An Eschatological Interpretation of Constantine’s Labarum Coin

Shortly after the opening of the Constantinople mint in A.D. 326, several coin types were issued commemorating Constantine’s victory over Licinius in the recent civil war.¹ Among these was a bronze issue displaying reverse iconography strongly suggesting biblical imagery. The motif depicts a labarum piercing a dragon or crooked serpent, with the legend SPES PVBLIC (Hope of the Commonwealth) stamped across the field (Figure 1). The labarum on the coin is the Christian war standard originated by Constantine, and described in Eusebius’ Vita Constantini I. 31:² a vexillum topped with a monogram composed of the first two letters of the Greek word christos, a chi superimposed on a rho.³ Overlaid on the descending staff is a crossbar carrying a banner with three medallions representing Constantine and his two sons holding the rank of Caesar (Constantine II and Constantius II). The four regular specimens of this coin type in museum collections contain obverses only of Constantine I, with the legend CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG.⁴

Figure 1: CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG, Laur. head, r: Aes follis rev. SPES — PVBLIC, Labarum piercing serpent; Constantinople, A off. RIC, VII, 19 (British Museum)

Christian imagery does not often occur on the coins of Constantine. When it does it usually takes the form of a cross or monogram employed as a mark of issue, or at best as a decorative element on the imperial visage, such as a helmet or shield marking. Therefore, this coin type with its novel imagery of the labarum piercing a serpent covering the whole reverse flan has usually been regarded as the most important of Constantine’s “Christian coin types.” If this is so, we may be justified in trying to discover just what Constantine and his mint officials had in mind when devising such a motif. What was the message that the imagery of this coin was supposed to project?

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Author: Charles M. Odahl

Keywords: Labarum, coin, Roman coin, Constantine, Constantine the Great, Emperor Constantine, crooked serpent, dragon, great dragon, serpent, serpent dragon, leviathan, wriggling serpent, Licinius, Eusebius, serpent pierced, pierced serpent, pierced dragon, war in heaven

Bible reference(s): Isa 27:1, Eze 29:3, Rev 12:3, Rev 12:4, Rev 12:7, Rev 12:9, Rev 12:13-17

Source: “An Eschatological Interpretation of Constantine’s Labarum Coin”, Journal of the Society for Ancient Numismatics, Spring 1975, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 47-51.

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