Artifacts of Apostasy: Ancient Coins of Julian

By Austin Andrews for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……

Historians and poets alike have all had their say about the quirks of the personality, reign, and life of the Roman emperor Julian (331–363 CE). To the late 18-century historian Edward Gibbon, in his much-cited Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Julian was a doomed tragic hero. To the early 20-century poet C. P. Cavafy, he was snide, sharp, and cowardly. Today, many contemporary scholars note how Julian snubbed what he saw as newfangled “takes” on conventional wisdom. Julian’s life is one that is at once well documented and widely studied, but, interestingly, poorly known to the general public.

Artifacts of Apostasy: Ancient Coins of Julian

Only a few decades prior to Julian’s reign, his uncle, the emperor Constantine, adapted and legitimized Christianity on an imperial scale. In the wake of the succession hostilities that played out after Constantine’s death, Julian came to power as one of the few survivors from his generation of the imperial family. Yet the Roman Empire, in the form of what historians retroactively call the Byzantine Empire, continued for another thousand years after Constantine’s leadership. All of its subsequent emperors, at least in name, called themselves Christians after his example – with one exception: Julian. His most famous coins are bronzes, which feature his bearded face on the obverse and an astral bull on the reverse (ANS 1944.100.22722, above). These are notable because, with the hindsight of history, they represent who Julian is as a historical figure most succinctly: a blip in a millennium of continuity.

As he reached adulthood, Julian had to present public reverence to the status quo and especially to his cousin Constantius, the reigning Augustus, or senior Roman emperor. This façade of goodwill manifested in Julian composing and delivering panegyrics—uncritical glorifying speeches—in honor of Constantius, as well as through shared language and imagery on money and other media. Constantius was typically depicted on coins in the classic Constantinian style as on the solidus above: martially clean-shaven, his hair in a mullet with forward-combed bangs, and his head crowned with a pearly diadem (ANS 1944.100.22356). When Julian served as Caesar, or deputy emperor, under Constantius, his portraiture is nearly indistinguishable from that of the reigning Augustus without the diadem (e.g. ANS 1944.100.22357, below). At the behest of legionary soldiers in the province of Gaul, however, Julian eventually accepted the title of Augustus for himself. But before civil war began, Constantius died in the winter of 361 CE, naming Julian his successor.

Artifacts of Apostasy: Ancient Coins of Julian

At this point, Julian formally broke from Christianity. In private, he had not considered himself to be a Christian—or a “Galilean” as he disparagingly termed Christians—for much of his adult life. As a result of his espousal of traditional polytheism flavored with cosmic philosophy, Julian is typically referred to with the epithet “the Apostate”, meaning that he intentionally abandoned the religion of his upbringing. His writings and his coinage, including the bronze bull issues, tell the story of his apostasy. Abundant facial hair, as in the example below, showcases the notable break from previous Constantinian visual traditions (ANS 1956.184.13).

Julianic letters, essays, prose hymns, and orations, among other texts, reflect his religious, philosophical, and political views–and are absolutely delightful to read. They shed light on him as an individual, and expose perspectives and humor one might not expect from the assumed lofty grandeur of an emperor. In an address composed to the people of Antioch, Julian complains that the citizens there have been belittling him for sporting his beard so long, that they have insulted him as both a person and as the human embodiment of Roman law. One can imagine this sort of speech turning quickly toward vindictive rebuke; however, Julian chastises them using unexpected satire – directed not at them, but at himself. It can be hilariously self-deprecating:

“Now as for praising myself, though I should be very glad to do so, I have no reason for that; but for criticizing myself I have countless reasons, and first I will begin with my face. For though nature did not make this any too handsome or well-favoured or give it the bloom of youth, I myself out of sheer perversity and ill-temper have added to it this long beard of mine, to punish it, as it would seem, for this very crime of not being handsome by nature” (Misopogon 338C).

He goes on to discuss his appearance further, noting his often disheveled hair and how his fingers are always unattractively ink-stained from his constant writing. Even in satire, to have these reflections on the self-image of a figure from the ancient world is illuminating. We can look at both the coins of Julian and read this text where he describes—and mocks—his own face and gain insight into how he might have actually seen himself and chosen to present his visual program. When we observe his shaggy beard on coins, we are seeing his personal ideology exhibited. As with Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian, his second-century predecessors, his beard identified him as a Philhellene and philosopher.

Artifacts of Apostasy: Ancient Coins of Julian

In the same text, Julian shames the Antiochians, saying, “you insult your own Sovereign, yes even the very hairs on his chin and the devices engraved on his coins” (Misopogon, 355D).

Though most scholars agree that the mentioned “devices” here are the bull issues, interpretations of what the bull meant exactly vary widely. Perhaps the bull was intended as a bovine incarnation of a deity or to invoke the myths and rituals of the popular Mithraic religion. Even in antiquity, many suggested the bull is meant as one being readied for slaughter, due to Julian’s ardor for promoting sacrificial rites among the Roman populace. Some numismatic researchers propose that Julian may have been born under the zodiac sign Taurus and the bull represents his astrological sign (Gilliard, JRS 54, pp. 139–41). More recent scholarship suggests that the bull derives from a c. 258 CE antoninianus of Gallienus, which then connects Julian, the figure of the bull on the reverse, and the image of the sun god Sol on the obverse (e.g., ​​ANS 1970.165.126, above; Woods, AJN 12, pp. 164–68). Due to the presence of two stars above the Julianic bulls, others have seen reference to the twin stars above Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, in Constantine’s Urbs Roma coins (e.g., ANS 0000.999.5612, below).

An inclusive, multivalent interpretation is also possible; perhaps viewers saw several things simultaneously.

Shortly after Constantine’s reign, coins issued with his image sometimes used aniconic divine symbols. For instance, the hand materializing from heaven above the charioteer in the bronze coin below indicates either the Hand of the Christian God, or, alternatively, the Hand of Whichever-God-Made-the-Most-Sense to the viewer (ANS 1944.100.22734). Ambiguity helped to achieve widespread support, especially at a moment when Christian practice proliferated and Constantine continued to be presented as deified. The Constantinian program made lavish use of such thoughtfully-crafted symbols with multiple meanings to garner popular support and this approach certainly continued under Julian’s authority. Though, in his case, Julian seems to have failed in achieving popularity among the people of Antioch initially. The beard and the bull had proven themselves to be, it seems, a bit too much.

Artifacts of Apostasy: Ancient Coins of Julian

Leading an army during the summer of 363 CE, not a full two years after he was proclaimed Augustus in Gaul, Julian was killed in battle in Persia. He was succeeded by Jovian, a Christian, and Christian hegemony in the empire continued. While his religious differences from his immediate predecessors was a break in the recent trend of Christian leadership, that all of his successors for many generations were Christians—and that Christianity became increasingly entrenched in the imperial apparatus—secured Julian the historical status of a noteworthy renegade. Trends once imagined by some as ephemeral can become the foundations of law and society: fads no longer but, rather, deeply ingrained standards. Julian—the man, the beard, and the legends surrounding him—reminds us that, truly, only time can tell when lasting change will take root.

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American Numismatic Society (ANS)



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