Tag Archives: Constantine I

I found this coin, 5: Roman public image regulation

I should apologise for the lack of a post last week; the time in which I had meant to write it all went on processing the photos from which I was going to construct it. These were, as you may guess from the subject line, all coins, in fact most of the coins that I selected for the first run of one of the modules I suggested that I could when I applied for the job at Leeds, a second-year option based on the social and political changes of the late antique period in the West as seen through its money. As I originally conceived it, this module was going to work using the collections in the Leeds Discovery Centre but, as you’ve heard, soon after arriving I was informed there were resources as good much closer to hand and so it ran with the materials in Special Collections in Leeds University Library instead. This year I ran it as an MA module instead for the first time, which worked a lot better, but since firstly very few of my students seem to read my blog and secondly, and more grimly, it seems very unlikely we’ll be able to run any modules based on supervised handling of objects any time soon, there seems no harm in dedicating a post to one of its teaching points, which is to what the images I have finally processed most obviously lend themselves.

Obverse of ilver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of silver drachm of Shahanshah Yazdgerd I struck between 399 and 420 AD, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection uncatalogued

Reverse of the same coin. I freely admit that this one has nothing to do with the post, I just couldn’t read the date or mint signature and am hoping that someone who can will be reading… It’s happened before!

So, if you ever read much in the way of numismatics and coinage history for the pre-modern period, you may have met the idea that coinage is in some sense state propaganda.1 And one could debate whether that is its primary purpose or whether it’s mainly for ensuring the operation of the economy; but since to be recognised as coin it must identify an authority of guarantee, or else it’s just a round disc of metal, many issuers have indeed used that fact to say something about themselves with their money. Where it gets tricky, though, is when from there we try to extrapolate the public image policy of ancient and medieval rulers. Do we, after all, imagine that modern heads of state choose their coinage designs? Those of us who remember the first UK pound coins will remember that they had eight different edge inscriptions and a different reverse design every year, which was basically anti-counterfeiting and although the designs did have some purposes of eliciting national pride in our great achievements and heritage, I don’t suppose any of us thought the Prime Minister came up with them, let alone Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.2

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin

Reverse design of the 2004 UK pound coin, showing the Forth Bridge in Scotland

But when one tries the same argument on ancient or medieval rulers, one finds people weirdly reluctant to let go of the idea of royal or imperial agency. I once had a ten-minute argument with someone in the Institute of Historical Research about the coinage of William the Conqueror and the intended significance of the portrait iconography, with the other party believing that his facing portrait was a deliberate echo of Byzantine imagery which indicated William’s quasi-imperial status as now being a ruler of plural realms, and because they wanted this to be William’s initative they loudly asserted that since the coin bore his image and name, and thus directly touched his reputation, he could not have afforded not to take a personal interest. My counter-argument was more or less, “You mean he really thought he should look like this?”

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087

Silver penny of William I of England struck by Æstan at Winchester between 1066 and 1087, from Tony Clayton’s Pictures of Coins of the UK, linked through for your perusal

Y’see, I believe that someone chose that crown and the facing portrait, which do indeed look like Emperor Justinian I’s coins a bit (see below), but I don’t believe that it had to be William who chose them, still less that it was intended to be portraiture; I think the designs would have been settled at a much lower level, and I don’t think William expected it to resemble him so much as generally to look like the kind of royal or imperial figure wot belongs on a coin. But neither of us had any proof of our positions, which is why the argument went on for so long. And so the question arises: lacking any actual documentation of these decisions, as until the maybe-fifteenth century we are, can we hope to show any case where the decision about what a coin looked like really did rest with the ruler?

Obverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001 Reverse of a gold solidus of Justinian I struck at Constantinople in 538-565, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, CC/WC/BYZ/001

A halfway position has been achieved with one or two Roman imperial coinages, which is possible because Roman minting happened on such a scale that there were obviously a great many separate pairs of hands at work in the coinage and there must therefore have been some higher-level direction about what the designs should look like. This gets even truer when plural mints are involved, and long ago a scholar by the name of Patrick Bruun did a careful analysis of one sort of coin of Constantine I, the so-called Gloria Exercitus coinage (The Glory of the Army) focusing on the differences between the mints’ interpretation of the design. I won’t trouble you with the detail here and now, mostly because I can’t remember it, but the point was that only some of the details varied. Therefore, he argued, the things that didn’t must have been in the instructions sent to the mint.3

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Copper-alloy coin of Constantine I struck at Trier in 333-334, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2959

