while the monogrammatic combination of these two letters was by no means unusual in pre-Constantinian times, the occurrence of X P with a clearly Christian significance is exceedingly rare.’ The potential significance of the sign would initially have been lost on the non Greek-speaking population of the empire, who might more readily have interpreted the sign as being linked to Solar or Mithraic worship.
Such initial ambiguities notwithstanding, there can be no doubt that Constantine saw his victorious sign as being an explicitly Christian symbol nor that, in the wake of the writings of Eusebius and Lactantius, its religious meaning came rapidly to be universally recognised. Constantine made only sparing use of the Chi-Rho on his coins, confining its use to a few scarce issues only. Following his death however, this most powerful symbol came to be used increasingly frequently, both as a means of celebrating the religious convictions of the succeeding emperors, and as a means of affirming the legitimacy of their succession from Constantine.
Eudoxia; gold solidus; AD 397-402
Although also adopted by Constantine’s sons, the most prominent early use of the Chi-Rho occurred during the reign of the usurper Magnentius (AD 350-53), who struck large bronze double centenionales decorated with a large Christogram flanked by the Greek letters alpha and omega. Thereafter the symbol appeared time after time on the coinages of both the western and eastern empires, its position as the primary symbol of the new state religion only gradually being superseded by the plain, unadorned Cross.
As the image of the emperor most commonly seen by the public, the portrait of the emperor reproduced on the imperial coinage was considered to be of the utmost importance. Constantine’s coinage portraits break away from the traditions of the previous two centuries, calling upon both earlier Imperial and Greek precedents for inspiration. The Imperial beard, which had been sported by almost all emperors since the beginning of the second century, was abandoned and replaced by a clean shaven image. Likewise, the laurel wreath or solar crown which had dominated the coinages of the second and third centuries were dropped in favour of an eastern diadem, or, less frequently, a military helmet.
Constantine the Great; gold solidus; AD 326
One particular version of the new imperial image has attracted particular attention. Eusebius (4.15) was quite explicit in his statement that Constantine was portrayed on his coinage in an attitude of prayer: ‘He directed his likeness to be stamped on a gold coin with his eyes uplifted in the posture of prayer to God … this coin was current through the Roman world and was a sign of the power of divine faith.’ Burnett recognises this passage as important evidence implying ‘that important members of the higher social classes noticed coin designs’, adding that ‘There can hardly be any doubt that Eusebius had seen the coins in question’.
Constantine the Great; gold solidus; AD 326-27
Not all authors have accepted these coins as representing the emperor’s devotion to the Christian faith and, as L’Orange has pointed out (1947, p.34), the ‘heaven-gazing’ coin portraits of Constantine have been the subject of numerous interpretations, including an argument that it should be interpreted as a representation of the Sol-emperor Constantine fixing his gaze upon the goddess Luna. L’Orange (1947, p.94) would consequently argue that, ‘Constantine as Christian orant is, therefore, an arbitrary interpretation of his heavenward-looking portrait. This does not however alter the fact that the type became for Christians, perhaps owing to the very weight of Eusebius’ authority, an expression of Constantine’s inspired relation to their own God, a representation of the Christ-emperor.’
This argument has in part been fuelled by the undoubted fact that the so-called Constantinus orans portrait type is ultimately derived from pagan prototypes first seen during the reign of the Hellenic monarch Alexander the Great (Toynbee, p. 148). Bruun (p. 33), who does not accept that the coin type bears any specific Christian significance, nevertheless concedes that the heavenward-gazing portraits of Constantine recall ‘portraits of the Hellenistic ruler, whose heavenward look expresses the inner contact between the emperor and the heavenly powers.’
fatorum arbiter, rises before us, with all the future on his knees.’
Most however have been more than content to recognise the Christian spirituality of these most beautiful images. The heavenward-gazing portrait is not peculiar to the coinage and Alfoldi (p. 34) recalls that ‘Apart from the monogram of salvation, the statues, paintings, and coin-types displayed, throughout the Empire, the gaze of the “most religious Majesty”, directed heavenward’. The same point has been effectively argued by L’Orange (1965, pp. 123-24), who noted in writing of a colossal head of Constantine from the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome that ‘The eyes, being supernaturally large and wide-open and framed by the accentuated concentric curves of the deepcut lids and brows, express more clearly than ever the transcendence of the ruler’s personality. In this gaze he travels far beyond his physical surroundings and attains his goal in a higher sphere, in contact and identity with the governing powers. Providence in person, the irresistible controller of fate,
Yet another distinguished scholar likewise observes that, ‘Long before his formal conversion to Christianity Constantine had associated himself with purely Christian policy, and his finer portrait show the upward-tilted head of the man with his mind on the heavens, or the facing head, dazzling within its halo, of the world’s half-Christian master.’ (Sutherland, p. 103). Irrespective of the pagan origins of the orant portrait it had, through its adoption by Constantine, come to express a wholly new significance. ‘The outward forms of expression remain very much as before … But the inner meaning has completely changed. The pagan Emperor was never clearly distinguished in nature from the deity whose vice-regent he was: hence the divine attributes and all his pomp and state. The maiestas of the Christian Emperor, the “vicarius Dei”, is wholly derivative: between him and his God there is a fixed and impassable gulf, that between the creature and his Creator, which God-given Grace alone can bridge.’ (Toynbee, p. 149)
It is significant that the orant portrait was used not only on coins of Constantine himself, but also on coins struck during his reign in the names of is appointed successors (L’Orange 1947, p. 91). After his death in AD 337 however, Constantine’s sons made only very limited use of the highly distinctive portrait, perhaps regarding it as being a reflection of their father’s personal relationship with his God.
If the orant portrait did not long survive the death of Constantine, other stylistic elements of his coin portraits did. From this point onwards the imperial image reproduced on the coinage ceased to attempt accurately to reproduce the actual features of the living monarch. Instead the portraits became mere ciphers, representing a stylised rather than personal image of imperial majesty. All of these images nevertheless borrowed heavily from Constantinian prototypes adopting, for example, the eastern diadem and clean-shaven features of the first Christian emperor. Indeed, the clean shaven portrait came so closely to be associated with the new faith that when the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (AD 360-63) briefly gained the throne, he swiftly adopted a bearded portrait in order to disassociate himself from his Christian predecessors. With Julian’s death, shaven portraits once again became the norm, remaining so until long after the fall of Rome.
Alfoldi (p. 27), in arguing that Constantine’s religious policy was not based on ‘conscious ambiguity’, states that the appearance of the Chi-Rho on Constantine’s helmet ‘on issues of coins from all quarters, soon after the defeat of Maxentius, loudly and unmistakably claimed where Constantine stood.’ He further asserts that, ‘We can prove beyond a doubt, by the evidence of coin types appearing soon after, that Constantine caused the monogram of Christ to be inscribed on his helmet before the decisive battle with Maxentius’. (Alfoldi, p. 17)
Alfoldi (pp. 39-40) further states, in defence of the significance of the Chi-Rho that, ‘Eusebius knows that Constantine not only bore the Christian symbol on his helmet in the fight against Maxentius, but continued to wear it in his golden, bejewelled helmet of state. When … the representation of this helmet, that was new in its pattern, soon appears on the coins, we cannot possibly regard it as a mere sign of zeal on the part of Christian subordinates. The tiniest detail of the imperial dress was the subject of a symbolism that defined rank, that was hallowed by tradition and regulated by precise rules. Anyone who irresponsibly tampered with it would have incurred the severest penalties. Especially would this have been the case if anyone, without imperial authority, had provided the head-gear of the Emperor with a sign of such serious political importance as that attached to the monogram of Christ’.
A very similar position has been adopted by Voght (p. 90), who explains that, ‘we have other witnesses to the piety of the new ruler of Rome and from these we learn that Constantine gave public expression to his gratitude to his divine patron. The magnificent silver medallion, whose obverse and reverse depict the conquest and liberation of the city, was probably struck at the mint of Ticinum (near modern Milan) as early as 313: and on the obverse the monogram appears, on the crested plume of Constantine’s helmet. In a prestige issue of this type, the incorporation of the Christ-monogram into the portrait of the emperor could only have been done on the highest authority.’
Burnett (p. 146) similarly draws attention to the same silver medallion (actually struck at Rome or Aquileia in AD 315) and a series of small bronze coins struck at Siscia in c. AD 320. On all of these, the emperor is clearly portrayed with the Chi-Rho symbol prominently displayed on his helmet. ‘It is indeed hard to disassociate them from Eusebius’s explicit statement that Constantine placed the Chi-Rho on his helmet, but the very occasional nature of its appearance on coins should make us cautious about making too much of this. On coins issued in about 322 at Trier, for instance, the chi-rho appears as the decoration on the shield held by Constantine’s son Crispus; but it happened on only one die and must represent the personal choice of a die engraver, as the other shields for the same group of coins have different sorts of decoration on the shields.’
Victoriae laetae princ perp coins of Siscia (describing them as ‘engraver’s slips’), accepts the symbolic significance of the use of the same symbol on the silver medallions of AD 315, writing that, ‘The silver multiples with their facing portraits represent an altogether different case. The Chi-Rho is here set in a badge just below the root of the crest. The official character of the badge has recently been demonstrated in a convincing manner. No doubt, therefore, persists about the meaning of the new emblem: the emperor has adopted his own victorious sign as a symbol of power.’
Even Bruun (p. 63), who is dismissive of the appearance of the Christogram on some
Spes Publica, and portrays a serpent being pierced by a Chi-Rho topped labarum.
The mint of Constantinople was in operation by AD 327, some three years before the formal dedication of the city. A series of bronze coins of that year celebrate the defeat of Licinius. The reverse of this issue bears the legend
labarum, the new imperial banner, were all propaganda in the modern sense’. Even Bruun (p. 64), whilst generally dismissive of the existence of Christian symbols on the coinage of Constantine, is forced to concede that ‘The problem of the labarum piercing the dragon on the Constantinopolitan Spes publica bronzes remains.’
For Alfoldi (p. 39), ‘The spectacle of the Christian monogram on works of art and coin-types, the blaze of the initials of Christ on the
labarum becomes a frequent and recurrent feature of the coinage following his death, normally being closely associated with a representation of a victorious emperor. One particular issue, struck at Siscia in AD 350, makes specific reference to Constantine’s vision, bearing the labarum accompanied by the legend Hoc Signo Victor Eris – ‘In this sign shalt thou conquer’.
Whilst rarely used during Constantine’s reign, the Christian
(Fig. 6) Constantius II; bronze coin of Siscia; AD 350
rationalis summarum. Approval to use these symbols was given ‘very far from the emperor and court and comes sacrarum largitionum.’
During the Roman period coins were struck at a large number of mints situated throughout the empire. As a quality-control mechanism, the coins struck by each of these mints were required to bear distinctive mintmarks, identifying their place of manufacture. The decision to use the Chi-Rho or other apparently Christian symbols as mintmarks on some of Constantine’s coins is dismissed by Bruun (p. 62) as being the responsibility of procurators or, in one case, the
Burnett (pp. 145-46) likewise acknowledges that the Chi-Rho appears on a number of issues of coins ‘as one of the stock symbols used for mint-marks’, but – like Bruun – argues that its use is more likely to reflect the rise of Christian administrators to positions of authority in Constantine’s regime rather than an official policy decision. Even if not centrally authorised, the first use of Christian mintmarks can accordingly be seen to be of the greatest significance, illustrating as it does the shift in the status of Christians within the machinery of the Roman state. Not surprisingly, in the years that followed, the choice of both the Chi-Rho and the plain Cross came increasingly to form a key element of the privy marks adopted by the empire’s numerous mints.
