Constantinople coin 327 CE: Chi-Rho impaling snake [What's the snake?]

May 2011
2,909
Rural Australia
#1
I am interested in seeking past and present opinions on an evaluation of the iconography used in this coin. Especially the snake. To commence I have gathered three separate [numismatic] articles on the coin. One article stated that there have been many academic articles dealing with the iconography of the snake. Can anyone point me to a few? One source (below) states:

The exact meaning of the reverse is disputed however it appears
to represent victory over evil, perhaps over Licinius himself.

Here is an image of the coin in question:



THREE ONLINE REVIEWS:
(1) Christian symbolism on coins of Constantine the Great
Constantinople RIC 19 & RIC 26
A.D. 327
CONSTANTINVS MAX AVG, laureate head right
SPES PVBLIC, chi-rho atop standard of 3 medallions impaling snake
A to left, CONSA in ex.
Constantinople RIC 19 r4
This is the only bronze with anything associated with Christianity as part of the actual design.​

(2) https://books.google.com.au/books?i...D#v=onepage&q="RIC Constantinople 19"&f=false
The Monetary System of the Romans: A description of the Roman coinage from ...
By Ian J. Sellars
p.523
"Much of Constantine's early coinage professed a devotion to Mars as his patron deity however starting 309 CE these were soon dominated by issues for the unconquerable sun god, Sol Invictus. Mars had disappeared from the coinage by 316 CE. Jupiter appeared occasionally at some of Constantine's mints down to 319 CEhowever these were limited to the reciprocal issues for Licinius or his son. Sol had also largely disappeared from the "nummi" by 319 CE however he appeared occasionally down to 325 CE, though no longer a central figure. The disappearance of Sol in 325 CE signifies the final demise of the pagan gods from the Roman coinage."
///

Of exceptional interest are the very rare SPES PVBLIC "nummi" showing a serpent pierced with a "labarum" bearing the Christogram. The exact meaning of the reverse is disputed however it appears to represent victory over evil, perhaps over Licinius himself. The Christogram certainly suggests that the victory was aided by the Christian god.'

(3) Christian Symbols 2

Early Christian Types
The first type to refer to Christianity was struck in 327-328 under Constantine (307-337),
but its reference to Christianity, while evident, is obscure.
It has provoked many scholarly articles.
Constantine
This coin: 18 mm. 2.99 grams.
Head of Constantine right, laureate.
CONSTANTI-NVS MAX AVG
Reverse: SPES PVBLIC across the field with A in the lower left field,
a chi-rho topping a standard
with three dots on the vexillum (flag-like object), planted in a serpent with head downward.
CONS (indicating the mint of Constantinople) in exergue.
RIC Constantinople 19

This type was issued only in the first issue of the new mint at the newly founded capitol city of Constantine,
Constantinopolis (now Istanbul in Turkey, which was founded on the site of a smaller Greek city named Byzantium,
for which the Byzantine empire is named).
It must have been unpopular when it was issued in 326 because it was almost immediately discontinued;
the other coin types of the same issue are far more common. No other ancient coin type is similar enough
to help us interpret this type, and each proposed interpretation
has been disputed by some other author with a different interpretation.
"SPES" means "hope" and had appeared on coins many times.
A personification of Spes is a common type for the emperor's son and heir apparent.
But there never had been anything like a standard planted in a snake.
The snake has been interpreted as a symbol of evil in general or, alternatively,
as a symbol for Licinius, the defeated rival emperor of the eastern part of the empire.
In any case, the interpretation goes, the standard of Christianity defeated them,
causing the head of the snake to droop as if in death.
The three dots on the standard might, or might not, show medallions portraying Constantine's three sons.
There are many off-site discussions of this type. One is here (a very old Numismatic Chronicle issue on googlebooks).
Victor Clark, at Christian symbolism on coins of Constantine the Great says

"Constantine, and Eusebius, compared serpents/dragons to evil on many occasions. In one instance, when he referred to Arius, Constantine talked about the serpent and the Devil as if they were one. Constantine also used the dragon/serpent symbolism to specifically describe Licinius. "Like some, or a twisting snake coiling up on itself." now, with liberty restored and that dragon driven out of the public administration through the providence of the supreme God and by our service."​

==== END OF SAMPLE REVIEWS =====

In the absence of further evidence to the contrary I would like to receive opinion as to whether the snake on this coin may relate in some way to the way in which all the preceeding emperors used the depiction of a snake - generally as a reference to Salus [Greek - Hygeia], the daughter of Asclepius. (See the link below to many examples of Roman coins depicting a snake with either Asclepius or Salus.