Actually, the instructions must have been sent to the die-engravers, and they might not have been at the mint—they might even all have been in the same place and the dies distributed once carved, though that would be a bad way to cope with wastage and still avoid forgery—but the basic point holds, that we can see (a) that there were instructions and (b) roughly what they included. Even this, however, doesn’t get us as far as (c) who came up with those instructions. Did Constantine say: “I want a coinage that’s about the soldiers, man, I want to really speak to those guys, let them know that they all together support the unified Empire, so let’s have two soldiers both holding the same standard, it’ll be super deep”, or was it only the first clause or two then some artist came up with the rest and the under-secretary of the Count of the Sacred Largesses or similar went, “That’ll do, send out orders for a hundred dies in that pattern to be delivered in a month”? Can we ever know? Well, there might be just one coinage where we can, and it’s this next one.

(Top: billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972.
Second row: billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962.
Third row down: billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885.
Bottom: billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued.)
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Antioch in 300-301, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0972
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maximian struck at Cyzicus in 297-299, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0962
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885 Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Constantius I struck at Rome in 296-297, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0885
Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Galerius struck at Alexandria in 308-310, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

You will quickly note that these coins are quite similar. That is true even though they are coins of four different emperors and each struck at a different mint in a different year. Nonetheless, there they are, pretty much indistinguishable except by text. Coincidence? Strong tradition? Well, almost certainly not, because these four all ruled together. They are the four Roman emperors known as the First Tetrarchy, a college of four rulers selected by their eldest member, Diocletian (284-305) to rule with him as delegates in different parts of the Empire. Despite that geographical delegation, their edicts all went out in the name of all four emperors, their monuments often depicted all four of them together even though that probably happened only twice, and, importantly for us, all the mints of the Empire issued coins in the name all four emperors at once.4

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, on the Arch of Galerius, Thessaloniki, third register down; image by Armineaghayanown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reasons for this are pretty clear if you know about the so-called third-century crisis, a fifty-year run of short imperial Roman reigns brought to an end by a seemingly-endless series of military coups as frontier situations bubbled out of the control of any single ruler: wherever the emperor could not be, there a resentful army appointed their own and the result was continual civil war.5 Diocletian, whose entire military career up to his succession—in a military coup—was spent in this political environment, seems to have realised that the need was for multiple emperors, but not plural emperors as had hitherto been tried, with a ruler’s young son who could be seen as inexperienced or second-best promoted up, but four more-or-less-equally experienced military officers any of whom could stand in for any of the others.6 And that seems to be what their public image was intended to convey: the emperors are all the same, and speak together; if you have one you have them all; they can’t be turned against each other and there is always one to whom you can address yourself.

Silver argenteus of Emperor Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

The four tetrarchs sacrificing together, again, this time on the reverse of a silver argenteus of Diocletian struck at Trier in 289-300, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, R2529

So I wouldn’t like to say, especially given the more naturalistic image on the coin above, that there was a meeting in which Diocletian and the others decided, “you know what we should all have? Beards and really really thick necks, like, unreal necks, OK?” The basic design details might still have been due to someone else lower down the chain, and the key thing might have been that it was easy for most die-cutters to reproduce, so, basic but characteristic. But that the same design went everywhere and every emperor struck the same coins for all four of them in his mints, I think must have been settled in such a conference between the top men themselves, and I would imagine that that being so, they probably did actually approve the designs before the dies were ordered. But this might be the only case where I’m prepared to admit that it really was the rulers’ decision…7


1. You need examples? How about Barbara Levick, “Messages on the Roman Coinage: Types and Inscriptions” in G. M. Paul and M. Ierardi (edd.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire (Ann Arbor MI 1999), pp. 41–60 or Cécile Morrisson, “Displaying the Emperor’s Authority and Kharaktèr in the Marketplace” in Pamela Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium (Farnham 2013), pp. 65–80?

2. Of course, the anti-counterfeiting didn’t in the end work, which is why we now have the new seven-sided bimetallic ones, but by then people were already trying to solve the problem with lasers, as so often happens nowadays: see Andrew Appleby and Thangavel Thevar, “Identification of British One Pound Counterfeit Coins using Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy” in Optical Engineering Vol. 55 (Bellingham WT 2016), pp. 044104-1-044104–6, DOI: 10.1117/1.OE.55.4.044104.

3. Patrick M. Bruun, “The System of the Vota Coinages: Coordination of Issues in the Constantinian Empire” in Norsk Numismatisk Årsskrift Vol. 96 (Oslo 1958), pp. 1–21, repr. in Bruun, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: papers from 1954 to 1988, ed. by A. Tammisto, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 12 (Rome 1991), pp. 27–36.

