Silver coin depicting Constantine I and the Genius of the Roman people (326 CE)

326 CE
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Private collection. Previously: Munzhandlung Basel, Vente Publique, no. 3 (7th March, 1935).
Name of Ruler: 
Constantine I
Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Head of Constantine I, diademed, right, looking upward

Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Genius, wearing modius on head, draped, chlamys draped across left shoulder, standing left, holding globe in right hand and cornucopia in left arm
Inscription: GENI-VM - P-R
Mintmark: SMR (Sacra Moneta Romae)

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

RIC VII, Rome, n° 276, p. 327.

The first coins bearing on their obverse or reverse a representation of the Genius of the Roman people were minted during the Republican period (see Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, representing Rome crowned by the Genius of the Roman People (100 BCE); Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Spinther, representing the Genius of the Roman people seated in a curule chair and crowned by Victory (74 BCE)). The Genius of the Roman people continued to appear on some coins produced during the imperial period. Its representation varies up to Vespasian’s reign when it starts to be standardised, being modelled on the type of the Genius of the emperor. Nevertheless, the Genius of the Roman people does not appear frequently on coins produced by the various emperors up to Diocletian’s reform in 294 CE when this Genius reappeared massively on the reverse of some reformed coins. The years 316-317 CE marked the end of the production of the bronze coins bearing the legend GENIO POPULI ROMANI, a highly standardised production that had started with Diocletian’s currency reform and that had been minted in impressive quantity in nearly all the mints of the Empire over no less than twenty years (coins produced in 316-317 CE at London, RIC VII, London, n° 36-42, 50, 64, 85-87, p. 100-102; at Trier in 316 CE, RIC VII, Trier, n° 119-123, p. 178; at Arles in 316 CE, RIC VII, Arles, n° 78, p. 240). On the reverse of these coins the representation of the Genius of the Roman people follows the usual codes of its representation from Vespasian’s reign onwards. He appears as a young man, nude with a chlamys, bearing a modius (a grain measure) on his head, standing (rarely above an altar) while holding a patera and a cornucopia. The message conveyed by the reappearance of this figure of the Genius of the Roman people, only one year after the establishment of the tetrarchy, may have been to assert how the Roman Empire was going to experience a real revival under the Tetrarchs, a revival that passed through the reaffirmation of Rome’s collective military strength and the affirmation of the unity of the Empire (in that perspective, see Christol, “Rome et le peuple romain,” p. 220; for more details about this type, see Bronze depicting Diocletian and the Genius of the Roman people (mint of Antioch, 294 CE)).

The coin presented here, the sole example of this type, corresponds to the latest attestation of the Genius of the Roman people on coins. This silver coin had been struck at Rome for Constantine’s arrival in the Urbs in July 326 CE, at the occasion of the closing of the celebrations of his vicennalia (the twentieth anniversary of his accession to imperial power), celebrations that had started on July 325 CE when the Augustus was still in the East (see Alföldi, “On the Foundation,” p. 13; Alföldi, Die constantinische, p. 99; RIC VII, Rome, n° 276, p. 327). On the obverse of this coin there is a portrayal of Constantine with the legend CONSTANTINUS-AUG, and on its reverse, a representation of the Genius with a modius on his head, standing, with a chlamys across his shoulder, a globe in his right hand and a cornucopia in his left; behind the scene can be read the legend GENI-UM-P-R. Most of the time the legend on the reverse is in the dative mode, Genio Populi Romani, “To the Genius of the Roman people,” and so this coin type appears as an exception. The only other types bearing a similar legend were minted under Vespasian in 69-70 CE (see RIC II/12, n° 1353-1354, p. 157). Jean Béranger has proposed to interpret the accusative form as meaning that Vespasian honoured (colit or veneratur) the Genius of the Roman people (see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 414-415). Such a reading is, however, problematic for the Christian emperor Constantine in 326 CE. Jean Béranger has rightly proposed that Constantine must have adopted the form Genium as some kind of “morphologic legacy” from the past without meaning something specific. However, it is important to note that Constantine introduced a major change by replacing the patera and the altar, symbolising pagan sacrifices, with the globe, a symbol of universal domination (see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 425-426). The figure of the Genius of the Roman people was thus not made cultic by the first Christian emperor, as it was deprived of the elements related to the traditional religion in order that it became only a symbol of the sovereignty of the Roman people, masters of the world, and also of unity. Actually, the year 324 CE saw Constantine’s victory over Licinius, and in such a context it was meaningful to reassert the unity of the Empire.