SEE: Salus and her Snake on Roman Coins
Salus was a minor goddess, the daughter of Aesculapius, the god of healing, whose staff, with a snake coiled round it, is symbolic of the practice of medicine. Their Greek equivalents were Aklepios and Hygeia. Her role in the pantheon was to feed and care for her father's sacred snakes and act as his assistant. She was worshipped as being responsible for the welfare, not just of individuals, but of the people as a whole. Her name in Greek and Roman comes down to us in such words as 'hygiene,' 'salve' and 'salubrious,' and even 'salute' and 'safe.'​

My main question here in the OP is this:

Does the snake (being impaled by a Ch-Rho) refer to Asclepius,
the temples of whom, according to Eusebius in "VC", Constantine utterly destroyed.
Eusebius VC 56: Destruction of the Temple of Aesculapius at Aegae. -
FOR
since a wide-spread error of these pretenders to wisdom concerned the demon worshiped in Cilicia, whom thousands regarded with reverence as the possessor of saving and healing power, who sometimes appeared to those who passed the night in his temple, sometimes restored the diseased to health, though on the contrary he was a destroyer of souls, who drew his easily deluded worshipers from the true Saviour to involve them in impious error, the emperor, consistently with his practice, and desire to advance the worship of him who is at once a jealous God and the true Saviour, gave directions that this temple also should be razed to the ground. In prompt obedience to this command, a band of soldiers laid this building, the admiration of noble philosophers, prostrate in the dust, together with its unseen inmate, neither demon nor god, but rather a deceiver of souls, who had seduced mankind for so long a time through various ages. And thus he who had promised to others deliverance from misfortune and distress, could find no means for his own security, any more than when, as is told in myth, he was scorched by the lightning's stroke. (2) Our emperor's pious deeds, however, had in them nothing fabulous or feigned; but by virtue of the manifested power of his Saviour, this temple as well as others was so utterly overthrown, that not a vestige of the former follies was left behind.​

Thanks for any opinions, or links or references to other articles that are examining this specific question.
 
Sep 2014
879
Texas
#2
likely the serpent from the garden.

could also be tied into an ancient goddess worship, but more likely the devil.
 

Moros

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
3,094
#3
Are you sure it is impaling the serpent? Perhaps the standard is actually emerging from it - in a similar iconography to the Jesse tree?
John 3:14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
 

Cepheus

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,137
#4
As for the labarum itself, there is little evidence for its use before 317.[14] In the course of Constantine's second war against Licinius in 324, the latter developed a superstitious dread of Constantine's standard. During the attack of Constantine's troops at the Battle of Adrianople the guard of the labarum standard were directed to move it to any part of the field where his soldiers seemed to be faltering. The appearance of this talismanic object appeared to embolden Constantine's troops and dismay those of Licinius.[15] At the final battle of the war, the Battle of Chrysopolis, Licinius, though prominently displaying the images of Rome's pagan pantheon on his own battle line, forbade his troops from actively attacking the labarum, or even looking at it directly.[16]
Constantine felt that both Licinius and Arius were agents of Satan, and associated them with the serpent described in the Book of Revelation (12:9).[17]

Constantine represented Licinius as a snake on his coins.[18]
Well, I'm certainly out of my depth here.

I found the above on wiki whilst surfing the internet for some clues:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labarum

(See:Iconographic career under Constantine)

It does support your source about Licinius. At the very least it may give you more reference material to consider.

I had a notion that Snyder may have something about it in Ante-Pacem but, as one might expect from a ref. text on religious iconography pre-Constantine I could not find anything.
 
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Cepheus

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,137
#5
KJ, have you read this? I know you already have some articles on the coin so this may be redundant. (Academia.edu):

Highly Deceptive Forgeries of Constantine’s SPES PVBLIC Coinage
Lars Ramskold

https://www.academia.edu/1469458/Highly_Deceptive_Forgeries_of_Constantine_s_SPES_PVBLIC_Coinage

I'll not summarize the article since you may already have it. I know you use Academia.edu.

If you have not seen it, and, since you are interested in the snake specifically, he talks about it on the second page, second paragraph.
 
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May 2011
2,909
Rural Australia
#7
Are you sure it is impaling the serpent? Perhaps the standard is actually emerging from it - in a similar iconography to the Jesse tree?
John 3:14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
I am not sure of anything at the moment Moros. I used the term "impaling" as I found it in the available descriptive options listed, but nothing is set in cement. An extract (below) from an article referenced by Cepheus qualifies this uncertainty. The article however does mention that the drooping head of the snake indicates it is supposed to be dead, and not alive.

[See the extract below]
 
May 2011
2,909
Rural Australia
#8
KJ, have you read this? I know you already have some articles on the coin so this may be redundant. (Academia.edu):

Highly Deceptive Forgeries of Constantine’s SPES PVBLIC Coinage
Lars Ramskold

https://www.academia.edu/1469458/Highly_Deceptive_Forgeries_of_Constantine_s_SPES_PVBLIC_Coinage

I'll not summarize the article since you may already have it. I know you use Academia.edu.