4. A good guide here is Roger Rees, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy (Edinburgh 2004), which has a useful appendix of translated sources.

5. Here I like Alaric Watson, Aurelian and the Third Century (London 1999), despite the obvious case it wants to make for the brief reign of its imperial subject.

6. The alternative had been attempted by Valerian (253-260), whose son Gallienus (253-268) did OK until Valerian was captured by the Persians and he had to raise his own young sons to the purple, which ended badly for them. See for an attempt to save Gallienus’s reputation, of which there is now pretty much one per emperor, John Bray, Gallienus : A Study in Reformist and Sexual Politics (Kent Town 1997), an attack on the older Lukas de Blois, The Policy of the Emperor Gallienus (Leiden 1976). Actually, I don’t think anyone has tried to rescue Valerian yet…

7. Actually, that’s not quite true: I’m pretty sure that Emperor Nero chose most of his coin designs, but my main justification for that belief is that he fancied himself an artist and their iconography’s often very clever, which however much I like it as an idea still isn’t proof…

Gallery

Istanbul I: trying to give a sense

This gallery contains 15 photos.

The UK’s university lecturers are back at work, albeit on Action Short of a Strike, and the dispute goes on, but from now on you can find out about it from the press, rather than here, and a more sadly … Continue reading

I Found this Coin, I: Maxentius and his Temple

There was no post the week before last and only one last week, and the post I wanted to put up next is stalled for lack of information, plus which, I’ve decided not to do two of the ones I promised in my last ‘Chronicle’ post because I reviewed my notes and found that the things in question weren’t quite as exciting as I’d remembered. So instead I shall do what I so often do when at a blog-loss and show you a coin. I spent a decent number of Friday afternoons in the academic year 2015/16 inventorying Byzantine and late Roman coins in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections and every now and then something came up about which a story could be told. This post is about one of them.

Copy of a bust of the Emperor Maxetius now in the Pushkin Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Plaster cast in the Pushkin Museum of a bust of the emperor Maxentius (307-12) in Dresden, photograph by shakko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

The Emperor Maxentius is one of the unlucky figures of Roman history, partly just because of events and partly because he had the misfortune to be up against one of history’s winners, Emperor Constantine I (306-37).1 Constantine was raised to the purple by the soldiers of his father, Constantius I (293-305), when Constantius died, and he handled it relatively well, communicating his submission to the other three reigning emperors and being grudgingly accepted as a new junior colleague. This, however, angered young Maxentius, the son of the now-retired emperor Maximianus I (285-305, 307-308 and 310), who had very much not been allowed to succeed when his father retired. Now that another emperor’s son had, he rebelled, at first rolling his father out of retirement to set up with him at Rome and then, finding him more of a problem than a help, carried on alone. Somewhere in there he had a son, whom he gave the portentuous name Romulus, but who quickly died; this is what I mean about bad luck, really. Eventually, it was Constantine I in 312, who now, as one of only two other emperors, closed Maxentius down in Rome, defeated him in the field at the Milvian Bridge, with God very clearly on Constantine’s side as he later told it, and Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber in the retreat.2

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum, photo by your author

Maxentius thus tends to get a fairly pitiful write-up in the scholarship, but if you stop and look at that, you’ll notice it means that he was in control of the Empire’s notional capital for half a decade, and more than that, he was also in charge of and even suppressed a rebellion in Carthage, shipping point for Rome’s North African grain supply. In fact, he held a decent slice of the middle of the Empire and, apparently, a warfleet, without any real opposition from the other emperors until 312 (a brief and ultimately fatal coup by his father in 310 aside). Furthermore, he built in the city on a serious scale; his ceremonial basilica was not finished at his death, and was indeed finished by Constantine, but its ruins still stand and you can see the scale of the thing. He did finish a smaller but still impressive temple for his dead son, which you can still see in the Forum (and above). He was evidently not a nobody or a do-nothing. He just had bad luck and a very dangerous third opponent. It’s a pity we don’t know more about him, but the winners get to write the history and Constantine really did a number of that. Still, we have some of his coins.