To fully understand the messages that may have been conveyed through this type, it is necessary to say a few words about the historical context in which it was produced (on that point, see Maraval, Constantin, p. 161-172). First, at Adrianople in July 324 CE, and then at Chrysopolis in September of the same year, Constantine and his son Crispus definitively defeated Licinius. For the first time in forty years, Constantine became the sole Augustus ruling the Roman Empire. He celebrated his victory over Licinius with a triumphal entry into Nicomedia. Constantine then renamed the city of Byzantium with his name, Constantinopolis, and ordered it to be rebuilt in order that it would become his imperial residence and also the second capital of the Empire. Then, Constantine stayed for a few months in his residence at Nicomedia. During this period, he exposed more openly his religious choices, but also his missions and role as a Christian emperor. The 26th of July 325 CE, just after having presided over the episcopal council at Nicaea, Constantine went to Nicomedia to celebrate his vicennalia. Following the custom, games, and money distributions which were performed during these celebrations, the 250 bishops that were gathered at Nicaea at that time for the oecumenical council took part into the imperial banquet. It must have been that occasion which initiated the mint of Nicomedia’s production of two types that continued to be produced in 326 CE and that has to be put in relation to the coin presented here. The first type is a gold medallion bearing on its reverse the legend SENATUS and a representation of a man in triumphal costume with a globe in his right hand and a sceptre in the other; this man being probably a personification of the Senate (see Alföldi, “On the Foundation,” p. 12-13; Alföldi, Die constantinische, p. 99; RIC VII, Nicomedia, n° 102, p. 616; for having an idea of the type see). The second type is also a gold medallion that bears on its reverse the legend EQUES/EQUIS ROMANUS with a representation of a bare-headed horseman with a hand raised in salutation; this bare-headed horseman being a personification of the knights (see Alföldi, “On the Foundation,” p. 13; Alföldi, Die constantinische, p. 99; RIC VII, Nicomedia, n° 99-100, p. 616; against the idea that it was the Genius of the equestrian order, see Béranger, “Le GENIUS POPULI,” p. 425; Otto Seeck’s interpretation that the masculine figure represented on both types is the emperor is erroneous, see Seeck, “Zu den Festmünzen,” p. 22-24).
After this stay at Nicomedia, Constantine went to Rome in order to celebrate the end of his vicennalia. He arrived on the 18th of July 326 CE and stayed in the Urbs until September. It was only the third time that Constantine was present in the capital of the Empire (he was present in Rome in 312 CE after his victory over Maxentius and in 315 CE for the celebration of his decennalia). In 326 CE, the production of the gold medallions mentioned above continued. Gold medallions of the types SENATUS and EQUES/EQUIS ROMANUS were produced at Thessalonica (RIC VII, Thessalonica, n° 145-146, p. 517); whereas only gold medallions of the type SENATUS are attested as having been minted at Rome in 326 CE (RIC VII, Rome, n° 272, p. 326). Concerning the proceedings of the festivities of the vicennalia in Rome in 326 CE, they are possibly narrated by one very debated text (the fact that the scene depicted is not precisely dated has led some scholars to associate it with other events, such as Constantine’s decennalia; see Paschoud, Zosime, I, p. 237-240). This text is an excerpt from the New History of Zosimus, a pagan who lived during the second half of the fifth century. In this passage he deals with an “ancient festival” during which the army used to go up to the Capitol to carry out the rites. Zosimus states that Constantine took part in the festival only because he was afraid of the reaction of the soldiers. Yet, after a vision, Constantine decided to stay away from the “sacral worship”; a refusal that provoked the hatred of the people of Rome and of the Senate. Zosimus finally states that it is because of these oppositions that Constantine decided to find and build another city to counterbalance Rome (Zosimus, New History II.29.5). However, Zosimus’s narrative is confused. For instance, if the festival he refers to is that of Constantine’s vicennalia, it contradicts the fact that the emperor took the decision to build Constantinople before and not after this event. It remains also difficult to judge the credibility of the causal relationship here exposed by Zosimus between Constantine’s refusal to take part in the ceremony on the Capitol and the anger of the Senate and the Roman people. Actually, Zosimus lived a long time after the events he narrates here, and he judged all the actions of Constantine very negatively. In addition, if he actually refers to the events of 326 CE, his testimony is the only one stating that the Senate expressed its disappointment at Constantine’s refusal to take part in these religious rites. Two speeches that the rhetor Libanius (314-393 CE) addressed to the emperor Theodosius have been often quoted by scholars to confirm Zosimus’s words. However, in these speeches, Libanius develops a totally different opinion. He quotes as an example the attitude of Constantine during one of his visits in Rome at the time the building of Constantinople had started, so it must be during the celebration of his vicennalia at Rome in 326 CE (see Libanius, Oration XIX.19 and XX.24). Libanius insists upon the fact that the plebs of Rome (δῆμος Ῥωμαίων/dēmos Rōmaiōn) booed the emperor and that the latter simply reacted with spirit, Constantine becoming thus an emperor extraordinarily tolerant of free speech. Libanius never speaks about the Senate, nor the senators, and he does not associate the disappointment of the plebs with any religious motivations (see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 22-23). Zosimus’s problematic narrative is thus be the only one that attests the existence of tensions between the emperor and the Senate because of Constantine’s refusal to take part into the ceremony performed on the Capitol.

