Inscription: D N THEODOSIVS S P F AVG
Image: Pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust of Theodosius looking right
Inscription: VICTORI – A AVGGG – MD – CONOB
Image: Theodosius standing facing, head right, left foot on bound captive, holding labarum in right hand and Victory, standing left on globe, in outstretched left
(RIC IX, Theodosius I, no. 35a, p. 84)
This solidus, minted in 395 CE at Mediolanum (ancient Milan), the main seat of the imperial court in the west as well as an important imperial mint, depicts on the obverse the head of Theodosius I, and on the reverse the emperor with his right foot on a captive, while holding a statuette of Victoria, the personification of victory, and in the other hand a labarum. The inscription on the obverse, “D N THEODOSIVS S P F AVG” refers to the emperor as Dominus Noster, or “our lord,” Theodosius, Pius Felix, and Augustus, a title which served to emphasize the emperor’s sacral standing. The inscription on the reverse, “VICTORI A AVGGG – MD – COMOB,” firstly recognises the victory of the three Augusti (Theodosius I, Honorius, and Arcadius). MD stands for Mediolanum, the mint which produced the coin. COMOB is a variation of CONOB, which stood for Constantinopolis Obryza, or “Pure Gold of Constantinople.” This mark appeared, as in the case of the present solidus, in the exergues of late Roman and Byzantine solidi and fractional gold denominations from the latter half of the fourth century. The word “obryza” guaranteed that the gold the coin had been struck from was pure. Originally other mints used a similar formula (MDOB stood for Mediolanum), but CONOB/COMOB eventually took over universally, no matter where the coin had been minted in reality. The variation of COMOB used in western mints might have signified the office of Comes Auri (the “count of Gold”), who was responsible for supervising imperial gold supplies in the western empire. This coin is a solidus, a denomination in gold first minted in small quantities under the rule of Diocletian in 301 CE, whose main purpose was to take the place of the aureus, the gold denomination minted during the early Roman empire.
Theodosius came to power after the death of the Eastern emperor Valens in 378 CE, when he was invited to co-rule with Gratian (emperor in the West). The two ruled together until 383 CE, assisted by two secondary rulers, Arcadius (Theodosius’s son) and Valentinian II (Gratian’s younger brother). By this point, these subordinate rulers were also referred to as Augusti, rather than Caesars. By 392 CE both Gratian and Valentinian II had died, leaving the rule of the empire entirely in the hands of Theodosius and his family. Theodosius declared his other son, Honorius, Augustus in 393 CE. By the time this solidus was issued, then, there were three Augusti, as indicated in the inscription. Theodosius is depicted on the obverse of this coin cuirassed, and wearing a pearl diadem, and projects a regal, elegant image. On the reverse, however, he is in military dress, holding a battle standard (on which see further below), and tramples a defeated enemy beneath his foot. In his left hand he holds a small statue of the personification of victory, Victoria, who in turn reaches out with a laurel wreath (a symbol of victory and success) as if she is about to crown the emperor with it. No specific battle is referred to on the coin (numerous imperial coins advertised real or imagined military victories over specific places or peoples), so the propagandistic message is a more general one which promotes Theodosius and his co-rulers as victorious over Rome’s enemies. The fact that Victoria stands atop a globe further emphasises the universality of this message.
Perhaps the reason that the idea of military victory on this coin is quite abstract is because the reign of Theodosius saw a long series of military failures. Between 378 and 380 CE the emperor had attempted to defeat and expel the Goths, as well as their allies the Vandals, Taifals, Bastarnae, and Carpians from Dacia and Pannonia. Eventually, however, the emperor had to accept barbarian settlement inside the empire, something which actually resulted in the provision of extra recruits to the dwindling Roman army. This was something of a mixed blessing, as often these barbarians did not remain loyal to Rome (on Theodosius’s Gothic Wars, see Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars, p. 144-153). Rabbinic literature also comments on the integration of Goths into the Roman army, and is somewhat disapproving. Significantly, however, Theodosius was quite successful in fighting off various usurpations. Firstly, he defeated Magnus Maximus, a usurper who ruled over Britain and Gaul, in 388 CE at the battle of Save. Moreover, when Valentinian II died in 392 CE, his magister militum, the Frankish Arbogast, tried to appoint a pagan, Eugenius (he supposedly was steered by advisors into restoring pagan temples with public money; Stephen Williams and Gerard Friell, Theodosius, p. 131-133) as emperor, Valentinian went to war and defeated him at the Battle of the Frigidus in 394 CE (for an overview, see Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans, chapter 3).
If one accepts, as has been traditional (for the bibliography, see Salzmann, “Ambrose and the Usurpation,” p. 192 n. 2), that the conflict between Eugenius and Theodosius was a religious one, then the depiction of the labarum on the reverse of this coin (which bears a small Chi Rho symbol – Christ’s initials in Greek) may be associated with Theodosius’s victory over Eugenius. If this argument is accepted, then this coin would evidence the fact that rule of the empire was attributed not merely to the achievement of military success, but also to the performance of Christianity in the empire. Eusebius describes Constantine’s initial adoption of a standard imitating a cross-shaped trophy, which consisted of a spear with a transverse bar laid over it to mimic the cross, in his Life of Constantine II.28-31, and Clive Foss argues that from around 319-320 CE onwards we begin to see coins bearing the Christianised labarum (Roman Historical Coins, p. 109; see also Bleckman, “Constantine, Rome, and the Christians,” p. 326-327; see, for example, Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and two captives flanking the labarum (319-320 CE)), as is the case with this Theodosian solidus. After the Christianisation of the empire, imperial propaganda, or perhaps imperial theology, transformed what was originally a military symbol (the battle standard) into something which symbolised the supreme, universal deity, who supported the emperor, leading him to victory. However, more recent scholarship has questioned the degree to which the conflict between Eugenius and Theodosius I was one between paganism and Christianity (see Salzmann, “Ambrose and the Usurpation,” p. 193-195, and for further discussion, see the commentary on Ambrose of Milan, Letter LXI.1, 4-6). Moreover, by this point in time the labarum was a common characteristic of imperial iconography, and so it may not bear any extra significance on the reverse of this solidus.
In any case, as is evidenced by the prominent depiction of Victory on this solidus, it was not a case of Christianity supplanting traditional Roman religion in this regard; rather, the message of this coin is that the two are complementary to one another in ensuring the victory of Rome over its enemies. Another coin from 389-391 CE (RIC IXa, Theodosius I, Milan, no. 20b) depicts on the reverse Theodosius and his son Arcadius seated together holding a globe, with Victoria between them. Despite the fact that in 393 CE Theodosius enacted a law forbidding the public display of pagan religious ceremonies, then, his coinage still maintained links with Rome’s pagan past, particularly in relation to the concept of victory (indeed, as Kenneth Holum, Theodosian Empresses, p. 51 n. 13, notes, there was no departure on coinage from traditional victory ideology even after the Battle of the Frigidus).