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of the same coin

This coin in particular brings out the ambiguity of our understanding of Maxentius’s reign.3 It was evidently cut fairly carelessly from the sheet, or else the blank was poorly made and no-one cared. The dies were neatly done but not very well applied, and you could plausibly argue that whoever was making them was under pressure to produce quickly. In terms of design, however, it shows Maxentius’s aspirations pretty clearly. Firstly, the portrayal is almost exactly like that of the other emperors of the time, down to beard and dress; he was aiming to join the college and was here showing himself as one of them, and is accordingly entitled AVG(ustus) like them. On the other hand, he had something they did not have, possession of the signal city of the Empire, and he signalled this with the reverse, which shows not any temple of his own building but the temple of the city deity put up by Augustus himself, the very first emperor and origin of their imperial title, Maxentius here identifying himself with the very seat of Empire in several ways at once.4 Of course, we don’t know that Maxentius himself chose that design, rather than telling someone off at the mint to make him some suitable coins, but whoever did decide on it knew what they were doing. Were it not such a rush job, it would look like the work of a successful and self-aware administration. Alas, it was not to be, and at the end of all this I still don’t really know what to think of Maxentius except how different several sorts of history might have been if the elder emperors in 307 had just accepted him as they had Constantine. Probably Constantine would have eliminated him as he did all his other rivals, in time, but it’s still hard to see why it was so easy for him when he in fact did so.


1. I’ve taught this stuff so often now I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s coming from, but at least one source will be Alan K. Bowman, “Diocletian and the First Tetrarchy, A. D. 284‒305”, Averil Cameron, “The Reign of Constantine, A. D. 306‒337”, and Elio Lo Cascio, “The New State of Diocletian and Constantine: from the Tetrarchy to the Reunification of the Empire”, all in Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Cameron (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193‒337, 2nd edn. (Cambridge 2005), pp. 67‒89, 90‒109 and 170‒83 respectively.

2. On the tangly question of what Constantine saw in the sky and what stories were told about it, try Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), pp. 84-105.

3. I reckon it one of C. H. V Sutherland and R. A. G. Carson, The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 6: From Diocletian’s Reform (A. D. 294) to the Death of Maximus (A. D. 313) (London 1966), Ticinum 91.

4. He wasn’t the first to put this temple on coins, either; that seems to have been Caracalla (198-217), though the exact type originates with Philip I (244-248). And, of course, he wasn’t the last either, though it went through some changes

Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women

The day after the seminar I last reported on I was at yet another, back in Birmingham to hear Professor Jill Harries presenting to the General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Her paper was entitled “Mother vs maiden: Helena, Pulcheria and the formulation of imperial dynasty in late antiquity”, and it was fun; I haven’t seen someone presenting who enjoyed their topic so visibly for quite a while. Some interesting points came out of it, too, so I shall try and give a decent report even though the period is not my usual one; after all, these days, teaching requires that it become more familiar… Professor Harries’s paper set out to assess just how much freedom women of the late Roman imperial family actually had to decide their own fates. It doesn’t seem like too much of a spoiler to say straight away that the answer was ‘hardly any’, although I thought that more could be teased out of the material and I’ll say more about that below. But basically, the imperial women were policy tools for the emperors, and so the meat of the paper was in the changes visible in the ways in and the extent to which emperors did that.

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R3141; all coins pictures given at maximum size, not to scale

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453. “Pulcheria Coin” by Asybaris01http://www.romancoins.info/Wives3.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were four phases implicit in the paper, and two explicit ones, those two represented by these two ladies, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine I (306-337), finder of the True Cross and eventual saint, and Pulcheria, daughter of the Emperor Arcadius (395-408) and thus sister of and something like religious consultant to Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), before finally becoming the wife of the Emperor Marcian (450-457) as which she died. Outwith that, however, there were implicit before and after phases, before Christianization and after the breakdown of Roman rule in the West. The latter of these was basically a point of fissure; after it, what Professor Harries observed was no longer so observable, so I won’t discuss it here. In the pre-Christian phase it is basically rare to see imperial women having had any rôle at all; in the very earliest empire Livia was arguably a serious power-broker and in the third century a small raft of women called Julia (and especially Julia Mæsa) were very important in the appointment of emperors, but these both seem to be those difficult combinations of exceptional times and exceptional women that make generalisation about such things so very hard. (I do wonder how far this is an artefact of the focus of our written sources, I have to say. One of the things that working closely with the Barber Institute’s coins made clear is that an awful lot of empresses got coin series. Again, I will say more about this below, but I feel as if the coins may be telling us that empresses had more of a rôle as faces of the state than our various chroniclers were interested in reporting, and that subsequent developments as described here might therefore look less weird.1)

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa struck at Rome 223-226

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa, paired with the mother-goddess Juno, struck at Rome 223-226