The appreciation of these two literary testimonies is essential to rightly understand the messages that may have been conveyed through the minting of the silver coins representing the Genius of the Roman people and the gold medallions representing a personification of the Senate and the equestrian order. However, the interpretation of these messages differs depending on how one understands the message that Constantine may have wanted to send to the Senate and to the senatorial order in 326 CE while allowing the production of these coins. This point is intimately related to a broader question, that of the state of the relationship of Constantine with the Roman Senate and Rome’s resident senatorial aristocracy during the 320s (for a clear presentation of the debate, see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 11-12). To present roughly the evolution of the scholarly approaches on this question, one can distinguish between an old historiographical tradition that appeared just after the Second World War, and that understands many events that occurred from Constantine’s conversion onwards through the perspective of a religious fight, and a more recent tradition that counters the idea that the opposition between the Christian imperial power and some kind of unified pagan senatorial opposition was so crucial that it influenced most of the political affairs of the time. According to the first tradition mentioned, the opposition was clear between Constantine, the Christianising emperor, and the Roman senatorial aristocracy who remained mostly pagan and attached to defending the traditional cults. András Alföldi, who defended such an approach, thus interpreted the minting of these silver coins dedicated to the Genius of the Roman people, a pagan entity, as fitting in with a conciliatory policy that Constantine tried to establish towards the Roman pagan senators at that time (Alföldi, “On the Foundation,” p. 14). In a different perspective, from the 1980s onwards, scholars such as Timothy D. Barnes and Alan Cameron have tried to counter the idea that there existed a pagan party at Rome and that most of the imperial policy at that time was not determined by religious reasons. They have thus defended the idea that there had not been a massive, nor uniformed pagan senatorial opposition to Constantine.
In an article in which he has dealt with the question of the relationship between Constantine and the Roman Senate, Michele Salzman has rightly highlighted the fact that during the 320s, aside from the testimony of later pagan writers, there is no explicit attestation of the fact that the Roman Senate developed an open hostility towards Constantine. To prove this point, Michele Salzman recalls that even after 324 CE, the criteria of loyalty and social status – and not religion – continued to determine the choice of the Urban Prefect of the city of Rome. When Constantine appointed Christians to this prestigious office, he did not do so in a provocative way or in order to Christianise the Roman aristocracy (see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 24-35). The relationship between Constantine and the Roman senate was certainly not unanimously and continuously cordial, but it is erroneous, first to appreciate it uniquely through the criteria of religion, and second to take for granted the fact that the senators enjoyed complete freedom of speech (see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 35-40).
Having these remarks in mind, it is possible to propose a more nuanced interpretation of the messages possibly conveyed by the minting in 326 CE of these silver coins representing the Genius of the Roman people. First, as we said previously, through these various motifs the imperial power reasserted the existence of the three main and ancestral components of late-Roman society. In addition, the senatorial and equestrian orders were then experiencing a clear transformation. From 313 CE in the West, and much more intensively in the whole Empire from 324 CE onwards, Constantine had “restored to the Senate its former authority” (expression used in Latin Panegyric IX (12).20.1; quoted in Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 36). This reform consisted in an enlargement of the number of men in the Roman Senate, but also in the elevation of numerous administrative positions to senatorial status. As a consequence, many knights were progressively integrated into this enlarged senatorial order, even if Claude Lepelley has shown that the equestrian order did not disappear under Constantine’s reign (on this question see Lepelley, “Du triomphe à la disparition,” p. 629-641). Due to these transformations, it is easy to understand that the minting of these types representing the three main components of Roman society can be interpreted as a form of official confirmation of the fact that in spite of these reforms the ancestral social order of Rome remained stable.
Another important point has been raised by Michele Salzman, namely that the series of heavy gold medallions bearing the legend SENATUS that were minted at Rome in 326 CE were gifts to the wealthiest and prominent senators of Rome. Salzman thus rightly suggests that the choice of producing these gold medallions must have fitted in with a strategy that consisted of exalting the prestige of the Roman Senate (see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 38). The fact that the silver coins presented here were minted on the same occasion as the golden medallions previously mentioned show that the use of the Genius imagery was motivated by similar reasons. The Genius of the Roman people was a pagan figure that went back to the Republican times of Rome, two characteristics that spoke to the Roman senatorial audience. Moreover, the fact that both the personification of the Roman Senate and that of the Genius of the Roman people are represented holding a sceptre and a globe, symbols of universal power and domination that were usually held by the emperor himself, can be also interpreted as the manifestation of the fact that the imperial power wanted to reassure and to flatter the Roman senate.
Finally, it is also possible to suggest that through the minting of coins representing the Genius of the Roman people and the Roman Senate, the emperor wanted to publicise the fact that after his defeat of Licinius, the whole Roman Empire was then united and remained governed from one capital, the city of Rome. Between 315 and 326 CE Constantine was not at Rome, and in 326 CE it was the third and last time that he was present in the Urbs. In addition, from 324 CE onwards the building of Constantinople, that would become the future second capital of the Empire, had begun. It is thus easy to imagine that to reassure the Roman senators about the fact that the building of this new imperial residence on the Propontis was not going to compete with Rome, Constantine authorised the production of coins that recalled the pre-eminence of Rome as it remained the sole city in the Empire in which the Roman Senate was located. Moreover, the fact that the personification of the Senate and of the Genius of the Roman people held the globe – for the Genius of the Roman people this had not been the case on coins since the Republican period (see Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, representing Rome crowned by the Genius of the Roman People (100 BCE); Denarius minted by P. Cornelius Lentulus Spinther, representing the Genius of the Roman people seated in a curule chair and crowned by Victory (74 BCE)) – reinforced this impression that Rome was the centre of the orbis Romanus.

