Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was a Roman emperor from 306 to 337. He was doubtlessly one of the most controverted emperors, due to all the questions around his conversion to Christianity. Even nowadays, historians keep arguing about the time when this happened and whether his act was motivated by sincere conviction or political reasons. Irrespective of the so called quaestio Constantiniana, there is not the least doubt that during his youth and at the beginning of his reign, Constantine kept a close relationship with the cult to Sol Invictus (unconquered sun), which was reflected in the monetary representations (Buenacasa, 2011: 147-148).
This religion from Syria (1), was introduced by Heliogabalus (emperor from 218 to 222), although the introduction was not successful. The opposite happened with the Illyrian Aurelian (emperor from 270 to 274), who eliminated the oriental exotism of his predecessor and rescued part of the Republican Roman tradition of Sol Indiges (2). In the year 274 Aurelian turned the Sun into the main deity of the Roman pantheon, without affecting the gods of other religions. In fact, one of the factors which helped with its acceptance was that the private cult to Mitra, Iranian sun god, was strongly introduced among the Roman population, especially the army.
During Diocletian’s tetrarchy (293 to 324), the sun god lost importance, while the theology based on the praising of Jupiter (Jovii) and Hercules (Herculii) took its place. Based on this theocratic conception of power, the sovereigns made the population believe that only those appointed by the gods could ensure the common good. Constantine, as a son of the tetrarch Constantius Chlorus (emperor from 293 to 306) was familiar with the omnipresence of the gods from his youth and therefore embraced enthusiastically that sacred image that the emperors used to have of themselves (Brandt, 2007: 21). After his father’s death, the new Caesar became a Herculius, setting his true religious tendencies aside until the year 310 (at least, in public).
In August of that same year a speech was given at the court in Trier (currently, Germany), which was included in the “Latin Panegyrics” (3) and where the relationship between Constantine and the Sun was defined. After defeating the Franks on the Rhine, the emperor visited a Gallic temple dedicated to Apollo in Autun (Eastern France), where he had a vision, described by the eulogizer like this:
“I imagine that you, Constantine, saw Apollo the protector, accompanied by the Victory, who offered you some laurel wreaths, each one of them bringing you a thirty-year omen… And why am I saying “imagine”? You did see the god and recognized yourself in him, the same god to whom the poets had dedicated songs saying that all the kingdoms of the world were owed to him. All of which has eventually happened, as you, emperor, are young, bright, healthy and very handsome, the same as he is.”
Regardless of the truthfulness of this fact, the main point was that Constantine merged with the Sun God through this appearance and was given the right to rule over the whole empire. Besides, in other passages of this same text, it was said that the emperor was the grandson of Claudius Gothicus (emperor from 268 to 270), who also believed in Sol Invictus. Thus, he reinforced his legitimacy by linking his dynasty to the model and tradition which had existed before the system designed by Diocletian (Iglesias, 20012: 395).
The relationship between the emperor and his numen, or protective divinity, became official with the addition of the epithet “invictus” among his imperial titles and the corresponding monetary issues. Most coins were of bronze and were issued in the western workshops of Arelatum, Treverorum, Londinium, Lugdunum, Aquileia and Rome (Royo, 2008: 22). The Sun, placed on the reverse, was represented as a long-haired beardless athlete in contrapposto, who was only wearing a cape (chlamys) over his shoulders and had a crown irradiating rays of light (4). His right hand, raised and half extended, could be seen as a power, blessing or greeting gesture. As for his left hand, it was holding a celestial orb (Tomás, 2017: 10).
This iconographic element symbolized the cosmos. Therefore, the bearer of the symbol was considered a primary driving force of the universal order. Aurelian, who was an emperor Constantine resembled, minted an “antoniniano” and received this orb from the Sun after reunifying the empire during the crisis of the 3rd century (RIC, V, 1, 353). The figure of the god is surrounded by the inscription “SOLI INVITO COMITI” (the most usual one) (5) or “COMITI-AVGG NN” (RIC, VI, 146a), which turned him into Constantine’s companion. Between the years 318 and 317 we also find the inscription “CLARITAS REPUBLICAE” (RIC, VII, 102).
Regarding the obverse, the usual thing was finding the emperor’s bust with a laurel wreath and looking towards the left, wearing a cuirass, and entitling himself “CONSTANTINVS AVG” (RIC, VI, 899), “IMP CONSTANTINVS AVG” (RIC, VII, 45) or “IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG” (RIC, VII, 44, T). Among the different busts, we can highlight one of the types, issued in London between 310 and 312, where Constantine looks towards the left, while he is holding a spear, a shield, and a helmet with a crest.