In any case, these women were exceptional in some sense at least, but this changed in the reign of Constantine. Not straight away: Helena was Constantine’s father’s first wife of two and when Constantine recalled her to the palace in 312 it was after she had endured some years of political occlusion. Professor Harries showed us that Helena had something of a rôle in Rome as Constantine’s representative, though she was not alone of the family there, and as I already knew, after a short test run in Alexandria she was featured on coins right across the Empire from 324 to 326. The thing is that she was not alone in that; not only had Constantine’s sons had their own coinages for a few years by this time, but in 324 they were joined not just by their grandmother but by their mother, Constantine’s wife, Fausta, and indeed for a very short time at Rome only, Constantine’s sister Constantia.2 His younger sons were called Constantine, Constantius (after granddad) and Constans, by the way; Constantine understood brands… His eldest son, however, was called Crispus and was murdered in 326 for reasons that have become legend to such an extent that the reality will never be known, and perhaps as part of this Fausta was also dead by the end of that year and those coinages stop.3 Showing that money isn’t everything, it was at this point that Helena suddenly became a really public figure by visiting the Holy Land and there supposedly finding the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified, of which Constantinopolitan rulers would be handing out fragments for nine centuries thereafter. There was some kind of exercise of moral repair going on here in which Helena’s Christianity suddenly became a way out of whatever trouble Constantine’s family was in, suggested Professor Harries, and it’s as good an explanation of the changes in Constantine’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Christianity as any I’ve heard at least.4

Bulgarian icon of Saints Constantine and Helena with a patriarchal cross

That ambivalence, of course, is a feature of modern Western scholarship which the Orthodox church, considering both son and mother saints, would dismiss or even condemn. Here is a later Bulgarian icon of them both serenely untroubled by such concerns, which the Bulgarian National Commission for UNESCO have not seen fit to attribute

There isn’t, in this, really any suggestion that the by-now-septuagenarian empress had a lot of choice in her elevation to imperial Christian patroness; her religion was convenient, her status unaffected by whatever had befallen, and Constantine had need of her. Nonetheless, argued, Professor Harries, Christianity opened up new ways for emperors to put their women to work, ways that remained options even if, as in subsequent years was usual, they were not used and imperial women were largely either hidden or married off to generals or Cæsars. Pulcheria is arguably the first flicker we get of Christianity as chosen imperial career path, and even her dedication to virginity in 413 didn’t prevent her being named Augusta in 414 (or from getting a coin series). The Church historian Sozomen, who seems to have liked to use powerful women to make points about failings of emperors as we’ve seen before, tells us a lot about her influence on Theodosius, and she seems to have lent the court a cladding of sanctity that was useful to Theodosius but which would, in time of need at his death, be dispensed with in the cause of a peaceful succession when she married Marcian after a few months as effective ruler in her own right. She was too old to continue the family by then, but it gave Marcian some kind of link to the previous régime. Interestingly, Marcian’s successor Majorian was to legislate against this kind of parking of women in religious status until convenient, and significantly increased their rights to leave. For Professor Harries, Pulcheria didn’t have such a choice; although she may have been inclined to and even happy with her intermediate status between the worlds of withdrawal and policy, it was part of the emperor’s presentation of his court, not her modification thereof.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

Copy of an ivory plaque supposedly showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, although I’m sure I’ve seen them identified as Constantine VI and Eirini before now; this copy is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

That is of course a reasonable default position and Sozomen is really not the source one would want for this job, since his interest was so very far from straightforward political narrative. Nonetheless, it did seem to me that some of what he apparently says had implications of something different. Professor Harries had stressed that Theodosius didn’t necessarily pay much attention to Pulcheria, as often her requests in the name of patronage could be refused. But consider that a moment: what it implies is that Theodosius didn’t necessarily approve of her requests, which in turn makes it very unlikely that he put her up to them. In which case, what we are surely seeing there is her initiative, at least in so far as she was choosing whom to try to promote. If all her requests had been granted, we might justly suspect that Theodosius had for some reason set her up as a perfect intercessor whose requests would thus doubtless have been very carefully chosen, but because she couldn’t always get her way I think we actually have some reason to believe that ‘her way’ was something that existed. This has the rather paradoxical implication that we only have good basis to believe in agency’s existence when we see it being thwarted, which feels wrong in a number of ways but might still be worth thinking with, not least as it resembles the more widely-accepted idea that we tend only to see identity being defined when it is under threat and therefore weak.5 You can already see from the above, which is based almost entirely on information Professor Harries provided in the paper (and in a ten-minute addendum during discussion), how rich a paper this was and how many little avenues of interest could have been pursued; for me, however, that extra step of thinking is the big thing this paper gave me.

