Minted in Constantinople
Diameter: 13/16 in. (2.1 cm)
Weight: 0.16 oz. (4.5 g)
Bequest of David P. Harris ('46), 2020
Purchased by David P. Harris; date and dealer unknown.
The Solidus of Constans II (r. 641–668) is a Byzantine gold coin minted 641-646 CE. Constans II was born on November 7, 630, and was only about 11 years old when he was crowned in 641. His baptismal name was Heraclius, but he was later given the name Constantine, which was shortened in popular speech to Constans. Philip Grierson classifies the coinage of Constans into three phases; Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection 2.2 (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1968), p. 420, no. 1g.2. These are determined by minting date, based on which, we would categorize this coin into the first phase which spans the years 641-654 CE. The coin is close to, but not quite a perfect circle, with the stamped engraving slightly off center on both the front and back of the coin. This certainly was not abnormal; the process of minting coins involved the stamping of a design into a piece of metal to create a relief. Because this process was completed by hand, it often yielded slight inconsistencies. The front (or obverse) of the coin has a combination of figural imagery and inscriptions, while the back (or reverse) has nonfigural imagery also accompanied by inscriptions.
On the obverse of the solidus, Constans II is shown bust facing, beardless, and wearing a chlamys (a short cloak), and a tablion (a rectangular piece of cloth inset in the front of the chlamys at the waist height) ornamented with four pellets. These accessories alone indicate the elevated status of Constans II, and his apparel was commonly featured in costumes of both emperors and empresses and in the dress of the high court dignitaries during the Byzantine empire. Constans II is also shown wearing a crown with a cross on the circlet, while in his right hand, he holds a globus cruciger, or an orb topped with a cross. The globus cruciger is a Christian symbol that has been used since the Middle Ages to assert the dominating presence of Christianity. The cross and the orb represent the sacrifice of Christ, and the world, respectively, while together they symbolize the triumph of Christ over the world. The inscription surrounding this image reads: dNCONSTAN | TINUSPPAV, which can be interpreted as D(ominus) N(oster) Constantinus P(ater) P(atriae) AU(gustus). Translated, this inscription reads: “Our lord Constantinus, Augustus, Father of the Fatherland”.
The reverse of the solidus shows the cross potent on a base with three steps. The two inscriptions on either side of the cross potent read VICTORIA AVGU (“Victory of the Augustus”). Beneath the cross potent, there is an inscription reading CONOB, or “Constantinople”, and beside it, the officina mark of a reverse Z, referring to the specific workshop within the mint at Constantinople. The inclusion of the cross potent on steps in the center of the coin’s reverse side is likely a reference to Golgotha, (sometimes called Calvary, from Latin calva: “bald head,” or “skull”), which was a skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem, and the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Referred to in all four Gospels, the hill was located outside the city walls of Jerusalem, not far from the sepulchre where Jesus was buried. The inclusion of this monument on the coin, while obviously referring to one of the most important sites in Christianity, also places this coin within a larger Roman tradition of depicting monuments on coinage. It can be argued that the inclusion of the cross here might reference an earlier monument, that being the cross erected by Theodosius in Jerusalem. If so, its inclusion on the coin of Constans II continues the retrospective approach to monumental depiction in Roman coinage, which allowed emperors to disseminate propagandistic imagery through visual associations with the monuments of earlier well respected emperors. This also speaks more broadly to the function of coins to quickly distribute propagandistic ideology to a large population. Having been mass produced, their imagery would have been visible to members of different social classes, and even the far-reaching provinces of the empire.
Paris Tully ('21), April 2021
The front of this coin features a portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II. He wears the imperial regalia (the distinct clothing of the monarch) and diadem (a jeweled crown), indicating his importance, and holds a globus cruciger (a cross mounted on a sphere and a symbol of Christian authority) in his right hand. The reverse features a cross potent with finials (a decorative ornament or flourish at the end of an item). The presence of such religious imagery signals the emperor’s connection with Christ, from which it was believed he derived his right to rule. The Latin inscriptions on the front, some of which are abbreviations, identify the emperor. The inscription on the reverse is an acclamation of eternal victory, and reference the coin’s place of minting. Notably, the coin lacks a depiction of Constans II’s heir, as we can see in his later coinage, implying it was minted early in his rule, prior to the birth of his son.
Because of its weight, size, and material, it can reasonably be assumed that the coin is a solidus nomisma. Coins in the mid-seventh century were divided into three categories, gold, silver, and copper. Gold and copper each had their own additional subcategories. Solidus nomisma were at the top of this structure, having the highest value of the three types of gold coins. As a result, it is unlikely that this coin saw use outside of the uppermost echelons of society, and might have been limited in circulation to wealthy cities or important trade routes. Currency was uniquely important in the dissemination of information in the time before mass media, and this coin is no exception. The portrait of Constans II displays how he desired to be portrayed, and thus offers a window into the political and religious values of the era.
Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1999).
Asen Kirin, ed. Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC (Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2005).
Mathew Kovan ('24) for ARHS 110 Introduction to Western Art (Spring 2021).