In conclusion, the fact that Constantine authorised the production of these types bearing a representation of the Genius of the Roman people shows how pragmatic the imperial power was at that time. As stated by Michele Salzman, even if Constantine was a Christian emperor, he “was more interested in loyalty than in the conversion of Rome’s senatorial aristocracy” (see Salzman, “Constantine,” p. 41). This pragmatic attitude thus explains how this Christian emperor authorised the reproduction of this ancestral figure of the Genius of the Roman people, without compromising his own religious orientations, as the Genius was represented deprived of the pagan attributes which represented the last evolution in the representation of this divine entity on coins.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Le GENIUS POPULI ROMANI dans la politique impériale,”

Béranger, Jeanarticle-in-a-bookPrincipatus. Études de notion et d’histoire politiques dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaineJean Béranger411-427“Le GENIUS POPULI ROMANI dans la politique impériale,”coll. Paschoud François and Ducrey PierreGenèveDroz1973

“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”

Christol, Michelarticle-in-a-bookIdentità e valori fattori di aggregazione e fattori di crisi nell’esperienza politica antica. Vol. 3 Alle radici della casa comune europea Alberto Barzanò, Cinzia Bearzot, Franca Landucci, Luisa Prandi, Giuseppe Zechini209-225“Rome et le peuple romain à la transition entre le Haut et le Bas Empire: identité et tensions”RomeL’Erma di Bretscheinder2001

« Du triomphe à la disparition. Le destin de l’ordre équestre de Dioclétien à Théodose »

Lepelley, Claudearticle-in-a-bookL’ordre équestre. Histoire d’une aristocratie (IIe siècle av. J.-C. – IIIe siècle ap. J.-C.). Actes du colloque international de Bruxelles – Louvain, 5-7 octobre 1995 Demougin, Ségolène , Devijver, Hubert , Raepsaet-Charlier, Marie-Thérèse 629-646« Du triomphe à la disparition. Le destin de l’ordre équestre de Dioclétien à Théodose »Collection de l'École française de Rome 257RomeÉcole française de Rome1999
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