NGC Ancients: Constantine “the Great”

Posted on 6/12/2018

A collection of Constantinian coins can be assembled on a relatively low budget.

It's unusual that a historically significant and meaningful collection of objects can be formed on a budget. That scenario, however, often recurs in the coinage of the Roman Empire, and it is perhaps best represented than by the coinage of the emperor Constantine I ‘the Great’ (A.D. 307 to 337) and his family.

So long as these Constantinian coins are of base metal or billon (a low-grade silver), the cost of such a collection can be quite low, even when acquiring highly attractive examples. Shown below is a selection of coins which fits that description.

Constantine is one of the most important figures in world history. Not only was he an emperor in the Roman world for three decades, but he was a remarkable military commander who never lost a battle. Even so, he’s best known as Rome’s first imperial advocate of Christianity, and was largely responsible for Christianity’s replacement of the traditional Greco-Roman paganism as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Now, onto the coins. We’ll start with issues of Constantine’s parents, Constantius I ‘Chlorus’ and Helena.

Shown above is a billon nummus of Constantius I struck at the mint of Antioch in 302-303, when he was Caesar, a rank subordinate to his emperors Diocletian and Maximian.

Next is a billon AE3 of Helena, Constantine’s mother, who became famous late in her life for her pilgrimage to the Holy Land – theoretically to atone for the sins of her son.

Above is a nummus of Constantine issued in 307, when (as the inscription reveals) he bore the rank of Caesar. It was struck at Trier, Germany, within the western provinces of the Roman Empire, which were then the only part of the Roman world under his control.

From 309 to 310 Constantine was accorded the irregular and imprecise rank of Filius Augustorum by the rival emperors Galerius and Licinius I. The billon nummus shown above, struck at Thessalonica, in the territory of Galerius, bears that title in the obverse inscription.

Though Constantine had proclaimed himself Augustus in 307, not all of the empire’s competing rulers acknowledged his self-promotion (as, for example, the coin describing him as Filius Augustorum had shown). Above is a billon AE3 of Constantine struck at the Arles mint in 327, after he had eliminated all of his rivals and had become sole emperor of the Roman world.

Now we may move on to Constantine’s own family. He had a serious relationship with a young woman named Minervina, who is variously described by ancient authors as being his first wife, or his ‘concubine’. Her true status is unknown.

What is known, however, is that during his rise to power, Constantine set aside Minervina...but not before she bore him a son, Crispus, who would serve at his side for a decade with the rank of Caesar. Crispus appeared to be on unassailable ground until, in 326, he was executed for what was (or what his father construed as being) treasonous behavior.

Shown above is a billon AE3 of Crispus struck at Trier in 320.

The only official marriage of Constantine was to Fausta, daughter of the rival emperor Maximian. He married her in 307, and during their marriage she gave birth to three boys, all of whom would serve as Caesars in their father’s regime (and eventually would succeed him as emperors in their own right).

Fausta also gave birth to a daughter, Constantia, who later was married to Constantine’s rival Licinius I; coins of Constantia are exceedingly rare.

Fortunately for collectors, the coins of Fausta are quite common. Shown above is a billon AE3 of Fausta struck at Cyzicus in 326, the year she was executed by her husband, presumably in connection with the equally alarming execution of Crispus.

The first of the three sons of Fausta was Constantine II. Shown above is a billon AE3 of his struck at Sirmium in 324-325, while he bore the rank of Caesar.

The next of Fausta’s sons was Constantius II, destined to be the longest-surviving son of Constantine, for he reigned until 361. Shown above is a billon centenionalis struck for him at Antioch in 348-350, when he reigned as emperor.

The youngest of Constantine’s sons was Constans, who is portrayed on the billon centenionalis above. It was struck at Siscia in 348-350, when he reigned as emperor, and not long before he was murdered in a coup on his birthday, January 18, 350.

Thus we are at an end of Constantine’s direct family. But there are others to include in this collection, for his father, Constantius I, had taken a second wife, Theodora, after he had divorced Contantine’s mother, Helena. Constantine’s step-mother is shown above on a billon AE4 struck at the mint of Trier not long after Constantine’s death.

Theodora gave birth to several children who formed a separate branch of the Constantinian family that was persecuted under Constantine’s rule, for each was a potential rival to Constantine and his own sons. Though the generation that included Theodora’s children was eliminated, some of her grandchildren survived and eventually were granted authority.

The first two, Delmatius and Hannibalianus, appear above on billon AE3/4’s. These coins were struck on their behalf by Constantine in the period 335-337, when each was officially included in the plans for succession.

Unfortunately, when Constantine died his three sons and their supporters executed the two youngsters (as well as many of their family members). The coin of Delmatius, which bears his title of Caesar, was produced at the mint of Siscia; that of Hannibalianus, which bears his remarkable title of Rex Regum, was struck at Constantinople.

Two other descendants of Theodora survived the family purge that followed Constantine’s death in 337. These two survivors, Constantius Gallus and Julian II, were called out of obscurity to serve as Caesars by Constantine’s middle son, Constantius II, who was by then sole-emperor.

Constantius Gallus, Caesar from 351 to 354, is portrayed above on a billon half-centenionalis struck at Cyzicus. He was executed late in 354 on a host of charges leveled against him by the emperor.

Also to survive, and to serve the empire, was the more famous Julian II. Not only did he serve as Caesar under Constantius II, but he staged a revolt against him in 360 at the urging of his loyal army. However, the rivals never met in battle, for as Julian II was marching eastward late in 361, Constantius II died of what reportedly were natural causes.

Julian II became famous for his efforts to restore paganism as the empire’s official religion, despite the powerful rise of Christianity in the previous few decades. His mission was cut short, however, in the summer of 363 when he was killed in a skirmish, either by an enemy or by one of his own soldiers who held strong sympathies for Christianity. Shown above is an AE1 of Julian II struck at Antioch; it depicts him wearing his long, pagan-style ‘philosopher beard’.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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