Early Christian coins

The Christian community during the Tetrachy

One of the great currents that transformed the late Roman empire into early medieval Europe was the replacement of Roman paganism by Christianity, and the enormous political and institutional changes that accompanied it. The Tetrarchy period—and Constantine's reign specifically—was the pivot point for this transition, when Constantine not only legalized Christianity but for the first time initiated official support for it by the Empire.

Not that Christianity in this era got off to a great start. Periodically throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Christian community suffered persecutions that were initiated in response to one political issue or another. But the last and most severe of these was kicked off by Diocletian in 303—traditionally at the instigation of his co-ruler in the East, Galerius. One of the requirements imposed on Christians was to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods by pouring a libation from a patera—the exact act illustrated by the "Genius" figure on the period's iconic coinage.

While Christians in the eastern part of the empire suffered terribly, the persecution was not strictly enforced in the western provinces, led by Constantius, Constantine's father. His first wife (and Constantine's mother) Helena was probably already Christian, and while sources differ as to the extent of Constantius' Christian sympathies, he certainly—at a minimum—was not hostile to them. During this period, Constantine himself was being raised at Diocletian's court in Nicomedia, and so had a first-hand view at the carnage in the Christian communities. In contrast to Constantius, Galerius was fanatical in his hatred of Christians, and Maximinus II (who joined him as co-emperor when Diocletian stepped down) was just as bad.

Constantine's early coinage was very properly Roman, emphasizing Mars, his patron deity, in addition to other orthodox coinage types. He experienced a profound, brilliant vision before his famous defeat of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312, after which Sol becomes the most prominent deity on his coins and Constantine increasingly embraces and promotes Christianity. While he never actually, officially renounces the Roman gods, pagan deities no longer appear on imperial coins after his final defeat of Licinius in 324. Instead, religiously ambiguous political and civic messages replace the overt paeans to Sol and, in Licinius' old territories, Jupiter. After his death in 337, his sons did begin to issue overtly Christian coins and official paganism ended rather quickly. This page shows how Christian images and themes began to assert themselves on the coinage of this period.

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Salonina antoninianus
—struck by Gallienus
Mediolanum, 260-268
obv.- SALONINA AVG; Diademed, draped bust right on crescent
rev.- AVG IN PACE; Salonina, as Pax, seated left, holding olive-branch and sceptre
RIC 58
21mm; 3.0g; bronze

This coin was struck to commemorate Salonina, the wife of the emperor Gallienus. The reverse legend—"Augusta in Peace"—coin is by many to be the first direct Christian reference on a coin. It dates from the mid-3rd century, a couple of decades before most of the other coins featured in this site. The emperor Trajan Decius initiated a major persecution of Christians around 250 AD. Political and economic order was rapidly disintegrating at this period throughout the empire, and the Christian community was growing rapidly to fill the void. In 261 the emperor Gallienus restored the rights of Christians and ended the persecution. His wife Salonina was reputed to be a Christian herself.

It's interesting that this coin was struck in Mediolanum, the same city from which Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan in 313 that legalized Christianity once and for all.

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Maximinus II augustus
—struck by Licinius I
Thessalonica, 312
obv.- MAXIMINVS P F AVG; laureate bust right
rev.- IOVI CONSERVATORI; Jupiter standing facing, head left, naked but for chlamys over left shoulder, globe in right hand, scepter in left hand. Wreath in left field, A in right; •SM•TS• in ex
RIC VI Thes 50a; Fail 202a
25mm; 5.0g; nummus
badly and intentionally scratched in antiquity; most likely a "damnatio" gesture aimed at Maximinus and the Christian persecutions

This coin was issued during the height of the persecutions. Coins with the image of Galerius or Maximinus were often deliberately defaced as a mute, anonymous protest by Christians. This coin was struck in Thessalonica, an important and prominent early Christian community which would have suffered heavily.

