Constantine the Great: The Coins Speak - INTRODUCTION

Thesis submitted to the Tenneesee State University for the Degree of Masters of Arts

by Victor Clark


In Italy during the fourteenth century some men began to study ancient Roman coins. This should not be a surprise though, as it was the Renaissance, and there was a great interest in the classical past. The humanist Petrarch was the most famous of these early numismatists. Petrarch said in a letter that often people would approach him with a request to identify a newly discovered ancient coin. “Often there came to me in Rome a vinedigger, holding in his hands an ancient jewel or a golden Latin coin, sometimes scratched by the hard edge of a hoe, urging me either to buy it or to identify the heroic faces inscribed on them.” ¹

At this time, people were mostly concerned with iconography— they mainly wanted to know which emperor was on the front of their coin. A quote from Petrarch illustrates the Renaissance interest in the portraits on the coins. In 1354, Petrarch gave some Roman coins to Emperor Charles IV. “I presented him with some gold and silver coins, which I held very dear . They bore the effigies of some of our rulers—one of them, a most life-like head of Caesar Augustus—and were inscribed with exceedingly minute characters.” ²

These early coin collectors would probably be better called antiquarians rather than numismatists. An antiquarian might collect just for the acquisition of old objects, but numismatists study coins in an attempt to answer specific questions that are often historical in nature. In the ensuing centuries however, the field of Roman numismatics grew exponentially.

Iconography is still important, but now the field is a multi-disciplinary endeavor that encompasses many areas such as history, archaeology, and science. Many people have long recognized the importance of numismatics to history, and so me, like the poet W. H. Auden, have argued that coins are more reliable than ancient sources:

Serious historians study coins and weapons
Not those reiterations of one self-importance
By whom they date them,
Knowing that clerks could soon propose a model
As manly as any of whom schoolmasters tell
Their yawning pupils.³
Of course, coins can be as problematic and prone to bias as written sources, but as long as the numismatist is careful and uses established research criteria, coins can help tell a much fuller story of history.

¹Francesco Petrarch,Letters on Familiar Matters XVII- XXIV. Translated by Aldo S. Bernardo (New York: Italica Press, 2005), 57.
² Francesco Petrarch,Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters; A Selection from His Correspondence with Boccaccio and Other Friends, Designed to Illustrate the Beginnings of the Renaissance. Translated by James Harvey Robinson (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1970) , 371-372.
³ W. H. Auden, quoted in Michael Grant, Roman History from Coins (Barnes & Noble, 1995), 16

...continue to Part II

Union Jack Constantine for the UK