By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
Constantine’s family was large and complex. Both he and his father had sired children with two different women, thus creating three branches [of] the Constantinian family. Most remote to Constantine was the step-family created by his father and most immediate were the two branches of direct descendants he had sired. Needless to say, this created hostile rivalries (Vagi, 481).
Constantinus I (“The Great”) is a pivotal figure in Western history because of his role in the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Like so many historic rulers, however, his family relations were… troubled. Coins issued in the names of Constantine’s relatives offer a vivid picture of the turbulent middle decades of the fourth century. These coins include some of the most common and affordable surviving ancients, as well as many spectacular rarities.
Constantine I was born on February 27, 272 CE at Naissus (now Niš, Serbia), a garrison town in the province of Moesia. His father Constantius, nicknamed Chlorus (“the pale”, due to his complexion), was an army officer who rose to become junior emperor or “Caesar” from 293-305 and later senior emperor or “Augustus” from 305-306. At this time, the Empire was ruled by a fourfold “Tetrarchy” established in 293 by Diocletian, with senior and junior emperors in both the East and the West.
Around 289, Constantius divorced Constantine’s mother Helena (later St. Helena), who was of humble origin, to make a political marriage with Flavia Maximiana Theodora. When Constantius died at Eboracum (modern-day York, England) in 306, his troops proclaimed his son Constantine emperor, provoking two decades of civil war that ended with Constantine’s triumph as sole emperor in 326.
Flavius Julius Crispus was born about the year 299 (the date is uncertain, and may have been as early as 295 or late as 305). Almost nothing is known about his mother, Minervina. She may have been the “concubine” of Constantine, rather than his wife; Roman soldiers often established informal relationships with local women. In 307, Constantine married Fausta, daughter of the senior emperor Maximian. Minervina (if she were still alive) was quietly set aside. Constantine was evidently fond of his firstborn son, who accompanied him on campaign in Gaul. Young Crispus was tutored by Lactantius (c. 250 – 325), a Christian who served as Constantine’s advisor.
In 316, Crispus, along with his half-brother the future Constantine II and his cousin Licinius the Younger, was raised to the rank of Caesar. A remarkable silver coin dated to 320 (described as a “heavy miliarensis” of 4.75 grams) depicts the two half-brothers facing each other on the reverse.
Appointed to command the army on the Rhine frontier, Crispus established his headquarters at Treveri (Trier, Germany) married, and had a son. He fought several victorious campaigns against Germanic tribes. In 324, Constantine gave Crispus command of his fleet in the civil war against Licinius. On coins dated to 316 and issued at Trier, Arles, and Ticinum, Crispus is hailed as “Noble Caesar” and “Prince of the Youths” (Princeps Iuventutis).
As Caesar, Crispus issued extensive coinage in his own name – including a lovely gold solidus dated to 325-26 that depicts the young prince with an uplifted gaze often described as “eyes to God.” His name and title appear on the reverse, with the figure of winged Victory, not yet transformed into a Christian angel.
In 326, Crispus was arrested and executed under mysterious circumstances. One version of the story alleges that he had an illicit relationship with his stepmother, Fausta. Another version is that he rejected her advances, and she conspired to eliminate him as a rival to the succession of her own sons.
Born in 289, Flavia Maxima Fausta was the daughter of Emperor Maximian and the sister of Emperor Maxentius. At the age of about 17, she was given in marriage to cement a political alliance between Constantine and her father. To make this marriage possible, Constantine set aside his “partner” Minervina. Fausta bore three sons who became Roman emperors, along with three daughters – two of whom married future emperors.
On a rare silver half siliqua (1.06 gram) dated to 307, Fausta appears with the title NOBILISSMA FEMINA (“Most Noble Woman”). The reverse depicts the standing figure of the goddess Juno, patroness of marriage.
In 324, Fausta was elevated to the rank of Augusta (“empress”). Her portrait with this title appears on a massive issue of bronze coins. Her standing figure appears on the reverse, holding her two infant sons, with the inscription SPES REIPVBLICAE (“Hope of the State”).
When Constantine repented of the rash decision to kill his firstborn son, he ordered Fausta’s execution, supposedly by locking her in an overheated steam bath.
Fausta’s eldest son, the future Constantine II, was born in February 316 and given the rank of Caesar as an infant in March 317. To avoid confusion with the father he closely resembled, on some of his early coinage as Caesar his name is followed by the abbreviation IVN for “Junior” (there is no letter “J” in Latin). In the division of the Empire following Constantine’s death in 337, Constantine II received Britain, Gaul, and Spain. After 337, his coins simply identify him as Augustus (CONSTANTINVS AVG).