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Constantine I augustus
—struck by Constantine I
Ticinum, 316
obv.- IMP CONSTANTINVS PF AVG; laureate cuirassed bust right
rev.- SOLI INVICTO COMITI; Sol stg left, r hand raised, l holding globe; + * in fields; PT in ex
RIC VII Tic 45
19mm; 2.8g; nummus

This is one of the earliest examples of explicit Christian imagery on a Roman coin. Even though Constantine did not strike any openly or officially Christian coins, Christian mint workers emboldened by his support of Christianity would sometimes take the opportunity to work Christian symbols or imagery into the design of an otherwise religiously ambiguous—in this case, using a cross as a mint-control mark in the field next to Sol. (The same thing occurs with the next coin, with the cross at the base of the altar.) Ticinum would have been at ground-zero for Christian toleration at this time, since the Edict of Milan which legalized Christianity was promulgated from nearby Milan just a couple of years before this coin was struck.

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Constantine I augustus
—struck by Constantine I
Ticinum, 318-319
obv.- IMP CONSTANTINVS P F AVG; Helmeted, laureate cuirassed bust right
rev.- VICTORIAE LAETAE PRINC PERP; Two Victories placing Shield inscribed VOT/PR on altar with cross. TT in ex
RIC VII Tic 86
19mm; 3.8g; nummus
In addition to the cross that was inscribed on the altar, the design of this coin in general is a good example both of how religiously ambiguous Constantine's later coinage was, and how early Christianity appropriated bits and pieces of contemporary culture and imagery. Today, our modern eyes see the figures on the reverse as angels; but it wasn't until the end of the fourth century that this visual iconography was applied to angels. At the time the coin was struck, these were still seen as personifications of Victory. (You can see Victory on many, many Roman coins from the earliest days, as well as Victory's Greek forebear, Nike.)
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Constantine I augustus
—struck by Constantine I
Heraclea, 327-329
obv.- CONSTANTINVS AG; Diademed head right, looking upward with "eyes to heaven" gaze
rev.- D N CONSTANTINI MAX AVG; Legend surrounding laurel wreath terminating in large jewel and enclosing VOT / • / XXX • SMHB in ex
RIC VII Her 92
19mm; 3.2g; nummus

One of the most famous early Christian coins is this coin with the "eyes to heaven" bust type, with Constantine presumably looking heavenward in a devout, prayerful aspect.

This bust type only appears at Heraclea, and only for a couple of years, so it is not clear whether this design was sanctioned by the imperial authorities, or merely tolerated as a local variation. It is significant in this respect that the Heraclea mint at this time was staffed by personnel transferred from the Ticinum mint, which was closed in 325, and we've seen that the Ticinum mint was an early adopter of Christian imagery on Constantine's coins.

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[Constantinopolis commemorative]
—struck by Constantine I
Arelate, 336
obv.- CONSTANTINOPOLIS; helmeted & laureate bust of Constantinopolis left
rev.- [none]; Victory standing left on prow of a galley, holding transverse across her body spear & shield; christogram in field; PCONST in ex
RIC VII Ar 401
18mm; 2.2g; nummus

The mint at Arelate often used the christogram as a mint mark or adornment on coins in the later part of Constantine's reign.

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Constantine II caesar
—struck by Constantine I
Aquileia, 334-335
obv.- CONSTANTINVS IVN NOB C; laureate cuirassed bust right
rev.- GLORIA EXERCITVS; Two soldiers standing facing each other, between are two standards; + between standards; AQP below
RIC VII Aq 125
17mm; 2.3g; nummus
This coin is another example of how mint workers in this era added Christian symbols to an orthodox, politically and religiously neutral reverse motif—in this case, the "soldiers holding military" reverse that was at this time struck empire-wide at all the mints.
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Constantine I commem
—struck by Constantius II
Antioch, 337-340
obv.- DN CONSTANTINVS P F AVGG; veiled bust right
rev.- Deified Constantine driving quadriga right, hand of God reaching down from above; SMANA in ex
RIC VII Ant 37
16mm; 1.7g; AE4

After the death of an emperor, it was common for the emperor to be deified and for his successor to commemorate the event on coins. And so it was after Constantine's death, but his death provided an awkward juxtaposition of pagan Roman tradition and newly Christian sensibilities.

