Imperial supervision of numismatic iconography?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Gavin Richardson, Sep 17, 2019.

  1. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    I think I have asked this question in some form before, but I’d like to try again since I’m still searching for an answer. Put simply: How much did emperors personally oversee the images on their coins? I have a particular interest in the coinage of Constantine in this regard.

    I have been reading a lot of Constantine biography (Barnes’s CONSTANTINE AND EUSEBIUS years ago, and Michael Grant’s CTG bio; recently I read Barnes’s newer biography, as well as Paul Stephenson’s fantastic Constantine book. I’m currently reading David Potter’s bio and have Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE all ready in the queue). Toward the end of Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, he writes,

    "In contrast to his many public images, of Constantine's private life and views we have only rare hints, and to seek more in the sources is to submit them to a critical scrutiny they cannot bear. His letters and speeches were drafted by a changing staff over his long reign, his coins designed and struck by mint workers not always abreast of current motifs and propaganda imperatives. The major monuments and luxury objects produced in his honour were designed and crafted by a range of patrons and artists whose agendas did not always, if ever, match the emperor's own."

    So Stephenson cautions against assuming that Constantine personally oversaw the images associated with his reign, even though it seems natural to assume that he would take some interest, especially given the massive propaganda machine that served him.

    Does anyone know of a good study on the relationship between imperial iconography and the personal interest or control an emperor might have over it?
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  3. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    BTW, if I had to choose one biography for the layman to read, I’d have to go with Stephenson. Very thorough and accessible. Barnes’s erudition, however, is on staggering display in CONSTANTINE: DYNASTY. RELIGION AND POWER IN THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE.
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  4. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Cogito Ergo Sum

    I've had similar thoughts about the deified Constantine coinage. Who actually was crafting the iconography, and how did it fit within the religious transformation that was occurring at the time? In the immediate aftermath of his reign these coins featuring the veiled Constantine with the quadriga on the reverse were struck, probably a representation of Sol's horses rather than some kind of early Christian motif.
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  5. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Yes, Eusebius describes this coin in his VITA CONSTANTINI. Of course, what Eusebius doesn’t stress is the way in which that Christian and solar imagery could be nicely conflated. I assume that if Constantine did not order that design himself, his sons would have an interest in doing so, like Augustus, who did not claim to be a god, but merely the son of a god--DIVI FILIUS.
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  6. PlanoSteve

    PlanoSteve Well-Known Member

    That is a good question, both the images & likenesses. I suspect they didn't personally handle their coins on a daily basis, & perhaps not at least not like we think. Aside from ideology, I suspect liberties were frequently taken.

    History is full of ignorance, both intentional (as in "I don't really care, anything will do") & contrived (as in "let's not let him/her see the real product" or "we can't possibly keep up this standard, so let's just do a few perfect ones for approval").

    Reminds me of the time in the 1980's, I was working for a national food manufacturer. Every week, the VP of our division would receive a case of our product. A member from upper management would come to the production line & personally hand select product & take it to a packaging machine to have it packaged by hand, so that no broken pieces would be in those bags. We often wondered if that VP ever actually bought the product in a store & wondered why there were so many broken pieces. :D:eek:

    How often do you suspect rulers actually handled coins?

    It is interesting to see how profiles change over years, but I still can't believe some of those rulers approved some of those "caricatures" (caricature is my assumption, as I can't believe some of them actually looked like that :smuggrin:).
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  7. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    More good questions. I’m much better at producing questions than answers. I also wondered if the matter varied by denomination. Would Constantine be handling any AE3 folles? Maybe not. I suppose somebody else went to the grocery store for him. But gold coins? I might imagine he would be doling these out to valued members of court. Of course, from a propaganda perspective, the bronze coins were more important given their wider distribution.
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  8. PlanoSteve

    PlanoSteve Well-Known Member

    Yeah, I bet he got the "pick of the crop" for his handouts. (And they better not have given him any circulated coins, lest he get his hands dirty...I sure am glad they did away with coins in Vegas...that was getting disgusting! :D:eek:)
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  9. Jwt708

    Jwt708 Well-Known Member

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  10. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Cogito Ergo Sum

    Gold coins, yes. Bronze coins, no. ;)
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  11. Finn235

    Finn235 Well-Known Member

    Some disjointed observations:

    - Augustus seems to have largely set the precedent that his portrait should be frozen in time somewhere in his 30s... a stark contrast to the wrinkly Caesar and hook-nosed Antony before him.

    - This trend ended soon after Claudius took office- and once again "warts and all" realism was preferred. Again, I assume a personal preference of the emperor himself.

    - Emperors seem to have had a large hand in selecting some of the deities on their coins, most notably Minerva for Domitian, Serapis/Isis for the Severans, Diana for Gallienus, and Sol Invictus for Aurelian

    - Elagabalus was arguably the only person in the entire Empire who loved his rock enough to put it on a coin!

    - The "Best Emperors" set of Decius is a particular standout among the coinage of the third century, and the particulars make me wonder if Decius himself made the selections? No Julius Caesar, no Claudius... yet Commodus and Severus Alexander somehow made the cut?

    - From my own collection, my prized Caracalla denarius was made for his 8th Liberalitas, thus minted specifically to be handed out to some Roman citizen. This one, more than any other coin of his in silver, reflects his patented scowl more closely than any other AR coin of his that I've ever seen.

    Caracalla denarius Liberalitas VIIII.jpg

    My hypothesis (fantasy) is that this was minted either to present to the emperor himself as part of the ceremony, or else was minted for select members of his inner circle.

    - The Constantine posthumous coins are interesting not only for being the last posthumous coin struck for a Roman emperor and the only "Christian" posthumous coin, but also because I have seen it explained that DV indicates Constantine's deification after death... why would a Christian emperor (or his Christian sons) want that on a coin?

    - I have also seen it claimed on Wikipedia (haven't tracked down the original source) that Honorius wrote a letter to Arcadius complaining that so many Eudoxia coins had been made that they were more plentiful in the West than those coins of Arcadius.
  12. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Those are all excellent observations Finn. Constantine had himself buried surrounded by representations of the 12 apostles, as if he were a second Christ. If there were a candidate for Christian apotheosis, it would be Constantine, at least in his own mind.
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