Commemorating the site of Constantine I's Vision and Victory

 

I don't seek out many late Roman coins, but you could say this one spoke to me:  "In hoc moneta vinces"  :D

Commemorative Series under Constantine I. 330 CE; Æ 14.5 mm, 1.16 gm.Constantinople mint, 1st officina. POP ROMANVS; draped bust of Genius left, with cornucopia over shoulder / Milvian Bridge over Tiber River; CONS//A. RIC VIII 21; LRBC 1066; Vagi 3043.  Ex E.E. Clain-Stefanelli collection

Small anonymous Constantinian-era bronze coins were presumably issued for distribution at consecration ceremonies for the empire's new capital at Constantinople. Struck from 330-348 CE, with some rare medallions struck for a few more years, there are many types (Victory on prow, she-wolf suckling twins, etc) and in general they are very common. This particular type shows the Milvian bridge, site of Constantine's storied vision in which he received battle tips from Jesus.

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Constantine I is credited with making Christianity a mainstream religion of the Roman Empire. His conversion to Christianity, as described in a contemporary biography by Eusebius, occurred the eve before battling Maxentius at Milvian bridge.

 

The story does not appear in other written histories prior to the Eusebius biography. Constantine related the event directly to Eusebius, according to Eusebius.

 

Here is the abbreviated version. I encourage you to read the original translated work.


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After much reflection and introspection, Constantine determined that worshiping idols led to savagery and barbarism. He decided to be a Christian, and set out to battle the wicked emperor Maxentius.

October 27, 312; mid day: Constantine, deep in prayer, received a vision. From Eusebius:

 

"He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, "In hoc signo vinces" [In this sign, conquer]. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle."

 

That night as he slept he received another vision, this time in a dream. "Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies."

 

At dawn he arose and gathered his artisans, describing the sign. It sounds quite elaborate. His artisans must've been very skilled to make such a thing so quickly, and while encamped. The labarum, which Eusebius saw with his own eyes, is described thusly:

 

"A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Saviour's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner."

 

The engagement began and despite outnumbering Constantine's troops, Maxentius and his army were vanquished. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber along with many of his troops.

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The Chi-Rho insignia (Christogram) appeared on coins first as a minor device. Later, beginning under Magnentius, it appeared as a featured device.

The Vision of the Cross, Raphael, c. 1520-1524 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Giulio Romano, c.1520-1524 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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In case you don't know about Genius on ancient coins, it's not some smart guy; it's a personification of the divine nature present in every man. With the legend POP ROMANVS ("people of Rome"), this coin celebrates the spirit of the Romans-- a fitting design for a commemorative coin.

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One last pesky detail: there is not universal agreement about identity of the bridge shown on this coin or of the iconography's significance. Some scholars doubt that it is the Milvian bridge. I'm choosing to believe it is the Milvian bridge.

Milvian Bridge, c. 2005 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

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References and further reading:

 

Eusebius. Life of Constantine. Chapters XXVI-XXXVIII relate Constantine's vision and victory at Milvian bridge. The chapters are brief and entertaining and I highly recommend reading them. It will only take a few minutes.

 

An interesting and somewhat skeptical article about the Christian historian Eusebius; from ChristianityToday

 

Coinage and History of the Roman Empire, Volume I, David Vagi, 1999.

 

Review of Vagi's book by Doug Smith

 

Wikipedia entry, Battle of the Milvian Bridge

 

Warren Esty's page about Christian symbols on Roman coins

 

Simplified overview of the tetrarchy on Livius.org

 

A downloadable spreadsheet of Constantinian-era city commemorative bronze coins, from Dane Kurth. Scroll down the page for the spreadsheet. Bookmark the page if you haven't already; it contains many valuable spreadsheets of use to collectors of later Roman coins.