He soon quarreled over territory with his younger brother Constans, who had received Italy, North Africa, and Illyricum. In 340 he invaded Italy and was killed in an ambush by troops of Constans. He was just 24 years old.
Constantius was the most competent, efficient, and ruthless of Constantine’s sons. His piousness made him do his best to ensure that people had proper, Christian burials; and to ensure there were enough people to bury he spent much of his life murdering, assassinating, and executing people who annoyed him; for example, his cousin Delmatius.
Among Constantine’s sons, Constantius was the last man standing, reigning as emperor until his death in 361. Named in honor of his grandfather, Constantius II was born on August 7, 317. At the age of seven, he was elevated to the rank of Caesar. His coinage as Caesar is extensive: 37 types in gold, 27 in silver, and 111 in bronze (Sear, 129). On a typical gold solidus of Constantinople, dated to 335-336 his left-facing portrait is described by a cataloguer as “remarkably elegant, even noble.”
In 335, Constantine I made arrangements for his succession, dividing the Empire among his three sons and two nephews. Young Constantius received Egypt and the rich eastern provinces. After Constantine’s death in 337, the coinage of Constantius II as Augustus is massive and diverse: 120 types in gold 116 in silver, and 364 in bronze (Sear, 142). Constantius introduced a radical change in the way the emperor appears on gold coinage, gradually replacing the profile bust with a lifelike, frontal portrait numismatists describe as “three-quarters facing”. Rather than a laurel wreath or jeweled diadem, the emperor wears a crested cavalry helmet. He holds a spear angled upward behind his head, and a small decorated shield adorns his left shoulder. This became the standard representation of the emperor on gold solidi for over two centuries, copied and re-copied until it became stiff, impersonal, and lacking in individuality.
About the year 348, Constantius launched a major reform of the bronze coinage, introducing two new denominations, possibly in observance of the 1,100th anniversary of Rome’s legendary foundation. The heavier coin, weighing about 6.5 grams, is called a centenionalis, or “AE2”. The reverse is a dramatic scene of a soldier advancing to spear a fallen enemy horseman. The inscription is FEL TEMP REPARATIO (“Return of Fortunate Times” or “happy days are here again”).
The birthdate of Constans, youngest son of Constantine I, is uncertain – when he was proclaimed as Caesar on Christmas day 333, he was either nine or 12 years old. His coinage as Caesar includes 11 types in gold, four in silver, and 39 in bronze (Sear, 199). One of the most spectacular pieces is a gold medallion issued at the old aureus weight standard (5.58 grams). The obverse bears a youthful profile portrait of Constans; the reverse shows him riding a triumphal chariot, scattering coins to the crowd.
In the division of the Empire in 335, he was assigned Italy, Illyria, and North Africa.
His coinage as Augustus includes 65 types in gold, 65 in silver, and 220 in bronze (Sear, 203). On the reverse of a gold solidus dated 337-340, he sits enthroned beside his two brothers, with the inscription FELICITAS PERPETVA (“Perpetual Happiness”).
Constans issued a number of large silver medallions, probably presentation pieces for senior officers and palace officials. He is shown standing in military attire, with the inscription TRIVMFATOR GENTIVM BARBARVM (“Conqueror of Barbarian Peoples”).
Described as greedy, cruel, and depraved by contemporary historians, Constans managed to alienate his subjects and his army. When a general named Magnentius rose in revolt on January 18, 350, Constans fled and was hunted down and killed near the Spanish border.
Constantine honored his mother Helena on an extensive series of coins. Born about the year 247, she lived to be over 80.
In 325, Constantine granted her the title of Augusta (“empress”) – an event celebrated on a magnificent gold medallion of two solidi (a bit over nine grams) issued at Nicomedia, then the imperial capital. One of only two examples known, this coin brought over $319,000 in a 2015 Swiss auction. A similar design appears on a humble bronze follis issued from most of the imperial mints, the reverse bearing a standing figure of Helena with the inscription SECVRITAS REIPVBLICAE (“Security of the State”).
Horrified by the execution of Crispus, Helena left the imperial court and spent the rest of her long life doing charitable works and traveling on pilgrimage to Christian holy places. According to legend, Helena ordered the demolition of a pagan temple erected in Jerusalem on the site of the Crucifixion and discovered the True Cross, which became the Empire’s most cherished relic. Helena is revered as a Saint, particularly by Eastern Orthodox churches. On Ron Guth’s list of the 100 Greatest Women on Coins, Saint Helena is #44 (Guth, 55).
