Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and two captives flanking the labarum (319-320 CE)

319 CE to 320 CE

Brass (Æ)



Name of Ruler: 


Obverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Helmeted and cuirassed bust of Constantine looking to the right


Reverse (Image and Inscription): 

Image: Labarum inscribed VOT/XX in two lines; two captives flanking below

Inscription: VIRTUS EXERCIT – ST

Diameter (mm): 
Weight (g): 

This nummus was minted between 319 and 320 CE at Ticinum in Italy, seat of the imperial mint from 274 until 327 CE. It depicts on the obverse the head of Constantine, and on the reverse the labarum flanked by two prisoners with their hands tied behind their backs. In 294 CE, the emperor Diocletian introduced this large bronze denomination as part of his economic reforms. It weighed 10 grams, and was covered by a thin layer of silver, which made up just 4% of the total weight of the coin. By the time of Constantine’s death in 337 CE, less than two decades after the minting of this coin, the Diocletianic nummus had been even further debased (older scholarship referred to the Diocletianic nummus as a follis; on the Diocletianic nummus, see Constantina Katsaki, The Roman Monetary System, p. 97-98). According to early Christian sources (specifically Eusebius and Lactantius), after his defeat of Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, responding to a vision he had received of the cross of Christ, accompanied by a promise that he would be victorious by it, Constantine instructed all the military standards of his armies to bear the Chi-Rho symbol, signifying the name of Christ. The present issue, however, does not display any obviously Christian symbolism. Perhaps, we might interpret the shape of the standard depicted in light of Eusebius’s description of Constantine’s 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 (Life of Constantine II.28-31). Indeed, as Clive Foss argues, it is from around 319-320 CE, the period from which the present coin dates, that we begin to see coins bearing the Christianised labarum (Roman Historical Coins, p. 109). Later issues certainly indicate that the emperor adopted this practice at some point (see, for instance, Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and the labarum spearing a snake, 337 CE). A similar coin, also depicting two captives on either side of the labarum, struck at Ticinium in 319-320 CE, and picturing on the obverse Constantine’s son, Constantine II, seems to bear clearer (although not undisputed) Christian symbolism, as in the left field of the coin, next to the vexillum, there is what appears to be a Chi-Rho symbol (see Patrick Bruun, Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol. VII, p. 377). In the case of the present coin, the theme of Constantine’s apparent Christianity and its role in his military victories is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that it commemorates the bravery of the emperor’s armies.

The inscription on the obverse refers to Constantine as 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 inscription on the reverse, Votis XX, celebrates the new vows taken on the completion of the fifteenth anniversary of Constantine’s rule, celebrated in 320 CE, which would be absolved only during the celebration of the vicennalia, or the twentieth anniversary of his reign. The celebration of the vicennalia is thought to have originated in Augustus’s time, after the Senate offered him sovereign power for life in 27 BCE. Augustus refused this, but agreed to renew his supreme power every ten years. Thus, on the tenth anniversary of the emperor’s accession to the throne, the decennalia was celebrated, with vows previously taken for the safety of the emperor by the people of Rome (vota soluta) absolved, and new vows taken (vota suscepta), which would be absolved during the next celebration of the decennalia. The decennalia was celebrated though donatives, or congiaria, given to the people, games, and religious processions and sacrifices. The same ceremonies were then held to celebrate the vicennalia. Not all emperors celebrated it, however. Constantine himself celebrated the vicennalia in in 325 CE at Nicomedia. The celebrations for the fifteenth anniversary of his reign, which is commemorated on this coin, were held in 320 CE, at Sirmium. As stated above, Constantine decided to use his fifteenth anniversary celebration to recognise the bravery of his army. Thus, the inscription on this coin, “VIRTUS EXERCIT-” translates as “bravery of the army.”

The representation of the captives on this coin follows a theme that had been commonplace since the Julio-Claudian period, where we see coins depicting defeated enemies seated, or in submissive poses, with their hands tied beneath the victorious standard of the emperor’s army (see Harry O’Maier, “Dominion from Sea to Sea,” p. 154). Moreover, the fact that Constantine is depicted wearing a helmet further emphasises his military prowess and connection to his armies (see Mark Hebblewhite, The Emperor and the Army, p. 49). The term used in the coin’s inscription to describe the army, virtus (virtue, bravery, masculinity, derived from the word for man: vir) was symbolised by the goddess Virtus in the late imperial period (her Greek equivalent was Aretè). The notion of virtus was particularly important in Roman military ideology, embodying courage in warfare (virtus was one of the four central Roman virtues, along with clementia, clemency, iustitia, justice, and pietas, piety). On this issue, however, we do not find the deity Virtus, but rather a battle standard and defeated enemies. If as considered above, we interpret this battle standard as the labarum adopted by Constantine after his vision prior to the battle of the Milvian Bridge, then it is possible that our coin associates the Roman army and its triumph over its enemies with the Christian God, rather than with the Roman deity who we find depicted with captives (or their remains) on other numismatic evidence from the imperial period. If this is the case, then the labarum is presented as a symbol of power over Constantine’s enemies. However, this remains uncertain. What can be said for sure, is that this issue, through its presentation of the emperor in military garb, and its connection of the courage of the army with victory over Constantine’s enemies, is that his armies (which he was closely associated with) embodied the best of Roman virtue.

(RIC VII, Constantine, no. 122). 

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Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and two captives flanking the labarum (319-320 CE)
Author(s) of this publication: Samuele Rocca, Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Fri, 11/24/2017 - 15:34
Visited: Tue, 02/19/2019 - 01:33

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