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I, paired with the mother goddess Juno, struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of public happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of Happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Writing this up now, however, I find an urge to append my own little extra bit in the form of the promised extra point about the pre-Christian phase. The women above were also empresses, in the family of another emperor who put as many of his relations on the coins as he could, that being Antoninus Pius, still of course alive and blogging up until a few years ago. Antoninus was also, as his name suggests, something of a one for the public display of piety; but what of the empresses? Did they form part of that strategy of presentation, did they sit at court being pious in a pre-Christian Roman fashion or go out and dedicate buildings and help the poor as did Helena? Well, we just don’t know because our main source, the Historia Augusta, is not concerned with them in the way that Sozomen was with Helena and Pulcheria, though it does tell us that Antoninus established funds for destitute women in his wife’s name after her death, which of course tells us that she had not, even if he thought it a fitting tribute. But basically we don’t know, and yet we see many of the same things going on with coins here, in terms of the association of the imperial women with particular virtues, as we see with the women of Constantine, to which can be added the imperial promotion possibilities inherent in their deification, which was duly recognised after both their deaths in ceremony and on the coinage. I’m not sure I’m saying that this makes what Constantine was doing with his women any less unusual, but it might tell us where the idea was coming from, and if it did, it would most likely be telling us that it actually came from the coins…

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217


1. For example, just listing those empresses represented in the Barber Institute’s collection gives one Livia, Antonia, Agrippina, Julia, Julia Titi, Domitia, Plotina, Marciana, Matidia, Sabina, Faustina I, Faustina II, Lucilla, Crispina, Manlia, Didia Clara, Julia Domna, Plautilla, Julia Paula, Aquilia Severa, Julia Sœmias, Julia Mæsa, Orbiana, Julia Mamæa, Paulina, Sabina Tranquillana, Otacilia Severa, Herennia Etruscilla, Mariniana, Salonina, Severina, Magna Urbica, Galeria Valeria, Helena, Fausta, Theodora I, Flaccilla, Eudoxia, Eudocia, Galla Placidia, Licinia Eudoxia, Pulcheria and Verina, which is not that far off every known emperor’s wife and a few who were not even wives. I think we would be safe to consider putting the empress on coins a usual thing to do.

2. I have become familiar with the images Helena and Fausta just because of seeing them on the Barber’s coins, not least in getting them out for Professor Harries the day after this paper but Constantia is less well-known and I know of her issue only from Harold Mattingly, C. H. V. Sutherland, R. A. G. Carson, J. P. C. Kent & Andrew Burnett (edd.), The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 7: Constantine and Licinius A. D. 313-337, ed. Patrick M. Bruun (London 1966), from which I can’t give a detailed reference right now; she’s in one or two of the indices. On empresses on coins more generally in this period, however, see Leslie Brubaker & Helen Tobler, “The gender of money: Byzantine empresses on coins (324-802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572-594, repr. in Pauline Stafford & Anneke Mulder-Bakke (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42-64.

3. It is tempting to suggest that the reason was that he wouldn’t change his name to fit, but the basic problem is that contemporary sources obviously knew it was unwise to discuss this affair in writing, later sources therefore don’t know what happened and then it gets wrapped into the Legend of Constantine as the reason for the curse of leprosy of which Pope Sylvester supposedly cured the emperor and after that no possibility of factual report remains…

4. The obvious rival candidate is Timothy Barnes, author of Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford 2011), who came in for a good deal of good-natured criticism in this paper. Prof. Harries’s own views are evident in her Imperial Rome AD 284 to 363: The New Empire (Edinburgh 2012) but this paper was part of a more focused study on Constantine that we can only await eagerly! As for Pulcheria, there there is Ada B. Teetgen, The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria A. D. 399-452 (London 1907) and now all over the web, and there must be more recent stuff too but I don’t know it, sorry.

5. This is perhaps the single most powerful critical insight I got from my undergraduate study of history. Of course, it is in some ways just the carrying into discourse of the Shakespearian formulation about protesting too much, and I’m certainly not claiming I thought of it—I’m pretty sure, instead, that I got it from Matthew Innes‘s teaching—but it is still worth having as a tool. If a source is all up about something being natural, traditional, well-established, old or usual, it’s often because they’ve met people who think it’s not…

Gallery

Byzantium before Byzantium

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about … Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes’: the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306”
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading