Ambiguity rules: The Rise of Constantine in Iconography between Sun God and Christ – ambivalent representation on coins with Attributes of Victory and Sol
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge changed our world. The christogram is wedded to this event.Constantine made it the symbol of his victory. This podcast is dedicated to the first use of the Chi-Rho on a coin.
Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Rome. We are in the year 315 A.D.
It was unbelievable what was to be seen on Constantine's new coins. Constantine, whom posterity was supposed to call 'the Great'. The emperor was shown with the sign of a religion which was declared legal four years ago: the Christogram is attached to his helmet. Sources tell us that the first time Constantine used the Christogram was during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
In the spring of 312, Constantin crossed the Alps with 30,000 soldiers. He wanted to conquer Italy, where Maxentius was the ruler at the time. Two emperors before him had already tried to take out Maxentius. They had failed. So Constantine needed something new to give courage to his army. And, indeed, Constantine produced a dream. Lactantius tells us that he was summoned, in his sleep, to "place the heavenly sign of God on the shields and go to battle like this".
This is what happened. Constantine won. His opponent, Emperor Maxentius, drowned.
The body of the dead ruler was only found the next day. "And his severed head was carried into the city on a pole," as sources tell us.
So Constantine moved to Rome and showed his gratitude to the new god. In the same year he began to build the Basilica Constantiniana which we know today as Laterano.
In 315 Constantine celebrated his jubilee. He had been in power for 10 years. And for his self-portrait he harked back to this greatest victory.
Constantine is depicted as a warrior on the coin. He wears a helmet adorned with feathers. The Christogram on his helmet refers to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when it was used for the first time.
Constantine leads his horse in his right hand. His left arm holds his shield. On it the she-wolf is depicted with the twins Romulus and Remus, effectively as a type of emblem of the city of Rome. A sceptre with an orb can be seen to the right of his head. The orb represents Constantine's sovereignty over the whole of the globe.
On the back Constantine is characterised as a conqueror. He is holding a trophy made from the weapons of his annihilated enemies. Victoria is standing behind him with a palm branch as a symbol of victory.
We only know of three specimens of this valuable coin left today. Our piece comes from the National Coin Collection in Munich. But of course Constantine originally had many more of these coins minted. They were given out as gifts to officers.
And so the focus is on the army. Constantine has raised his hand in a gesture of speech. He talks to his soldiers. The cavalry has gathered in front of him, slightly further back the foot soldiers.
Haloes can be seen around the heads of some of the soldiers. Or are they shields? The engraver has created an ambiguous representation here. But it would be perfectly reasonable to interpret these circles as haloes. Even Homer knew of the blaze of light which radiates around the warrior in battle.
And in some Roman representations, we see the emperor in the radiance of heavenly light, which we take to be created by the Sun God.
However, Constantine did not recognise Christ as a sun god, but just as a very special manifestation of the Roman sun god Sol. And so Constantine took it for granted that he himself would become one of the gods when he died. He was interred, Christlike, in 337 in the centre of the Church of the Holy Apostles.
His successors waited three and a half months before they took up their reign. Wasn't Christ resurrected? Couldn't Constantine, the new Christ, also be resurrected?