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When is a cross not a cross?


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Constantine the Great, Augustus 307-337, is "the Great" for championing Christianity. Nevertheless, his coins barely touch on Christianity. I have a web site on early Christian symbols on Roman coins:
and our member @Victor Clark has a very good site:

When a coin under Constantine has a chi-rho on it the symbol is a Christian reference. If it has a square cross, + [similar to a cross pattée] it might be, but it might not be. Maybe it is just one of the many field possible marks with no significant reference.

What about the symbol on this coin, recently acquired?


18-17 mm. 3.05 grams. RIC Rome 19, "314-5"
  R    F
  R   P   for the Rome mint.

I bought it for the +, but I did not think it is a Christian symbol. The issue actually has, on most examples, a clear X in that position. This one is merely tilted differently. The almost-cross on this example is really an "X".  It is unlikely that the engraver had Christian sympathy and very subtlety changed the field mark X to hint at Christianity!


Edited by Valentinian
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Here is another coin with crosses which are probably not symbolic of Christianity.  This is a silver sceat, or penny, of group X.  Metcalf attributes these to a mint in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town.  They were minted from approximately AD 695-740, thus Denmark’s first coins.  Of the approximately 300 sceats found in Denmark, about 80% are of this type.  

The first Christian church in Ribe was constructed at the request of Saint Ansgar, who was not born until AD 801.


Obverse:  Head of Wodan flanked with cross pommées.  

Reverse: A fantastic animal biting his own tail. 

1.06 grams.   From the Historical Scholar collection.  (Does anyone know who the Historical Scholar is, or was?)



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I think this is a very interesting and important question -not only for numismatics, but even for the history of religion. From what time onwards was the (Latin) cross a widely recognizable Christian symbol?

Contra: I think the arguments against these crosses being hints to Christianity are these: 

  1. The crosses on these coins are combined with pagan deities, i.e. no Christian message was intended.
  2. The symbol of the cross was abhorrent to Romans. It was considered a torture instrument that was used on traitors and the lowest of the low in Roman society.
  3. From what I read, the earliest Christian cross was a Tau-cross and not the Latin cross, which is depicted on the coins. 

Pro: But there are also arguments in favour of interpreting these crosses as Christian symbols:

  1. These crosses seem to appear with Constantine, i.e. at a time when Christianity emerged from a persecuted underground religion. I don't think that there are clear examples of crosses (with serifes) on pre-Constantinian coins. Indeed, I think the standard reverse with Sol and Mars etc. may already have been immobilized and devoid of meaning for many Romans at the time.
  2. The crosses may stand for a new syncretism. While the imagery was still pagan, the Christian cross may have become so omnipresent at the time that mintworkers adopted it as marks. So even if it was not intended as Christian symbol on the coin, it would be evidence for the emergence of Christianity at the time.
  3. The crosses seem to be confinded to certain mints (e.g. Ticinum). A die engraver or another official of the mint may have been Christian and he may have felt embolden to put crosses on the coin after persecution ended and Christianity was increasingly priviledged by Constantine.

On balance, I like to think that these are the first timid signs of Christian symbolism entering into Roman public life, perhaps as a personal message or as a sign that the cross had entered the public consciousness.  Even if these coins were not meant to convey a Christian message, I still think that Christians will have recognized the emergence of these crosses on the coins and interpreted in their own way. As such, I think that these are highly interesting and historically important coins. Below are a few Constantinian coins with ambivalent crosses from my collection.




Edited by Tejas
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Here's a couple of my coins from the same issue that @Tejas wrote about. The Sol coin was the 2nd roman coin I ever bought, over 20 years ago (1st being a Vrbs Roma), and what got me started collecting Constantine, specifically because of the interest of seeing what appears to be a Christian symbol in an otherwise pagan context.

I do still think the cross here is meant as a Christian symbol, and one interesting point is the placement of the star and cross in this issue, which is 100% consistent across all specimens I have seen. On the Mars type the cross is placed in right field (and star in left), while on the Sol type it's reversed with the cross in left field. My interpretation of this is that in fact the placement is the same, not different! ... The cross is placed in front of the character, and the star behind. Perhaps it's a step too far, but it's hard not to read some intent into this - the cross is the way forward, and the star is the past.

It's hard to me to see any syncretic intent on this issue since we're seeing both star and cross together (not combined), although a few years later on the VLPP type we do see them apparently deliberately combined.

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They say history is written by the winners, and this was certainly the case during Constantine's time, with Christian sources such as Eusebius not only praising Constantine, but also characterizing Constantine's vanquished foes Maxentius and Licinius as anti-Christian by way of justifying Constantine's righteous actions! However other sources, and earlier revisions of Eusebius own work, indicate that both men had supported Christianity (although Licinius perhaps later changed?).

Maxentius' support of Christianity appears to be supported by the pediment symbols present on the Conserv Vrb Svae type from Aquileia, as shown below.


What's interesting here is that there is an absolutely strict assignment of pediment symbols by officina. Officina P always uses a 6- or 8-pointed star, officina S uses a crescent, and officina Gamma uses an "X" or "+". These strict per-officina assignments appear to tell us two things:

a) Symbols used at different officinas had different meaning, AND

b) Variations of the symbol used at a given officina had the same meaning

From these assumptions, it seems we can deduce that:

1)  The "X" (or "+") used at officina Gamma is not a lazy star (officina P symbol), but something distinct - presumably a Christian cross

2) The alternate orientations of the cross ("X" vs "+") seen at officina Gamma didn't affect the meaning - in this context these were both intended as Christian symbols, likely both crosses




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5 hours ago, Heliodromus said:

Are you suggesting these crosses with serifs are the letter X (Christos) rather than a symbolic cross ?


I think that a cross consisting of just two lines could be anything, but if the engraver elaborated the cross with serifs, this suggests to me that he intended something more special.  It is just my interpretation which may not be valid.

Great series of Maxentius folles. I love the one with the cross.

Edited by Tejas
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4 hours ago, Heliodromus said:

The cross is placed in front of the character, and the star behind. Perhaps it's a step too far, but it's hard not to read some intent into this - the cross is the way forward, and the star is the past.

This is an interesting point. I didn't notice that the deity always faces the cross. It could be coincidence, but if the cross would be behind one of the deities, I would be more inclined to think that the crosses had no particular meaning. 

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