Constantine officially became a Christian after being baptized on his deathbed; so, to begin with, the idea of his being deified should have horrified any proper Christian as utter blasphemy. Traditionally, deified emperors ascended to heaven carried by an eagle (see this coin struck by Constantine after his father's death), but this coin shows "the hand of God" reaching down to lift Constantine to heaven. However, Constantine is driving a chariot, more like Sol, his last pagan patron.

Constantine was the last Roman emperor to be deified. The "hand of God" would be a popular and durable icon of early Christianity and appeared on coins through the middle ages.

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Constantius II augustus
—struck by Constantius II
Constantinople, 337–361
obv.- DN CONSTANTIVS P F AVG; draped diademed emperor bust left, holding globe
rev.- FEL TEMP REPARATIO; emperor walking left with two captives before, holding chi-rho banner; CONSθ* in ex
22mm; 3.3g; centenionalis

This coin, struck by Constantine's youngest son while he reigned as emperor, shows another durable early Christian image: the Christogram, a monogram formed from the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ, (ΧΡ, or chi and rho). Traditionally, this was the symbol that Constantine saw in his vision before his final battle with Maxentius which he embroidered onto his battle standards. In this coin, Constantius is displaying a similar banner in the stylized victory depicted on the coin.

This coin also makes plain that the purpose of Christianity, from an imperial perspective, wasn't Christ as such, but the protection and favor of the emperor by the Christian god. In this respect, the emperors' Christian faith was no different than the paganism of their ancestors; the Christian god was simply more useful and powerful than the old pagan gods.

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Theodora augusta
—struck by Constans
Treveri, 340
obv.- FL MAX THEODORAE AVG; Bust r., wearing plain mantle and necklace, hair elaborately dressed with a plait encircling her head.
rev.- PIETAS ROMANA; Pietas standing facing, carrying an infant at her breast. Cross on left field.
15mm; 2.0g; AE4

"Pietas" is another personification of a traditional Roman value that was regularly portrayed on coin reverses, typically accompanied by a female member of the imperial family. In this coin—struck by Constantine's sons in honor of their grandmother, Constantius' wife, perhaps in connection with her death—Pietas is for the first time connected with Christianity by the inclusion of the cross, as it began to be transformed from a pagan Roman value into a traditional Christian value.

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Constantius II augustus
—struck by Constans
Treveri, 348-350
obv.- DN CONSTANTIVS P F AVG; pearl-diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right
rev.- FEL TEMP REPARATIO; Emperor standing left on galley, holding phoenix and labarum bearing a Chi-Rho; Victory steering behind, TRP in exergue
RIC VIII Tr 214; Bridgnorth 5
24mm; 7.7g; maiorina
From Bridgnorth Hoard. Struck before the revolt of Magnentius. http://www.yorkcoins.com/bridgnorth_hoard.htm

The FEL TEMP REPARATIO coinage was introduced empire-wide about 348 as part of a comprehensive coinage reform (the previous coin is another example). The reverse legend translates to, essentially, "return of happy times." Here the christogram is not just a symbol of victory, but is associated with rebirth and renewal. It is believed that these coins were introduced in conjunction with celebrations commemorating the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Rome. The theme of imperial rebirth is conveyed by the triumphant Emperor arriving in a galley holding a phoenix, piloted by Victory, while holding a banner with the Christian standard. By 348, Christianity could hardly be a more central part of imperial policy and iconography.

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Magnentius augustus
—struck by Magnentius
Treveri, 350-353
rev.- SALVS DD NN AVG ET CAES; large chi-rho, alpha and omega in fields
Fail 434; Sear 4017
25mm; 6.3g; double-maiorina

The Christogram as a numismatic device certainly reaches its zenith on this coin of Magnentius. Magnentius was a usurper in Gaul who killed Constans, Constantine's son who was ruler in the western empire; as a usurper, Magnentius certainly needed all the divine favor he could muster. The legend on the reverse promotes "The health of our lords, the Augustus and Caesar."

