From the Invincible Sun to Christ the Pantocrator: Tracing an Iconographic Trajectory on Roman and Byzantine Coinage

By Pfitzner, Victor C. | Lutheran Theological Journal, May 2016 | Go to article overview

From the Invincible Sun to Christ the Pantocrator: Tracing an Iconographic Trajectory on Roman and Byzantine Coinage


Pfitzner, Victor C., Lutheran Theological Journal


Ancient coins are works of art, indicators of economic conditions, pieces of political propaganda and records of contemporary events. Their iconography is important also for the reconstruction of religious developments, especially the inseparable connection between politics and religion in the Greco-Roman world. More use of coinage could be made in the study of the early church, especially of the Constantinian period, in order to supplement the available literary records. What follows is a brief attempt to adduce numismatic evidence that helps to plot the transition from the Roman cult of the Invincible Sun to the worship of Christ the Son in the post-Constantinian centuries of the western world.

It would be difficult to say what the definitive icons of our western culture are. It is not that we lack icons; the problem is that we are bombarded with images in advertising and all media, whether aurally or visually transmitted, or with the 'living icons' of our political, entertainment and sporting worlds. It is possibly easier to determine the images that impressed themselves on the minds of people in the ancient Roman world. Apart from public statuary and painting, it was the Roman coinage that transmitted a kaleidoscope of images that were potent because they were small and completely portable. Since official images were continuously issued in new mintages, coins in daily use became something like the media of the ancient world: informative and powerful in conveying official messages, especially state propaganda. The iconic value of ancient coins as monuments of what rulers wanted their subjects to note cannot be overstated. The state could certainly be identified with public buildings, monuments and statues, but in an age without printed and electronic mass media, it was coinage that carried the most up-todate information and propaganda.

Even a conservative estimate suggests that emperors in the first four centuries of the Roman imperium issued multiple new coin types on a weekly basis, particularly new reverses. By contrast, our modern everyday coinage is static in what it depicts on both obverse and reverse. The symbolic and iconographie value of coins in the Roman world is underscored by the existence of many coins that were minted in the name of an emperor who reigned for no more than a few weeks or even days. In the case of usurpers making a bid for the purple, we have to assume that coins were secretly minted beforehand in order to publicise the accession of a new emperor once he had been acclaimed as imperator by his troops.

My purpose here is to trace and illustrate an iconographie trajectory in a vital period of church history. It stretches from the Roman coins of the late third and early fourth centuries that depict the emperor with the radiate crown, together with the coinage of the same period honouring the Invincible Sun (sol invictus), to the emergence of Christian motifs on coinage in the late Constantinian era. It ends in the eventual depiction of the nímbate Christos Pantocrator in the iconography of Byzantine coinage. It is a trajectory with elements of both continuity and discontinuity.

The coinage of Rome in the third and fourth centuries provides us with a wealth of evidence for religious developments in the late imperium. It supplements literary evidence for a trend to monotheism in the decades leading up to the Constantinian era. However, the coinage poses some problems. In particular it challenges any suggestion that the transition from paganism to Christianity was a smooth and easily discernable development. Multiple questions arise:

* How is it that there are few signs on the coinage, the most obvious medium of state propaganda, of any official change in the state's stance towards Christianity immediately after the religious settlement that came with the edict of Milan in AD 313, which ended the persecution of Christians?

* Why do Christian symbols appear regularly only after Constantine's death in AD 337, that is, on the coins of his sons, especially of Constans and Constantius II? …

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