Constantine the Great: The Coins Speak - INTRODUCTION

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

by Victor Clark


This paper will look at bronze coins of Constantine the Great, in conjunction with the primary and secondary sources, in an attempt to glean a fuller picture of the past and explore some of the debates that occur in the field of Roman numismatics. Constantine was one of the most (if not the most) influential of the Roman emperors, and his actions and deeds are still affecting people to this day.

Constantine looms large in history, and even in his own time he was impressive, at least according to Eusebius, who said that Constantine was “so exceeding his contemporaries as even to put them in fear...he took pride in moral qualities rather than physical superiority.”¹

An interesting question one might ask is, “Without Constantine, would Christianity have flourished?”² The answer to that question is outside the scope of this paper, but it helps demonstrate the fundamental importance of his actions. Another important decision Constantine made was turning the city of Byzantium into his new capitol of Constantinople.

So, even though the Western Empire eventually fell, it carried on in the east, as the Byzantine Empire centered at Constantinople.³ Constantine may have been more responsible for shaping medieval Europe than any other single person. Numismatically, Constantine also made a long-lasting contribution. In A.D. 309, he introduced a unit of currency called the solidus. This gold coin remained in use in the Byzantine Empire until the tenth century. To this day, people are still fascinated with Constantine and his story and myths, and this paper hopes to shed some light on the subject of the significance of this emperor.

As numismatics is a specialized field, this paper will use many numismatic terms that are the jargon of the field, so some of the more common definitions are in order. Ancient Roman coins minted during the fourth century were hand struck by slaves.

¹ Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Translated by Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall (New York: Oxford University Press,1999) , 77.
² Ramsay Macmullen asked just this question and ultimately said that without state sponsorship it is doubtful that Christianity would have been successful, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University, 1997).
³ There has been a lot of debate as to whether the Empire fell ( Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often cited) or if it was more of a transformation. The concept of transformation was really started by Peter Brown. Recently there have been some historians that convincingly argued that it was indeed a fall. For example-- Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (New York: Oxford University, 2006) and Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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