This coin is also interesting because he combines the Christogram with the alpha and omega symbolsω): "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty .." (Revelation 1:8).

Magnentius' revolt brought him into direct conflict with Constantius II, who ruled in the East and who was now Constantine's only surviving son. Both men sought to use the Church and its support in their conflict, a striking development for an institution that only 40 years before had been illegal, and struck coins to promote their positions. The alpha-omega device on this coin was favored by orthodox Christians, in contrast to the Arian Christianity associated with Constantius, and so this is another layer of meaning that Magnentius sought to communicate.

Artistically, this coin also appeals to me. Stylistically, this looks much more like something from medieval Europe than classical Rome and shows how rapidly the traditional classical forms were evolving. In this portrait Magnentius looks much more like a cleric or abbot than an emperor. Most Roman coins by this time have a generic imperial portrait that doesn't even pretend to actually look like the emperor, but this coin (and the one of Julian that follows) probably are actual portraits.

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Constantius II augustus
—struck by Constantius II
Siscia, 350
obv.- DN CONSTANTIVS PF AVG; diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right; A behind
rev.- HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS; Constantius, diademed, in military dress, facing, head turned l., holding standard with chi-rho and spear, Victory to left, crowning him, holding branch. A on left field; •ΓSIS* in ex
24mm; 5.1g; maiorina

[commentary goes here]

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Julian II augustus
—struck by Julian II
Antioch, 360–363 AD
obv.- DN FL CL IVLANVS PF AVG; Rosette-diademed/draped/cuirassed bust right
rev.- SECVRITAS REIPVB; Apis bull sanding right, two stars above, ANTΓ in ex, surrounded by palm branches
RIC VIII Ant 217
28mm; 9.03g; AE1

Paganism was to have one final hurrah with the reign of Julian II, variously known as "Julian the Philosopher" or "Julian the Apostate" depending on your point of view. He was a devotee of Greek philosophy as still practiced in the late 4th century and sought to revive the empire by promoting paganism at Christianity's expense.

In the portrait on this coin, Julian deliberately appears with the long, shaggy beard of a philosopher, in contrast with the clean-shaven fashion since Constantine's days. (Constantine's portraits, in turn were a departure from the closely-cropped military style of Diocletian and other members of the Tetrarchy.) This portrait couldn't be more different than the preceding one of Magnentius.

The precise meaning of the bull on the reverse isn't known—some scholars think it represents the Apis Bull, a cult statue from Eqypt known to be in Julian's possession, others think it simply represents a pagan sacrificial bull in general. This is complemented by the reverse legend, which identifies the bull with "the Security of the State." But either way, it clearly was intended to signifiy a departure from the nominally Christian coinage of Constantius: like Diocletian's "Genio Popvli Romani" coins, this type was struck throughout the Empire with almost no variation. (It also marked a return to the large bronze coins of Diocletian's time.)

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Rome (empire) AE1
—struck by Jovian
Thessalonica, 364
obv.- D N IOVIANVS PF PP AVG; Laurel and rosette diademed, draped and cuirassed bust right
rev.- VICTORIA ROMANORVM; Jovian standing facing, head right, holding Victory on globe and chi-rho standard; TESΔ in ex
Sear-4085; Fail 471; RIC VIII Thes 235(?)
28mm; 8.4g; bronze

After Julian's sudden death fighting the Persians, the Army selected Jovian as his successor. Jovian wasn't a terribly energetic reformer, but his policies immediately reverted back to a pro-Christian position. There wasn't a heck of a lot of time for Jovian to reform the coinage—he was in the middle of a war against the Persians—so it's interesting to see the changes he did make. First, while the portrait looks stylistically very similar to Julian, the philosopher's beard is gone. Second, while he retains the large size of the Julian coin, he returns to the imagery seen on Constantius' coins—the warrior-emperor holding a Christian standard.

