Image: Rosette diademed head of Constantine looking upwards to the right
Inscription: CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG
Image: VOTIS XXX in two lines; in wreath
Inscription: VOTIS XXX- TSE
This solidus was minted in 335 CE at Thessalonica, one of the main imperial residences during the period of the Tetrarchy, and the seat of an important imperial mint. The coin celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the reign of Constantine, his tricennalia. It depicts on the obverse the head of Constantine, and on the reverse a wreath, which advertises the celebration of the tricennalia with the inscription “VOTIS XXX” (this can be translated as “vows (prayers) for thirty years of rule”). The inscription on the obverse refers to Constantine as Constantinus, Maximus, or “the greatest,” and Augustus, a title which served to emphasize the emperor’s sacral standing (on the meaning of this term, see the discussion of Ovid, Fasti I.587-616). The solidus was a denomination in gold. Its main purpose was to take the place of the aureus, the gold coin minted under Diocletian, and Constantine reduced its weight from 6 grams to 4.5 grams. Constantine introduced it more widely in 309 CE, and it became the main gold denomination, seeing a long period of stability until the tenth century, when the Byzantine empire experienced difficulty. Constantine’s defeat of Licinius in 324 CE gave him access to mines in the centre of the empire, and his conquest of the east provided him with gold from pagan temples, which was melted down for coins (on Constantine’s introduction of the Solidus, see Georges Depeyrot, “Economy and Society,” p. 237-240).
In 335 CE, Constantine celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his reign, the tricennalia. The festival was held at Constantinople, and the inscription on the reverse of this coin, VOTIS XXX, celebrates the vows taken upon the completion of the first twenty-five years of the emperor’s rule (for a brief explanation of the origins of this festival, see the commentary on the Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and two captives flanking the labarum, 319-320 CE). However, the most significant element of this coin’s propagandistic message is the style of Constantine’s portrait. The emperor is depicted looking towards the skies, with an ethereal detached gaze. James Breckenridge has argued that the imperial portraiture of the late antique world saw a shift in style, with the emperor’s “spiritual” character often emphasised over his physical prowess (see Breckenridge, “Portraiture,” esp. p. 3). On this coin, Constantine appears somewhat aloof, and the fact that he gazes towards the heavens has led commentators (both ancient and modern) on his representation to understand this as emphasising his close contact, possibly even intimacy with, the divine power. This has been discussed, for example, by Jonathan Bardill, who argues that in addition to Roman emperors, we also see similar representations of philosophers in this period, with the upward gaze utilised in order to portray their closeness with the divine and their superhuman qualities (Constantine, p. 22). For instance, in the Life of Constantine IV.15, Eusebius states the following regarding the emperor’s instructions about how he wished to be portrayed on coins:
“How deeply his soul was impressed by the power of divine faith may be understood from the circumstance that he directed his likeness to be stamped on the golden coins of the empire with the eyes uplifted as in the posture of prayer to God: and this money became current throughout the Roman world. His portrait also at full length was placed over the entrance gates of the palaces in some cities, the eyes upraised to heaven, and the hands outspread as if in prayer” (freely available at: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/vita-constantine.asp).
While for Eusebius, the heavenward gaze is a symbol of Constantine’s relationship with the Christian God, it 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 (see 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). This connection is clearer on various coins of Constantine, where he 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, and 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. After all, coins depicting Constantine with Mars were still minted after 312 CE (see coin depicting the head of Constantine and Mars, the god of war). In addition to the present solidus, there are other Constantinian coins which portray the emperor in a similar upward gazing manner. For instance, a gold medallion from Siscia (modern Sisak, Croatia), minted between 326 and 327 CE, has on the obverse Constantine with his head tilted towards the heavens, wide eyed, and wearing a diadem. Similarly, another gold medallion struck in 326 CE at Siscia shows on the obverse the diademed head of Constantine, with his chin raised and eyes looking upwards (for another example, see the Gold medallion depicting the head of Constantine and the emperor walking while holding spear and a trophy, 327 CE, from Thessalonica).
The fact that the particular representation of Constantine which we see on this coin ambiguously associates him with the divine in both pagan and Christian contexts is testament to the way in which the emperor wished to appeal to the variety of his subjects in the empire. Even though the empire had undergone, or rather was still undergoing, a process of Christianisation, with the emperor himself claiming loyalty to the Christian God, he did not sever ties with traditional Roman religion, as we see, for instance, in other coins minted after the events at the Milvian Bridge. This solidus, therefore, could be viewed by pagan inhabitants of the empire as following in a tradition of associating the emperor with Alexander the Great, and embracing a very current trend of highlighting the spiritual dimension of the princeps. For Christians, however, such as Eusebius, Constantine’s fixed heavenward gaze would be suggestive of his devotion to and awe of the supreme deity. Either way, the connection of the emperor with divine power is an important message of this coin, with the implication being that his thirty-year rule was a reward for his piety, and a consequence of divine support.
(RIC VII, Constantine, Thessalonica, no. 27)