Delmatius or “Dalmatius”, born about 313, was a nephew of Constantine I. His father was Constantine’s half-brother. In 335 he was raised to the rank of Caesar, with administrative authority over the Balkan provinces of Thrace, Achaea, and Macedonia. For reasons that are unclear, Constantine proposed to divide the empire among his sons and nephews, almost ensuring a protracted struggle for supremacy after his demise.
On a rare gold solidus issued at Constantinople in 336, Delmatius is hailed as Princeps Iuventutis (“First among the Young”). Despite his brief two-year reign, bronze coinage in the name of Delmatius from Balkan mints is relatively common and affordable.
In the massacre of Constantine’s relatives that followed his death, Delmatius was murdered–probably by his own soldiers–in May 337.
Hanniballianus (spelled Hannibalianus in some sources) was the younger brother of Delmatius and the nephew of Constantine. In 335, he married his cousin Constantina, the daughter of Constantine and Fausta. In 337, he was given the unusual title of Rex Regum (“King of Kings”), with authority over the provinces of Pontus and Armenia, apparently as a direct challenge to the Persian Sassanian Empire, which Constantine planned to conquer. Coinage in the name of Hanniballianus, all issued at Constantinople, consists of a relatively common bronze follis, and a silver siliqua so rare that no example has appeared on the market in recent decades.
Born about 325, Gallus was the son of Constantine’s half-brother, Julius Constantius. Because of his youth, Gallus and his half-brother, the future emperor Julian (reigned 361-363), survived the massacre of imperial relatives that followed Constantine’s death in May 337. In 351, Constantius II (who had no male heir) elevated Gallus to the rank of Caesar, married him to his widowed sister Constantina and set him up at Antioch with authority over Syria and Palestine.
Rather confusingly, he took the name “Constantius”, which appears on his coinage with the title NOB CAES (“Noble Caesar”). Gallus proved to be so greedy, brutal, and unpopular that he was summoned to Italy and beheaded in 354 by Constantius II, who was dealing with revolt in the West. Constantina died on the journey and was buried in a mausoleum that later became the Church of Santa Costanza in Rome.
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 CNG Triton XX, January 10, 2017, Lot 867. Realized $3,000 USD (estimate $2,000).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIX, March 26, 2020, Lot 946. Realized £7,000 (about $8,494 USD; estimate £7,500).
 NAC Auction 84, May 20, 2015, Lot 1210. Realized CHF 38,000 (about $40,494 USD; estimate CHF 17,500).
 Numismatik Naumann Auction 106, August 1, 2021, Lot 824. Realized €85 (about $101 USD; estimate €80).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XXI, March 24, 2021, Lot 744. Realized £8,000 (about $10,977 USD; estimate £10,000).
 Leu Numismatik Auction 8, October 23, 2021, Lot 382. Realized CHF 6,250 (about $6,824 USD; estimated CHF 2,000).
 Nomos Auction 19, November 17, 2019, Lot 361. Realized CHF 2,800 (about $2,833 USD; estimated CHF 3,500).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 18, December 18, 2021, Lot 3509. Realized CHF 1,800 (about $1,952 USD; estimate CHF 200).
 Nomos Obolos 20, October 3, 2021, Lot 1287. Realized CHF 87 (about $94 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 NAC Auction 52, October 7, 2009, Lot 617. Realized CHF 60,000 (about $58,083 USD; estimate CHF 40,000).
 NAC Auction 106, May 9, 2018, Lot 1064. Realized CHF 24,000 (about $23,902 USD; estimate CHF 20,000).
 NAC Auction 72, May 16, 2013, Lot 776. Realized CHF 50,000 (about $52,110 USD; estimate CHF 60,000).
 Nomos Obolos 18, February 21, 2021, Lot 714. Realized CHF 140 (about $156 USD; estimate CHF 50).
 Nomos Auction 19, November 17, 2019, Lot 360. Realized CHF 42,000 (about $42,493 USD; estimated CHF 15,000).
 Leu Numismatik Web Auction 11, February 22, 2020, Lot 2070. Realized CHF 120 (about $122 USD; estimate CHF 25).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 78, December 17, 2020, Lot 1830. Realized £340 (about $459 USD; estimated £150).
Failmezger, Victor. Roman Bronze Coins: From Paganism to Christianity, 294-364 AD. Washington (2002)
Foss, Clive. Roman Historical Coins. London (1990)
Guth, Ron. 100 Greatest Women on Coins. Atlanta (2015)
Kent, J.P.C. Roman Imperial Coinage, Volume VIII: The Family of Constantine I. London (1981; reprinted 2003)
Lenski, Noel (editor). Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Cambridge, UK (2006)
Scarre, Chris. Chronicle of the Roman Emperors. London (1995)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Volume V: The Christian Empire. London (2014)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire. 2 vols. Sidney, OH (1999)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.