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CNG Feature Auction 115

Lot nuber 719

Constantine I. AD 307/310-337. AV Solidus (19mm, 4.50 g, 6h). Nicomedia mint. Struck AD 326.

CNG Feature Auction 115
Lot: 719.
 Estimated: $ 15 000

Roman Imperial, Gold

Sold For $ 27 500. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

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Constantine I. AD 307/310-337. AV Solidus (19mm, 4.50 g, 6h). Nicomedia mint. Struck AD 326. Head right, wearing plain diadem, eyes to God / CONSTANTINVS AVG, two interlaced wreaths; star above; N. RIC VII 109; Alföldi 41; Depeyrot 38/2; Biaggi –; Mazzini –. A few faint scratches and marks, tiny obverse die break. EF. Very rare. Exceptional portrait.

Ex Numismatica Ars Classica 102 (24 October 2017), lot 582 (24,000 CHF); Roma I (15 October 2010), lot 517; Hess-Leu 36 (17 April 1968), lot 556.

Like the emperor Augustus before him, Constantine I adjusted his public image to meet the changing status of his political career. With Constantine’s defeat of Licinius I at Chrysopolis in AD 324, the empire was once again a unified state under a single emperor, a situation that had not existed since the accession of Diocletian some forty years earlier. As Constantine worked to re-establish peace and stability within a restored empire over the next several years – first, by establishing a new imperial capital at the Greek city of Byzantium (dedicated in AD 330 as Constantinople); second, by convening and overseeing an ecumenical council of Christian bishops in AD 325 at Nicaea to address trouble produced by the Arian controversy in the eastern portion of the empire; and third, by enacting a number of reforms aimed at civil administration – a new imperial visage began to emerge on the coinage. This new portrait depicted Constantine wearing a diadem, a feature that was adopted in AD 324 in place of the laurel wreath that previous emperors wore in their role as commanders-in-chief. It also showed the emperor looking slightly upward, as if in the attitude of prayer. This new depiction, which seems to have been intentionally ambiguous, could be viewed by various groups within the empire in the context of their own hopes and aspirations (For a discussion of Constantine's use of deliberately ambiguous language and imagery, see T.G. Elliot, "The Language of Constantine's Propaganda," TAPA 120 [1990], pp. 349-353 and H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance [Johns Hopkins, 2000], passim).

For the Christians within the Roman Empire, who had suffered under a series of persecutions during the early fourth century AD, this new image could be interpreted as the culmination of God's plan to defeat the pagans and create a new Christian Roman Empire. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and biographer of the emperor, in his Vita Constantini (IV.15), specifically mentions these coins as an indication of Constantine's piety: “The great strength of the divinely inspired faith fixed in his soul might be deduced by considering also the fact that he had his own portrait so depicted on the gold coinage that he appeared to look upwards in the manner of one reaching out to God in prayer. Impressions of this type were circulated throughout the entire Roman world.” This new imagery was also replicated on statues erected throughout the empire, a fact also mentioned by Eusebius: “His portrait also at full length was placed over the entrance gates of the palaces in some cities, the eyes upraised to heaven, and the hands outspread as if in prayer.” For contemporary Christians, this portrait was a clearly visible sign of imperial support for them. Likewise for Eusebius, whose imperial biography was intended in part to present Constantine as the paradigm of the new Christian emperor and is the source for this interpretation of the coins, this new image served to validate his argument that Constantine was truly a Christian prince.

For non-Christians too, this new image could be interpreted in the context of their own viewpoints. The diademed portrait without the accompanying obverse legend recalls those royal Hellenistic portraits seen on the silver coinage of the successors of Alexander the Great and subsequent eastern monarchs (R.R.R. Smith, "The Public Image of Licinius I: Portrait Sculpture and Imperial Ideology in the Early Fourth Century," JRS 87 [1997], p. 187 and note 99). Symbolizing royal authority, it appeared not only on the coinage of various Greek monarchies, but also on Roman Republican coinage where the mythical early Roman kings were depicted (cf. Marcia 28, showing Ancus Marcius). The use of the diadem, which appeared in an array of designs – from a simple plain band to ones which were more detailed and complex, eventually becoming an elaborate and jewel-encrusted construction – served to refigure Constantine in his role now as a Greek βασιλεύς, rather than a purely Roman princeps. Like Alexander the Great before him, Constantine also tried to balance the various and seemingly disparate elements of his new empire. Given that Constantine ruled over both Christian and non-Christian populations - neither of which he wished to alienate - his new portrait on these coins could appeal to the viewpoints of both.

The final winners of all CNG Feature Auction 115 lots will be determined during the live online sale that will be held on 16-17 September 2020. This lot is in Session 3, which begins 17 September 2020 at 9 AM ET.

Winning bids are subject to a 20% buyer's fee for bids placed on this website and 22.50% for all others.

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