Constantine’s orders regarding his representation on coins and in portraiture
For an introduction to the Life of Constantine, see the commentary on I.8.
This extract, describing the manner in which Constantine instructed his likeness to be depicted on coins and in portraiture, highlights an important shift in imperial propaganda, and, moreover, the way in which the emperor’s Christian biographer interprets this shift. Of course, we must be wary of taking Eusebius’s words at face value, given that his aim in writing the Life of Constantine was to portray the emperor as a devout ruler, chosen by God to accelerate the Christianisation of the Roman empire. When Eusebius states, therefore, that Constantine’s instructions regarding the style of his likeness on coins were motivated by his “divine faith,” Eusebius’s motivations must be kept in mind. As we shall see in the discussion that follows, it is far from clear that the heavenward gaze described in the extract above was by itself a definitive mark of the emperor’s Christianity. Rather, it likely fulfilled a dual purpose, to maintain the emperor’s links with paganism, while at the same time being interpretable as an indication of his connection to the Christian God.
Eusebius does not make this connection, for obvious reasons, but the heavenward gaze was already well established within pagan material culture, notably in representations of Alexander the Great. For instance, Lysippus’s statue of Alexander was said to have portrayed him in such a way (Jonathan Bardill, Constantine, p. 19; a Roman copy of a bust of Alexander sculpted in this manner is held in the Louvre, although it is difficult to be sure on this statue that the eyes were looking upwards: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lysippos#/media/File:AlexandreTheGreat_Louvre.jpg). This connection is made more clear on Constantine’s coinage by the fact that the emperor is portrayed wearing a diadem, the Greek symbol of kingship, rather than the laurel wreath of the Romans. The head of the colossal statue of Constantine, which is now in pieces in Rome, also bears large, upward gazing eyes. Due to the statue being identified with that mentioned by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History IX.9.10 and Life of Constantine I.40, which he claims the emperor altered to acknowledge the role of the Christian God in his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, many have interpreted the ethereal expression on the emperor’s face as an effort to connect him to the Christian God. After Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, it is probable that his representation in this classic Hellenistic pose was intended to portray his connection to the divine somewhat ambiguously, leaving the question of which God, or gods, his divine inspiration came from for the viewer to decide. Constantine’s coinage shows his associations initially with Mars (this relationship is still shown on coins minted after 312 CE; see Follis depicting the head of Constantine and Mars, the god of war). In 310 CE, Constantine claimed that he and his father descended from the emperor Claudius II Gothicus, whose patron god was Sol Invictus.
A good example of the portrayal that Eusebius describes above appears on a gold medallion from Siscia (modern Sisak, Croatia), minted between 326 and 327 CE, where Constantine is depicted on the obverse with his head tilted towards the heavens, wide eyed, and wearing a diadem. The reverse shows the emperor subduing two captives, and bears the inscription GLORIA CONSTANTINI AVG (To the glory of Constantine Augustus) (http://culturalinstitute.britishmuseum.org/asset-viewer/gold-medallion-showing-constantine-the-great-at-prayer/3AEVCVZ6bG5TfQ?hl=en). There is a strong message carried here of Constantine’s success over his enemies as being intrinsically tied up with his piety and connection to the divine. Similarly, another gold medallion struck in 326 at Siscia shows on the obverse the diademed head of Constantine, with his chin raised and eyes looking upwards, bearing the inscription CONSTANTINVS AVG (Constantine Augustus), and on the reverse the emperor walking with a spear in his right hand, a trophy over his left shoulder, and a captive under his foot. The inscription accompanying this image reads VIRTVS D. N. CONSTANTINI AVG (“The valour of our Lord, Constantine Augustus”). Here, the emperor’s virtue, or bravery (virtus) is acknowledged as the reason for his victory in battle (for two further examples, with discussion, see the commentaries on the Gold medallion depicting the head of Constantine and the emperor walking while holding spear and a trophy, 327 CE from Thessalonica, and the Solidus depicting the head of Constantine celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his rule, 335 CE, also from Thessalonica).
In addition to coinage, Eusebius also describes above the prayerful posture of the emperor in his representation in portraits, which were hung above palaces. Constantine was depicted, we are told, with his arms outstretched in prayer. While currency could forward a propagandistic message far and wide across the empire as many of its inhabitants used certain coins (although not gold) on a daily basis, portraits on buildings forwarded their message by being visually prominent within public spaces (Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall note Eusebius’s “unusual awareness of the importance of representation” here; see Life of Constantine, p. 316). Similarly to the heavenward gazing eyes, outstretched arms in prayer were in no way specific to Christianity (see, for instance, Horatius, Odes, III.23). Eusebius’s statement regarding Constantine’s portraiture again reveals that his artistic representation throughout the empire exploited the ambiguity surrounding his allegiance/s to the divine. In the tomb of the Julii beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, there is a well-known mosaic depicting a figure which appears to be Christ in the guise of Sol Invictus, and may well represent a blending of Christian and pagan culture, with Christ as the ‘new light’ of the world (see the commentary on this source for further discussion). As Alan Brent has pointed out, given that Constantine was a follower of Sol, such synthesis of Christ and the solar god would not be lost on him (A Political History, p. 280-281). What is important to note for our purposes, is that in spite of the fact that Constantine evidently maintained links to Roman religion even after his conversion to Christianity, Eusebius could exploit the ambiguity of the emperor’s representation on coins and in his portraiture in order to claim him for Christianity. The fact that Eusebius emphasises the fact that currency bearing the emperor’s pious expression was utilised throughout the Roman empire (οἰκουμένη, oikoumenè) reveals his intent to make explicit that the emperor was making strides towards publically expressing his relationship with the Christian God. The above discussion highlights the diversity of interpretations of the emperor’s piety among different inhabitants of the empire, be they pagan, Christian, or Jew. In the case of the latter, until blatantly Christian symbols, i.e. crosses, were added, there would likely be no observable difference from previous pagan imagery.
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