Coin Relief 36 – Sol’s last dawn

Welcome to another edition of Coin Relief! In this issue Sam Moorhead discusses an enigmatic coin type that continues to generate discussion…

Sol’s last dawn, at Thessalonica in AD 319

Figure 1: A copper alloy nummus of Crispus Caesar with Sol reverse, mint of Thessalonica. Record ID is NCL-D720B2 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY-SA).

In AD 319, the mint at Thessalonica struck an enigmatic nummus type which has engendered a fair amount of discussion. It was issued in the names of Constantine I, Licinius I, Crispus, Licinus II and Constantine II, employing all five workshops (A to ε) at Thessalonica (RIC VII, p. 507, nos. 66-71). The obverses are all self-explanatory, but the reverse will probably always remain a bit of a mystery. Figure 1 can be described as:

A copper-alloy nummus of Crispus Caesar (AD 317-26) Thessalonica, AD 319
Obv. D N FL IVL CRISPVS NOB CAES; Laureate and cuirassed right
Rev. VIRT EXERC; Sol standing, raising right hand and holding globe in left, in middle of cross made up of four lines.
Mintmark: – // TSε
RIC VII, p. 507, no. 69

Patrick Bruun, in RIC VII (p. 494), regards this as a military type. The legend VIRT[us] EXERC[iti] (‘the courageous army’) is self-explanatory. However, the use of Sol, instead of Mars, is unusual. In fact, as Bruun notes, this is the last time that Sol appears on the Roman coinage, having figured prominently on Constantine’s SOLI INVICTO COMITI coins from AD 310 to AD 318. The RIC description states that Sol is standing on the ‘plan of a Roman camp’, hence Bruun claiming that in this case Sol is acting as the patron deity of the army. However, it is quite difficult to perceive a plan of a military camp from the cross formation on the coin. Roman camps did have ramparts and ditches, and sometimes there were multiple ramparts and ditches (as at Ardoch fort in Scotland); but why does this coin have a cross feature rather than a square feature? We have seen in an earlier post that the die-engravers were perfectly capable of designing clearly recognisable architectural features, in this case a camp or town gateway.

Figure 2: A copper-alloy nummus of Constantine I, with Sol reverse, mint of Rome. Record ID is HAMP-8C376B (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

In more recent articles, Peter Weiss and David Woods have argued that this coin does not depict the plan of a military camp, but a ‘radiate cross’. A panegyric of AD 310, delivered to Constantine at the imperial capital at Trier, refers to Constantine having a vision of Apollo (who was easily conflated with Sol) who would grant him a lengthy life. In addition there is Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s vision of a cross and the words in hoc signo victor eris (‘in this sign you will conquer’) before his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312; Lactantius describes a similar story, suggesting that the symbol the emperor saw was a staurogram (a cross with a looped top to make a Greek rho). So, it is possible that this coin type refers to a vision of Apollo (Sol) above a related ‘radiate cross’ which would probably have strong Christian undertones, given Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge? It could also be considered quite an appropriate type for the last appearance of Sol, standing on a symbol heralding the dawn of a new state religion in the Roman Empire, Christianity. Does this coin mark the end of Sol’s role as a bridge between the pagan and Christian world?

Figure 3: A copper-alloy nummus of Constantine I with Sol reverse, mint of Thessalonica. Record ID is SUSS-899073 (Sussex Archaeological Society, License: CC-BY-SA).

Whatever the precise meaning of this reverse, this coin is quite rare. There are only two pieces on the PAS Database, one from East Yorkshire and the other from Sussex. Quite what the people who handled the coin in antiquity made of the reverse type would be interesting to know; they might have been as mystified then as we are now in the 21st century!

References and further reading:

P. Weiss, ‘The Vision of Constantine’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 16 (2003), pp. 237-59;

David Woods, ‘Postumus and the Three Suns: Neglected Numismatic Evidence for a Solar Halo’, Numismatic Chronicle 172 (2012), pp. 85-92.

Pan. Lat. 6(7).21.4

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, I.28

Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 44.5