Tag Archives: diocletian

Roman Medallions from the ANS on Exhibit at Major Museums

The American Numismatic Society is a principal lender of numismatic objects to museum exhibitions around the country and abroad. These distinctive pieces may serve to represent famous persons, major historical events, or important episodes in the development of civilizations. Among these pieces is a unique and marvelous gold medallion of the Roman Empire from the time of Diocletian, which is currently on long-term loan to the J. Paul Getty Museum as part of its permanent exhibition.

Roman Empire. Gold medallion (equivalent to 10 aurei). AD 293/294. Trier mint. ANS 1967.153.38. 43 mm.

Diocletian (AD 284–305), originally a common soldier from Dalmatia, rose to the rank of general and in AD 284 was proclaimed emperor. He became one of the most important rulers of the later Roman Empire. He secured the imperial frontiers and restored order within the Empire. His economic reforms were aimed at overcoming the Empire’s monetary chaos of previous reigns, when prices rose unchecked. Diocletian’s famous Price Edict was issued to set maximum prices for goods and services throughout the Empire and prescribed the death penalty for violators. To manage the growing civil service, Diocletian restructured the Empire’s bureaucracy. The provinces were grouped into larger dioceses, each of which was directed by a vicarius. Finally, in AD 293, to oversee this enormous establishment, Diocletian created a Tetrarchy, a system of rule by four emperors. He divided the territory of the empire into two administrative halves, and appointed Maximian to rule with the title of Augustus in the west, while Diocletian ruled as Augustus in the east. Two junior emperors, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius Maximianus, were appointed as Caesars. The ANS medallion shows these four office-holders together and reflects the ideals of shared authority and partnership that lay at the heart of the tetrarchic system. The obverse bears the bearded and laureate busts of Diocletian Augustus (on the left) and Galerius Caesar (on the right), wearing the imperial mantle. The reverse shows the busts of Maximian Augustus (on the left) and Constantius Caesar (on the right). Due to the larger size and absence of an exergual line, the artist had the opportunity to engrave the portrait busts on a much larger scale than usual, with dramatic results.

Today the images of the tetrarchs can also be seen on the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is a porphyry sculpture group, which was removed from Constantinople by Venetians when they plundered the city in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.

The Roman Empire. Four Tetrarchs (Diocletian second from right). A porphyry sculpture group. Circa AD 300. Sant Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy.
The Roman Empire. Four Tetrarchs (Diocletian second from right). A porphyry sculpture group. Circa AD 300. Sant Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy.

Another unique gold medallion (10 aurei) from the ANS is on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is on display in the Roman Gallery.

Roman Empire. Gold medallion (equivalent to 10 aurei). AD 293. Rome mint. ANS 1944.100.63131. 38 mm.

On the obverse it has half-length laureate portraits of Constantius Chlorus and Galerius Maximianus, wearing the imperial mantle. Constantius (on the left) holds a globe surmounted by a Victory his right hand, and Galerius (on the right) holds a scepter surmounted by an eagle; these are both emblems of sovereignty. The reverse bears two emperors standing in military dress with cloak, bareheaded, resting their left arms on long, upright scepters. They both hold a patera, with which they are pouring a libation upon a tripod-altar placed between them; in the central background there are two military standards. The exergue has the mint mark—prom (Percussa Romae, “struck at Rome”). The medallion was issued in AD 293, to commemorate the elevation of Constantius and Galerius to the rank of Caesar.

Both of these gold medallions from the ANS collection were found in 1922, along with over 400 Roman coins, in the famous Arras hoard in France, which closed around AD 315. These remarkable medallions, as well as many other ANS objects on display at the Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are valuable ambassadors in the world’s leading art museums showing the importance of the ANS collection to a wider public for many years.

 

St. Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

church santa croce de gerusalemme
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

On a visit to Rome, we sought out the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. My American Express Guide to Rome (long out of print, but still handy) says it was “One of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, it is said to have been built to house the precious relics of the True Cross brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.”

It is said that Helena founded the church on land where her private palace stood. Although it was on the edgte of the city, the relics of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that Helena brought back from Jerusalem made Santa Croce in Gerusalemme a center for pilgrimage. Most important were some pieces of Christ’s Cross (croce means “cross”) and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription, called the Titulus Crucis, proclaiming “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews,” written in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. There is little doubt that this wooden plaque is very old, but numerous tests performed over the years have never established its authenticity absolutely. Nevertheless, even to a non-Christian observer, it is quite moving to view these relics.

titulus_teca
Remaining fragment of the plaque that was supposedly attached to the cross of Jesus, which is said to have been brought to Rome by Helena, mother of Constantine I, and placed in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (photo: photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

When we entered the church, only a few days after Easter, we seemed to be the only visitors. We walked up to the altar and around the chapel. We did not see any relics, so we made our way into the smaller side rooms and found them in a small room behind the main altar. Here we saw St. Helena’s relics: three pieces of wood set in a larger cross; they are said to be actual pieces of the True Cross. Two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns are mounted and stand alongside it, as does a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, we saw the piece of wood that is said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus while he was crucified.

Whether or not they are authentic relics, I cannot say. But seeing them was a fascinating experience.