On 17 May AD 330 Constantine dedicated his new eastern capital of Constantinople. Alfoldi (p. 110) draws attention to ‘the small bronze coins and medallions, issued in mass, on which the sceptre of the “Tyche”, the goddess who personifies the city, is shown the globe of Christ – which means to say that the new capital is the ideal centre of the Christian world-empire.’ As Alfoldi (p. 116) explains, ‘On the shoulder of the personification of the New Rome is shown the globe of the world, set on the cross of Christ, symbolising the new capital of Christendom.’
Bruun (p. 63) is dismissive of Alfoldi’s interpretation of the supposed ‘cross-sceptre’ carried by the personification of Constantinopolis. On the basis of an examination of related issues, he argues convincingly that the ‘globe’ is no more than the globular end of a reversed spear, and that the cross-bar seen on many coins is in fact merely a two-dimensional representation of what was, in reality, a three-dimensional disc. Bruun accordingly contends that these issues convey no intended Christian significance.
Valentinian III; gold solidus; AD 455
Nevertheless, the supposed cross-sceptre was subsequently perceived by many to have possessed a Christian significance and, its original neutral status notwithstanding, it came to serve as a symbol of the Church in its own right. On the coinage, this survival is well demonstrated by an issue of large bronzes struck in the name of Valentinian II at Rome in AD 378-83. On these rare coins the emperor is portrayed bearing a cross sceptre tipped with a globular Chi-Rho, whilst on other later issues, the cross-sceptre is shown in a greatly simplified form.
After his death in AD 337, Constantine was deified by the Senate, his sons issuing commemorative coins in his name in the traditional style. Eusebius (4.37) records that, “A coin … (had) on one side a figure of our blessed prince, with head closely veiled; the reverse showed him sitting as a charioteer drawn by four horses, with a hand stretched downward from above to receive him up to heaven”.
Constantine the Great; posthumous bronze coin; AD 337-40
Burnett (p. 146) observes that the iconography of his metamorphosis, as represented on the coins struck to commemorate it, was Christianised: ‘Previous emperors had ridden up to heaven in a chariot; Constantine was received by the manus dei. The “hand of God” was, with the Chi-Rho monogram, one of the most important Christian symbols to appear on the coinage of the late empire.’ By way of illustration, a very similar image to that appearing on the coins of the deified Constantine may be observed on one of the panels of the early 5th century door of the Church of S. Sabina in Rome. There the Ascension of Elijah is portrayed, the prophet being conveyed heavenwards in a chariot with the divine assistance of an angel. The manus dei also appears on many coins, frequently crowning the emperor or his consort with a diadem or laurel wreath.
Galla Palacidia; gold solidus; AD 426-30
Whilst there can be little dispute that the Coinage of Constantine the Great did indeed express his religious convictions, it is equally true that it was not exceptionally rich in Christian symbolism. As Bruun (p. 64) reminds us however, ‘There was no independently Christian artistic tradition. The Christian ideas now about to conquer the State had to employ old means to express new conceptions.’
Honorius; gold solidus; AD 422
Constantine was nevertheless recognised by his contemporaries and near-contemporaries as the first Christian emperor, and through the writings of Eusebius, certain elements of his coinage came inextricably to be associated with the triumphant faith. As Bruun correctly records, ‘The victor is the official interpreter of history, and Christianity was the true victor of the Milvian Bridge and Chrysopolis. Thus Constantine’s victorious sign, his helmet, his seeming cross-sceptre and the aura around his head were adopted by posterity as Christian symbols, Christian signs of power.’ The Cross truly had triumphed.
Valentinian III; gold tremissis; AD 425-55
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