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Roman empire centenionalis (AE2)
—struck by Arcadius
Antioch, 383-388
obv.- DN ARCADIVS P F AVG; Laureate draped cuirassed bust right with spear; hand of God crowning emperor with wreath
rev.- GLORIA ROMANORVM; Emperor stands over kneeling captive, holding labarum; cross in left field, T in right field, *ANTS in ex
RIC IX Ant 41; Sear 4229
22mm; 4.94g; bronze

The notion of the emperor as a warrior protected by the Christian god is portrayed at a new level with this striking portrait of Arcadius, in which the hand of God is actually crowning the emperor. The reverse is another variation of victory in battle under Christian protection. There is no sense in any of these images that the emperor serves God, Christ, the Church, or some higher power; it is always very much the reverse. On the reverse legend, glory ("Gloria Romanorum") doesn't accrue to God, but to the Romans.

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Rome (empire) AE2
—struck by Theodosius I
Heraclea, 385-395
obv.- AEL FLACCILLA AVG; Draped bust, with elaborate headdress, necklace and mantle
rev.- SALVS REIPBVLICAE; Empress standing left, holding scroll, star in left field, cross in right; mintmark obscured, but my best guess is SMH
23mm; g; bronze

The imagery of the Christian warrior-emperor is complemented by the new imagery employed on the coins of the emperor's female relations. Roman emperors typically issued coins which used the persons of their wives or mothers to promote matronly or family-oriented values: for example, fertility, peace, or motherhood. In a coin of this sort struck by Constantine honoring his wife, Constantine depicts a traditional Roman motif in which his wife stands and holds their two children. Contrast with the imagery in the coin shown here, honoring Aelia Flaccilla, the mother of Arcadius. Instead of holding children, she is standing in an attitude of prayer, holding a scroll, next to a prominent cross—a different set of Christian virtues than the masculine Christian warrior. (Here is an example of another type struck in her name, showing Victory inscribing the chi-rho onto the shield that the emperor will eventually bear in battle.)


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Vandal nummus
—struck by Vandal kingdom in North Africa
Carthago?, c. 5th century AD
obv.- [blundered legend]; diademed bust right
rev.- [blundered legend]; cross
9mm; g; bronze

Actual size image of this coin, so you can see how small and crude it really is.

By the time the previous coin was struck, in the 380s, the empire was barely holding together as a coherent political and economic entity. (Although of course Asia Minor and eastwards were in much better shape then Europe.) From 406 onwards, the Vandals swept through Europe and eventually established a permanent kingdom based in Carthage in the early 400s, where this coin was likely struck.

Even though they are traditionally styled "barbarians" the Vandals had been nominally Christian for several generations. (In fact, during Constantius' reign the Bible had even been translated into the Gothic language by the missionary Ulfilas, one of the very first translations of the Bible from Latin.) Like some of the other barbarian tribes, they had been living side-by-side with the Romans for centuries and were already intertwined into Roman affairs. Once they established control over part of the empire they naturally struck coins on the contemporary Roman model, including the Christian imagery.

Comparing this coin with the one from Arcadius graphically illustrates the level of economic disintegration experienced in Europe in just a few short generations. The Vandal coin is a tiny chunk of metal that is barely recognizable as a coin. The "official" Roman coins struck at this time were not much better. The cross is the only element of the coin that still has any meaning; the legend is a meaningless series of lines, since the engraver was probably illiterate. The fact that Goths and Vandals were already Christianized at the time they migrated into the Empire helped assure that the Church would survive and provide some institutional continuity amid the political and miilitary turmoil.

Interesting trivia about the Vandals: long before they entered Roman affairs, they originated in northern Europe near Scandanavia. Up until 1973 the King of Sweden still officially claimed the title of "Suecorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex" : King of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals.

