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Early Christian Types
The first type to refer to
struck in 327-328 under
Constantine (307-337), but its reference to
Christianity, while evident, is obscure. It has provoked many scholarly
This coin: 18 mm. 2.99 grams.
Head of Constantine right, laureate.
CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG
Reverse: SPES PVBLIC across the field with A in the lower
a chi-rho topping a standard
with three dots on the vexillum (flag-like object), planted in a
serpent with head downward.
CONS (indicating the mint of Constantinople) in exergue.
RIC Constantinople 19
This type was issued only in the first issue of the new mint at the
newly founded capitol city of Constantine, Constantinopolis (now
Istanbul in Turkey, which was founded on the site of a smaller Greek
city named Byzantium, for which the Byzantine empire is named). It must
have been unpopular when it was issued in 326 because it was almost
immediately discontinued; the other coin types of the same issue are
far more common. No other ancient coin type is similar enough to help
us interpret this type, and each proposed interpretation has been
disputed by some other author with a different interpretation.
"SPES" means "hope" and had appeared on coins many
times. A personification of Spes is a common type for the emperor's son
and heir apparent. But there never had been anything like a standard planted in a snake. The snake has been
interpreted as a symbol of evil in general or, alternatively, as a
symbol for Licinius, the defeated rival emperor of the eastern part of
the empire. In any case, the interpretation goes, the standard of
Christianity defeated them, causing the head of the snake to droop as
if in death. The three dots on the standard might, or might not, show
medallions portraying Constantine's three sons.
There are many
discussions of this type. One is here
(a very old Numismatic Chronicle issue on googlebooks). Victor Clark,
"Constantine, and Eusebius, compared
serpents/dragons to evil on many
occasions. In one instance, when he referred to Arius, Constantine
talked about the serpent and the Devil as if they were one. Constantine
also used the dragon/serpent symbolism to specifically describe
Licinius. "Like some, or a twisting snake coiling up on itself." "But
now, with liberty restored and that dragon driven out of the
public administration through the providence of the supreme God and by
Note for collectors: This type is very rare and in great demand. A
nice example will cost more than two thousand dollars. At most times
there will be none on the market and when the next one appears, which
might be year or more off, it is likely to appear in a major auction.
The type has been the subject of modern counterfeiting, as described here.
In AD 350
the first type with an overtly Christian
legend occurs. Vetranio, ruler
in the Balkans during the reign of Constantius II, issued this
important first type with the legend "HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS" ("In this
sign, you will be victorious") referring to the famous vision of
Constantine prior to the battle of the Milvian bridge on October 28,
This coin: Obverse portrait of Vetranio, who ruled
in the Balkans March 15 - Dec. 25, 350.
21 mm diameter. 5.06 grams.
Bust of Vetranio right, laureate, draped, and cuirassed
Legend: DN VETRA-NIO PF AVG, A in field left, star in
Reverse: HOC SIG-NO VICTOR ERIS
Victory crowning emperor holding standard with chi-rho,
A in field left.
• ASIS • mintmark in exergue, for the Siscia mint
(now Sisak in modern Croatia).
RIC Siscia 287
The chi-rho, , (also called a christogram,
or, rarely in numismatics, a chrismon) is formed from the first
two letters of "Christ" in Greek (chi = X and rho = P).
This is a reference to the famous vision of Constantine before the
momentous Battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius just outside
Rome on October 28, 312. The ancient author Lactantius who was tutor to
Crispus (appointed either 311 or 313) wrote in "On the Deaths of the
Chapter 44, a.k.a. "On the Manner in which the Persecutors died"):
"Constantine was directed in a dream to
cause the heavenly sign to be
delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to
He did as he had been commanded, and
he marked on their shields the
letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round
thus at the top (P), being the cipher of CHRISTOS. Having this
his troops stood to arms.
This testimony is reliable (as the next coin supports) and differs from
the report written twenty-five years after the event by Eusebius who
wrote in "The Life of Constantine":
"He said that about noon, when the day
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, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with
amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this
expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
"He said, moreover, that he doubted
within himself what the import
of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and
reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the
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 of day he arose, and
communicated the marvel to his
friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious
stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure
of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious
stones. And this representation I myself have had an opportunity of
"Now it was made in the following
manner. 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:
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 emperor
constantly made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against
every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to
it should be carried at the head of all his armies.
The standard with a chi-rho is called a "labarum." The coin above has a
clear example. Far more Roman coins with early Christian symbols have a
labarum with a chi-rho than have a cross.
Note for collectors: Vetranio's coins are scarce so any Vetranio
coin is in demand as a portrait piece. This type is also important as
an early Christian reference. These two features combine to make the
type far more expensive than most fourth-century copper coins.
Nevertheless, it is readily available on the market. It is usually
fairly well-struck. The chi-rho is small and is sometimes not clear, in
which case the historical interest is not illustrated and the coin is
The first fully Christian design.
Not long after the Vetranio type, the Gallic usurper Magnentius (AD
350-353) issued a large coin in which a chi-rho is the type.
This coin: 27 mm. 8.84 grams.
Bust of Magnentius right, head bare
Legend: DN MAGNEN-TIVS PF AVG
Reverse: SALVS DD NN AVG ET CAES
large chi-rho with alpha and omega on either side.
TRS in exergue (a mint mark for Trier = Treves =
in modern Germany, near its border with Luxembourg)
The "S" denotes a product of the mint's second officina
RIC Trier 318
The "AVG ET CAES" refers to Magnentius, the AVGustus, and
whom he had elevated to the rank of CAESar.
The type is also issued for Decentius.
Not only is the chi-rho a Christian reference, but so is the alpha (A)
and omega (ω) pair. Alpha is the
first letter in the Greek alphabet and omega the last. In the book of
Revelations (1:8) it says "I am the alpha and the omega, the first and
the last." This may refer to God or to Jesus (It is a matter of
scholarly dispute which. See Wikipedia for more
on that distinction)
Note for collectors: Coins of Magnentius are readily available
and this large type is not rare, but because of its manifest Christian
connection it is several times as expensive as many other late Roman
coin types. It is issued at several mints and also issued for
Decentius. The denomination is called a "double maiorina" (or by size,
an "AE1") and there is a very similar, but smaller and much less
common, (single) maiorina of the same design. Often this type are
crowded, with the flans somewhat too small for the dies. Also, this
type was widely copied unofficially and imitations are found with
workmanship of varying quality, from nearly as good as official mint
products to quite crude.
Return to the main page for the first Christian references
on Roman coins, which were
only small Christian symbols, either a chi-rho ( ) or a cross
somewhere in the design (c. AD 315-326, Table 1
lists the earliest ones).