If you have not seen it, and, since you are interested in the snake specifically, he talks about it on the second page, second paragraph.
Thanks very much for this reference Cepheus. I had not seen it before.
It seems to provide a good background summary to the coin.

Here is the relevant extract:

It is the lirst coin said to carry an unequivocally Christian message from the emperor to his subjects.
At the time of production, this coin may have met little interest, positive or negative,
but today it is seen as being of high symbolic value.


///


The spear rests on a snake. The usual interpretation is that it pierces the snake.
The alternative, that a benevolent snake carries the staff on its back (Tameanko 2004)
is less likely because of the posture of the snake. To my knowledge, when snakes were
depicted in antiquity as carrying something on their back they hold up the head.

The snake on the SPES PVBLIC coins has a limp head hanging down, apparently indicating
that it is dead. The snake is usually interpreted as symbolizing Licinius I, Constantine's
former co-regent, finally defeated by Constantine at the battle of Chrysopolis in 324 AD
and executed the following year. The symbolism of the snake may have been ambiguous to
the public at the time, because snakes were traditionally regarded as beneficial.
Their association with evil was introduced by the Judeo-Christian tradition,
which was not yet dominating the Roman society.

The appearance of the SPES PVBLIC type must have occurred within six months or less of
the execution of Constantine's eldest son Crispus and the emperor's wife Fausta, and
their followers in 326 AD. If the snake symbolizes victory over an evil enemy, it seems
most unwise to create the type soon after the slaughter of several members of the
imperial family and scores of their supporters (Vagi 1999). How could the public know
that Licinius was intended and not Crispus or Fausta? Licinius was defeated a few years
earlier, but the Crispus and Fausta turmoil was very recent.


Christian chronicles have put the emphasis on the pagan Licinius and treated the Crispus
and Fausta tragedy with silence. However. it was normal at the time for the emperor to
execute his enemies, but hardly to execute his family. For ordinary people, the execution
of Licinius was natural, but the killing of family members and their followers must have
stunned everyone (Tameanko 2004). That was the big news on everyone's lips, not Licinius.
The interpretation of the snake as Licinius cannot be upheld, nor its interpretation as a
symbol of paganism. At the time. the Christian meaning of the Chi-Rho was by no means
selfevident (e.g. Bruun 1962, 1965). Yery few, if any, Christian occurrences of the Chi-Rho
symbol predate Constantine's vision of 3I2 AD, and less than a handful of occurrences can
be dated as earlier than the SPES PVBLIC coin of 321AD (Bruun 1965). The labarum must have
been seen as a symbol of the emperor's power, not as a symbol heralding the victory of
Christianity over paganism, personified by Licinius and symbolized by a snake. All the other
new reverse types introduced at Constantinopolis carried reassuring and positive messages,
as does indeed SPES PVBLIC, meaning, "Hope for the People."


Its logical interpretation is a common theme in Roman numismatics: the emperor's power brings
hope to the people. SPES PVBLIC (or SPES PVBLICA) is a very common reverse type under many
emperors. In Constantine's coin, only already Christian individuals would be able to read the
implicit message that the emperor's power derived from Christ and that the snake was the symbol
of evil. Whether that evil was Licinius or Fausta or some entirely different enemy was up to
anyone's preference. Perhaps the real message of this coin still eludes us.

 
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May 2011
2,909
Rural Australia
#9
What we seem to have here is the first coinage issued by Constantine that depicts an overtly Christian motif - the Chi-Rho. The propaganda seems to be that there has been a "Chi-Rho" victory over whatever "evil" the [dead] snake is supposed to represent.


So to return to the OP [What's the snake?] we have the following options:

1) It is a symbol to represent Licinius.
2) It is a symbol to represent the serpent from the Garden of Eden.
3) It is a symbol to represent "The Devil".
4) It is a symbol to represent Crispus and/or Fausta
5) It is a symbol to represent "Evil".

[Feel free to qualify these, comment on these, or to add further options]



To these options I would like to add another ....

6) It is a symbol to represent the largest pagan "church" of that epoch - that of Asclepius - who's snakes (often via Salus) had already adorned Roman coinage for centuries, and who's temples [churches] had just been destroyed by Constantine See the OP. Asclepius is described by Eusebius as a "demon" and "a destroyer of souls, who drew his easily deluded worshipers from the true Saviour to involve them in impious error".
 
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Moros

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
3,094
#10
Is there any suggestion that Constantine was borrowing an iconography from Julius Caesar's elephant denarius? If Constantine was using the image of a standard impaling(?) a serpent to represent his victory over Licinius in the Tetrarchic Civil War, then it has a parallel in Caesar's depiction of an elephant crushing a serpent to represent his victory in the Republic Civil War. You might even be able to draw a visual similarity between the standard of Constantine and the axe amongst the religious items of Caesar's coin.



 
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