It led me to recall the importance of Helena, later revered as St. Helena, to the ancient land of Israel. Hers is a real “rags to riches” story. We believe Helena was born in about 249 AD in the town of Drepanum in Bythnia, which Constantine later renamed Helenopolis. St. Ambrose referred to her as an inn-keeper, others say she was a simple bar maid in her father’s tavern. Eventually she attracted the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus and she became either his longtime mistress, or his wife. In either case there is no doubt that together they bore a son, Constantine.

constantius i chlorus as caesar
Constantius I Chlorus follis (307/310–337), father of Constantine I, first husband of Helena (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 292, when Constantius became Caesar of Spain, Gaul, and Britain, he dumped Helena and married Theodora, the daughter of Maximian, his patron.

Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)
Theodora, died before 337 AD, follies (photo: cngcoins.com)

Meanwhile, Helena’s son Constantine became a soldier, and spent a lot of time at Diocletian’s court. When Constantine persuaded the Roman legions in Britain to proclaim him Caesar in 306, he immediately called for his mother and installed her in his court with the appropriate honors befitting the mother of the Emperor.

Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)
Constantine I bronze struck at Constantinople. The reverse depicts a labarum crowned by a Christogram, piercing a serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (hope for the public). Constantine saw the Christogram in a vision and also began to wear it on his helmet and shield (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 312, the most significant event of Constantine’s reign occurred. While preparing for a battle with the army of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he saw a cross in the sky with the inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”). He immediately ordered his troops to paint the monogram of Jesus, the labarum, on their shields and this extra strength enabled their victory and gave Constantine control of the West as well as the East, whereupon Constantine vowed to make the Roman Empire a Christian nation.

Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337 – 361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_
Vetranio bronze (c. 350 AD) struck under Constantius II (337–361 AD) as Siscia. The reverse legend is HOC SIGNO VICTORERIS (In this sign, you will conquer). The scene and legend on this coin provide a re-enactment of Constantine I’s victory at the Milvian Bridge. (photo: cngcoins.com_

In 324 AD Constantine named Helena as “Augusta,” a title that was established by Augustus for Livia, but certainly not granted every empress, much less every royal mother.

Helena as Augusta 324-328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)
Helena as Augusta 324–328/30, bronze follis (photo: cngcoins.com)

In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea met and Constantine declared Christianity to be the nation’s official religion. Incidentally, it is not clear whether Constantine himself actually ever became a Christian. His mother, Helena, was not only converted but was so excited by her spiritual experience that it enticed her to make a pilgrimage, circa 326 AD to Judea, where she could visit all of the sites that were important in the life of Jesus. She was in her late 70s at the time she embarked. Helena’s pilgrimage was the prototype for the travels of virtually every Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land for some 1,700 years, right up to today.

Until Helena’s visit, nobody outside of the Christians in the Holy Land had paid much attention to the sites there. In Helena’s day the Jews maintained important academies at Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Lydda (Lod). Led by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’Nassi the Jewish scholars were in the final stages of developing the Talmud itself. When I was the numismatist at the Joint Sepphoris Expedition in 1985 and 1986, led by Duke’s Eric and Carol Meyers and Hebrew University’s Ehud Netzer, we discovered some remarkable mosaic floors—and many more were subsequently discovered at Sepphoris—which indicated that the city was extremely wealthy at the time Helena arrived in the country. In fact, we dated some of these mosaics by small groups of Constantinian coins lying on top of and just under them.

While there is no doubt that the local traditions held some, or perhaps many of the sites Helena visited as holy shrines, it did not hurt that the mother of the Emperor of Christian Rome further declared the sites to be true.

And indeed, Helena was said to have:

—Proclaimed the actual path Jesus took on his way to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, and declared the precise spots of all of the fourteen Stations of the Cross;

Fifth Station of the Cross (left) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photos: David Hendin)
Fifth Station of the Cross (above) and the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem (below). (photos: David Hendin)

via dolorosa dh

—Found at least several pieces of the true cross itself;

—Identified the spot near the Sea of Galilee where the miracle of fish and loaves occurred;

—Confirmed the place where Jesus stood when he gave his Sermon on the Mount;

—Marked the place of the Annunciation, where Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus;

—And she also identified places where Joseph’s carpentry shop stood, where Jesus was born, the field in which the shepherds saw the Bethlehem Star, and the inn of the Good Samaritan.

The story of Helena’s pilgrimage is certainly not fantasy. In his Life of Constantine (c. 340 AD), Eusebius wrote (only about ten years after her death) that Helena lavished good deeds on the Holy Land, and “Although well advanced in years, she came, fired by youthful fervor, in order to know this land” and she “explored it with remarkable discernment…And by her endless admiration for the footsteps of the Savior…she granted those who came after her the fruits of her piety. Afterward she built two houses of prayer to the God she revered, one in the Grotto of the Nativity (this is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and the other on the Mount of the Ascension (this is the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives).” Helena also is said to have identified the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried, and ordered the first Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be built there.

It is a matter of some interest that while Helena’s important pilgrimage is well documented, not a single numismatic memento of these events was issued. So the coins of Helena can only offer us a glimpse of the appearance of this important woman of antiquity.