Image: Laureate and cuirassed bust of Constantine looking right
Inscription: IMP CONSTANTINVS AVG
Image: Radiate and draped bust of Sol looking to right
Inscription: SOLI INVICTO COMITI
RIC VI, Treveri, n°890, p. 227.
This nummus, minted between 310 and 313 CE at Augusta Treverorum, the main residence of Constantine, depicts on the obverse the head of the emperor and on the reverse Sol, the Roman solar god.
The inscription on the obverse refers to Constantine as imperator, or commander in chief of the Roman army, chosen and elected by his soldiers, and as Augustus, a title that served to emphasize the emperor’s sacral standing. By the end of 310 CE, Constantine ruled over Spain, Gallia, and Britannia as Caesar, or junior ruler. His main residence was Augusta Treverorum. Constantine held the consulship twice, first in 307 CE and then in 309 CE. Yet, his position was vulnerable. In 308 CE, at a council held at Carnutum, Galerius reduced Constantine, whom his father had elevated to the rank of Augustus, to the rank of Caesar, and he appointed Licinius as Augustus instead. By 310 CE, the Tetrarchy was floundering. Galerius died in 311 CE. In the West, Constantine stood against Maxentius, while in the East, Licinius and Maximinus Daia stood against each other. Between 310 and 312 CE, Constantine waged a victorious war against the son of Maximian, Maxentius. Maxentius had previously married Valeria Maximilla, the daughter of Galerius. Although ignored by his father in the imperial succession in 305 CE, Maxentius was acclaimed emperor in Rome in 306 CE by the praetorian guard. Maxentius, in fact a usurper, ruled a territory which included central and northern Italy, as well as the northern African provinces. In 311 CE, Constantine successfully formed an alliance with Licinius through the marriage of the latter to Constantine’s daughter, Constantia. Thus, the latent hostility between Constantine and Maxentius was transformed into open war. The latter could count only on the support of Maximinus Daias. Yet, Maximinus Daia could not help Maxentius against Constantine, as he was facing the powerful Licinius. Constantine went to Italy and easily conquered Segusium and Augusta Taurinorum, defeating Maxentius’s army. In 312 CE, Constantine could enter in Mediolanum. The final clash came at the Milvian Bridge, near Rome. The praetorian guard of Maxentius was utterly defeated, and Constantine could enter Rome. By then, Licinius had also defeated Maximinus Daia. The Tetrarchy had come to an end.This issue depicts Sol, the sun god, who was perceived as a god of victory. The inscription on the reverse, Soli Invicto comiti, or “to (our) comrade the invincible sun,” emphasizes the military character of the solar god. Comes, in fact, could indicate a military title, but it also designated just a comrade. By then, the standing of the solar god had evolved in Roman consciousness. Sol, originally known as Sol Indiges, was syncretized with the Greek god Helios. By the second century CE, Sol acquired two epithets, Invictus, or victorious, and Augustus, which associated the god with the imperial cult. From the reign of Septimius Severus onwards, Sol became an important iconographic element on Roman coinage. The Severan emperor Elagabalus introduced the cult of the sun god of his native Emesa to Rome, while syncretizing his own god with Sol. Yet, the new cult of Elagabalus remained quite unpopular and it was not successful in displacing the traditional Capitoline Triad as the main cult of Rome. By the end of the third century, Aurelian elevated Sol to the status of the main god of the Roman empire, displacing Jupiter. Aurelian had the god’s temple completed between 271 and 274 CE. Moreover, he created a new priesthood for the god, the collegium of the Pontifices Solis. Games in honor of the god, agones Solis, were also celebrated. Although the Roman religion remained polytheistic, the emphasis on the Sun god as the main god, what Eugène Cizek defines as “solar monotheism,” paved the way for the One God, whose support Constantine claimed to have received during the crucial battle on the Milvian Bridge (Cizek, L’empereur Aurélien et son temps, p. 178-183). Thus, Constantine claimed the support of the solar god in his campaigns, possibly as the supreme god of Rome. In fact, on each side of the triumphal arch which Constantine set near the Colosseum in the aftermath of his victory against Maxentius, there are round sculptures which depict the sun and moon riding chariots (see The Arch of Constantine). Besides, in 321 CE, Constantine, by then the undisputed leader of the Latin West, decreed that the day of the Sun, or Sunday, should become the Roman day of rest (Codex Iustinianus III.12.2). Until 325-326 CE, Constantine continued to mint coins depicting Sol on the reverse. Yet, according to Augusto Fraschetti, when Constantine entered the city in 313 CE, he celebrated a triumph devoid of pagan pageantry (Fraschetti, La conversione da Roma pagana a Roma cristiana). The precise relationship that Constantine had with both Christianity and the solar god therefore continues to be debated. According to Clive Foss, from 316 CE onwards, a cross in the field was added to the reverse, possibly emphasizing the emperor’s religious choice (Foss, Roman Historical Coins, p. 285). This conclusion, however, remains questionable. In any case, this issue, which celebrates the emperor together with his own personal god, Sol Invictus, could be interpreted by the inhabitants of the Empire in many different ways; in particular, Christians could identify Sol with Christ (see the mosaic of Christ as the solar god in the Tomb of the Julii).