On the reverse of this coin the Sun holds the orb in his right hand, while the left hand is holding a whip, which is another of this god’s symbols, although it seems that it is not possible to find it outside this mint during Constantine’s reign. The same happens with the Sun, represented as a charioteer (RIC, VII, London, 84), a very popular type at the times of Probus (emperor from 276 to 282).
Another minting which stressed even more the connection between the emperor and his numen was the nummus issued in Trier between 310 and 313 (RIC, VI, 887), where the busts on the obverse and reverse were practically identical. The same happens with the golden medallion minted in Ticinum (currently Pavia, Italy) in 313. In this jugate emperors (6) both figures were holding the whip, which was a clear analogy saying that both were conducting the empire (Buenacasa, 2011: 158). On Constantine’s shield we can see the same chariot as the one in the above-mentioned reverse from London.
All these symbols presented Constantine as the visible expression of the Sun: the emperor was a brilliant entity, who was benevolent with his subjects, and defeated darkness (embodied in his enemies) and the night in an imitation dei. In this regard, Iglesias García (2012: 393:394) mentions a reverse where the Sun holds the underworld god Serapis’ head (RIC, VI, 167c and RID, VI, 92var).
The series dedicated to this deity continued until the year 319. According to Royo Martínez (2008: 29), this is an exclusive minting from the mint of Thessaloniki, which shows a Roman camp shaped like a cross and crowned by the figure of the Sun. But other authors consider that this cross could be a solar symbol, or a reference to the Chrismon (RIC, VII, 66).
Finally, I would like to highlight Constantine’s posthumous issues, minted by his sons Constantius II (emperor from 337 to 361) and Constantine II (emperor from 337 to 340). What we see in them is not the god Sun, but the chariot with the deceased emperor, who ascends to the skies, where he is received by God’s hand (RIC, VIII, 39).
(1) The same as other sun gods such as the Egyptian Ra, the Iranian Mitra, or the Greek Helios, this god, known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus, started his fight against the dark at dusk and returned as a victor at dawn. Among his responsibilities was playing the role of a psychopomp, which implied his guiding newly deceased souls towards the areas of eternal light (Chernoll, 1994: 254-255).
(2) Apparently, Sol Indiges was an agrarian deity with a sanctuary on Quirinal Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome), where Romans dedicated him a festivity in August. As a driver of a solar chariot, he also had a connection with Circus Maximus, representing the victory at the games. (Chernoll, 1994: 263).
(3) The Latin Panegyrics is a collection consisting of twelve laudatory texts dedicated to the emperors. Dated between the end of the 1st and 4th century, four of them are dedicated to Constantine I – no. IV of the year 321, no. V (311), no. VII (307) and no. XII (313).
(4) The radiated crown is one of the typical symbols of this deity, which was accepted by the emperors starting with Augustus. However, as Tomás García points out, not all emperors used it out of respect to the god Sun, but as an emblem of their own divinity and spiritual authority and of the classical beauty (Tomás, 2017: 23, 25).
(5) This inscription was used from the year 276 AD, during the reign of the emperor Probus (Iglesias, 2013: 126).
(6) Another of those so-called jugate emperors with the emperor and the Sun was minted by Probus in Siscia (RIC, V2, 596), although the similarity between both effigies is smaller than in Ticinum (Iglesias, 2013: 128).
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CHENOLL ALFARO, R. (1994). Sol Invictus. A religious model of imperial integration. Baetica. Art, Geography and History Studies, 16, pages 247 to 271.
IGLESIAS GARCÍA, S. (2012). Sun /Helios in the Latin Constantinian panegyrics. Antesteria, no. 1, pages 391 to 400.
IGLESIAS GARCÍA, S. (2013). The epithet “Invictus” in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD in the empire. Antesteria, no. 2, pages 121 to 141.
POOL BURGOS, A. (2015). “The contribution of the numismatic study of the imperial Roman coin in the understanding of Classical Mythology”. OMNI, no. 9, pages 141 to 155.
ROYO, M. J. (2008). Symbology and power in the Constantinian bronze issues. Gaceta Numismática, no. 168, pages 15 to 44.
TOMÁS GARCÍA, J. (2017). The “corona radiata” of Helios-Sun as a symbol of power in the visual Roman culture. Potestas, no. 11, pages 5 to 25.