Coin Jewelry Part VII: The Son Also Rises

One of the newest additions to our Coin Jewelry Collection, the Constantine the Great coin features the revered first emperor of the Byzantine Empire.

On the front of the coin, the profile of Constantine the Great is decorated with a laurel wreath.  The reverse side depicts a camp gate, two turrets, and no doors below a star, a symbol of the emperor’s military achievements.

This week, we’re looking at the controversial life of Constantine the Great; his great achievements and his ruthless failings.


(Need to catch up on our Coin Jewelry blog series? Discover our coin pendants and learn about the history of coinage in Part I: From Cattle to Coinage, Part II: Fakes and Forgeries, Part III: Heads or Tails, Part IV: Hammer Time Part V: The Good, the Bad, and the Deceptive, and Part VI: Spreading Rumors)

When he was good, he was very good…

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Constantine the Great mosaic from the Hagia Sophia depicting presentation of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Flavius Valerius Constantinus, otherwise known as “Constantine the Great,” was born somewhere between AD 285 and AD 272 (sources vary on placing his exact year of birth).  He was the son of Constantius I and Helen and, as we had discussed in last week’s blog on St. Helena, there is some debate on whether Constantine’s birth was a legitimate one.

Nevertheless, after Constantius left Helena for a more politically influential bride, Theodora, young Constantine remained devoted to his mother, giving her much political influence and support once he became emperor.

Constantine is, perhaps, most famous for his conversion to Christianity.  Upon the death of his father, Constantine sent Galerius (who had served as Caesar alongside Constantius):

an official notice of his father’s death and his own acclamation. Along with the notice, he included a portrait of himself wreathed in bay and wearing in the robes of an Augustus. He requested recognition as heir to his father’s throne, claiming the army had “forced it upon him.” Galerius was put into a fury by the message; he almost set the portrait on fire. His advisers calmed him. To aviod war, Galerius compromised and granted Constantine the title “Caesar” rather than “Augustus.” To make it clear that he alone gave Constantine legitimacy, Galerius personally sent Constantine the emperor’s traditional purple robes. Constantine accepted the decision, knowing that it would remove doubts as to his legitimacy.

After the death of Galerius, Maxentius and Constantine fought for power in the Western Roman Empire (Licinius and Maximinus Daia fought in the East).   At the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw the words “In Hoc Signo Victor Eris” (By this sign you shall conquer) emblazoned on the sun around the Chi Rho, the symbol of Christianity.   He had the Christogram placed on the shields of his men and beat his opponent, despite being vastly outnumbered.   After his vision assisted in defeating Maxentius, Constantine converted to Christianity and considered himself to be the “emperor of the Christian people.”

Constantine and Helen icon. Via

As emperor, Constantine is credited with converting the Roman Empire to Christianity.  He ended the persecution of Christians and, with Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius, signed the Edict of Milan.  The edict ensured tolerance for Christianity and granted freedom of worship to people of all faiths.  “Christians were also given specific legal rights such as the return of confiscated property and the right to organize dedicated churches.”  

As emperor, Constantine set laws ensuring that slave families were not separated when sold to new owners.  One of his greatest feats, however, was moving the capital of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople.  He came to the conclusion that Rome had ceased to be a practical capital for the empire from which the emperor could exact effective control over its frontiers.”

He eventually defeated Licinius, joining the two empires to create the Byzantine Empire, which would reign supreme for over 1,000 years.

…when he was bad, he was horrid

Constantine the Great statue in York, England. Via

However, for all of Constantine’s great achievements, his legacy is marred by some less-than-commendable rulings and actions.

“As a law maker [he] was terribly severe.”  Constantine passed laws forcing sons to take on their fathers profession.  The penalties were harsh and these laws were especially unfavorable among the sons of soldiers and veterans.

“Also his taxation reforms created extreme hardship. City dwellers were obliged to pay a tax in gold or silver, the chrysargyron. This tax was levied every four years, beating and torture being the consequences for those to poor to pay. Parents are said to have sold their daughters into prostitution in order to pay the chrysargyron.”

Perhaps prostitution was not, in this case, a fate worse than death as any girl who eloped or ran off with a lover was burned alive under Constatine’s law.  If assisted in their deceit by a chaperone, the accomplice’s mouth was filled with molten lead.

While rapists were burned at the stake, their victims were also punished.  If the incident occurred outside the home, Constatine’s laws demanded that the victim had brought it upon themselves by leaving the safety of home.  For inciting such an act, the victim must be punished as well.

Perhaps these harsh and, oftentimes, unjust laws were Constatine’s way of legitimizing himself.  If he himself were born out of wedlock, he must be especially critical of adultery and other sex crimes.  By doling out these harsh punishments, Constantine perhaps felt as though he was cleansing his birth and absolving himself of his parents’ sins.

Constantine statue. Via

Constantine’s ruthlessness did not stop at his subjects but also extended into his home.  Constantine had his own son, Crispus, executed after stories of adultery were revealed.  Perhaps he would have been more lenient on family or more skeptical of the allegations had they not come from a viable source: Constantine’s wife, Fausta.

But why did Fausta accuse her stepson (Crispus was Constantine’s son by first wife, Minerva) of such a crime? According to some sources, Fausta had fallen in love with Crispus and sought vengeance after he rejected her.  Others say that she schemed to get Crispus out of the way so that her own, younger sons would inherit the throne.  Nevertheless, these accustations came but one month after Constatine had passed his strict adultery laws and he had to uphold his own rulings, even if it meant sacrificing his eldest child.

Unfortunately, the allegations against Crispus may have been false.  After his execution, Helena convinced Constantine that Crispus was innocent and that vengeful Fausta had lied.  Whether it was indicative of her guilt or if she was desperate to escape her husband’s wrath (for he would never go against his mother’s word), Fausta killed herself.

The man, the myth, and the legacy

Though not to diminish his negative traits and actions, Constantine’s legacy is overall positive.  He played an influential role in the Edict of Milan (313 AD) which decriminalized Christianity, he called the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD by which Christians professed the Nicene creed, he renamed the city Constantinople after himself, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ tomb was built under his orders and became one of the holiest places for Christianity.

When Constantine fell ill in his old age, he wished to be officially baptized in Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, this was not possible as the illness progressed.  Realizing the imminence of his death and that he would not be able to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Constantine asked to be baptized as quickly as possible.

Despite the controversy surrounding him, Constantine the Great was canonized and his feast day is celebrated on September 3rd.

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