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Romaion empire 40 nummi (nummus)
—struck by Justinian I
Nicomedia, Struck 550–551
obv.- DN IVSTINIANVS PP AVC; Helmeted and cuirassed bust of Justinian facing, holding globus cruciger and shield, cross in right field
rev.- Large M between ANNO in left field and XX II II (numerals representing the regnal year = 24) in right field; cross above, officina letter B beneath; NIKO in exergue
Sear Byz 201
33mm; 18g; bronze

After the western part of the empire had fallen completely under barbarian control and there was no longer a western emperor, the eastern part of the empire continued evolving into the Romaion empire—more popularly, if incorrectly, known as the "Byzantine" empire. Around the year 495 there was a massive reform of the coinage in the eastern empire, which again re-introduced a large bronze coin, this time fully as large as the sestertius from centuries before. But the design and message of these coins was completely different—instead of a large variety of types showcasing the emperor in the context of varied civic, religious, and military themes, these new coins were rigid, static, and bureaucratic, with no need for any other political message.

The portrait is an abstract, stylized type in which the emperor is identified not by the likeness of the portrait, but by the attributes of imperial power that accompany it: first, the armor and helmet that symbolized the emperor's military authority, and second, the globus cruciger that symbolized the Christian world; the fact that the emperor is holding it in his hands symbolizing his control over it. The simplicity of the portrait is probably a deliberate attempt to express a spiritual, rather than worldly image, consistent with the philosophical trends of the time.

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British sceat
—struck by Anglo-Saxons in Kent
Kent, c. 690-725 AD
obv.- Diademed head right
rev.- Bird above cross, two annulets in field
Seaby 783. Primary type, series B.
11mm; ~1g; silver
After the Romans withdrew from Britain in early 400s, coinage ceased and gradually stopped circulating. It wasn't until the 600s that the Anglo-Saxons, who settled in increasing numbers after the Romans left, began striking gold coins again to trade with the Merovingian Franks across the Channel. However, these small silver coins that began to be struck in the 690sthe forebears to the English silver pennyare the earliest coins that have survived in significant qualities. Many of the silver types of this period are similar to coins struck by the Frisians in the Low Countries, suggesting that this trade caused the use of coinage to expand dramatically around 700, compared to the relatively rare gold coins struck on the Frankish model.

Even after the Romans abandoned Britain around 410, the Christian community lived on among the remaining Britons despite continual waves of invaders from the continent—Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, etc. Sometimes this survival was quite dramatic, as the legends of the Holy Grail and the exploits of Arthur (both real and imaginary) are set during this period.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves were converted around 600. They had become sufficiently settled to coalesce into an organized kingdom in Kent in the 500s; the kingdom was sufficiently poweful that its king (Aethelberht) attracted the hand of a Frankish princess (Bertha); and the princess, being from Gaul and therefore Christian, was allowed to practice her religion and thereby paved the way for missionaries led by Augustine to come to Kent in the 590s and convert the king. Augustine at this time also established the famous diocese at Canterbury, with Augustine becoming its first bishop.

By the time the Saxons began striking coins in Kent, their Christianity was established enough to appear on their coins, as illustrated by the imagery on this coin. However, unlike their contempories in Gaul and the Romaion empire, where the Christian church had been a permanent fixture for centuries, Kentish coins still employed a wide variety of themes and imagery. Some of these coins are kind of Christian; some seem to evoke old Roman coins (especially the votive altar types that were among the last coins struck in Britain); and some have strictly local motifs with no religious content whatsoever. It is significant that when coins from this era have legends, they are typically inscribed with Saxon runes, rather than Latin or Greek letters.

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Romaion empire nummus
—struck by Basil II/Constantine VIII
Constantinople, 976–1025
obv.- Jesus with nimbus cross, holding book of the Gospels
Sear 1813
35mm; 21g; Bronze
Anonymous class “A” nummus.

Christian imagery on coins crossed its last frontier when coins began featuring Jesus himself. This practice began during the reign of the Romaion emperor Justinian II (about the same time as the first Saxon coins shown previously). This was part of a larger, bitter "iconoclastic" controversy about whether images of Jesus should be allowed at all.

By the time the coin shown here was struck, the portrait, title, and even name of the emperor himself did not appear on the coin. Instead, the entire front of the coin is taken up with a portrait of Jesus surrounded by an elaborate halo. The reverse inscription translates simply as, "Jesus Christ, King of Kings."